Take, for instance, the typical Chinese character for peace (安), which depicts a woman (女) who stays within the house by covering it with a top radical (宀). To express how women in Malaysia are often segregated in public spaces because of Islam, the duo hacked the Chinese character for space (间) to insert the radical for a woman instead. This is just one of 30 characters Li and Hui designed for Women’s Words, a tiny red dictionary created with fellow Malaysian writer and researcher Tan Zi Hao. Created for a feminist art event in Malaysia, it’s just one example of how TypoKaki has been using typography and design to explore Malaysian culture since 2012.
Dragons + paper cuttings + calligraphy + an auspicious splash of red = Chinese graphic design? More like a very, very outdated stereotype.
Consider the Chinese zodiac greeting cards by Hong Kong designer Sandy Choi, who’s putting a modern twist on the tradition of representing each year with an animal. The card for this year—the year of the sheep—bleats “BAA BAA BAA BAA,” while the year of the dragon in 2012 has a greeting printed white-on-white—a clever allusion to the mythical animal.
In the age of the e-book, this print publication offers a different take on “scrolling” through text. For her new book about the symbolic images of Hokkien architectural-style temples, designer Jesvin Yeo turned to ancient Chinese scrolls for design inspiration. Architectural Decoration: Negotiating Symbols Across Time and Place is a stunning 225 bamboo strips-long (4.35 meters) English publication examining the symbolic meaning of images found in three temples in Singapore built between the 18th and 19th century. Jesvin recently took us through her limited-edition publication (Only 40 were made and each selling at S$338) and her fascination with designing projects on Chinese culture.
How did this book project come about?
The idea for this book derived from my experience of collecting data for my other published book, Choi! Touchwood!, which was in 2010. Through many visits to the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore, Thian Hock Keng, I discovered many unique and interesting symbolic images. When I researched further, it remained a mystery, and no one, not even the people who take care of the temple, could provide answers to the meaning behind some of these symbolic images. I decided to research and understand the meaning of these images through the lens of visual communication. Moreover, I am a Hokkien, therefore it is important for me to understand my own culture and roots. Especially, how my ancestors designed these symbolic images more than 1,000 years ago.
Why do a bamboo scroll book?
This book is deliberately made in the format of a traditional bamboo scroll to:
1) Indicate the importance of these cultural images as bamboo scrolls were used to record the chronicles of ancient China.
2) Enhance the value of these cultural images as they display our ancestor’s expectations and pursuits of beautiful things. As the bamboo scroll allows for the depiction of a continuous narrative, the viewing is a progression through time and space.
3) Let our younger generation have a chance to read a bamboo scroll book — how fascinating!
What were some of the challenges in designing this book?
I worked with a research team on this project with support from Nanyang Technological University and the Ministry of Education. The main members are Wong Wei Loong and Charissa Ho Jia En, with the help of others like Kent Neo and Kenneth Lim Zhi Wei. I start the project in February 2011 and we took over two years to take the photos, to archive and analyze, and to research on the meanings behind these symbols. The illustration, designing, and refinement took another year or so.
The main challenges in creating this book were:
1) Taking photos of the temples: some caretakers of the temples preferred us to send an email request before we shot and we were not allowed to set-up any equipment when photographing symbols on the roofs or ceilings. Of course, I totally understand this need for restrictions as these temples are Singapore monuments.
2) Researching on the meaning and mythology behind the symbolic images. I could not found any English books on the symbols of the temple then. Therefore I gathered information from Chinese references books and compared them with English articles written by scholars, especially on the name of the symbols and techniques used. At the end of 2011, I also went to Taiwan to interview caretakers of Hokkien-style temples too.
3) Illustrating the images: we hand-drew more than 150 illustrations of the symbols, and our eyes were seeing stars after a few images as they are very fine and detailed. Charissa started the first round and I continued from there and also refined all of them on computer later. It took us about eight months to finish.
How did you convince the client to commission such an unconventional book?
This is not the first time I have proposed an unconventional book form toBasheer Graphic Books. They also commissioned my other book, Choi! Touchwood!, which is made up of four parts and costs a lot to produce. LuckilyChoi! Touchwood! was well liked by readers, so Basheer was confident in what I could produce.
Was it difficult to find someone to manufacture this book?
I checked with a couple of printers in Singapore and they were unable to produce the book as the bamboo material was a major issue. Moreover, their laser machines cannot achieve the details that I wanted. In the end, we had it produced in China by Neo Brands. But the Chinese printer did complain that the book was too time consuming as it involves hand work to tie the more than 200 bamboo strips to form one book and laser engraving is also done manually. They experimented with more than 10 different threads to find the right one to hold the weight of the scroll. Each book took about five days to complete.
You’ve designed several projects related to Chinese culture. Can you talk about your personal fascination with this subject?
As a Chinese Singaporean, I am always very interested in symbol, totems and the visual culture of Singapore. I remember those fascinating stamp designs on the back of my T-shirts printed by Taoist mediums during my childhood. Studying and working in London allowed me to further realise and understand the value of one’s cultures and heritage. After returning from London, I came across a statement by Singapore’s founding leader, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who said that the digital age was making it impossible to evolve a Singaporean culture even in a few hundred years. I decided to explore this statement through experiments in design and cultures.
It’s interesting that this book about Chinese culture is in English. Can you talk about navigating between two cultures as a designer?
As a Gen X, I understand both English and Chinese. Therefore, it is not too difficult to navigate between these two cultures.
The book is in English because one of my aims in doing cultural projects is to bring as much knowledge and value of our cultures to the younger generations. And we know that our younger generation prefers English and they are not really interested in print. Therefore, my projects have to be in English, easy to digest, unconventional and visually appealing to stimulate interest their interest.
A lot of your work is also about bridging modernity and tradition. How do you approach such work as a designer without falling into stereotypes and cliches?
A good and difficult question. I am not too sure whether my work are stereotypes and clichés. I just know that I am interested in the dialogue between tradition and contemporary, old and new. Although I work with tradition elements, I create my content with our younger generation in mind. I believe that tradition and culture are symbols of thought and it is important to pass them down. Hopefully our young people can continue to preserve it. Moreover, I feel that a product is made up by a combination of effort from many people, so it has to scream and not just sit subtly.