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From Pen to Paper: Meet Hong Kong’s Political Cartoonists

By Stasia Fong 8 January 2015

They make us laugh and they make our blood boil, but if successful, political cartoonists make us think, demystifying governmental maneuvering and translating legislative jargon, giving readers a moment of clarity in otherwise muddy waters. Whether you view them online or in print, they make you have an opinion, at least about the cartoon, and share them with whoever is nearby.In Hong Kong we are fortunate to enjoy several extremely talented cartoonists who bring their perspective to serious political issues. From the South China Morning Post’s ‘Harry’s View’ to the Standard’s Daily Cartoons by Gavin Coates, these opinionated images provide intelligent and creative entertainment to go alongside our favourite news reporting.Localiiz spoke with several of Hong Kong’s most accomplished political cartoonists to find out how they got their start and what drives them to draw against a deadline. Paired with portraits by the talented Carsten Schael who brought us Digiscopic, it is our pleasure to introduce you to the people behind the cartoons.Harry Harrison Photos by www.carstenschael.comNow a household name for his ‘Harry’s View’ column in the South China Morning Post, Harry Harrison is hailed as Hong Kong’s most recognised political cartoonist. Having no formal training in the arts, Harrison worked in sign making and retail interior design before beginning his illustration career in the advertising world.In corporate illustration, Harrison felt that there was no real room for comment or self-expression, and made the move to editorial work. Beginning with pocket cartoons for the Asian Wall Street Journal, in 2001, Harrison was asked to pitch for the SCMP’s political cartoonist job.“I had only illustrated existing articles, and not generated comment cartoons from scratch based on my own views. I had no idea if I could do what was required; I’m not even sure if I knew what was required, but said yes anyway and started sending them cartoons each day. After a week they called me in and gave me a job.”For Harrison, cartoons do much more than communicate political views to the public. “On the whole, I think that most of the public already has their own political views and the cartoon’s job is to either reinforce that view or suggest another angle or viewpoint. As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words. If done right, this is very true of cartoons. A visual summing up of a situation can have an instant impact on the viewer.”Surprising to some, his iconic style took a long time to develop and is influenced by the tight deadlines that he has to meet. “A guy I worked for in Australia used to say, ‘It’s not the Sistine Chapel, Harry.’ There’s not usually time to be too precious; I have to draw fast, with one eye on the clock and I feel like my style probably reflects that.”Despite his rushed schedule, Harrison is very proud of his work, especially when the drawing, humour, and comment come together perfectly. “That doesn’t always happen, so when it does, it makes your heart soar.”Gavin CoatesPhotos by www.carstenschael.comAfter receiving top marks in Art for his A Level exams, Gavin Coates knew he should turn his talent into a career. After starting out as a landscape architect in Hong Kong in 1982, Coates moved to the world of cartoons and illustration in 1988, illustrating for several magazines and papers in the city. From 1987 to 2004, Coates did a weekly cartoon for HK Computerworld focusing on the theme of political and business related issues in the IT industry. Come 2000, Coates landed a regular spot in the iMail newspaper (now The Standard) illustrating political cartoons related to articles or columns written by his colleagues.Once iMail became The Standard, Coates continued with his own editorial cartoons on the opinion pages until 2008. Coates has since come full circle on his career, returning to landscape work, mainly for the Greening Master Plan projects for the Civil Engineering Department of the Hong Kong Government.For Coates, political cartoons make politics understandable. “I think political cartoons help to raise awareness of political issues by being entertaining and sometimes cutting. They are there to not reflect what’s going on but to make a statement – an opinion. If people agree or not that is their issue, but at least the cartoon should get them to think about the issues at hand. Personally I certainly have used my cartoons to promote democracy or justice as I see it, by deliberately poking fun at the powers that be when they fail to live up to the standards we should expect!”One of his favourite pieces is ‘Hammer and Sickle’ (see below). “It captures something very fundamental in a dead simple and immediate way. Also, I appreciate that it’s totally visual with no words of any kind.”Whilst Coates is no longer a fulltime political cartoonist, he still makes an effort to illustrate current political events, and has done several illustrations about the recent Umbrella movement. One you get a start as apolitical cartoonist, you can’t stop!KitDSKitDS started his prominent illustration career when his mother taught him how to draw Smurfs at the age of two. His incessant drawing and doodling led his English teacher to offer him an illustration job in high school, and there his professional career began; illustrating five of his teacher’s books. Despite his love for drawing, KitDS decided to study Biotechnology at university, and explored the world of programming, that allowed him to combine IT with his drawing skills, leading to his own company, KitDaStudio.Taking his creativity and putting it to good use in 2012, KitDS began work as a political cartoonist.“I drew comics over the period of the government’s anti-brainwash campaign to point out how ridiculous the policy and the government responses were. It got really good responses from my friends over social media, but I realized I couldn’t do it on my own. It really took up many hours of my day and ended up affecting my business.”However, he still wanted to express his views through cartoons, and started a group called HKSocComic to do so. “I wanted to gather a number of artists like me and share the cost of time, to speak out for the local people. It has now gradually become a platform for political artists in Hong Kong.”KitDS uses his cartoons to express himself as a Hong Kong resident, but ultimately, he wants to inspire people with his work. “When people comment on my comics and say that they find it hilarious, it makes my day.”Fong SoPhotos by www.carstenschael.comWhile Fong So doesn’t consider himself a cartoonist, he has become involved with a group of Hong Kong artists known as the Comic Daemons to support their efforts to promote democratic reform in Hong Kong. Modifying his usual style of Chinese brush and ink painting and woodcuts to reflect a more cartoonish style, So created several unique cartoon paintings to be exhibited alongside his cartoonist group members.“It’s true that cartoons communicate political views to the readers and viewers much more effectively than other forms of art. I worked as an editor for print media for almost 20 years and I always felt the need to use cartoons as illustrations. A powerful image can tell a lot.”Having studied Chinese painting at a young age, So places a lot of confidence in the uniqueness of his style in his fine art, but doesn’t feel the same about his cartoons. “I don’t notice the difference between my cartoon-like work and the works of other cartoonists. Maybe, the difference is that I’m not a cartoonist.”Despite his modesty, So created a multitude of cartoons to reflect Hong Kong’s current political climate and just published a book on the recent Occupy Movement called Umbrella Sketches. His wide artistic talents can be viewed in full on his website.RainbowPhotos by www.carstenschael.comThe young and overachieving Rainbow published her first illustration book Ho Wo Che Village in 2009, a year before she graduated from film school. After working as a freelance comic artist for Mingpo Newspaper drawing comics rooted in Hong Kong life, Rainbow decided to reorganize her art and comics and published her next book, Hong Kong People Dictionary in 2012.Like Fong So, Rainbow was brought into the world of political cartoons through the group Comic Daemons. “I didn’t try to create political cartoons until Apink, a famous and talented political comic artist invited me to help fight for Hong Kong’s democracy through art and comic power. I felt it was worth it, and joined Comic Daemon.”In today’s political climate, Rainbow believes that comics bring acceptance and understanding to events through new angles and imagination. “Comics are fun and relaxed. This makes it easily accepted by readers, and the imagination we put into it can bring a new angles to incidents. Hong Kong will face a big challenge over the next few years, and so more and more artists are coming out to revolt against the government and discover our identities. I’m happy to see that and hope that we can make our dreams come true.” TMANPhotos by www.carstenschael.comAs a child, TMAN always dreamed of being a cartoonist. “I always wanted to create attractive stories for the people.”Actively pursuing his passion, he entered several comic competitions and posted his work to his blog and Facebook page to share with his friends and family. One of his pieces was featured in a political comic book, Hong Kong Bad Star, in 2012. His true involvement in political cartoons however, came when he was invited to join HKSocComic.“They are a group of internet cartoonists that have come together with the collective goal of creating comic works to reflect social problems, and wake up Hong Kongers to make them concerned about their rights.”Like all HKSocComic artists, TMAN does his political cartoons as a volunteer, coming up with his own inspiration for his pieces. “I search the news from different sources to make sure that what I have is the truth. Then, I decide how many frames I need, how absurd I want to make my piece, and try to reflect the news story in a more simplistic way – making sure that it’s funny, of course!”TMAN took it upon himself to show the people of Hong Kong the true facts of the government using his cartoons to help his friends understand how unfair the government was being.“I think that cartoons can help people understand political views more easily. Cartoons have many attractive elements, like colour, simpler graphics, lines, and nice slogans, or even some meaningful dialogue. It’s very easy to digest, especially since Hong Kongers live in such a rushed society. Cartoons are an eye-catching draw to news events. It persuades viewers to then investigate the details.”To TMAN, the work of different political cartoonists shouldn’t be viewed as separate entities at all. “We all want to send our political messages to the readers and change the world. The only difference is the mediums that distribute our work to the audience. Political cartoonists have big publishers backing their work so they have a bigger voice in achieving their purpose. Other cartoonists, like me, just depend on the Internet to spread our work.”Despite these limitations, TMAN will not stop getting his message out there, especially in light of Hong Kong’s current political climate. “I’ve recently felt a little bit powerless in my creation because I’m sensing that our reality is becoming more absurd and ridiculous than the drawings I create. Our government has already become a shameless monster. I don’t know if I am strong enough to fight for our rights in our situations, but I will keep drawing my comics. I hope they help to wake more people up and persuade them to stand by our side and make our power stronger.”

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Born in Singapore and raised in Hong Kong, Stasia Fong is a freelance writer with dreams of breaking into the television industry and executive produce her own television show.