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Visual Arts

Tan Siah Kwee

Founder of the Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

Before writing, a calligrapher has to gather his concentration in order to perfect his technique on brush and ink, and watch the paper absorb his ink. Through these movements, many different kinds of enjoyment can be produced.

Tan Siah Kwee was born in Guangdong, China, on 6 Oct 1948, and moved to Singapore in the 1950s, where he began developing an interest in Chinese calligraphy. As founder of the Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore, he has been one of the key promoters of the art form over the past four decades. He has worked tirelessly and taught many, spreading interest in the genre across the island. Tan is also well known for his public calligraphy demonstrations and workshops, and counts important Singapore politicians among his students. In 2000, Tan Received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Tan Siah Kwee was introduced to Chinese calligraphy while he was a student in Kong Hwa School. Weekly lessons involved calligraphy exercises, and he soon found an interest in the art form. During his time in Chung Cheng High School, he joined the Chinese calligraphy club. And under the guidance of the club’s teachers who saw his potential, his passion and skill in calligraphy grew. Later, he would regard Pan Shou as the person who influenced his calligraphy the most.

Tan credits the art form with teaching him patience and instilling in him an ethos of hard work. His years of determined practice and study has resulted in a calligraphic style that is marked by a bold engagement with paper, clearly defined characters, considered composition and bravura brushwork.

Tan founded the nation’s premiere organisation for calligraphy—the Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore. His perseverance towards the cause of promoting Chinese calligraphy saw the society through its difficult times when membership dropped to only 12 members. Today, the Chinese Calligraphic Society has over 600 members, with Tan serving as its president.

Over his illustrious career, he also gave several hundred public and private calligraphic demonstrations, and participated in numerous Singaporean diplomatic missions as a cultural ambassador and performing calligrapher.

Tan has taught calligraphy at his own society and also at the National University of Singapore, the National Institute of Education and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, among other tertiary institutions. Besides students of all ages and races, he also counts former president of Singapore, S. R. Nathan, among his list of distinguished politician-students. Inspired by one of his calligraphy teachers who would give calligraphic prints to his students for reference and practice, Tan continues to provide quality calligraphic materials and equipment for free to his dedicated students.

In 2000, Tan Received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Today, Tan continues to practise calligraphy, teach—often for free—and contribute his expertise on the subject as advisor and consultant to arts institutions in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and China.


6 Oct 1948

Born in Swatow, Guangdong, Republic of China.

15 Mar 1955

Moved to Singapore.


Enrolled in Kong Hwa Primary.

1962 to 1967

Enrolled in Chung Cheng (Main) High School.

1968 to 1970

Founder and President of the Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore. (3 year non-active because of school)

1969 to 1972

Enrolled in Nanyang University.

1972 to 1973

Enrolled in IE (Institute of Education), Singapore.

1974 to 2012

Founder and President of the Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore. (3 year non-active because of school)


Awarded the Singapore Youth Award.


First solo exhibition at the Iskandar Art Gallery, National Museum.

1990 to 2012

Dean of the Singapore Institute of Chinese Calligraphy.


Received the Public Service Medal at the National Day Awards.


Received the ASEAN Achievement Award.

1995 to 2012

Chief Executive Officer and Artistic Director of the Singapore Calligraphy Centre.


Received the Long Service Award for 25 years in Education Service, serving as Senior Education Officer PBS.


Received the Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Voted as The Nation’s Most Inspiring Chinese Language Teacher in Lianhe Zaobao.


Received the Mont Blanc de La Culture Award.

2005 to 2012

Founder and Principal of the Singapore Senior Citizen Calligraphy University Centre.

Professor at Tongji University of China.


TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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