Absolutely Write

Published on 26 April 2017

In this age of thumb texting, a growing number of calligraphers are discovering the joys of ink, paper and artistic strokes.


More Than Words Ong Fang Zheng’s Western calligraphy creations have been featured as works of art in themselves. (Photo: Ong Fang Zheng)

People might be all about instant gratification nowadays, but I think many still can appreciate the beauty of calligraphy,” says 29-year-old Ong Fang Zheng, assistant conservator and former calligrapher/designer. “Language and writing bring people together, and calligraphy is the aesthetic expression of that.”

Indeed, calligraphy — in any language — is no longer something that people simply see on decorations during religious or cultural events. It’s in demand on home furnishings, company signboards, name cards, and beautiful handwritten invitations to parties and other sparkling occasions. Ong herself has been hired to delicately pen the English names of invitees from various countries for Chanel’s first fashion show in Asia. She also penned Chinese translations of Western names on the name cards of a law firm expanding into China. Interest in learning the art is likewise thriving: many young people are signing up for classes, even in languages they are not familiar with. Ong, for one, has even studied Arabic calligraphy.

“I find it all fascinating because calligraphy is quite different in different languages and cultures. In Islam and Judaism, calligraphers represent messengers of God bestowed with the gift or permission to write their religious teachings, whereas in the Oriental culture, calligraphers belong more to the literati circle. In the Western traditions, calligraphy served more religious and administrative purposes,” says the enthusiast who has also been researching Hebrew and even Sanskrit calligraphy.


Flip the Script Madam Ong Chin Eng is able to produce beautiful work using both lishu and kaishu — two different types of Chinese calligraphy scripts. (Photo: Ong Chin Eng)
Calling Card While not treated as professional projects, notes and cards Ong Fang Zheng sends her friends often showcase her signature calligraphic skill. (Photo: Ong Fang Zheng)

While calligraphy is often rooted in high culture, the masters in Singapore are far from snobbish about picking their students. Thirty-eight-year-old Faizal Somadi is one of the leading lights in Arabic calligraphy here who has worked with master potter Iskandar Jalil to create calligraphic inscriptions on his pottery and murals. Faizal, who also served as head designer in producing Singapore’s first version of the Holy Quran known as Mushaf Singapura, has taught about 300 students from all backgrounds, several who don’t even speak Malay, much less read Arabic.

“Arabic is not our native writing system here: Malay is written using the English alphabet. So when people see Arabic, it is usually associated with religious purposes and we think people who write it are very wise or holy. But it’s just a system of language that can be used to express all types of ideas — I’ve been commissioned to write Chinese names in the Jawi script for event invites. In the world, there are several commended calligraphers who are actually Christian and commissioned to create Muslim calligraphy. So I’m happy to teach anyone who is interested in this craft, including giving workshops at The Esplanade.”

Chinese calligraphy teacher Madam Ong Chin Eng, who is in her 60s, agrees. “My calligraphy students are mostly foreigners and young English-educated Singaporeans, who sometimes can barely read simplified Chinese, much less the traditional Chinese calligraphers generally write in. I’m happy to see them learning the beauty of what they thought were complicated words, and am always happy to guide anyone who is interested in calligraphy. You don’t have to be a scholar or highly educated to benefit from this art form,” adds the practitioner who is undaunted by having to check the dictionary for unfamiliar words while penning the works of poets past. In fact, she feels this is one way calligraphy has helped her forge a deeper relationship with her language.

This is not the only tangible benefit calligraphy offers, says Madam Ong. “Before I started practising calligraphy, I was impatient and overly meticulous, to the point of being obsessive-compulsive. But now, I’m generally calmer and I understand that you can’t rush everything and it’s okay to take your time. When I’m in a bad mood, I actually pick up my brush and it helps to soothe. Yes, sometimes it’s hard to write beautiful words when you are agitated, but what I tell my students is to just draw lines and strokes. That will still their spirits enough for them until they can practise the calligraphy itself.”


PUTTING PEN TO PAPER... AND BEYOND Faizal Somadi’s Arabic calligraphic works aren’t just seen on the page, they also adorn surfaces such as that of the Sultan Abdullah Mosque Museum in Pahang. (Photos: Faizal Somadi)

The flipside of calligraphy advocating calm and patience, is that it requires lots of it. Despite having several years of training in the Chinese calligraphic script of lishu, Madam Ong had to practise eight hours a day for months before getting the hang of kaishu, sometimes thought of as a more basic calligraphy script. Conservator Ong adds that clocking the hours alone does not equal mastery. “Whatever script you are writing in, you have to continually compare your own works to those of the masters and be able to see where you are getting things right or more often, wrong.”

Meanwhile, Faizal has let his former career as a designer take a backseat while he ups his Arabic calligraphy game under the tutelage of master calligrapher, Ahmet Kocak from Turkey. “I am grateful to my wife for chipping in so much with the family finances while I focus more on this craft… realistically, I’m giving myself about five years before I can hit the next stage in skill. Arabic calligraphy from the Ottoman system has much stricter standards than Western calligraphy: the precision required is that of a machine, where your hand can duplicate the same word each time with micro-millimetric detail. That is part of the tradition and context behind the art which I feel its students have to understand, even if they are not originally from that culture — they have to realise you don’t learn the craft for money or fame. It is a way of life, where you spend a lifetime being a student and constantly seek self-improvement.”

While this might seem daunting to prospective beginners, the number of enthusiasts seem to testify otherwise. Says Faizal, “Worldwide interest is increasing… just go to Instagram and type calligraphy to see all the different varieties out there. There are even people using technological fusions like light painting in calligraphy. Usually when something becomes so popular, it has to do with a sense of belonging, it makes people ask questions about their identity. I believe people are falling in love with manual writing again because it has such an impact on people’s sense of culture and lives.”

To check out Chinese calligraphy, visit the 8th National Calligraphy Competition on 28 May, with works displayed at Albert Pedestrian Mall, next to Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple on Waterloo Street.

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