Ashes to beauty: How God redeemed a 20-year phobia of CNY through calligraphy
Rachel Genevieve Chia // January 20, 2023, 5:33 pm
For decades, Chinese New Year was a time of anxiety for Dr Tam Wai Jia, until God transformed her fears to faith. "A lot of people think they can never do great things for God because they have a broken past. But God uses that brokenness to forge something new,” says Wai Jia. Photo by PixelMusica.
As a child, Dr Tam Wai Jia spent every Sunday morning on Chinese calligraphy.
For four hours, she’d blot character after character in black ink on snow white rice paper, and watch them covered in red marks.
These were mistakes – circled by the teacher – as she and her sister competed with peers to outdo each other.
These classes were no casual weekend enrichment. Instead, here, young prodigies were honed as the next national champion.
“It was always all about winning. As a pre-believer, this was what Sunday mornings looked like for me,” says Wai Jia, 35.
Worse, her teacher had selected her to carry on his legacy writing in a Chinese font she hated, one he had developed himself.
“Everything had to be perfect,” she recounts. “The whole session was just reams of paper on where I went wrong. It was just circle, circle, circle; re-do, re-do, re-do.”
In pursuit of perfection
Calligraphy was but one in a string of achievements the medical doctor pushed herself to achieve as a model student at Tao Nan Primary School.
She was head prefect, top three in her level for academics, and landed a cover feature on Chinese daily Lianhe Wanbao one year for her calligraphy prowess as a five year old.
This, she says, was her way of coping.
As her father, a business owner, grappled with business challenges, family relationships became rocky.
“Strife would always appear around Chinese New Year. I always felt like I was caught in the middle.”
Family conflict only intensified during Chinese New Year, when relatives were obliged to gather for meals. Baggage-filled relationships meant the young girl grew to fear the celebrations.
“Strife would always appear around that time,” she says. “People didn’t want to talk to each other. I always felt like I was caught in the middle, and had to take sides.”
“It was stressful. I just felt the whole season was very depressing.”
But she kept plugging away at calligraphy and, when she turned 12, her efforts bore fruit. Wai Jia beat hundreds of peers at the National Chinese Calligraphy Competition to come in Singapore’s best.
Winning only brought the primary six student sheer relief.
“I finally could free myself of this,” she says. “I decided that I would put that part of my life away.”
A difficult command
In the years that passed, God changed Wai Jia’s life. She converted to Christianity at age 18, and at 30 founded international nonprofit Kitesong Global, which empowers youth-at-risk to pursue their dreams and impact vulnerable communities.
Total reconciliation with calligraphy – her childhood torment – would take Wai Jia over two decades to achieve.
Her family relationships were even restored. Her parents remain a strong couple today.
But total reconciliation with calligraphy – her childhood torment – would take Wai Jia over two decades to achieve.
“So often, we think that when we become a Christian, we’ll have a new life overnight. Then we struggle with disappointment that we are a new creation in God, yet we carry so much baggage with us,” she says.
The end of 2022 found Wai Jia in church, praying for S$250,000 in funds she would need for her nonprofit in 2023.
A pastor prayed over her and received a message from above. “He said he felt very distinctly that God was saying to me: Test me and I will show you my faithfulness.”
“And the pastor added: The money you think you need for the coming year is just one drop in the bucket of all that God will resource you with in your lifetime.”
“I started weeping,” she says. “And I was praying and asking God, how is this going to happen? God brought calligraphy to mind. That was when it hit me: He was asking me to pick up my brush.”
This was not the first time God used Wai Jia’s artistic talents to do His work among the underprivileged.
At 18, Wai Jia had raised over $100,000 to build a children’s home in Nepal by illustrating a children’s book. And when Covid-19 hit in 2020, the medical doctor illustrated health booklets for tens of thousands of migrant workers, eventually landing a partnership with the World Health Organization.
“God asked me: Do you want to work for me, or do you want to journey with me?”
Yet, His newest request – a project around calligraphy – was met with utmost reluctance.
“I didn’t want to,” Wai Jia admits. “Calligraphy and the pain of my childhood were too intertwined.”
But slowly, the realisation dawned that the achievement mindset from her early years continued to plague her. She had been working to gain God’s approval, as she had done for her parents.
“The whole thing about needing to raise funds, or do things for Him in my professional deployments as a humanitarian doctor – a lot of times, I had the mentality that I must serve God in a certain way. So often in work or ministry, I felt I needed to attain a certain standard in the eyes of God. But God was telling me: Can you be free of all that?”
She tears up as she reveals God then asked: Do you want to work for me, or do you want to journey with me?
A verse came to Wai Jia’s mind: Isaiah 43:19. Behold, I will do a new thing, Now it shall spring forth; Shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.
She understood then. She could love calligraphy again, but this time, she would worship the Lord through it.
The calligraphy master
Though she did not know what God had planned, Wai Jia obeyed.
Her first stop was Bras Basah Complex, to purchase the brushes, ink and paper she would need to write again. As her former calligraphy master had already passed away, she also needed a new one.
Upon walking into the first shop she saw in Bras Basah, Wai Jia was greeted by an old man with white hair down to his shoulders – a “kungfu dragon master” figure, as she describes it.
“My goal was always to bury past baggage. But God wants us to give it to him, and journey with him to redemption.”
“He was a master of fine art and calligraphy from China and I found out he has many students,” she recounts.
“When I saw him, I was like: You are the teacher I need. He simply said, ‘You have come to the right place!’”
“God used him to minister to me.”
This man showered Wai Jia with affirmations of her talent. Unlike her former teacher, who demanded she recreate his writing perfectly and was never to deviate, her new teacher encouraged her to develop her own writing style.
“Don’t copy me exactly. You already write well, use me to strengthen what you already own.”
“I felt the Holy Spirit minister to me,” she says. “I never felt before that what came out of me was good.”
As she wrote and meditated on her past, another verse came to mind: 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
“God was putting my heart through all this brokenness to help me forge something new,” she says. “My goal was always to bury past baggage. But God wants us to give it to him, and journey with him to redemption.”
God did more. As her two daughters grew curious about their mother’s new hobby, an emotional Wai Jia realised she could chart a different experience for the next generation.
“When I started writing, they kept asking if they could learn it from me. And I was in tears because this is the one thing I hate most; why would they want to learn it from me?”
“But God redeemed it. Instead of carrying that [negativity] on to my kids, I can now make it fun for them.”
One day, as Chinese New Year drew near, Wai Jia heard the voice of the Holy Spirit.
“Many families struggle with Chinese New Year … Even though our past is filled with shame, He wants to redeem it.”
She was to hold a calligraphy exhibition – one featuring large-sized Chinese characters that would show aspects of God’s goodness.
These words are meant to give hope to others who feared the spring celebrations, as she once did.
“A lot of people with family dysfunction or tension struggle with Christmas and Chinese New Year,” she explains. It’s a very painful time. I think that’s why God asked me to use calligraphy to share the message that even though our past is filled with shame, He wants to redeem it.”
More signs came. Wai Jia was sharing a morning coffee with her pastor soon after, when she found out unexpectedly that he was to meet a real estate developer the very next day.
Her pastor told them about her project, and they offered her a space to use, which would otherwise have cost $35,000 to rent.
The next miracle was when a major sponsor pulled out just days before the exhibition was to launch on January 13.
Wai Jia, who works part-time and is currently the sole breadwinner at home, found herself $30,000 short.
“I was asking God, am I supposed to use my savings?” she says. “The costs are exorbitant.”
On the way to meet a potential sponsor, she cried out: “God, help me trust You!”
Just as she said those words aloud, a large lorry with the words “FAITH Logistics” drove right past her. She stared, mouth open, knowing God was near.
He was testing her obedience and faith, she reflects – for on that very evening, just two days before the launch, God provided $25,000 in donations, and more sponsors to cover all exhibition costs. The exhibition would come up to over $90,000, which was wholly covered through waivers, sponsors and the goodwill of individual contributors.
“God came through,” she smiles. “He is oftentimes not early, but He is never late!”
Now, her roving exhibit, The Dreams Collection, will move across different shopping malls in Singapore. Sales of the calligraphy works will go toward Kitesong Global’s workshops for hospitals, schools and youth organisations, as well as creating digital resources to minister to youth.
The programmes range from topics such as healing from trauma to discerning vocation, emotional agility and navigating relationships.
“God is telling me I don’t need to be stuck in the past but to enjoy the journey with Him. He turns our ashes into beauty.”
As for Wai Jia, she hopes that when buyers hang her works in their homes, it will remind them of God’s spirit of renewal and foster Christ-centered conversations.
“I feel that a lot of people think they can never do great things for God because they have a broken past. But God uses that brokenness to forge something new,” she says.
She is still nervous, she admits, and is approaching the upcoming Chinese New Year reunion dinner with more than a little trepidation. But alongside that, is a hope that things can be better each year as she journeys with the Father – for she no longer fears the celebrations, nor the calligraphy that comes with it.
“God is telling me I don’t need to be stuck in the past,” she says. “He is telling me to enjoy the journey with Him. My heart feels sings with this sense of newfound freedom.
“If you, too, have felt limited in serving God because of old fears carried over from a traumatic past, know that God is in the business of renewal, redemption and restoration.
“He turns our ashes into beauty for His ultimate glory.”
To support Kitesong Global and/or purchase The Dreams Collection artwork, click here.
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