Legacy of the White Rajah through a savant’s eyes

By Patricia Hului
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The exhibition ‘Kuching, Legacy of the White Rajah’ features 24 sketches by Hanzhen.


For the whole month of April, Sarawakians have the opportunity to see the architectural remnants of the Brooke family administration in sketches at the ChinaHouse at the old courthouse.

The exhibition called ‘Kuching, Legacy of the White Rajah’ has some 24 artworks on display rendered by an autistic savant, Hanzhen Yap.

He also published a book by the same name featuring buildings such as the Square Tower, Kuching General Post Office and Brooke Dockyard.

Although the sketches are done in 3B pencil, the skill behind them allows you to admire the artist’s depth, detail and meticulous work.

Even now at the young age of 17, Hanzhen has already participated in 35 exhibitions to date in Johor Bahru, Melaka, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Tokyo, Tottori, Kagoshima, Incheon, Seoul, Wuhan and Shanghai.

Born in Johor, one of his earlier sketches of Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Melaka was picked as one of the winning entries in the Asia ParaArt Tokyo 2013 competition.

Judging by his sketches alone, there is definitely no doubt about Hanzhen’s savant skills.

Hanzhen signing his book for one of his fans.

Hanzhen signing his book for one of his fans.

So how did a Johor-based artist managed to lend his talent to draw Kuching’s heritage sites?

It all started when Mike Boon, chairman for Malaysian Institute of Architects Sarawak Chapter (PAM Sarawak Chapter) met Hanzhen’s architect parents Yvonne Yap Yok Wan and Yap Yew Peng last year when they were in town giving presentations at a Sarawak Design Forum.

Amazed by Hanzhen’s dedication and tenacity, PAM Sarawak Chapter then decided to initiate the ‘Kuching, Legacy of the White Rajah’ project which is also part of an effort to record Sarawak’s built heritage.


Hanzhen’s father Yap Yew Peng

A book fit for Kuching historical reference

“When we were here during the forum, we brought Hanzhen along,” Yew Peng said during the exhibition launch on Apr 3 at the ChinaHouse of the Old Courthouse.

During these trips, the family would record as many places to start a new collections of sketches.

Together with Hanzhen, they captured as many photos of Kuching building sites as they could before going back to Johor where Hanzhen proceeded to draw all these sites over a period of nine months.

Developed by Galeri Hanzhen, the book took another three months to be published.

It has been about a year since Hanzhen’s Sarawak sketching adventure started, Yew Peng stated: “Kuching is an interesting place. People are very close-knit and they love this city.

“I hope this book will be a reference for Sarawakians to learn about more old buildings and the legacy of this city.”

Commenting on his son’s work, Yew Peng said: “Hanzhen draws what he sees; I think that is the most important thing.”


Hanzhen’s mother Yvonne Yap Yok Wan

Sketch to teach 

Hanzhen’s devoted mother, Yvonne shared, “When we first started to teach Hanzhen; we also wanted to share with those who have autistic relatives that the most important basic skills are to teach them to have eye contact and guide them to learn through imitation.”

While her son’s autism enables him to have a flair at playing the piano, a high capacity for mathematics, and a good memory for calendar dates, he also likes listening to short jingles and is always washing his hands.

“Timetable is important for Hanzhen,” his mother explained, adding that the artist needed to follow a fixed daily routine, something which she found beneficial.

“Make the (autistic) trait an asset not a liability.”

According to Yvonne, talents commonly found among children with autism are drawing, music and calculation.

“All of them are linked to massive memory.”

She added that the common autistic “power” are in art, memory, perfect intonation and perfection in which they never miss a step.


A sketch of Madrasah Melayu Building at Jalan P Ramlee.

Hanzhen’s parents noticed that he was a visual learner, hence they used sketches with words to teach him how to talk.

“For every word we wanted to teach him; we would draw a thumbnail sketch with a word next to it. Then he started to sketch them himself.”

From there, Hanzhen started to draw random things in the house such as his father’s legs, coffee table, lock and so on.

According to his mother, Hanzhen even sketches during breaks in school on any rough paper.

“What he sketches today might be a continuation from yesterday’s sketch and it goes on and on. It is like he has a story to tell through his sketches.”

So far he has produced more than 1,000 sketches, four books including ‘Kuching, Legacy of the White Rajah’ and designed eight T-shirts.


Hanzhen has participated in a film based on a story of three artists with autism from different countries in Asia this year.

Yvonne said, “To see Hanzhen reach this stage, it also gives hope to young parents who have also found that their autistic children could have some special talents whether it be in art or music.”

Living like any normal teenager, the artist still splits his time between school, drawing and playing the piano.

As for the young savant, Hanzhen said he is inspired to be an artist, a musician and a student.

Check out Hanzhen’s works on Kuching displayed at ChinaHouse at the Old Courthouse now till Apr 31 from 10am till 5pm.

The book ‘Kuching. Legacy of The White Rajahs’ is also available for sale there.

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