Thanks to the efforts of local historians, Hamilton Shew Leong’s colourful art will live on.
Leong is the creator of the historical murals that have long graced the walls of the Oil Rig restaurant —depicting scenes from Petrolia’s oil boom history.
According to Petrolia Heritage Committee member Dave Hext, members were concerned the murals would be lost when the restaurant was closed and sold last year.
The Oil Rig closed in December and the sale is final next month. The Independent contacted the new owners, however, they aren’t ready to talk about their plans for the property.
Hext is working with the new owners to incorporate some of the art and memorabilia into a new complex to be built at the site.
“They were wholeheartedly behind saving history right off the start,” says Hext who has been doing some research on the artwork.
“They plan to use a lot of the stuff in the new expansion,” he adds, including the “famous person” mural at the front door of the restaurant.
Hext, most people believed the murals were the work of Rick Garner — a well-known Petrolia artist. But some historical society detective work revealed Leong to be the artist.
Born in China, Leong moved to Detroit to work in his family’s restaurant. A decorated soldier, he served in World War II for the U.S. army as a machine gunner.
Upon returning to the States, he completed an art degree at the Meinzinger Art Institute. He immigrated to Lambton County after marrying Mayma Sing, from one of Sarnia’s first Chinese families.
Prolific and talented, Leong was active in the local art scene and even had his own gallery.
He was also a very successful commercial artist and sign painter.
Founded in 1969 by contractor George Shabsove — once a mayor of Petrolia — the Oil Rig was a going concern, a respected eatery that drew patrons from across the region.
“It was a very popular place,” Hext says, adding the Oil Rig became a “go to” spot.
The Petrolia Historical Society has photographed the art and will remove the pieces intact if possible. If not, Hext says the murals will be able to be replicated.
Other relics from the Oil Rig include wooden mockups for machinery used in the oil industry, such as gears, will be saved and some will be incorporated into the new facility.
The parts were built at Stevenson’s Boilerworks stored at Baines Machine Shop