Abhorred by art critics, but adored by the public The Chinese Girl (aka The Green Lady or The Blue Lady, depending on the quality of reproduction) has been a favorite painting of many a suburban household over the past fifty years. Painted by Vladimir Tretchikoff in 1950, the picture became one of the world’s biggest selling prints in the 1960s, and its popularity has endured ever since. Part of the portrait’s great attraction has been the mystery over the identity of the painting’s model. Now, the girl who sat for Tretchikoff all those years ago has been revealed as Monika Sing-Lee. Tretchikoff met Sing-Lee in a laundry in South Africa, not in San Fransico, as he later claimed, as the Mail and Guardian reports:
“When I met Tretchi, I used to work at my uncle’s laundromat in Sea Point,” said Sing-Lee. “I was taking parcels, writing out invoices and the like. That was in 1951. I was in my late teens.
“We were introduced by a popular Russian dancer, Masha Arsenyeva. She used to teach young girls ballet and hired a studio close to the laundry. She was a regular customer.
“Tretchi and Masha were good friends. At the time, he also stayed in Sea Point. He rented a bachelor flat with his wife and daughter. He hadn’t got that posh house in Bishopscourt yet.
“One day Masha told me that Tretchikoff was always looking for models to paint. He visited her classes almost every day and sketched her pupils. Eventually, Masha said to him: ‘You never seem satisfied. Why don’t you go to Hen Lee laundry in Main Road? Look at that girl in the reception, come back and tell me what you think about her.’ That’s what he did.”
He painted Sing-Lee for more than a month, twice a week. Every Saturday he picked her up in his yellow convertible. On the way to his studio in the Gardens the pretty, raven-haired girl sitting next to the elegant 37-year-old man turned heads. The embarrassed Sing-Lee wished she could sink down in her seat to hide from view.
It was the time when Tretchikoff still ran an art school at his studio. While he worked, his students gathered around to watch him. When Sing-Lee sat for Tretchikoff, he put her on a little raised stage so that the pupils—15 or 20 men and women—could paint her as well.
“He treated me so nice. I nearly fell in love with him. Tretchikoff was very jovial, always cracked jokes and made everybody laugh. One night, when I was sitting, we all burst into hysterical laughter. I don’t remember what started it. Probably one of his jokes. His assistant Jean went red with laughter. We couldn’t stop. My goodness, it was funny.”
Tretchikoff did two paintings of Sing-Lee, each of them called Chinese Girl. In both portraits the woman is dressed in a Chinese tunic. In the famous painting it is golden and in the lesser-known one blue.
“The true colour of the beautiful top that I wore for the sessions was blue and pink,” said Sing-Lee.
“He made up the yellow. It was a delicate silk gown that he had brought from China.”
She also believed that the lower part of the figure, from below the neck, was done with a different model. “I never had such broad shoulders. The chest is also not mine. They look more like Jean Campbell’s [Tretchikoff’s assistant and later a painter in her own right]. I suppose he first painted my face and then may have coupled it with the upper part of her body.”
In any case, Sing-Lee didn’t see the final result then. Tretchikoff refused to show her the work while she was sitting. His pupils could watch the progress but not the model. She respected that and didn’t interfere. What was more, he didn’t even have titles for the two paintings at that stage.
“If I tell you how much he paid me, you won’t believe me. I sat for six weeks. He squeezed in a second painting. For that, I got £6.50, or just over R20 at the time. ‘Here, Monika, there’s a nice cheque for you.’ But all in all, he was a very nice man. I have no grudge against him.”
She finally got a chance to take a look at the paintings a few months later when she visited Tretchikoff’s show at Stuttafords in Adderley Street. He preferred to exhibit at department stores rather than at more conventional venues. His public hardly ever went to art galleries.
“When I approached him, he said to me happily, ‘Ah, Monika, I’m displaying two of your paintings!’ I said: ‘Oh. So what did you title them?’ And he replied: ‘Chinese Girl.’
“What a disappointment. I thought it would be something more imaginative. Anyway, I felt honoured that he had two of my portraits on display. Usually, he’d have one work per model.”
Soon after the exhibition, Sing-Lee married and moved to Johannesburg with her husband. She and Tretchikoff lost touch and she never posed for another artist. A mother of five, she had no time for “such folly” any more.
The Daily Mail also reports on the story, explaining how Sing-Lee didn’t like the painting:
‘To be honest, I didn’t like that green face,’ she said. ‘I thought it made me look ill.’
Sing-Lee married a commercial traveller Pon Su-Suan, with whom she had 5 children. They separated forty years ago, and while Tretchikoff became exceedingly rich from the painting, Sing-Lee spent much of her life in poverty, working in a fish-and-chip shop and as a seamstress.