Alex Chan Lim: Bridging two worlds in the Year of the Wood Dragon

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Photos by Bernard Testa

Though he spent a majority of his corporate life working untiringly in various industries, ranging from mining and finance to garments and logistics, Alex Chan Lim never wavered in his passion to pursue excellence in the fine art of Chinese painting.

Like the wooden dragon that characterizes the 2024 Chinese New Year—representing change and adaptability; growth and renewal—Alex’s virtuosity in Chinese painting blazes with a fire that has led him to assume two names in his lifetime.

“My friends and colleagues at work call or know me as ‘Alex Lim.’ However, when I say ‘Alex Chan Lim,” they immediately know it’s me, the one who does Chinese paintings so I tried to be discreet. But during the latter part of my career, I did not try to hide it anymore. So, at work it’s Alex Lim but with my paintings, it’s Alex Chan Lim,” said Alex, who also holds a Mechanical Engineering degree at the then-Mapua Institute of Technology (now Mapua University), a Master in Business Administration (MBA) Management from the Ateneo Graduate School of Business, and a Ph.D. in Management.

He avers that whether its Alex Lim or Alex Chan Lim, it is still the same person. “There are so many Alex Lims in the country so in my paintings, I decided to complete the name Alex Chan Lim to make it a bit more personal and for it to serve as a sort of branding for my paintings.”

Between the corporate world and the realm of art, Alex is the dedicated corporate man for five days in a given work week. But on weekends, he inhabits the world of his favored art: Chinese painting.

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The Chan Lim Family and Students Exhibit was recently held at the Fashion Hall of the SM Megamall in Mandaluyong City. It featured 460 artworks from 65 artists that demonstrated their mastery of the art form in at least three mediums—plates, umbrellas, and “tael,” a form of Chinese currency or monetary unit in the olden days
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Family patriarch Jose Chan Lim

Alex recounted that he took up Mechanical Engineering because he loves solving problems in Mathematics; the more difficult and challenging the problem is, the more he loves solving it.

Several years ago, he told his brother that they should build a robot, and he knows that in building a robot, prowess in mechanics and electronics is important. 

“In time, we were able to build the robot, but we weren’t satisfied. We wanted to do something that’s even higher, so we decided to study some more, but my brother told me not to pursue further studies in the mechanical field because I can’t put that to good use in the Philippines and instead learn to manage people so I pursued further studies in management,” he said.

Alex noted that what he really wanted was further advancement, in the same manner that when one has a business, one wants advancement as well; purchasing equipment to improve production. “I did further studies and acquired my Ph.D., not to brag or boast but to enhance my skill set because I was in the corporate world. I worked in multinational companies, I managed people, and I traveled a lot. And it’s fun to hear ‘Dr. Alex Chan Lim’ when someone calls the house,” he narrated with a hearty chuckle.

Alex is happily married with three children, all of whom have taken interest in Chinese painting through the family’s patriarch, Jose Chan Lim, although their father uses a different medium. 

The interest in Chinese painting infused his brothers (Alex has three other brothers—Felix, Rolex and Jolex) all the way to the grandchildren. 

“It is not really mandatory to learn, but it seems to be a given already that they need to be into it. The only challenge right now is that with so many social media activities that can be done, Chinese painting is kind of being left behind. Most people don’t watch TV anymore but spend time on Facebook, even when people are inside the car, they don’t see what’s happening on the road. But with my family, everybody else is into Chinese painting,” Alex said.

He emphasized that he and his family pursued Chinese painting not because they were pushed to do it by their father. Their shared love for the art was something that bound the family together and kept the family intact. 

“We don’t need to discuss business since we all have our own things to do, no conflict or fighting, there’s no money involved,” Alex said. “We’ll just talk about painting that’s why it lasted this long in the family, everybody was happy because the purpose is to do the same thing together as a family. That’s our bonding, compared to what’s happening today. When you sit down in a restaurant to eat, there’s no bonding anymore. No more prayers before the meal, everyone will just whip out their phones and take photos of their food and post them on social media before they even eat.”

Alex started doing Chinese painting at 11 years old but did it intermittently since he was working. But to this day, he never missed an opportunity to paint when he has the time. 

He emphasized that Chinese painting is very difficult to master because it is one of a kind, very unique, and precision is even more important. With the Western style, he said, when a mistake is made, one just adds another layer of paint to cover it. But with Chinese painting, one small mistake, one wrong stroke, one miniscule misstep, and everything has to be done all over again.

Despite the challenges of learning Chinese painting, he managed to learn it on his own even when he was studying and when he started working. It was difficult because with Chinese painting, it takes a lot of patience, perseverance, and practice since no one teaches Chinese painting in the Philippines, there’s no school, he said. 

“I was taught the basics by my father. I really studied and learned on my own using thick encyclopedias at the time, when there’s no Google or any search engine yet, no YouTube or even the internet. Now, you just Google tutorial videos to be able to learn on your own so it’s really very different (now) compared to before,” Alex intimated.

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Mastering Chinese painting took a really long while for Alex to achieve since he didn’t do it daily. But he noticed that around 10 years ago or when he reached 50 years old, he noticed that whenever he paints, it was already beautiful.

“It took me about 40 years before I reached a higher level of proficiency in Chinese painting. There is really a difference when you do it every day, you get to practice, unlike me when I was working so my practice was very limited. But it’s different now. Today, whatever paper material you give me, just one glance and I know already what to do,” he said.

Alex laughingly narrated that before, he gets nervous when doing on-the-spot demonstration paintings, where his hands will shake almost violently, especially when in front of a crowd. Now, that seemed to have vanished. 

“I really don’t care anymore whether there’s a lot of people around me, even when there’s loud music playing in the venue. I can focus on my work and I don’t feel my hands shake anymore. My joke whenever I do demo paintings, I tell the people watching not to leave even for a short while or even glance at something else because if they do, I’ll be done with my painting by the time they switch back to looking at what I’m doing or by the time they get back,” he added.

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Chinese painting on plates from students April Go Que and Sharon Tan, two of the 65 artists whose works are displayed during the Chan Lim Family and Students Exhibit

He said patience, perseverance, and practice are important in Chinese painting. It should always be there, he said, just like when doing any other job. No one can say that they don’t have talent, he emphasized, for if we practice and are patient, everyone can be successful because practice makes perfect.

Despite the gazillions of intricacies in Chinese painting, not once did Alex think of giving up. He only “slowed down” because of the demand, the pressure to perform, and deliver results in the corporate world. 

During the time he worked in several industries, he needed time to study each industry and how to deal with people involved in a specific industry. “I slowed down in Chinese painting whenever I work in another industry. But definitely, giving up was not an option. It really did not cross my mind because the passion to do Chinese painting is still there and I know my goal, which is to keep doing Chinese painting because it will be a good legacy for the family, and we are sharing this to the Filipino people so we should continue doing it.”

Alex swore that he doesn’t see the need to set the mood or anything for him to be able to paint. Chinese painting always involves precision so no need for rituals of any kind like drinking tea. He pointed out that when he reached 50 years old, he was already trained. When he’s asked to paint, despite the noisy surroundings, he can paint.

“If you take too long to set a mood to be able to paint, your audience might just go home and not wait for you anymore. For example, during my Chinese painting teaching sessions, which I still do at this time, I just go ahead and do it. No need to uplift the spirit or anything. It’s just pure skill and artistry. I’m already trained. If I think too much about it, people may just leave. If I look at a flower, for example, and I like what I see, I just paint it. No need to smell it just to be inspired. The goal is to finish the painting quickly and the resulting painting is of the best quality, and that’s what I always think of,” he said.

The Chan Lim Family and Students Exhibit was recently held at the Fashion Hall of the SM Megamall in Mandaluyong City. It featured 460 artworks from 65 artists coming from all over the Philippines, particularly in Cebu, Davao, and Zamboanga—and even outside the country. 

At least three mediums of Chinese paintings were on display such as plates, umbrellas, and “tael,” a form of Chinese currency or monetary unit in the olden days. 

Alex said they also do Chinese painting on lanterns, fans, even scrolls. He said they use different mediums so that people will appreciate them more and not get too bored looking at the same mediums over and over again.

The very first Chan Lim family exhibit was done back in 1995, also at the SM Megamall. When they started, Alex said it was only one exhibit because they were testing the ground. As the years passed, the number of exhibits they held each year slowly increased. Since 2011, they have been able to mount around 50 exhibits, all in SM malls, though they stopped during the pandemic so overall, they did around five exhibits every year on the average.

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Each year, every exhibit carried a different theme. They never repeat their exhibit themes. For example, this year’s exhibit at the SM Megamall is a bit on the AB Class side so the displays are a bit on the high end. Sometimes, they use lanterns or fans so the displays depend on the kind of area or place, and they will pattern it accordingly. “If every exhibit will be the same, people may get bored or will not like them so we make it a bit different.”

He said they do not receive invitations to do the exhibit in other malls, probably because they are identified with SM but if there is an invitation to do the exhibit in other places, it will be in the US probably, where they have done many exhibits before. In fact, he said, there is an ongoing exhibit inside the San José Mineta International Airport in San Jose, California in the US.

They have mounted the exhibit in other regions as well, particularly in the Bicol region, like in Legazpi, Daet, and Sorsogon. However, they found it difficult going there, especially when there’s a typhoon. “I remember we got stranded so we had no choice but to take a 13-hour-long road trip going back to Manila. Bicol is a very beautiful province, but the problem is in going there. We needed to bring many students and hundreds of paintings and it was very challenging, but when we got there and people saw the paintings for the first time and admired its uniqueness and beauty, I think the trip was truly worth it.”

Preparing or curating an exhibit is something that the family itself does but they follow a process, ascribing to a certain standard. The exhibit pieces have to be borne out of what the artists learned and should not be abstract. Though abstract is also a form of art, but that’s not Chinese painting anymore, he explained.

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The Journey, an 18 feet long Chinese painting by brothers Dr. Alex Chan Lim and Dr. Felix Chan that took 35 years to finish

He also doesn’t have any favorites when it comes to his paintings, though he distinctly remembers one which he said took 35 years to complete, and now has a sentimental value for him. 

Alex and one of his brothers started doing the painting when they were still young. They managed to finish only about 80%. Certain issues and problems that cropped up in the family made them stop and store the painting in a warehouse.  Around 2017 or 2018, they decided to continue the project and finished it once and for all. 

“When we told SM that we have such kind of painting, they told us to use it in the exhibit and launch it. During the launch, the painting was covered in red and when it was finally unveiled, everyone was truly wowed. You could say that this painting is really sentimental because it took us 35 years to finish, and we completed it in 2019,” he noted.

Alex said their family has been partnering with SM for a long time already. It is a partnership where there’s trust between both parties. “If you start a partnership and there’s trust between both parties, I think it deserves a chance to move forward,” he emphasized.

The SM Group grew and the Chan Lim Family Exhibit also grew, and it’s a win for both. All these years, he said they remained very loyal and professional to SM and vice versa, and there’s mutual trust so that really changed a lot of things, Alex stressed.

And even if they get invited to do the exhibit in other malls, he said it will be difficult on their part because they were mounting at least four to five exhibits at SM every year. 

He pointed out that the Megamall exhibit took them about more than a year to prepare. “There were 460 artworks and 65 artists coming from all over, and that’s no joke. Logistically, it was very challenging. And then, when it’s time to return the artworks to the artists, that’s another nightmare, especially the plates which are fragile so you need to pack them carefully using bubble wrap plastic for protection, then contact a courier. Good thing there are many courier services already, unlike before. Or even if artists have their own vehicles so they can pick up the artworks themselves, you have to remain at your house and wait for them to arrive.”

He expressed optimism that their partnership with SM will continue. “I am glad to have worked with a professional team at SM, definitely one of the best I have ever worked with. There is mutual respect, and I think trust and respect are very important.”

Alex also said the exhibit is not a money-making venture because they don’t offer the artworks for sale during the exhibit. He reasoned that if selling occurred or if there was money involved, conflict may arise. 

“SM gave us the exhibit area for free so we should not sell the items during the exhibit. It will be totally disrespectful. If selling will be involved, do it outside of the exhibit area, or probably do it in another gallery. It’s another issue when there’s money involved. So much better if there’s no money so there’s no conflict, and everybody are happy. We just want to promote artworks done through Chinese painting, that’s all, because selling them here would be so wrong,” he elaborated. 

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Chinese paintings rendered on umbrellas

Many people are happy, Alex said, because it’s the year of the Wood Dragon, and many are hopeful of a good year. He hopes it will be a good year for Chinese painting, which is slowly becoming a dying art form. 

Chinese painting, related Alex, is not really a well-known form of painting. Many view it as reserved only for the elite, but it’s not. “The good thing about doing it here at SM is that it can be for the elite, but can also appreciated by the masses, that there is a type of painting that can be used for plates, fans, umbrellas, so people have options now. When we go to the provinces, Chinese painting is very well accepted. We were delighted with the response of people and their appreciation, like with the lanterns, for example. You can judge by the way people flock to the exhibit and have their pictures taken. It was a wonderful sight.”

He said that if he were to interpret the Wood Dragon in terms of Chinese painting, it should depict strength and power, typical traits of a dragon, which comes out once every 12 years. Alex succinctly pointed out that among the 12 Chinese zodiac signs, the dragon is the only mythical and mysterious creature yet it is the most loved by people, unlike all the other signs like Dog, Horse, Rat, or Pig, which are real and existing animals. Many say that it will be good to be born in the year of the dragon because it symbolizes power and strength.

All of the members of the Chan Lim family fervently wish to continue promoting

awareness about Chinese painting and share this with the people. Alex said that perhaps the Chan Lim family is the only family that has been actively spreading knowledge and understanding of Chinese painting here in the Philippines because there’s no teacher here, there’s no course in Chinese painting here, unlike in Taiwan.

He lamented the fact that what they teach to their students is simply knowledge transferred from generation to generation since there’s no textbook. Nobody taught them to do Chinese painting in an umbrella, plate or fan.

Similar exhibits like that of the Chan Lim family’s Chinese painting exhibit are found usually in art galleries and not in a big venue like the SM Fashion Hall. Big venues will have to be filled with artworks and the worry is the paintings may not be good enough. 

For the Chan Lim family, he said, they are able to do it 50 times all around the country and will definitely continue with this advocacy, hopefully up to the third generation.

But of course, he said the third generation in the family have their own professions already so he doesn’t know how extensive or how long they can continue. As for their generation, while they are still here, they will persist. He believes someone in the family will pick up the interest and passion in Chinese painting but the question is how extensive it will be.

“The reason why we are successful is we have three layers of people helping—my Dad, my siblings and our spouses, and the third generation. Each generation contributes a different type of skill set. During our past exhibits, we used to hire a documentation team using videos and photos. Now, it’s the third generation that does that and they know how to do it, especially on social media like Facebook, YouTube or TikTok. For our generation, we try to professionalize the mounting of the exhibit with a business approach since we came from the corporate world. Presentations are in PowerPoint or we use Excel, and we market it or brand it in such a way that will make it unique or distinct so there’s branding already, there’s a template in whatever we do.”

Alex believes that people always wish that the incoming year will be better than the previous year because if it will be a better year, everyone will benefit and everyone will live in a much better place. “Every year that’s what we want, that there will be a better program by the government like in education and healthcare. We already see that even in government transactions, everything is done in a more professional way, and we hope it will become even better in the year of the Wood Dragon.”


Rory Visco
Rory Visco
By sheer twist of fate, Rory Visco was thrust into the world of writing when he accepted a proofreading job in a distinguished national newspaper back in the early 2000s. Luckily, he was brave enough to ask his editor to give him a shot at writing a short piece, a feature story that delved on the importance of choosing the right air conditioner for the home. And as they say, the rest is history. Today, he writes stories that discuss a myriad of topics, whether it be Business, Health, Food, even relevant issues that may impact society.


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