Script tease: Fung Ming Chip makes new play on Chinese characters

Artist's "needle" script looks like scattered toothpicks, while "sand" script looks, well ... sandpapered. I can turn anything into calligraphy, he says ahead of new Hong Kong show

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 October, 2015, 1:57pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 December, 2015, 12:14pm

If Fung Ming Chip hadn’t become a successful artist, he could easily have become a designer of dingbats, those logos you get when you type in Microsoft Word’s Wingdings font, for example. The artist has spent nearly three decades inventing new ways to write Chinese characters using traditional calligraphy brushes - and he hasn’t run out of ideas yet.

One new work from this year features his so-called needle script, which looks like someone has spilt a box of toothpicks all over some rice paper. When you look closely, however, you can easily make out the characters, if not the actual order they are in.

His so-called sand script doesn’t look like sand, but rather words that have been sandpapered. That scrubbed out look is achieved by writing the words in plain water first, before applying a very dry brush with ink over them, Fung says in his Sai Ying Pun studio. “I don’t set myself any purpose as an artist, except to have fun,” he adds.

Fung has had an unusual career. Born in 1951 in Guangzhou, his family moved to Hong Kong when he was five. He had to start work after primary school, doing unskilled work in factories and as a delivery boy, until the poor economy in the 1970s forced the family to up sticks again, this time for New York’s Chinatown.

“I’d always wanted to be an artist. In New York, I had no English but I had a lot of visual stimulation from local galleries. So that inspired me to take up traditional Chinese calligraphy and learn to carve seals. I started playing with words in 1980s and never looked back,” says Fung.

His subject matters range from the sublime, such as the Buddhist Heart Sutra, to the ridiculous, such as a poem about the after-effects of smoking pot, and he will be showing 24 new works in an upcoming exhibition at Galerie du Monde in Duddell Street, Central.

He was self-taught and a late starter, but it wasn’t long before his artistic career took off. His first exhibition in Hong Kong was at the American Library in 1982 and he also had a couple of shows in New York.

Then, in 1986, he met Johnson Chang, who organised a number of solo exhibitions for him at Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong and promoted his work across the world. In 2013, he was among a group of contemporary artists commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for  an ink art exhibition.

His piece was a 5.5-metre horizontal handscroll inspired by Song dynasty artist Mi Fu. “That took me eight months to complete because of the pressure of a New York Met commission,” he says.

Recently, he completed a 14.5-metre handscroll called Old Transitional, which took him about six months. The content is a single poem Fung wrote himself, called Oldtime Love, with the words morphing into myriad styles.

Fung now spends half his time at work in Hong Kong and half in Shenzhen, where he also has a studio. The rest of the time is spent travelling with his wife.

“I would never be able to do what I do without spending years understanding traditional Chinese calligraphy, especially the spatial relationship between characters. Now, I know I can turn anything into calligraphy,” he says.

Fung Ming Chip: Shu Fa Sutra, November 11 to December 31, 2015, Galerie du Monde, 108 Ruttonjee Centre, 11 Duddell Street, Central