Friday, November 09, 2018

Signs of the times: Calligraphy and vanishing trades (街头墨宝)

On 3 November 2018, I shared the topic of "Signs of the times: Calligraphy and vanishing trades" during SWF 2018 (Singapore Writers Festival). Prior to this sharing, I had conducted two walking tours at Kreta Ayer on 18 and 19 August. They were organised by National Arts Council and Lianhe Zaobao.

I hope through this sharing, we could open up another horizon, accessing local heritage from another pair of lens.

My ongoing research is built from previous works done by 薛振传and 王运开.

Visual Art

Visual art created on buildings and mural walls in public space has become common in the second decade of 21st century. Such work has transcended boundaries, moving away from being about decorative, graffiti and vandalism, to a mode of bringing messages or just simply beauty.

(A 1920s architecture with decorative walls and signage at Geylang: An example of street art about a century ago)

In Singapore and Malaysia, the Penang street murals probably have drawn the most attention from travellers although there are many more decorative murals in many others of Malaysia’s towns and in Singapore. Since the Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic etched 6 murals as part of the George Town Festival in 2012, including a 20-foot high ‘Kongfu Girl’ on Lebuh Muntri, Penang street art has become a main tourism drawcard to the island.

(Kongfu girl on Lebuh Muntri: Penang street art attraction)

Singapore Street Art

During my school days in the 1960s and 1970s, there was another common form of “street art”, either painted, drew or wrote on male toilet doors and school desks. We trained and discovered artists, poets and calligraphers through such ‘vandalism’ works. 

From its underground graffiti roots, Singapore’s street art movement has come a long way and seemed to have gathered momentum since the early 21st century. 

However, in 2006, Singapore has played host to the IMF-World Bank meetings. Two years later, the Formula 1 rolled into town. In 2010, it was the Youth Olympic Games. The spray painted SMRT train was a final test of the government’s limit in tolerating these ‘vandalism’. 

The city got cleaned up. We forgot about street art. 

After the success story of Penang, street art is now recognised as being important in bringing vibrancy to the local landscape.

(Local accountant artist Yip Yew Chong painted more than 20 mural walls. This is a new addition at a backlane next to Pagoda Street)

Inscribed Signage – Street Art of Yesteryear

Chinese business signboards harked back to the beginning of Chinese mass migration in Singapore. The cultural significance of these signboards and calligraphy works may be viewed from the journey from engaging famous calligraphers to vanishing trades.

Inscribed signboards of more than a century old can still be found in the former Straits settlement – Penang, Malacca and Singapore, as well as old towns in Malaysia. But they tend to be neglected and overlooked. 

Inscribed signage is a unique symbol of Chinese culture. It blends the art of calligraphy, wood carving and philosophy behind as one.

Terrace houses occupied by Chinese and Peranakan Chinese had pronounced use of Chinese calligraphy. Shophouses showing their tradenames on wooden signboards and exterior walls.

(Signage of the walls of these shophouses along South Bridge Road. These companies have been disappeared but the external features of these buildings are preserved.)

(The signboard 种盛 of this baba house in Neil Road shows that the owner would like to have more sons because his wife had given birth to many daughters but without a son.)

Those older signboards are written in traditional Chinese and are also read from right to left. For the newer signboards after 1970s, they are either written in traditional or simplified Chinese, and may be written and read from either right to left or left to right.

(The signboard of 黄耀南medical hall in Temple Street shows that it has set up shops in Hong Kong 港, Guangzhou 粤 and Singapore 叻. It is typical for those old signboards presented in golden colour.)

Beyond Golden Signage (金字招牌)

Traditionally, wooden signboards were presented to newly opened businesses, temples and clan associations, or during anniversary as an auspicious sign. They may be written by:

- Government officials: A show of power, added weight.
- Famous calligraphers: Elegance, value, friendship.
- Own organisation members:  A form of dedication and emphasis of loyalty and respect.
- Unknown calligraphers: Usually from advertisement trade.

Shop signage evolved into computer generated bilingual Chinese-English writing, some in four official languages in more recent years.

(咏春园, an example of golden signboard. The restaurant first established itself at the Great World prior to WW2. It moved to several places before settled in Upper Cross Street.)

Traditional Calligraphy Styles

- Kai Shu(regular script, Yan style,楷书- 颜体)- dominated commercial signage
- Kai Shu(regular script, Liu style,楷书- 柳体)
- Li script(隶书)
- Zhuan script(篆体), commonly found in name stamp (盖章). 
- Xing Shu(cursive script,行书)
- Oracle Bone Script (甲骨文) – The Earliest Chinese Word discovered during the Shang dynasty (商朝) , some over three thousand years ago. They were engraved on animal bones and tortoise shells.

(Traditional calligraphy styles)

(Comparing oracle bone script with traditional calligraphy styles)

4 Most Distinctive Calligraphers in the Republic of China (民国四大书法家) 

They were members of Tong Meng Hui (同盟会) in the 1911 Revolution and held government positions when the Republic of China was formed.

- Tan Yan Kai(谭延闿), Yan style Kai script. His brother’s writing can be seen in Singapore.
- Hu Han Min(胡汉民), Li script. His writing can be seen in Singapore.
- Wu Zhi Hui(吴稚晖), Zhuan script. His writing has not been found in Singapore.
- Yu You Ren(于右任), cursive script. Although he did not come to Singapore and Malaysia, his writing can be seen in this part of the world for ONE specific reason.

(The common features for the 4 most distinctive calligraphers in Republic of China include: they participated in 1911 revolution and held government position.)

3 Most Distinctive Calligraphers in Singapore (星洲三大书法家) 

In contrast, the 3 most distinctive calligraphers in Singapore did not hold any political office bearer. 
- Wu Wei Ruo(吴炜若)
- Tan Heng Fu(谭恒甫)
- Xu Yun Zhi(许允之)

(The common feature for the 3 most distinctive calligraphers in Singapore is that they did not work in government office.)

Suggested Sites for Expedition

- Kreta Ayer – patriotism, power, civilian life
- Telok Ayer – early immigration, mutual care
- Geylang – civilian life, rooting
- Peck San Theng – Li (ceremonial, 礼), filial piety and respect.

Expedtion for Kreta Ayer and Telok Ayer are shown here.

Production Process

The process of making a traditional hand-carved signboard is quite straightforward. It is an ART:

- Wood cut to size and shape, treated with a layer of glazing putty to smooth out the surface. 
- When the glazing has dried, the characters to be carved are traced onto the board with carbon paper. This will provide an outline to work on.
- After the characters are carved, another layer of putty, and thinner, is applied. Finally, the board is painted in two colours, one for the background and gold for the characters.
- The characters may also be “painted” by using gold foil (which is more expensive).

Changing Time

Computer generated calligraphy and CNC machine carving for PVC and Acrylic signboards have simplified the signboard making process. The modern technology is speedy and it can even be done at the comfort of one’s home. The advance in modern technology has taken over the jobs of many calligraphers and craftsmen whom had spent years honing their craft to perfection.

(成发 was one of the famous signboard maker. Yong Gallery moved out from South Bridge Road in 2018 due to rental.)

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