In 1996, at the age of 60, Madam Tan Sok Huan decided it was finally time to revive her childhood past-time of Chinese calligraphy – she had chanced upon a calligraphy class at the Serangoon Gardens Community Centre. And in the end, she found much more than just a retirement hobby.
There, she became a close disciple of the late Singaporean calligraphy master Ho Ngiap Poh (1937–2013), and even inherited his mission to teach calligraphy to Singaporeans from all walks of life.
But when she first signed up for Mr Ho’s beginners’ class, Madam Tan, who turns 81 this year, had no idea what an illustrious calligrapher he was.
Mr Ho was appointed vice-president of the World Calligrapher-Painter Organisation in 1993. Later, he became the vice-president of the Calligrapher and Painter Association of China, while taking on leadership or advisory positions in a string of calligraphy organisations in Chinese cities such as Beijing, Haikou and Nanjing.
At home, Mr Ho kept a relatively low profile. He focused on teaching, much in the tradition of Singapore’s pioneer calligraphers, who had stepped in to fill the gap in Chinese education in the 1900s. They taught in institutions like Tuan Mong School, which was funded by the Teochew clan. Calligraphy used to be widely practised at some Chinese schools during their tenures. Over time, however, it became just an extra-curricular activity, as English became the key medium of teaching and the bilingual policy was launched in 1966.
Mr Ho aimed to make what many consider a high-brow Chinese art form accessible in the heartlands to all Singaporeans, regardless of their Mandarin proficiency. “He could have taught at a university or a calligraphy society, where classes can cost hundreds of dollars,” said Madam Tan. “Instead, he chose to teach in a CC, charging just $35 for a three-month course.”
She still chuckles when she recalls how intensely silent his classes were.
Group photo of Mr Ho Ngiap Poh (front row, middle) and Madam Tan Sok Huan (on Mr Ho’s right) with some members of the Evergreen Chinese Arts Society. Image Source: Madam Tan Sok Huan
“No joking around or chit-chatting. Everyone had to sit still and concentrate, even the kids,” she recounted. “Even Mr Ho himself didn’t talk much when everyone was practising their strokes. His mantra for calligraphy writing was: correct posture, calm intent and smooth breathing.”
When the bespectacled, silver-haired teacher shook his head, students had to rewrite the same script again, sometimes up to 15 times. But if he nodded, they beamed with pride and moved on to the next script.
Teaching Singaporeans calligraphy was no easy task.
For the older generation, whose formal education was disrupted by the Second World War, and who toggled between dialects and Mandarin, writing was somewhat a challenge.
For children, writing traditional Chinese characters, on which traditional calligraphy is based, proved onerous. Singapore had adopted simplified Chinese characters in the years following the 1978 launch of China’s open-door policy. Many primary school students wondered why a simplified word like fei (飞), which means “fly”, required many more strokes in calligraphy, which emphasises the visual poetry of the “wings” in traditional Chinese.
For the English-educated Singaporeans, Mandarin itself was a struggle. Madam Tan referred to them as jiak kantang, a Hokkien-Malay term that translates directly as ‘eating potato’. This was a reference to people who were more Westernised, unlike Asians whose staple food is rice.
Madam Tan could identify with all three groups. Born in 1936 in Singapore, she was brought back to her ancestral home in Chaozhou, China, to see her dying grandfather when she was two years old.
“But after his death, we couldn’t leave China because of WWII and the Chinese civil war. I studied at the village school, and wrote using calligraphy. It was only when I was 14 years old that my father was able to claim my birthright and bring me back to Singapore,” she recalled.
Once home, she did a crash course in English and spoken Mandarin—both of which she had not learnt in Chaozhou—at the Ngee Ann Girls’ School for Teochew children. She made it into Nanyang Girls’ High School, where her form teacher Wang Ruibi was a respected calligrapher.
“Back then, I was too busy studying English to pay much attention. It was only later on that I realised his signature style of writing calligraphy with his fingers was acclaimed,” Madam Tan said.
She focused on perfecting her English for the next 45 years. Mandarin, along with her interest in calligraphy, took a backseat. After graduating with a domestic science degree from Australia, she landed a job taking charge of the Singapore General Hospital nurses’ hostels.
Said Madam Toh: “As a civil servant, it was mandatory to speak English at work. At home, we spoke Teochew and English, since my husband was English-educated.”
In 1996, she retired from the Singapore General Hospital. After her husband passed away, Madam Tan, who has no children, decided to pick up calligraphy to fill her suddenly empty hours. “I started from zero,” she said simply. “Calligraphy became my new life. I made new friends, including two primary school boys who were in the advanced class when I first started learning. I still jokingly call them shixiong (disciple-brothers) today.”
Madam Tan displaying her calligraphy skills at a charity event. Image Source: Madam Tan Sok Huan
After class, Mr Ho would invite his students over to his terrace house near the CC for Chinese tea. The stern teacher then turned into a scintillating conversationalist, waxing lyrical about Chinese culture, history and calligraphy. Some of the students became members of a calligraphy club he founded, now known as Evergreen Chinese Arts Society.
Born in Hainan, China, Mr Ho joined his father in Singapore when he was 13 years old. An accountant by trade, he taught himself calligraphy in his spare time. Channeling the qi (energy) from his taiji prowess and his love of horticulture into large, powerful brush strokes, he composed disciplined yet organic works.
When he passed away in 2013, Madam Tan took over his CC classes. She inherited his earnest teaching attitude, but added some personal touches of her own. Recalling how her Ngee Ann school teachers had used Teochew to teach her Mandarin and English, she used English to explain Tang poetry verses for her jiak kantang students, as well as non-Chinese students from Japan and Europe. She even put numbers on the character strokes to make it easier for them to follow.
Her teacher’s legacy as a self-taught calligrapher is inspiring.
“He helped students realise one simple thing: no matter what your background, you can do calligraphy as long as you have the passion and perseverance to keep learning – for the rest of your life,” said Madam Tan.
Written by: Grace Ng
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign