Mabel Lau shares how an international upbringing helped inspire her unconventional approach to Chinese calligraphy
Growing up immersed in western culture, Mabel Lau is not your stereotypical Chinese calligrapher. As a self-described ‘westernised girl anchored in traditional Chinese values’, Lau practices calligraphy to reconnect with her Chinese roots. As a versatile and creative calligrapher, Lau works with all types of texts; when you scroll through her Instagram, you’ll find posts of ancient Chinese scripts alongside modern quotes and song lyrics.
Lau wants people to know that Chinese calligraphy is not just an archaic art form; working with modern brands from the likes of Four Seasons hotel to luxury jeweller Mikimoto, she wants to express the timelessness of calligraphy and the universality of its principles. The calligrapher recently held a solo exhibition at Eslite Hong Kong titled Searching Memories, which explores the relationship between art and culture.
Lau tells #legend how Chinese calligraphy has helped her to connect with herself, with others and with her own cultural heritage.
How has your background affected the way you see calligraphy and Chinese Culture?
I’m born Canadian and grew up studying at international schools in Hong Kong. I didn’t have many opportunities to learn about Chinese culture as a kid because unlike in local schools, this was not compulsory in international schools.
This is one of the reasons why I deeply value Chinese calligraphy and persisted in practising it for 20 years. Learning Chinese calligraphy has taught me a lot about Chinese history and culture. I feel so much more connected with my Chinese roots because of calligraphy. It has also allowed me to help share our history and culture with the current generations and modern-day society, where many are often too busy to learn about our roots.
How is your approach different to other calligraphers?
My approach is unique due to the way I was trained for 20 years. My calligraphy teacher’s specific approach to teaching gave me a strong foundational understanding of calligraphy. She focuses on the individual strokes in each character, and carefully breaks down the angles, weight and proportion. This foundation of Chinese calligraphy has allowed me to confidently experiment with different types of strokes and styles while remaining true to the core values and traditions of Chinese Calligraphy, which is something many modern-day calligraphers may not choose to do for personal reasons or preferences.
My training has also helped me become a better teacher for my students who engage in my workshops. My approach is highly analytical, as I take the time to examine individual strokes and character composition. I can also break down each character in a way that makes it easier for my student to pick up the art of calligraphy.
I love writing the Heart Sutra – it’s one of the shortest sacred texts. It talks about the nature of all things- that everything is essentially empty, and offers wisdom that can free us from suffering, and move towards compassion and kindness.
When I practice calligraphy, I have to slow down and control the pace of my breath, which then helps me to think clearly and critically about my strokes. Consistent and deep breaths help me feel more at peace and more self-aware, which is a skill I have developed throughout my years of training. Calligraphy is a form of meditation for me and has indirectly helped me become more present in my life in general.
What has calligraphy taught you about yourself?
People describe calligraphy as Taichi and Qigong on paper. We focus a lot on breathing because our breath tells us a lot about our current state and how we are feeling. For example, when I’m anxious, or angry at someone, my breathing becomes fast. When we are at peace, our breathing slows down.
How do you want to preserve Chinese calligraphy culture?
I strive to help break down stereotypes associated with Chinese calligraphy. A lot of people assume that Chinese calligraphers embrace conservative Chinese values and that Chinese calligraphy is an activity that only the older generation partakes in.
Instead, I want to show that Chinese calligraphy is equally accessible and relevant to those in younger generations, and even to people from different ethnicities. This is why I’m constantly finding new ways to connect with the younger generation and the English-speaking community through my calligraphy work.
This could range from the content I write (eg: song lyrics, inspirational quotes) to how I frame my artwork (eg: using natural wood frames instead of traditional scrolls) to sharing my thoughts and feelings as a Generation Y. By sharing how I can apply the lessons I’ve learnt in calligraphy to modern life, I hope to make calligraphy more relatable to people from all ages and walks of life.
At the same time, it’s important for me to strike a balance between making calligraphy relatable while still appreciating the craft and preserving the rules of Chinese calligraphy. My mission is to communicate through my work how crucial it is to respect Calligraphy’s traditions while innovating in our unique practices to breathe new life into this millennia-old craft.