From Script to Sculpt: Keeping the Traditional Chinese Culture Alive

With Chinese New Year coming up, Kaya speaks to Master Calligrapher Yong Cheong Thye and Master Wood-carver Cheh Kai Hon, who push the boundaries of their craft while nurturing the traditional art scene in Singapore.

  • 11 Jan 2024

From left: Mr Yong and Mr Cheh with some of their previous works

How do our traditional arts survive in a world that thrives on technology and progress?

calligrapher Yong Cheong Thye and his student-turned-partner, wood-carver Cheh Kai Hon, fight against the odds to keep their art forms alive by merging their artistic mediums to offer a distinctive interpretation of traditional Chinese art. Their unique style of calligraphy and wood carving makes them one of the most interesting traditional Chinese art contributors in Singapore, with their creations often featured during festive seasons like Chinese New Year. 

Mr Yong writing a greeting for Chinese New Year

How their journey started

While wood carving and calligraphy seem to have very little in common, it was their respective passion for their art that led Mr Yong, 77, and Mr Cheh, 73, to each other.

Mr Yong was drawn to calligraphy at a young age. He started learning from a teacher in primary school and was an apprentice to another calligrapher.

On the other hand, Mr Cheh started wood carving in Johor and later moved to Singapore. That was when he got to know Mr Yong and became his student. Their mentor-mentee relationship soon blossomed into friendship.

Eventually, they learned about each other’s medium and decided to start Yong Gallery together.

Yong shares, “Mr Cheh is very talented in wood carving, and I'm good at calligraphy. A lot of people ask if we are doing demos, so I asked Mr Cheh if he was interested in starting something together.”

Mr Cheh carving an intricate floral design

Merging two traditional crafts

Combining calligraphy with wood carving gave Mr Yong and Mr Cheh the chance to experiment with different materials. Through hours of experimentation, they work with different types of wood to understand its durability and retention.

Their fervour for their craft has garnered significant attention. Being the sole practitioners in Singapore who seamlessly combine both calligraphy and wood carving, they have captured the interest of many notable figures, including our first prime minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew bought our work and sent it to Japan. It was a proud moment for us!

Despite the many achievements and milestones in their careers, Mr Yong and Mr Cheh maintain an unwavering dedication to further refine and experiment with their work. Far from resting on their laurels, they aspire to push the boundaries by blending traditional art with other artistic styles such as intricate florals.

 From left: Mr Cheh and Mr Yong working together on a floral Peranakan wood piece

A common love for traditional Chinese culture 

Besides their interest in each other’s mediums, Mr Yong and Mr Cheh also bond over their love for poetry.

“We started to write poems of different lengths,” Mr Cheh shares. “At first, Mr Yong writes the poems and I will carve them, but now we do it together.”

With strong influence from traditional Chinese culture, both artists take their poetic inspiration from old Chinese literature. Their works often feature extracts of famous Chinese poems and sometimes, their original poetry.

“The longest poem we carved was 500 words, on a big wood board,” Mr Yong shares. 

Mr Yong and Mr Cheh passionately embrace Chinese culture, cherishing its values of encouragement, humility, and continuous learning. They believe that these values inherently contribute positively to society.

Mr Yong and Mr Cheh with their students turned friends

Their hopes for the traditional art scene

Over the years, Mr Yong and Mr Cheh have found that Singaporean youths have fewer opportunities to be in touch with their Chinese cultural roots growing up. To preserve traditional Chinese art and culture, they teach weekly at Hong Lim and Kreta Ayer CC.

While some students may attend just a session or two, some have been dedicated followers of both Mr Yong and Mr Cheh. When they see individuals put in effort to learn continuously, it gives them a sense of fulfillment. Malik, a long-time student, has been learning Chinese calligraphy from them for about 20 years.

“Mr Yong made it possible for someone outside of Chinese culture to understand Chinese calligraphy. Mr Cheh also understands a bit of Malay culture so he is able to translate the calligraphy meanings and help me relate it to the Malay culture,” Malik shares.