A Peek into Penang’s Chinese Calligraphy Scene

loading Seal script in rubbings (“帖”) that precisely trace the strokes of the inscription in white against a black background.

Lok Pin San.

Chinese art took root in Penang generations ago, with artists from China interacting with local artists and art enthusiasts during their visits here.

“At that time, Penang was the first stop for Chinese travellers – including artists and calligraphers from China or Taiwan,” says Lok Pin San, president of the Calligraphy Association of Penang.

In 1929 the Nanyang Calligraphy and Painting Society, and the Nanyang Shu Hwa She (书画社) were established in KL by Chinese residents. Over in Penang, the first Chinese art group, Yin Yin Art Circle, came into being in 1936.

The earlier calligraphy and brush paintings in Penang were clearly influenced by artists from China who practised traditional techniques and style; but soon, several pioneer artists began to “Malaysianise” Chinese art by injecting Nanyang-style elements into their work.

Sim See San, a Chinese brush painting artist and teacher, explains, “Although Chinese brush paintings, widely known as ‘national art’ (国画), originated and was made popular in China, it was not exclusively practised in China or by the Chinese. In fact, in the 1990s I had many expatriate students from the US, Japan and Korea. Many of my students now are locals,” he says, adding that his studio turned 20 late last year. Sim also provides free classes at the Penang Tzu Chi Buddhist Association.

Sim See San’s students concentrating on their individual creative learning process.

As interest in Chinese brush paintings increased, the Penang Chinese Brush Painting Art Society was founded in 2012. “Since then, it has been actively promoting Chinese brush paintings through classes and activities,” says Sim. “Besides this society, Tzu Chi and the Penang Buddhist Free School also conduct Chinese brush painting classes for anyone interested to learn.

“The subjects for Chinese brush paintings are not limited to sceneries, birds, plants and flowers; they also include humans, animals, and abstract thoughts and feelings. Although it is called ‘water’ and ‘ink’ in Chinese (水墨), it is not limited to the two mediums; and its colours are made from the pigments of natural objects such as stones and plants.

“While it is vital to have artistic skill, the artist’s personal character is always the essence. When I paint, I express my inner feelings – truthfulness, compassion and appreciation for beauty in life, society and the natural universe.”

Sim encourages budding artists to further explore after learning the basic skills – such as capturing real-life scenes through outdoor sketching. This can help the artist’s creative art-making process.

Sim See San.

Lok, an experienced Chinese calligrapher, is of the same mind. “Calligraphy is the form of lines and strokes. Each stroke represents the internal feelings of the artist – this makes each work of calligraphy unique.

“I was teaching Chinese calligraphy to adults – including retired teachers and housewives – on a part-time basis when I was working in a factory. I recently retired and took to teaching calligraphy full-time; I now have over 200 students.”

Lok was first exposed to Chinese calligraphy when he found a Chinese ink stone that was left behind by his grandfather. “My father, who had very good handwriting in Chinese, inspired me to explore calligraphy. I started participating in competitions when I was in primary school; in the 1980s unions and schools in Penang were active in organising calligraphy competitions.”

Traditionally, good calligraphy reflects the literacy of society, says Lok. “I read many books and I used to spend most of my pocket money buying books about Chinese calligraphy and calligraphy copybooks (books containing examples of calligraphic script meant to be copied as practice) in different script styles. In ancient times, Chinese characters were engraved on oxen bones and turtle shells, in what was called the Oracle bone script. Over the millennia, five different Chinese calligraphy styles emerged: the Seal script, Clerical script, Regular script, Semi-cursive script and Cursive script.”

Calligraphy is the form of lines and strokes. Each stroke represents the internal feelings of the artist – this makes each work of calligraphy unique.

After being appointed president of the Calligraphy Association of Penang, Lok has been dedicated to promoting Chinese calligraphy in Penang and strives to connect local calligraphers with calligraphers in China and Taiwan, among other countries. He hopes that this traditional-local fusion will drive Malaysian-style Chinese calligraphy to higher excellence.

Nicole Chang is a PhD candidate at the Department of Development Planning and Management, School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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