As a child he painted people and the country-side of the remote, unspoiled Terengganu region where his family lived and his father worked as an artist. Chew's mentor was his father, and in his formative years he developed a passion for his work that has persisted throughout his life.
As his work matured and he became more widely known, Chew attended New York University where his passion took up the cause of fusing the "canvas" with the painting, a quest that formed the basis for his doctoral research. He was intent on creating a special paper where the medium itself was the artwork.
This led him to the jungles of his native land where he lived and ran numerous tests on the indigenous plants of the forest, living in the wilds as he created new papers with phenomenal textures. He spent months in the wilderness, keeping meticulous records much the way an empirical researcher would, noting the fibers, the techniques, the process of mixing and drying out, the exposure to elements of the weather, etc. on hundreds, perhaps thousands of new papers, all original and brought into existence for the very first time. The secret to such abundance was extensive variation of the process, carefully recording each differing version so that the process could be replicated. This resulted in many different papers of wildly varying textures and colors from the same basic pulp.
Chew brought to this research a skill and sensibility that the typical empirical scientist would not have, or that would be bracketed out to preserve the scientific "integrity" of the research: the sensibility of the artist to notice what the scientist would overlook. This artistic noticing created papers of exceptional expressive originality. When he returned to New York, he brought four volumes of new papers that did indeed achieve the goal of his original quest: every paper was a work of art to see and touch, the marvelous textures and colors exuding an impressive presencing of an indigenous art.
After receiving his Ph.D. in 1987, Chew returned to Malaysia, where his research formed the basis for a cottage industry producing exceptionally fine paper from the indigenous plants of his homeland.
The abstract of his dissertation succinctly summarizes the research but fails to communicate the passion and scope of Chew's achievement:
Title: PAPERMAKING FROM SELECTED MALAYSIAN FIBERS: AN INVESTIGATION OF ITS ARTISTIC POTENTIAL THROUGH CREATION OF ORIGINAL PAPER ARTWORKSChew has given us remarkable model of an artist creating a new indigenous artform and tradition. Work of such power and originality abound in the work of those pioneers of the International Society for Advancement of Living Traditions in Art (ISALTA).
Author(s): CHEW, TENG BENG
Institution: NEW YORK UNIVERSITY; 0146
Source: DAI, 48, no. 03A, (1987): 0495
Abstract: The purpose of this research was to utilize selected tropical plants of Malaysia as a source of raw material for papermaking, to develop tools and techniques for the production of the investigator's own artwork, and to discuss the aesthetic implications.
The investigator sought to find out if the cellulose fibers of the agricultural residues of the bananas (Musa sapientum) and the pineapples (Ananas comosus) were suitable for the production of the pulps, to determine their characteristics, and their results.
The study focuses on the historical development, aesthetics, production of pulps, sheet formation, discerning paper characteristics, and the extension of pulp as an artistic medium.
The elicitation of the fibers involved in cooking and maceration. The variegated pulps were then used in several ways to handmake paper and paper artwork. Of myriad approaches employed in creating artwork, six were the researcher's invention that have not yet been expounded in any related literature thus far.
Aesthetic inquiry was based on phenomenology, to discern as yet unseen aesthetic properties imbued in the chosen fibers.
Primarily, the research was qualitative, employing aesthetic and descriptive procedures. However, quantitative method was also applied to record the experiments and tests. Research techniques included both traditional and contemporary phenomenological research and methods.
The results evinced that both plant fibers were strong, elongated, elastic, and indissoluble, easily extractable, pulpable, and malleable. They were susceptible to dyes and intermix exceptionally well with recycled paper.
Of the two genera, the pineapple fiber seemingly appeared to be tougher. In the pineapple species, it was found that Nanas Bukit is stronger than Nanas Mauritius. While in that of the banana, Pisang Awak is superior to Pisang Mas. Hence, more time was consumed in cooking and macerating the pineapple fibers. By varying the time duration in cooking, beating, and aging, the character of the fibers can be altered to effect different grades of paper.
The research concludes that not only are the fibrous pulps potentially suitable for papermaking, but are equally versatile and fascinating as an artistic medium. Undoubtedly, the materiality of the fibers embodies wide ranging phenomenal features sui generis.