Chinese Islamic Calligraphy

Every year, during Ramadan (the Islamic period of fasting), there will be a huge bazaar (Pasar Ramadan) set up around the Geylang Serai area, around Paya Lebar MRT station. I’m told that this year is the largest bazaar ever.

In the huge tent just in front of the SingPost building (there are several huge tents all over the area), I spotted a very interesting shop. There were scrolls hanging all over the stall. At first glance, it looked like ordinary scrolls of Islamic/Arabic calligraphy.

But there was something very peculiar about the scrolls, and that was what made me stop to look. The scrolls looked like Chinese scrolls used to display Chinese calligraphy and painting, except that instead of Chinese words, it was mainly Arabic!

I got very curious, and so I went into the stall to have a closer look.

I soon realised that I had stumbled onto a very rare find! It was a stall selling Chinese Islamic calligraphy! WOW!!! I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this before!

Here’s a shot of several scrolls hanging from the stall:

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The scroll on the left resembles a typical Chinese painting of a vase with flowers. However, the entire painting comprises nothing more than Arabic words shaped and arranged to look like the vase, stalk, leaves and flowers. I’m not sure what it says, but I’m guessing the entire painting is a prayer to Allah (or a passage from the Koran).

I do not understand nor read Arabic. Yet, these works of art are so expressive in their strokes that I could actually feel strong emotions flowing out of these scrolls. For me, it was a very emotional experience, to be overwhelmed by the beauty and aesthetic power of these strokes. It was an encounter with the great sublime.

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Another beautiful painting

It’s amazing to see how the written word can be so alive on paper. Though written, these strokes feel as though they are living and breathing, they contain and reflect both the emotion and energy of the artist who painted them.

I never have thought that two grand traditions of calligraphy – Arabic and Chinese – could come together to form something so beautiful and amazing. These paintings were testaments that the two cultures, though distinct and often appearing to always be at odds, could co-exist harmoniously and beautifully together. Two languages on the same piece of paper, the style and words from each tradition complementing the other.

Soon, I realised the stall wasn’t just selling calligraphy. The artist himself was present!

His surname is Chew. Imam (priest) Chew. An Islamic priest and calligrapher from China.

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Imam Chew busy with his next piece of art

If you look carefully, he’s not using a Chinese calligraphy brush to write.

Instead, he’s using a piece of wood with a small cloth wrapped around the writing side of the wood. And it looks like there’s a piece of rubber band used to secure the cloth on the wood.

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Imam Chew concentrating deeply as he writes

It’s a very interesting writing tool. A very simple and humble piece of equipment! I’m simply awed at how something so basic and simple could be used to craft such beautiful works of art. Wow!

Words simply cannot express the profound amazement that I experienced in that stall.

If you love calligraphy, you really should make the effort to visit the Ramadan bazaar at Paya Lebar, and see Imam Chew’s works for yourself. These photos cannot do justice to the amazing expressive powers of Imam Chew’s works. You have to see it for yourself. (And while you’re there, enjoy all the delicious food that’s on sale at the bazaar)