When Manny Ling was a six-year-old child in Hong Kong, his parents used to send him to to Chinese calligraphy classes every Saturday afternoon. ‘It was purely to keep me out of mischief for a couple of hours,’ he recalls. But as for any six-year-old, the idea of being stuck indoors learning the intricacies of the ancient art of calligraphy wasn’t top of Manny’s list. ‘Imagine a six-year-old sitting there doing nothing but writing letters for two hours,’ he says. ‘It’s quite disciplined. At that age, we just wanted to roam the streets.’
However, the hours he spent in those formative years must have stuck with him. ‘Even though I found it really boring at the time,’ he explains, ‘I must have enjoyed the experience.’
Fast-forward 10 years and Manny and his family had moved from Hong Kong to the UK, settling in Stoke-on-Trent. Manny was studying at a sixth form college, and – just like a decade before, he was working in a calligraphy class. The difference is, this time he was enjoying it. ‘I was in the last cohort of students doing an A Level in calligraphy and lettering in the UK,’ he recalls. ‘They disbanded the subject soon after.’
The skills Manny was being taught by his calligraphy tutor, Colin Salt, were altogether different to those he’d spent long Saturday afternoons in Hong Kong practising. ‘What I’d learned in Chinese calligraphy didn’t really cross over,’ he explains. ‘We use a brush in Chinese calligraphy, while western calligraphy predominately uses a broad-edged pen. It’s totally different.’
The two years Manny spent studying western calligraphy only stoked his passion for the artform even more: he went on to do a degree in graphic design, and lucked out with a tutor who was also skilled in calligraphy. ‘He would teach me letters, and I would get all the books I could from the library and just teach myself,’ Manny says. ‘There was no YouTube then; you had to look at a book and do it.’
This self-teaching – and the globetrotting background, and skills learned from two continents in two different styles – helped develop Manny’s own unique style of calligraphy. ‘I’m doing western calligraphy with traditional Chinese elements in the work, and that makes it quite interesting. It’s cross-cultural. I’m crossing boundaries between east and west; between traditional materials and processes and new ones; between calligraphy by hand and digital media.’
Around 20 years ago, Manny arrived in Sunderland, setting up the International Research Centre for Calligraphy (IRCC) at Sunderland University. It quickly became one of the global centres of excellence for this unique artform. ‘One of the hubs of international calligraphy is in Sunderland,’ explains Manny, proud of his achievement. ‘It’s the only place of its kind in the UK, and probably in the world.’ American academics call it ‘the centre of the calligraphy universe.’
‘It’s nice to be described as that,’ Manny admits. But as well as the recognition within the calligraphy community, part of Manny’s mission has been to increase the understanding of calligraphy within the west.
‘As you probably can appreciate, if you talk about western calligraphy to the lay person in the street, they probably think about manuscripts or certificates or jam jar labels,’ he explains. ‘For us it’s much more enriching than that. It’s about visual arts, about writing, about documenting, a whole host of things that are much deeper and more academic than people think.’
Reverence for the artform is greater in the east, says Manny. ‘They have a total respect for what calligraphy is. They describe it as the highest form of art – over painting and everything else. Calligraphy has a really high, esteemed place in eastern culture. Whereas in western culture, it’s very different,’ he adds. ‘People see it as a craft, a hobby. Something lower-end. It’s a very different perspective.’
Part of that is down to the lower barriers to entry for the medium. ‘For western calligraphy you don’t need a lot of skills or equipment,’ Manny says. ‘It’s probably one of the cheapest arts that you can get into. All you need is a pen, ink and paper, and time to practice – and you can do quite a decent job after a short practice.’
Manny’s work combines the western and eastern practices: when we speak, he has just returned from opening an exhibition featuring 40 pieces of his work, called Crossing Boundaries, in Hong Kong. ‘I do the background using Chinese brushes, inks and paper, then seal the background, in order for me then to write on top of it using a western, broad-edged pen.’
The words are ‘the most important part’ of any calligraphic work, Manny believes, and he often repurposes the verses of poets including William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his pieces. ‘I like the sentiment,’ he explains. ‘It connects to the eastern way of thinking about landscape, life and moments. It’s very contemplative.’
But although a Hong Kong-born artist who has made his home in Sunderland creating the global hub for calligraphy may seem like the sort of flight of fancy that Wordsworth or Tennyson would conjure up for their poem, there’s a more practical, longstanding rooting of the artform in the region, too.
‘The North East really does have a long calligraphic history,’ Manny explains, pointing to the Venerable Bede, one of the most famous sons of the region, who studied calligraphy as a boy. The region is a natural home, and one which continues to impress.
To learn more about the International Research Centre for Calligraphy, visit www.sunderland.ac.uk