The Write Stuff

30 March 2017

Not just about buying fancy stationery, the pen to paper movement has spread the act of physical journaling and calligraphy to the masses.

It’s 2017, and in the same way e-books didn’t completely replace paperbacks, paper stationery didn’t die at the hands of apps like Evernote and Google Keep. The digital age has reached an interesting point where analogue and digital products can comfortably co-exist. We might rely on our phones to plan our lives, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t also yearning for a leather-bound notebook and a fountain pen.

Yes, aesthetics has some part to play in this. Digital notes may be more practical, but it’s this convenience that has elevated the manual notebook to the nostalgic, lovingly personal status it enjoys today. Based on the individual, these "curated” notebooks can be peppered with personal touches through the usage of different coloured ink, stickers, doodles and even miniature paintings.

A modern journal entry is a mixed-media work of art.

Call it a stationery renaissance; premium, well-designed notebooks and journals (plus other specialised writing instruments) have become highly coveted among a certain crowd over the past few years. In Malaysia, this revival paved the way for homegrown independent stationers like Mossery and The Alphabet Press to thrive even in the presence of internationally established brands.

The Stickerrific store in Jaya One stocks a wide range of washi tapes, Traveler’s Notebooks, calligraphy sets and more specialised writing instruments.

But the real surprise is the new wave of independent stationery shops that have emerged from this boom, bringing with them not just rare, imported specialty notebooks and writing tools but the entire pen-to-paper lifestyle.

Today, the act of journaling that’s trending on social media is less text-heavy and more visually stimulating, a mixed-media compilation of photos stuck on with colourful washi tape, illustrations, bits of travel ephemera, and even calligraphy.

“What we’re seeing with journaling is that it’s been on the climb over the past few years and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. In a strange way, it was technology that made this possible,” remarks Szetoo Weiwen, founder of popular stationery and journaling shop, Stickerrific

Stickerrific founder Szetoo Weiwen is an avid journaler and painter.

“Especially on Instagram – I think the boom came out of social media. We’ve never done any sort of marketing, so I think a lot of it has to do with educating the market, showing people what they can do with certain things, providing workshops, demonstrations.”

Stickerrific first opened in 2014, when journaling wasn’t exactly trending yet, and it’s one of the key players in cultivating the habit in Malaysia through hosting various meetups and workshops on journaling, watercolouring and recently, calligraphy. Szetoo herself is also an avid journaler and painter, who eventually picked up calligraphy when a customer taught her how to use a calligraphy set.  

Stickerrific today boasts a growing fanbase of artists, calligraphists, journalers and stationery enthusiasts, with 40,000 followers (and counting) on Instagram.

Tabiyo Shop was one of the first to carry the sought-after Traveler’s Notebook.

Sharing the same ideals further away in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan is Tabiyo Shop, a stationery store that first began in 2012 as an online retailer of the sought-after Traveler’s Notebook by Japan’s The Traveler’s Company. According to Tabiyo Shop’s co-founder Yen Fong, it was through the sale of this travel journal that they discovered the local journaling community.

“I think they got excited when they could find almost the full range of Traveler’s Notebook products from us. After three years of cultivating the journaling culture together, [demand for premium stationery] was significantly better at the beginning of 2015,” says Yen Fong.

Yen Fong (pictured) started Tabiyo Shop with Lee Ming in 2012.

Before opening their physical store in 2016, Yen Fong and co-founder Lee Ming held several Traveler’s Notebook meet-ups and pop-up stores in the Klang Valley, including a tenth anniversary celebration of the famed journal brand.

When small-timers like Stickerrific and Tabiyo Shop can stay afloat based solely on the cult following of the products they carry and the relationship they’ve built with their customers – without any need for marketing and advertising spend – one has to ask: what is it about journaling and its satellite crafts that have made them so popular today?

KLigraphy conducts workshops in basic pointed pen calligraphy and modern brush calligraphy (pictured).

“There is a part of us that craves the basic, the analogue,” reasons Inez Tan, a local calligrapher, graphic designer and co-organiser of KLigraphy, a series of calligraphy classes around the country. “People are getting more interested to shift their attention away from technology and return back to the familiar, trying to do something else with their hands that doesn’t involve typing or tapping on their mobile phones. Also, in this day and age where everything can be mass-produced, people are starting to find value in handmade or handwritten things because of their uniqueness and the personality they add to any piece.”

In the case of calligraphy, its rise to popularity is closely linked to journaling, in that it stemmed from journalers wanting to pretty up their headlines with nice handwriting. KLigraphy emerged at the right time in 2015, getting us acquainted with nibs and brush pens and copperplate and modern calligraphy.

KLigraphy workshops are kept small for a more hands-on learning experience.

“When we first started teaching, we only knew a handful of people doing calligraphy in KL. But now, it’s really blossomed. You can see workshops and calligraphers all over the country, and we’d like to think that we really helped spread the calligraphy bug,” says Inez.

According to Inez, besides journalers, participants in KLigraphy workshops also consist of individuals looking for ways to de-stress through a new hobby, as well as “those dazzled by the calligraphy pieces they see on Instagram and Pinterest.”

And it is easy to be swayed by the pretty works you see online. In the same way that a well-styled café shot can entice one to seek out the café, frequent exposure to calligraphy and other forms of lettering can (consciously or subconsciously) spark one’s interest in them. Penmanship suddenly became a technique worth investing in.

One of the brush lettering works by Sharon Tan.

“I first got into calligraphy and lettering because I was looking for a new hobby to pick up. I was drawn to the therapeutic quality of calligraphy and making words look pretty,” says Sharon Tan, a wedding photographer, calligrapher and lettering artist better known as @ronnycakes on Instagram. Also a journaler, Sharon’s Instagram profile sees the best of her skills come together as a vibrant medley of text and illustrations in her Traveler’s Notebook. Often styled and shot as flatlays, Sharon’s posts have gained her 38,000 followers.

Also a journaler, Sharon often incorporates calligraphy and mini watercolour drawings in her journal.

“There’s something satisfying about physical journaling – collecting bits and bobs when travelling – and coming back home to relive it all again through organising ephemera, photos and writing down my experiences,” adds Sharon.  

What started as a stationery comeback is now so much more than just coveting premium leather-bound journals, washi tape and fountain pens; it’s created a whole community of young people who have a deep appreciation for the handmade and handwritten.

Szetoo of Stickerrific’s journaling tools.

The pen to paper movement may have social media largely to thank for its sudden rise. But this online exposure has led to a longer-lasting impact offline: people get together, join workshops, learn new skills, and share these techniques with others.

“With calligraphy and learning art, people practise giving; you write something nice, you make gifts for people, write quotes for people – that’s what we want to encourage. You learn something new for yourself, but the end result is in making somebody else happy,” says Szetoo. 

“When you paint for someone, when you write for somebody, you’re giving that somebody your time, and that’s something more priceless than anything they can buy for you.”

By Syarifah Syazana
Photos and video by Teoh Eng Hooi

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