At an art studio in the heart of Chinatown, Malik Mazlan picks up a brush. After dipping the tip in an inkstone, he uses it to carefully apply thick, measured strokes on a piece of paper to form the Chinese character 福 (fú), or ‘prosperity’.
“This is my favourite character to write as it can be presented in different ways,” he explains. He then picks up a thick calligraphy dictionary to show us how the same character was written differently across ancient Chinese dynasties.
Malik may consider himself a fledgling compared other calligraphy masters, but his fervent pursuit of this craft was what led him down a unique career path as a full-time Chinese calligraphy artist.
Moulding an interest in the arts
Ask Malik if he had dreamt of being an artist in his younger days, and his answer might surprise you.
“I did not have a particular career aspiration back then, and art was not at the top of my mind. In fact, I failed at art in school. My mother even received a call from my teacher once because I drew stickmen for an assignment,” he says with a laugh.
Being in school was also a challenging phase for Malik. “I felt disconnected from what was taught, and because of that, I did not perform well. I mostly did my own things. One of my teachers even wrote in my report card that I should not be reading during lessons!”
Concerned about his academic performance, his mother decided to sign him up for an after-school enrichment course. She also enrolled him for a short-term ceramics class under well-known master ceramist Dr Iskandar Jalil.
“He was a very good teacher, and it was through him that I developed my first understanding of aesthetics,” Malik recalls. “This experience made me think, ‘Hey, maybe being mentored is what I need. Maybe art is meant for me.’”
(Malik practising his calligraphy. / Photo by Type A)
Malik was first introduced to calligraphy when he took up a Japanese language course in his early twenties and decided to try it out for himself.
Following his teacher’s return to Japan, Malik went in search of a new teacher so that he could continue to learn calligraphy. After a series of rejections, he was accepted by Mr Ho Sou Ping, an art gallery owner, and it was through Mr Ho that Malik was introduced to Mr Yong Cheong Thye, a renowned local Chinese calligraphy master.
(Photo by Type A)
The calligraphy master, who has been Malik’s mentor for over a decade, played a significant role in the young artist’s formative years. “His open-mindedness gave me the courage to be more explorative in my craft,” he shares, adding how Mr Yong has never “criticised the method” or platform that he chooses to incorporate Chinese calligraphy. This has led him to pursue collaborations with practitioners from other artistic mediums, such as batik art and music, and even venturing into VR (virtual reality) calligraphy.
“While I explore all types of mediums to present Chinese calligraphy, its aesthetics and philosophy remain the bedrock of my creative pursuits.”
Following his calling
As a professional calligrapher, Malik takes on commissioned works and project requests from clients. He has also achieved a number of career highs since pursuing his craft full-time. Along with staging performances locally and exhibitions in both Singapore and Malaysia, Malik was also a recipient of the Goh Chok Tong Youth Promise Award (Distinction) in 2016.
(Photo by Type A)
“Despite my achievements, I have had my fair share of detractors who did not think I would last this long as an artist.” However, he does not let these comments faze him. If anything at all, it motivates him to remain firm in his artistic and career pursuits. “I have never once questioned my career choice. In fact, I would go as far as saying that I can’t even imagine not being a calligrapher.”
He continues to treasure this nugget of wisdom from the late performance artist Lee Wen: “He once told me, ‘Malik, just because someone tells you that you shouldn't do it, doesn't mean you should listen to them.’ That is something that I still abide by when I do my calligraphy, or even when pursuing any of my artistic endeavours.”
What advice does he have for those who have yet to find their own calling in life? “Find a hobby and explore other interests. I may not have planned to pursue calligraphy at the start but now it is really hard for me to see myself not doing art. It is so ingrained in me.”
– Malik Mazlan, 35, Chinese calligrapher