Tan Siah Kwee



Tan Siah Kwee (b. 6 October 1948, Chaoan District, Guangdong Province, China–)1 is an accomplished Chinese calligrapher and an active promoter of the traditional art of Chinese calligraphy. His calligraphy works and tireless efforts in creating awareness and interest in the art form have won him many local and international awards. For his contributions to the field of Chinese calligraphy, Tan was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Visual Arts in 2000.2

Early life and career
Tan was born in what is today the Chaoan district of Guangdong province, China. He came from a humble family background: his father was a boatman and his mother was a farmer. In 1955, Tan came to Singapore when he was only seven years old.3

Tan attended Kong Hwa (Guan Hua) Primary School and then moved on to Chung Cheng High School, where he completed his pre-university studies in 1967. He then enrolled in Nanyang University (now known as the Nanyang Technological University, or NTU), graduating with a Bachelor Degree in Chinese Literature in 1972. Tan subsequently studied at the Institute of Education (now known as the National Institute of Education, or NIE) to become a teacher, graduating with a Diploma in Education in 1973.4

During his career in education, Tan taught in various schools and had a stint as the vice-principal and subsequently principal of Manjusri Secondary School. He was also the head of the Languages Department in Tampines Junior College, a post he held for 17 years. In 2000, Tan was voted as one of the 22 Most Inspiring Chinese Teachers by the Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao. He resigned from the education service in 2004.5

Artistic career
Tan cultivated an interest in Chinese calligraphy while in primary school. The visual impact of calligraphy created by the lines and the curves what was drew him to the traditional art form. Under the tutelage of his calligraphy teachers (Tan Keng Cheow and Yan Lu) at Chung Cheng High School, Tan was able to build up his foundations in Chinese calligraphy by mastering the xing shu (running script) and cao shu (cursive script), which have remained Tan’s preferred calligraphy styles.6 During his time in Chung Cheng High School, Tan also joined the Chinese calligraphy club and his skill and passion for the art form grew.7


A gifted calligrapher, Tan’s skills are well known locally and internationally. Since 1969, Tan’s calligraphy works have been selected for exhibitions organised by various government ministries in Singapore, the Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore (CCSS) and other local calligraphy associations. His works have also been exhibited overseas in countries like Malaysia, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.8

Tan was the first Chinese calligrapher to be sent overseas by the government as an ambassador for calligraphy. Since 1978, he has visited the United States, Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, England and Switzerland on goodwill missions and cultural exchanges by government agencies. These agencies include the former Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now known as the Singapore Tourism Board), Ministry of Finance, and the Prime Minister’s Office.9

Tan was also invited to host television programmes on calligraphy that were shown on Singapore television in 1971 and again in 1984. A highly sought-after speaker, Tan frequently gives talks and demonstrations on calligraphy in libraries, community centres, schools, clan associations and other social organisations.10

Tan’s calligraphy works are collected by dignitaries, such as the former presidents and prime ministers of Singapore, the royal families of Thailand and Japan, as well as museums in countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.11 His calligraphy works have been carved on more than 10 beilings (forests of steles) located in the various provinces of China. His works have also been showcased in various Chinese museums as part of the China Great Calligraphers’ Collection Series.12

Contributions
More than just a talented calligrapher, Tan is also lauded for his zeal in promoting Chinese calligraphy as an arts educator. In 1968, soon after graduating from Chung Cheng High School, Tan co-founded the CCSS and became its first president.13 In his role as president, Tan has seen the society through difficult times, when it had as few as 12 members, and witnessed its expansion to more than 600 members today.14

The 1970s saw a decline in interest in Chinese calligraphy due to several reasons. First, the growing popularity of the ballpoint pen made the Chinese brush almost obsolete as a writing instrument. In addition, many people found Chinese calligraphy to be an untidy hobby as the ink-stone and brushes had to be washed after each use. Apart from the inconvenience of maintaining the writing tools, Chinese calligraphy also required the practitioner to have a good knowledge of Chinese characters, the various writing styles and familiarity with Chinese poetry and literature. Furthermore, in the 1970s, there was a general avoidance of all things Chinese due to its association with the Cultural Revolution in China.15

At the same time, Chinese education in Singapore was undergoing a transition during this period, which eventually saw the Chinese-medium Nanyang University merging with the English-medium University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 1980. By the early 1980s, all Chinese-medium primary schools had been closed and Chinese calligraphy was also dropped from school curricula. It seemed then that there was no future for Chinese calligraphy.16

Tan, however, was determined to continue practising Chinese calligraphy because he felt it was worthwhile to do so.17 Tan and the founding members of the CCSS decided to take it into their own hands to try to turn the tide. They organised calligraphy classes and held exhibitions featuring works of prominent local and overseas calligraphers to create interest and awareness of the art form.18

Since Tan personally experienced the benefits of early calligraphy training during his formative years, he believes in promoting the art form by teaching it in schools and clan associations.19 He also lectures part-time on calligraphy at tertiary institutions such as the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, NUS and NIE.20

Tan is also actively involved in the local and international calligraphy community. He helped organise the first International Chinese Calligraphy Exchange Exhibition held in Singapore in 1990. The exhibition showcased the works of top calligraphers from China, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and the United States.21 That same year, Tan set up the Singapore Chinese Institute of Chinese Calligraphy for teaching, testing and certifying calligraphy standards. In 2004, he spearheaded the establishment of the Singapore Senior Citizen Calligraphy University Centre and became its founding president. The institution is the first of its kind in Southeast Asia to provide a three-year course in Chinese calligraphy and Chinese Studies.22

In recognition of his contributions to the field of Chinese calligraphy, Tan has received numerous awards from the Singapore government and various organisations both locally and internationally.23 He has also been hailed as the father and ambassador-at-large for Singapore calligraphy.24

Stylistic conventions
Tan excels in writing various calligraphy scripts and his works demonstrate brilliant brushwork with clearly defined characters and careful composition.25 Eminent calligrapher Pan Shou describes Tan’s style as “like a seagull gliding on the water, light and graceful, elegant and unconventional, natural and unrestrained”.26


Awards27
1978: Singapore Youth Excellence Award (formerly known as the National Youth Service Award).
1987: Long Service Award.
1991: Public Service Medal.
1992: ASEAN Achievement Award.
1993: Honorary Gold Medal (25 years’ service) given by the Singapore Cultural Studies Society.
1993: Honorary Gold Medal (25 years’ service) given by the Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore.
1995: Gold Medal Long Service Award given by the Singapore Arts Federation.
1999: Long Service Award, Education Service.
2000: Cultural Medallion for Visual Arts.
2000: Voted as one of the 22 Inspiring Chinese Teachers by Lianhe Zaobao.
2002: Mont Blanc de La Culture Award.
2003: The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore’s Lifetime Achievement Award for 35 Years of Excellent Service Contribution.
2006: China’s first Overseas Recipient of the Special Honour Award for Contribution to Chinese Calligraphy given by the China Calligraphers’ Association.
2006: Chandra Das Great Idea Award given by the Community Chest of Singapore.
2008: The Lifetime Dedication Award for 40 Years of Sterling Service to the Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore.
2008: Nanyang Technological University’s Nanyang Alumni Achievement Award.
2009: International Award for Outstanding Contribution to Chinese Calligraphy Arts.



Author
Chor Poh Chin



References
1. 陈声桂 [Chen, S. G.]. (2010). 陈声桂书法 [Chen Shenggui shu fa]. 新加坡: 新加坡书法家协会, p. 61. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 745.619951 CSG); Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Siah Kwee. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Siah+Kwee
2. National Arts Council. (2013, October 4). Cultural Medallion & Young Artist Award Recipients for Visual Arts. Retrieved from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/art-forms/visual-arts/local-directory/cultural-medallion-young-artist-award-recipients-for-visual-arts
3.
Leong, W. K. (2000, September 23). An old hand. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; 陈声桂 [Chen, S. G.]. (2010). 陈声桂书法 [Chen Shenggui shu fa]. 新加坡: 新加坡书法家协会, p. 61. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 745.619951 CSG)
4. The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore. (n.d.). Biography of Tan Siah Kwee, p. 5. Retrieved from The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore website: http://www.ccss.org.sg/personage.asp?edition=cn&page=5&id=
5. Leong, W. K. (2000, September 23). An old hand. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore. Biography of Tan Siah Kwee, p. 5. Retrieved from The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore website: http://www.ccss.org.sg/personage.asp?edition=cn&page=5&id=
6. Leong, W. K. (2000, September 23). An old hand. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Siah Kwee. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Siah+Kwee
8. The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore. Biography of Tan Siah Kwee, p. 3. Retrieved from The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore website: http://www.ccss.org.sg/personage.asp?edition=cn&page=3&id=
9. The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore. Biography of Tan Siah Kwee, p. 1. Retrieved from The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore website: http://www.ccss.org.sg/personage.asp?edition=cn&page=1&id=
10. The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore. Biography of Tan Siah Kwee, p. 1. Retrieved from The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore website: http://www.ccss.org.sg/personage.asp?edition=cn&page=1&id=
11. The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore. Biography of Tan Siah Kwee, p. 3. Retrieved from The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore website: http://www.ccss.org.sg/personage.asp?edition=cn&page=3&id=
12. The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore. Biography of Tan Siah Kwee, p. 5. Retrieved from The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore website: http://www.ccss.org.sg/personage.asp?edition=cn&page=5&id=
13. 陈声桂 [Chen, S. G.]. (2010). 陈声桂书法 [Chen Shenggui shu fa]. 新加坡: 新加坡书法家协会, p. 49. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 745.619951 CSG)
14. Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Siah Kwee. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Siah+Kwee
15. 沈帼英 [Shen, G. Y.]. (2000, September 23). 文化奖得主陈声桂: 文化奖不要像炸薯条 [Wen Hua Jiang de zhu Chen Sheng Gui]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 74. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. 沈帼英 [Shen, G. Y.]. (2000, September 23). 文化奖得主陈声桂: 文化奖不要像炸薯条 [Wen Hua Jiang de zhu Chen Sheng Gui]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 74; Leong, W. K. (1992, July 26). He came home early to teach a calligraphy class. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17.
Tan, B. H. (1987, March 17). All for the love of calligraphy. The Straits Times, p. 9; Leong, W. K. (1992, July 26). He came home early to teach a calligraphy class. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Leong, W. K. (1992, July 26). He came home early to teach a calligraphy class. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Leong, W. K. (2000, September 23). An old hand. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Siah Kwee. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Siah+Kwee
21. 陈声桂 [Chen, S. G.]. (2010). 陈声桂书法 [Chen Shenggui shu fa]. 新加坡: 新加坡书法家协会, p. 51. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 745.619951 CSG)
22. 陈声桂 [Chen, S. G.]. (2010). 陈声桂书法 [Chen Shenggui shu fa]. 新加坡: 新加坡书法家协会, pp. 49, 61, 62. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 745.619951 CSG)
23. The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore. Biography of Tan Siah Kwee, p. 2. Retrieved from The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore website: http://www.ccss.org.sg/personage.asp?edition=cn&page=2&id=
24. 陈声桂 [Chen, S. G.]. (2010). 陈声桂书法 [Chen Shenggui shu fa]. 新加坡: 新加坡书法家协会, p. 49. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 745.619951 CSG)
25. Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Siah Kwee. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Siah+Kwee
26. Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 188. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR)
27. 陈声桂 [Chen, S. G.]. (2010). 陈声桂书法 [Chen Shenggui shu fa]. 新加坡: 新加坡书法家协会, pp. 61–62. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 745.619951 CSG); Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Siah Kwee. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Siah+Kwee; The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore. Biography of Tan Siah Kwee, p. 2. Retrieved from The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore website: http://www.ccss.org.sg/personage.asp?edition=cn&page=2&id=; The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore. Biography of Tan Siah Kwee, p. 3. Retrieved from The Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore website: http://www.ccss.org.sg/personage.asp?edition=cn&page=3&id=



Further resources
陈声桂 [Chen, S. G.]. (1984). 书法漫谈 [Shu fa man tan]. 新加坡: 新加坡申华书学协会.

(Call no.: Chinese RSING 745.619951 CSG)

陈声桂 [Chen, S. G.]. (1987). 陈声桂书法 [Chen Shenggui shu fa]. 新加坡: 新加坡中华书学协会.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 745.619951 CSG)

陈声桂 [Chen, S. G.]. (1977). 华书法讲话 [Zhonghua shu fa jiang hua ]. 新加坡: 中华书画研究会.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 745.619951 CSK)

陈声桂 [Chen, S. G.]. (2010). 陈声桂书法 [Chen Shenggui shu fa]. 新加坡: 新加坡书法家协会.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 745.619951 CSG)

陈声桂 [Chen, S. G.]. (2012). 书论十一辑 [Shu lun shi yi ji]. 新加坡: 新加坡书法家协会.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 745.619951 CSG)

声桂墨缘 [Shenggui mo yuan]. [Videorecording]. (2003). 新加坡: 新加坡书法家协会.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 745.619951 CAL)



The information in this article is valid as at 12 February 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Personalities
Arts