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My first love was writing. The sheer physical act, filling up line after line, page after page, first in pencil and later in pen, entranced me. I undertook any writing assignment in school with a passionate sense of purpose. My writing instrument of choice, all the way through graduate school, was the ubiquitous see-through plastic Bic ballpoint pen with blue ink. Their blue plastic caps were usually indented with tooth marks, from my holding them in my mouth as I thought about what to write next.
Edison Collier “Persimmon Swirl” fountain pen
Then, this past year, my writing life took a major new direction with my discovery of fountain pens. Oddly, I had never before written with one of these instruments, considering them an affectation, even though my mother had always written in blue ink with a fountain pen. Even when one of my classes of Chinese university scholars gifted me with a black Parker Urban fountain pen a few years ago, it rested mostly unused in its box until this past June, when I decided to rescue it from neglect.
The impetus, I think, for this new-found passion was my revived interest in dip-pen calligraphy. As a child and teenager, I had collected Speedball calligraphy nibs, occasionally trying may had at complicated Old English lettering. I still have those nibs, stored in a plastic box.
Platinum 3776 in “Chartres Blue,” 14k gold nib
My fountain pen obsession was instant and all-consuming; I pored over fountain pen blogs, bought several pens on eBay, and read online reviews of pens and inks. On occasional forays to Hong Kong, I discovered pen shops where I could indulge my passion. After buying an assortment of cheap Chinese fountain pens, I turned my attention to more expensive high-quality models: a Platinum 3776 in “Chartres Blue,” an Edison Collier, and a vintage 1946 Parker Vacumatic.
The good thing about my collection of pens and inks is that they take up little space. My creativity , however, knows no bounds: I am improving my handwriting, learning to appreciate what makes a good pen nib, developing an appreciation for good writing papers (Clairefontaine and Maruman are favorites), and experiencing how the same ink will perform differently depending on different nibs and feeds, nib width, and paper. I’m learning what shape and length of pen is the best “fit” for my hand and writing style. Surprise: the skinny, weightless Bic ballpoints and narrow pencils of my youth were all wrong for my grip, causing discomfort, cramping, and requiring too much pressure. I find that wide-barreled fountain pens, well-balanced, are not only more comfortable for my hand but beautiful to look at as I write with them.
Perhaps best of all, this new hobby is portable: pens and notebooks can be conveniently carried anywhere, and any coffee house or comfortable place to sit can be a venue for my creative self-expression.
a selection of my pens
“La Provence” nighttime news kiosk, Bd. de la Corderie, Marseille, 2015
Vintage survivor, Queens Road Central, Hong Kong
Mido Cafe, Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong
I haven’t eaten there yet, but this restaurant has been in the same location since the 1950s, and is one of the rare survivors of old Hong Kong. It’s popular for its “retro” atmosphere.
I made a visit with some students to look at the famous diaolou houses, or “watchtower” dwellings, in Kaiping, Guangdong. The houses were built in the first decades of the 20th century, in a melange of Chinese and western styles, by overseas Chinese returning to their home country. This is a dimly-lit room off of an entrance hall.