As the first-born child in a Chinese-American family, alum Vincent Chong ’14 has memories of receiving lots of small gold gifts as a young child – monkey pendant necklaces, “all kinds of little red containers,” he said.
He thinks these memories have a lot to do with his current interest in small objects and intricate work and design, which he’s pursuing after winning a scholarship to study in Taipei, Taiwan.
Chong, who majored in fine arts and mathematics, taught English in Taipei for a year after graduation, but is now spending his time studying calligraphy and Chinese and working on his seal carving.
In Chinese culture, many people have custom-carved seals, which are commonly square and red “the seal of so and so,” but they can also include intricate pictures and symbols. Seals are ubiquitous in Taiwan, where everyone uses them as a signature, at the bank, on a lease, to sign any important paper, Chong said. Most of these are laser-etched on wood. Other people own more delicate stone seals, the kind Chong creates, which might include pictures or auspicious sayings and which are used to sign or stamp calligraphy works and paintings. Collectors also use them to mark their painting or book collections.
“Carving images is where my strength lies,” said Chong, who carves all of his seals on stone. Falling in love with the art, Chong entered a few seal-carving competitions. He won second place in the first competition he entered for foreigners and his teacher has told him that his ideas are unique.
Chong sees many similarities between seal-carving and the printmaking he did at Cornell.
“You’re really looking and staring so hard as you watch something change in front of your eyes,” he said. “And there’s this mystery of what’s going to happen when you flip your print or seal over.”
His calligraphy studies also involve serious attention to detail. He is the youngest in his Taipei class, which includes a group of “aunties,” dedicated disciples of his teacher who have studied calligraphy for 20 years or more.
“He makes me write the characters first and then we talk about how to make them better,” Chong said. “I have some hideous first efforts.”
To master the characters, Chong writes each character over and over, 12 times each on paper, while consulting his calligraphy book of 1,000 characters. “When you get to the end, you start from the beginning again,” he said.
The Chinese language classes he took here, especially the Intensive Mandarin Program at Cornell have prepared him well for his time in Taiwan, Chong said, but now that he’s hearing the language every moment and trying to read Chinese signs, he’s finally mastering finer points like recognizing more subtle relationship between parts of characters and the sounds and meanings they refer to.
“Cornell’s program taught me to write in traditional characters (which are more complex), as well as simplified characters and I understood the language and tones from my years of study,” he said. “But nothing prepares you as well as going and being immersed in a Chinese language environment.”
His Chinese classes in Taipei include lots of discussions about current events. “We talk about the news every morning, so I know how to complain about Donald Trump really well in Chinese,” he said.
Chong will be in Taipei until May, when he’ll return to the states for an internship at a gallery and then hopefully a position in New York City as a printmaker.