From caterpillar to butterfly

He was just 13 when Yap HanZhen held his first solo art exhibition in 2011.  It showcased a collection of 46 pencil sketches of dogs, cats and butterflies and was called, Of Obedience, Solitude and Beauty.

Poster introduction of artist, Yap HanZhen
These days, HanZhen, 17, is showcasing more challenging pieces.  A collection of his sketches of heritage buildings in Kuching, titled Kuching – Legacy of the White Rajahs, was recently published in a project initiated and supported by the Malaysian Institute of Architects, Sarawak chapter.
Dogs & Puppies – My Pet, My Best Friend, a series of sketches on companion animals, is the latest compilation of his published sketches.

It was during his first solo outing that I met this young artist who, together with his parents and younger brother, ZhiHan, helped visitors select their purchases.  The profits, I was told, would be channeled to the Kiwanis Careheart Centre.

The two brothers looked very striking, clad in T-shirts printed with a sketch of The Butterfly which I later learnt, was reproduced from HanZhen’s favourite early sketch.

A chat with his parents revealed that HanZhen, a savant autistic teenager, was diagnosed with autism at age 2.  In order to communicate with him, his architect parents, Yap Yew Peng and Yvonne, devised a method to help him develop his vocabulary. 

Talent Discovered

As architects, they often sketched thoughts and ideas using paper and pencil.  To teach their son, they adopted the same method, drawing objects and writing the descriptions for him.  Yvonne said they even drew expressions like happy or sad as well as actions such as sleep, walk and eat, to help him learn these concepts.

Yap Yew Peng and Yvonne with their son, HanZhen
As his parents taught him the names of things to increase his vocabulary for speech, they discovered HanZhen could draw.  When he realized that it was a fun learning process, HanZhen started drawing items around the house – from a cup to a table or a tree.  His parents encouraged him to draw objects and to pair them with words.

Smiling in recollection, Yvonne says that HanZhen would draw everything he saw, from everyday items at home to things he experienced on holiday, often with great detail and accuracy.  Soon she had to admit that his sketches looked much better than her own.

HanZhen's amazing skill in drawing from left to right
They were thrilled that he could draw all the things at home and was able to accurately label his pictures.  Gradually, his vocabulary, speech and reading skills improved but it was his sketching skills that took their breath away! 

Recognising his special gift in drawing, his parents bought him sketch books that HanZhen could carry around to sketch.  On holidays, their son would sketch pictures of people, places and things.  He may doodle a quick sketch in just three minutes or take a week to create a masterpiece. 

The young artist, a right-hander, usually draws from left to right.  It’s amazing how he would start to draw an image from the top to the bottom or from the bottom to the top but either way, his sketches would all be completed in the right proportions! 
Skills Developed

Today, HanZhen attends a local mainstream international school which supports the development of art.  While his sketches seemed like childish doodles when he was younger, his drawing skills gradually developed over time.

HanZhen's interpretation of a Beagle
When he started sketching as a hobby in 2009, he spent almost two hours drawing every day after school.  With a daily routine in drawing, he filled up dozens of sketch books with fascinating images.

His mother recalls that her son was just 6 when he drew a sketch of the solar system and called it, Balloons.  She was fascinated to discover that after he filled up one side of the sheet of paper, he just continued his drawing of the planets on its reverse page!

In December 2011, this prolific young artist embarked on a project to sketch flora and fauna in mangrove forests.  Thirty of his sketches were published in a book, River Biodiversity in late 2012.  This collection of sketches was displayed in the Senibong Cove clubhouse to compliment the waterfront residential development’s mangrove regeneration programme.

Things got better for the youngster when he was subsequently encouraged to sketch images of Johor Baru’s iconic heritage buildings.  With a keen eye on building architecture, his parents agreed that HanZhen’s sketches would be an excellent way to preserve their architectural beauty for posterity.

Para Art

Since showcasing his art in a show titled, Of Routine, Memory and Details at the 2011 Kiwanis charity dinner, HanZhen continued selling his art and donating the proceeds to charity.

When the family visited Xiaozhou Art Village in Guangzhou in 2011, HanZhen was inspired by the artistic community there and sketched a series of gateways in ancient and modern China.

Twenty pieces of his fine sketches of centuries-old Xiaozhou gateways were exhibited at a Malaysian Institute of Architects event as a tribute to architectural heritage and autism art for World Architecture Day 2012.  This exhibition then moved to the main lobby of Landmark Towers, JB. 

Amazing detail in HanZhen's sketch of the Johor Gu Miao
It was in April 2012 when I crossed paths with HanZhen again.  It was at his school’s fund-raising fair where 12 of his sketches of tigers and the entire collection of T-shirts printed with The Butterfly, were sold out and all proceeds contributed to the school fund.

HanZhen was greatly motivated when his sketch of the historical Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Malacca was among the winning entries from 1000 entries in the Asia Para Art 2013 competition in Japan.  His success earned him a special invitation to Asia Para Art 2013 held in Tokyo in October 2013 and a spot in a travelling exhibition to various airport locations in Japan.

Later his sketch of Meiji Jingu, a shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo, was exhibited at the Japan Tottori ParaArt Exhibition 2014, an international art show held at Tottori Prefecture Art Space Gallery.

Commissioned Work

When the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Johor Baru opened in July 2014, the walls of its lobby, lounge and restaurants were adorned by 101 pieces of HanZhen’s commissioned work. 

Meanwhile, 30 of his sketches of the city’s iconic buildings were compiled into a book, My City, My Heritage, to document JB’s building heritage.  It was used as a guide for tourists to enjoy a walking trail to locate these interesting sights.

View of the Johor Baru Skyline and Causeway  

So impressed was the Consul-General of Singapore in JB with the boy’s talent that he commissioned the young artist to do a sketch of the view of the JB skyline and causeway. 

As HanZhen worked on this project, his parents realised that their son’s art had taken a leap.  He was no longer just sketching single buildings, he was now answering to the challenge of drawing a collection of buildings in the panoramic JB skyline and causeway. 

The original is displayed in the Singapore Consular office in JB while prints were reproduced to present as premium items to their visitors.

Nurturing Environment

A good-natured teenager, HanZhen also enjoys playing the piano.  He started music lessons at age 6 and successfully completed his ABRSM grade 8 exams.  Blessed with a photographic memory, he would read the score once and was able to play the music from memory!

The Vatican City, Rome, seen through HanZhen's eyes
His supportive parents understand that HanZhen sees the world differently and have created a nurturing environment for him to excel. 

Now HanZhen is in charge of his drawing projects, beginning with doing online research and taking photographs before sitting down to sketch.  When the drawing is completed, he would tidy it up before scanning it in digital format and uploading into his website.

To date HanZhen has held 39 exhibitions in JB, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Singapore, Korea, Japan and China.  Having been featured in the media, both locally and abroad, HanZhen is truly an inspiration to parents of children with disability who can likewise, motivate their children to excel in the field of their choice. 

So what’s next?  His parents are not saying much but it might be something to do with a mural.

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times 13 August 2016


Mural by Yap Hanzhen located near Shell station on Plus Highway, Jalan Duta [Klang bound]
Hanzhen was among Malaysian artists who participated in creating murals to commemorate Shell's 125th Anniversary, celebrated on August 4.


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