Holding one of his special political figurines next to his helmet and his bike, Christopher Pereira, 61, spoke about how he came about to be known as “the Treewizard”, the politicians’ reaction to his handmade figurines, his dream to open up his own museum, and his success as an artist over the years.
It all began about 20 to 30 years ago when Chris started to become famous for making replicas of miniature trees. The trees were so realistic that requests from architecture and landscape companies poured in, and he was earning about S$800 to S$1000 for each tree he made.
“The nickname Treewizard is because I wanted to become an iconic guy in Singapore. Because if you go to (the) North Pole, you will find Santa Claus but if you come to the sunny side of Singapore, you might want to find the Treewizard,” Chris said.
In order to fit in with his vision of becoming “the Treewizard of Singapore”, Chris changed his usual, clean-shaven appearance and started growing a beard a few months ago. He believed that this change in style would promote his growth and “trademark” as a “real artist”.
Another distinguishing feature of Chris’ trademark is his tattoos. The first was done in 2011 in conjunction with the PAP rally and he intends to get more done – including a Worker’s Party tattoo on his left forearm, which will show when he waves to welcome Singaporeans and foreign dignitaries – as well as “SDP and most local parties tattoo”, so that he can be “trademarked for all parties for all Singaporeans”.
Prior to his current reputation, Chris was a lecturer at several institutions including La Salle (for a year and a half) and Singapore Polytechnic (SP), specializing in architecture modelling and landscape. He was also a Creative Director in product design at Temasek Polytechnic and later on, set up a company called the WORKSHOP to work on designs with his students.
In 1998, he created his very first Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) figurine, which he professed it “wasn’t that fantastic”. Two years later, he made the original LKY figurine out of fibreglass. Finally, in 2011, he felt ready and confident enough to showcase his first LKY figurine at PAP’s GE rally in April.
The figurine managed to grab the spotlight and media attention, and the rest, as they say, was history.
Chris was initially anxious about the reaction his LKY figurine might evoke because it has never been done before and his friends warned him that there is a risk he could get sued or arrested. However, the amazing reaction he received, when people came over to take pictures with him and the LKY figurines at the rallies and Orchard Road, put his doubts and fears to ease.
“I’m grateful to the LKY family for not “disturbing” me and giving me the green light to go ahead and do (the figurines)”, he said.
He also told the story of how he met LKY’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, who asked Chris to give him a good reason to sign on the LKY figurine. “At the spur of the moment, I told him that because when he signed on the figurine of LKY, he’s actually representing the Lee family. And he did sign on the figurines,” Chris said as he beamed with pride.
In spite of his overnight fame, Chris did not get the opportunity to market his figurines and make any profit out of them as he thought he would. All of his LKY artworks that were displayed are original and handmade, which means he had “no way to mass produce any of the figurines”.
“When LKY passed away, I was given the opportunity to exhibit all my works at the Starbucks Maple City. But prior to that, I wanted to exhibit the figurines the day he passed away at Orchard Mandarin outside but they told me there’s no way to exhibit the figurines because it’s too commercial and (etc), but that wasn’t the case.”
Since the birth of his first LKY figurine, Chris had been creating different styles including the Starbucks LKY, Uncle Lee, F1 Lee as well as LKY in different attires which can be viewed on his Facebook and Instagram. Although many assume it takes weeks or a month to make the figurines, Chris put the record straight, saying that he is only able to make three 30cm-figurines in one year.
According to Chris, this means he was only about to make 18 figurines over the span of 22 years. “The thing is that a lot of people see me as the LKY guy, the PAP guy, which is good. I made a trademark for myself regarding the Treewizard… As a local artist, I could never get the fame. Nobody would respect me. Even I went to the Singapore Art Museum to try and exhibit my figurines, they so-called rejected me because it’s too political,” he added.
Eventually, Chris came across the idea of getting some form of sponsorship, grants and funds to fulfil his dream of opening the Minister Mentor Museum (MMM) where he could display his works. But this proved to be trickier than expected because “politics” come into play.
He had a brief moment of hope when he thought he could do so after finding out that he could get some cash from the MacPherson flat he resided in due to his age. Unfortunately, he ran into a stumbling block with Central Provident Fund (CPF) when they told him he could only withdraw S$458 out of S$171,000 for the next 23 years.
Following this, Chris was not “mad” with CPF but he expressed how he felt: “Firstly, disappointed with myself [sic]. Secondly, disappointed because I couldn’t open the museum. And nobody in Singapore would give me the opportunity to do so.”
Nevertheless, Chris never gave up on his ambitions to promote himself as a local artist. Last year November, he was inspired to sculpt figurines of the opposition party and the “best choice” to begin with was the Worker’s Party former Secretary General, Low Thia Khiang (LTK).
He was invited for a Chinese New Year celebration after completing the LTK figurine in March 2019 where he met LTK himself who signed the figurine and took some pictures together. It was not long before people speculated that Chris “jumped ship” by supporting the opposition instead of PAP to “earn a living”.
“But it’s not true,” he explained. “The truth is, I’m an artist and I need to earn a living. And not only LTK I did… I think you saw my Chiam See Tong figurine (first), and then LTK and then, later on, I will be doing Tan Cheng Bock, and then Kean (Lim Kean Chye) and then Dr Chee (Soon Juan).”
Chris reckoned that the PAP would not take this switch lightly as they may see him “as a mascot or supporter of PAP”. He invalidated this, stating that his intention is not to support any party or stir up propaganda with the government as he mentioned his desire to take part in the DBS creative art competition with his figurines for “something uniquely Singapore”.
“I’m not trying to say I’m promoting which party, and which party is right or wrong but I’m trying to say I’m promoting as a local artist. And that my figurines as a local artist is not recognized in Singapore, I don’t know why,” he piqued.
To further vindicate this statement, Chris has taken another leap of faith in carving out his career as a true artist by opening an online shop with the help of his friend. Chris hopes that the sales from his figurines would cover the cost and support his dream to open MMM.