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The Willi Chen Story of T&T

Published: 
Monday, June 11, 2018
South Zone, a Willi Chen painting.

Willi Chen is a businessman, playwright, poet, author, sculptor, inventor, painter and stage designer who once switched from running a café and bar to operating a bakery, before eventually going into the printing business.

Mr Chen, what on earth have you always wanted to do and have not had the chance to accomplish? “Make money.” Chuckles.

At 83, he does not always remember everything, but Chen’s wit is sharp, and his jokes appear out of the middle of nowhere, mid-sentence in an  interview or following a pause for a forgotten name or place or time.

Then there was the time he engineered a pile driver with a makeshift boom and concretefilled four-inch pipes powered  by a jeep to fill the land upon which now stands a two-storey Marabella building that now houses his printing business.

Downstairs, he occupies a small, busy office that appears to serve as a thoroughfare for staff fetching things. He endorses some cheques and offers one to the interviewer. Smiles and a follow-up offer of “Chinese fried bake” (meat pies) and wontons.

He has plans for a grand multi-media exhibition of all his work—books, scripts, paintings, prints, sculpture and a collection of line drawings. “Everything will be there,” the double national award holder says  is Chen’s opportunity to tell his own story.

The proposed exhibition is yet to be named, but it can well be “Willi Chen’s Story of Trinidad and Tobago” a tale that spans a lifetime of prolific artistic offerings from one of the country’s most remarkable talents. It is an occasion that has been long in the making and now Chen has his eyes set on a 2019 event. He hopes to use the facilities at the Central Bank in Port of Spain where his massive “My Solar Marinorama” steel mural is currently mounted.

In fact, the Central Bank has commissioned a refurbishment of the 30-year-old 64’ x 14’ mural and Chen has worked out a work schedule spanning weeks. Out of all the books, plays, stage sets, paintings and poems, he considers this work to be in the order of a magnum opus.

Back in 1988, the mural led a field of competing artists - including the celebrated Carlisle Chang (Chen’s artistic mentor) who placed second - to earn the right to have his art permanently displayed at the facility.

Since then, huge structures have been the name of his sculpturing game. The Triumphant Christ which adorns the front of the Christ the King Catholic Church in San Fernando and the now poorly-maintained Escriva Lighthouse Tower at the Point-a-Pierre roundabout are his work.

Yes, there have been books as well. Lots of them. Seven collections of short stories, three poetry anthologies, 11 plays and skits and two novels including the provocative Gosang—the Saga of a Trini-Chinaman, which explores race relations in 1930s Trinidad.

In Gosang, humour is an anodyne for the hurts of prejudice and conflict. More than one reviewer has hinted at an autobiographical undertone Chen has never openly denied.

Listening to the writer talk about his father’s “tempestuous” fortunes as a businessman, moving from rural village to rural village and town to town, there is little question that Gosang’s conflicted emotions are as intimate as they as artfully represented in the novel.

Today, Chen sits behind his cluttered, laptop-free desk the way Gosang stood behind his counter openly welcoming everyone “through the narrow door of his country shop.”

There are books on that desk.

Some for the interview, others filled with ledger sheets that keep financial score. Some with colourful labels and mock-ups.

Then there is a low-hanging, bright fluorescent light perhaps to examine artwork for print. When Chen leans forward to laugh or to stress a point, the lamp rests like a stretched crown on his reluctantly greying hair, two Virgin Mary statuettes perched atop the fitting.

There is a fading photograph of Chen and VS Naipaul on the wall overlooking the desk. Chen, in a dark suit and black hair slicked back, is standing and smiling for the camera. His more famous countryman looks shyly on, a medal held in place by a lanyard the colour of Chen’s red bowtie hanging over a grey woolen blazer. Sooner, rather than later, Chen is going to bring the story of his life’s work as creator extraordinaire to T&T and the world. The late Anson Gonzalez once described the tireless artist as “the benevolent Renaissance man of the Arts in Trinidad and Tobago.”

He, in turn, describes himself as someone who has never abandoned his dreams. “You have to work hard,” he tells the young photographer/ videographer. “Do what you think you want to do and keep along those lines. Don’t let people tell you this, that and the other. Put in the hours and stick with it.”

It’s a creed Chen clearly has lived by over a lifetime as a tireless all-rounder who, as a Jack of all trades, has attempted to master all.

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