Meet Malik Mazlan, Chinese calligrapher

Mr Malik Mazlan (left), who does Chinese calligraphy, and his mentor acclaimed calligrapher Yong Cheong Thye. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Up-and-coming artist Malik Mazlan is a rare breed - he does Chinese calligraphy, and is good at it too.

In fact, since he won the Goh Chok Tong Youth Promise Award in 2016, he has been commissioned by government agencies and cultural institutions to produce calligraphy and carvings as gifts to their donors, among other things.

Just this month, he was at Paragon shopping centre where he used VR goggles to trace calligraphic script in virtual reality.

Despite his sudden fame, the 29-year-old remains humble.

His workstation is a simple metal table in a small studio space at the back of his mother's hair salon in Kampong Glam. The studio's shelves are lined with tubes of hair dye instead of bottles of ink.

The road to becoming a successful artist continues to be bumpy one. "I often question myself and feel ashamed," said Mr Malik, who earns about $1,000 a month. "I've been doing this for only about 10 years. Full-fledged artists have been at their craft their whole lives."

His story reflects the difficulties in recognising life's true calling.

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He describes himself as a late bloomer and perpetual under-performer. He failed art in secondary school, and had to repeat his N levels twice and O levels twice before he eventually graduated at 19.

Fortunately for him, his mother knew about his interest in the work of renowned ceramist Iskandar Jalil after he saw one of his exhibitions at the Malay Heritage Centre. So she signed him up for lessons with Mr Iskandar at the centre.

Said Mr Malik of his teacher: "Once I was late for class so he locked me out. I cried. From Mr Iskandar, I learnt the importance of aesthetics, art philosophy and discipline. He is the yardstick for my creations."

Even under the tutelage of the Cultural Medallion winner, Mr Malik was still unclear about his path. It took an exchange programme when he was a Materials Science student at Republic Polytechnic to bring him closer to his eventual speciality. In Japan, he was drawn to signboards written in calligraphy.

Back in Singapore, after graduating with a diploma and while serving national service, he visited Chinatown on weekends to look for a calligraphy teacher. He eventually found one - established painter and gallerist Ho Sou Ping, who took him under his wing for about two years.

Mr Malik said of his various mentors: "Artists need teachers. They keep you grounded and can help you improve on your flaws. Ideas shouldn't be shot down but techniques should be criticised."

Later, Mr Ho introduced him to acclaimed calligrapher Yong Cheong Thye, 71, who has been his mentor for almost eight years.

Master Yong also demonstrated his calligraphy skills at Paragon. He said of his only Malay student: "He has improved. He's Malay but he is willing to learn about our Chinese culture. The more people (there are) who are willing to share and learn about a culture-specific art form, the better."

Mr Malik has had his share of detractors. A gallery owner told him he was better off as an Uber driver than a calligrapher. A businesswoman told him he would never excel because he did not truly understand Chinese culture.

"My situation is quite unique. Malays might call me a sellout and the Chinese might see me as invading their turf," he said. "I just want to be the bridge between two cultures."

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