80-year-old seal engraver stamps his mark on history

GEORGE TOWN: Tian Hua Arts and Antique is easy enough to spot – a lone shophouse on Beach Street with a red-speckled cloth banner hanging by its door.

It’s a different kind of banner however as upon closer inspection, you realise that the red specks are in fact swirling designs of Chinese characters.

Ng Chai Tiam can be found working in his shop every single day. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

Detailed and intricately patterned like snowflakes, no design is alike and you’re immediately mesmerised by its elegant strokes and curves.

But aesthetics aside, this banner also exhibits the handiwork of an internationally sought-after artist, Ng Chai Tiam, 80, who’s engraved the names of people from all over the world.

The red-speckled banner at Ng’s shopfront is rather eye-catching. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

In fact, Ng’s seal collection could fill an entire wall.

With people from Europe, Australia, America and even Germany seeking his expertise, Ng has been engraving Chinese seals since 1967, and today he is the oldest and only traditional seal engraver in Penang.

Ng is skilled in engraving as well as calligraphy and has gifted politician Lim Guan Eng several of his artworks. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

“After secondary school, I spent four years pursuing an art programme in Hong Kong that focused on traditional Chinese fine arts. It was then that I first learned the art of engraving seals,” Ng tells FMT.

“Back then fine art pens weren’t invented yet so we used calligraphy brushes and black ink to paint out the names on the stones instead,” he adds, quickly whipping out his trusty 0.5 mm fine art pen that he sketches his detailed engravings with.

There’s an assortment of vibrant coloured stones to choose from, all naturally sourced from China. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

After graduating in 1967, Ng flew back to Penang, excited about opening his humble art shop.

Ng continues to make seals the traditional way to this day, engraving by hand every single character onto the tiny surface of rock-hard stone blocks, one indentation at a time.

The electric carver Ng uses allows for precision and depth when engraving. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

Creased in fine lines and wrinkles, Ng’s hands are laced with years of experience. He says he aims to make each engraving better than the last.

Firmly gripping the stone block with his left hand, Ng picks up his tiny metal carver in his right, applying just the right amount of pressure and precision as he digs into the stone’s surface, Chinese melodies playing in the background.

“After the initial carving, I switch to this electric tool that allows me to go deeper into the stone. This helps as some stones are harder than others,” Ng says while holding the electronic carver with a tip as fine as a needle.

Small seals easily take up to four hours to complete while huge ones can take a full day. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

Peering through the enormous magnifying glass, Ng carefully chips away at the black outline as character indentations begin to emerge from the stone’s surface.

Most of Ng’s seals can take up to a few hours of laser concentration to complete. Then when gently stamped onto paper, it reveals Ng’s handiwork of red and white swirls.

“There are three types of lettering, one is red, then white and the last is yin and yang,” Ng says, explaining that yin and ying is a combination of the first two styles.

A seal that allows the characters to be printed in white. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

Ng incorporates intricate designs into names and has even engraved animals like dogs and cows onto seals.

However, there is one type of engraving that the master occasionally finds tricky.

“When they give you a logo you have to match it perfectly with their design and it’s even harder because you have to draw it in reverse,” he says.

For the seal to be readable, Ng explains that all the engraved designs must be mirrored onto the seal, otherwise the characters and patterns will appear reversed when stamped.

A star indicates the right side of the stamp. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

Ng explains that stamping your name every day attracts good feng shui into your life. He also says that if you have a new-born, quickly make a seal for them and stamp their name into an empty notebook every day.

Believed to make the child intelligent, Ng claims his grandson is living proof of this practice. “When he was born, I immediately engraved a seal for him and began stamping it for him,” he says.

“At one or two years old, he was speaking so well that even my daughter was surprised,” Ng says, laughing out loud.

Business cards? More like works of art. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

A man of his word, Ng practises this himself and handwrites every single business card he gives out.

“I don’t photocopy my business cards. I make them from scratch and I always stamp my own seal on it,” Ng says, adding that this is his way of leaving his mark behind.

Ng holding his eight album. He hopes to publish a book someday featuring all his engravings. (Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle pic)

Besides making name cards and engraving hard stones, Ng keeps this dying artform alive. Thankfully, he shows no signs of parting with his tools and firmly believes that he still has a long way to go to perfect his craft.

Tian Hua Arts and Antique
371, Beach Street
10300 Georgetown

Operating hours: Daily, 9.30am – 5pm

By : Tsen Ee Lin @ FMT Lifestyle

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