In the Footsteps of Miroslav Šašek, Illustrators Capture the Spirit of Hong Kong

Like many people, Don Mak was enchanted by Miroslav Šašek’s 1965 book This is Hong Kong. The difference between Mak and most people is that Mak is also an illustrator. For years, brands like Kiehl’s and Tory Burch have commissioned Mak to create bustling, intricate Hong Kong scenes, but when he was looking for a personal project, he turned back to Šašek.

“His drawings are really good, but he was also good at observing a lot of details,” he says. The Czech illustrator spent 15 years travelling the world, distilling his keen observations into lively, funny illustrations that tapped into the spirit of each of the 18 places he documented. Although the books were ostensibly written for children, Šašek’s talent for cheerfully capturing the details of everyday life earned him universal appeal.

Mak decided to apply Šašek’s approach to create a new collection of panoramic illustrations that reveal the Hong Kong of 2019. “[Šašek] captured a moment – Hong Kong in the 1960s,” says Mak. “I wanted to echo that.”

Miroslav Šašek

“June 六, Junction of Hennessy Road & Tin Lok Lane, Wan Chai” (1989) – Don Mak

In his studio high above the Kwun Tong promenade, with a view of the harbour and Central skyline in the distance, Mak pulls out a stack of hand-drawn pages. The first is a nighttime view from the Peak – a direct reference to the scene that opens This is Hong Kong. After that, the content begins to diverge, reflecting the changes that have taken place in the half-century since Šašek’s book was released.

“This is an MTR station,” says Mak. The platform is filled with mainland tourists holding luggage as an overcrowded train pulls into the station, its passengers angry and grimacing. “You can see everyone is unhappy,” says Mak, his normally stoic expression softening into a wry smile. Other scenes show the Star Ferry, Hong Kong Park, Chungking Mansions, a crowded restaurant, a Tin Hau festival in Yuen Long, the Sham Shui Po wet market – slices of Hong Kong life in the 21st century, when everything about the city and its future seems to be up for question.

Illustration may be the perfect vehicle for asking those questions. As a form of visual communication, it is disarmingly simple, as accessible to children as it is to adults, and yet it is exactly this straightforwardness that makes it so good at probing the complexities of our emotions and ideas. “The best illustration doesn’t just visualise history; it shapes it,” wrote British scholar Alan Male. “It is the potency of illustration and the strength and originality of its messages that define its true reason for being.”

Hong Kong’s endless visual stimulation may well be the perfect muse for illustrators. The city’s distinctive geography and urban aesthetic creates a visual shorthand that can easily be harnessed by illustrators, whether they are producing comics, commercial art or something that straddles the line between illustration and fine art, like Wilson Shieh’s cheeky ink drawings. The city even finds ways to shape work that isn’t explicitly about it. “You know how in Hong Kong, old buildings have that pastel palette?” says illustrator Kitty N. Wong. “I find myself quite inspired by that.”

Wong studied fashion in university and got her start as a designer before realising that what she really enjoyed was drawing clothes, not making them. Her work is still rooted in fashion, with drawings of fashionable young women that have been commissioned by clients like Cartier, Lane Crawford and Maybelline, all of it coloured in the distinctive pastel hue of Hong Kong’s apartment blocks.

But she has also embarked on other projects, like documenting Hong Kong’s quintessential street snacks, from gai1 daan6 zai2 to intestines slathered in spicy mustard, along with a series of snacks anthropomorphised as beauty queens, like Miss Fishballs. This has proved to be some of Wong’s most popular work, and stickers with her street food illustrations are now being sold at the Tai Kwun gift shop. 

Tai Kwun has also served as a patron to Wong Wing-shun, better known as Flyingpig. Last year, her exhibition Face to Face was one of the opening shows at the former prison and police headquarters, which has now been converted into a cultural centre. Working with oral histories and archival material collected by Tai Kwun, Wong told the story of Central’s working class communities.

Wong’s work is as much about the stories behind her art as it is the art itself. “Illustration is not only represented by drawing,” she says. Although for the past two years she has worked out of a studio in the Foo Tak Building, her real work takes place in the streets, where she has interviewed shop owners and grassroots kaifong—neighbours—and channelled their stories into her lavishly detailed watercolour illustrations.

It’s a departure from the kind of art she made when she was a student at City University’s School of Creative Media. Her final year project was an intensely personal animated short about her relationship with her mother. The style was dark and intense, unlike her more cheerful recent work. “I felt sad and moody while I was making it,” she says. It was difficult to constantly interrogate her own feelings.

After graduation, Wong turned her attention outwards, joining an urban sketching group in 2012. “I found when I started sketching, people around would start talking to me,” she says. “I had many happy experiences and I began to feel that the process was more important than the product.”

She became particularly fascinated by the old family-run shops that gave life to so many neighbourhoods, and which are disappearing at an alarming rate as rents throttle upwards. That led to her first book, published in 2016, and she eventually expanded her focus to rooftops, housing estates, historic buildings and scenes from Hong Kong’s countryside – not natural beauty, necessarily, but the picnic sites, barbecue areas and ramshackle houses that dot the city’s outskirts.

Wong is also one of the founding members of the Kai Fong Pai Dong, a collectively-run market stall in Yau Ma Tei that serves as a kind of community centre. In 2017, she staged a month-long residency at the stall, sitting down every day to draw portraits for anyone who stopped by.

Though her roots in Hong Kong run deep, Wong is getting ready to transplant herself to London, where she will start a master’s degree in visual communication at the Royal College of Art in September. “My English is not that good so I worry people won’t understand me,” she says. “Fortunately I can use my drawing to express myself.”

Miroslav Šašek

“Woofer Ten 活化廳” (2015) – Flyingpig

Don Mak went through a similar process when he studied visual communication at Polytechnic University. By then, his career in illustration was already well underway. “I really loved drawing when I was a child,” he says, and as a teenager he was creating prodigiously drawn scenes inspired by the martial arts and fantasy comics he loved. He was precocious and bored by school, so at the age of 16 he dropped out to work in the local comics industry.

Mak thrived thanks to his technical ability, but after seven years he felt he had run into a creative rut. That was underscored when he joined the Hong Kong Society of Illustrators and travelled with them to an international illustrators’ conference in San Francisco. “I saw so many illustrators – their technique may not be very good but they had their own personalities,” he recalls. He looked back at his own work and felt something was missing. “I had learned so many techniques but my creative thinking was weak.”

PolyU accepted him as a mature student. In one of his first classes, the instructor asked him to draw an “angry” line. Then she asked him to replicate it. “I couldn’t,” he says. “Because I couldn’t recreate the emotion.” He still keeps a scanned copy of that fateful exercise on his computer. “I found that if I wanted to change, I had to break all the techniques I had learned,” he says. “And I had to change my mindset.”

University helped Mak learn how to conduct research, how to develop his concepts from idea to artwork and how to communicate with clients. He discovered that he loved old Chinese signage, especially hand-painted signs that had been worn away by time, and he began to incorporate that into his work. When a local magazine hired him to draw a streetscape, he fell in love with that, too. “I really like Hong Kong, the old districts like Sham Shui Po or Sheung Wan, especially now that they are fading away rapidly,” he says. “Illustration is a good way to recall the city.”

In a series he completed in 2017, Mak explored the recent history of Hong Kong through street corners around the city. There are scenes inspired by the 1967 riots, Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Oi Man Estate in 1975, the Umbrella Movement and the Mongkok fishball riot. A particularly mournful lithograph shows a street on the night of 4 June 1989. Sombre buildings are punctuated by televisions glowing through apartment windows, their screens filled with news reports of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Compared to the bold colours and angsty subject matter of his teenage comics, Mak’s current work is softer, made with a mix of watercolour painting, digital illustration and hand drawing. Its colours often venture into pastels, bringing to mind both Flyingpig and Kitty N. Wong – an aesthetic the former describes as “lovely and sweet.”

Like Šašek’s work, it’s a kind of disarming sweetness that makes the work easy to love – but also serves as a kind of Trojan horse for critical ideas. Mak’s newest series casts a sceptical gaze over a fast-changing city. He drew the lush greenery of Lantau Island as a response to its impending transformation by the controversial East Lantau Metropolis project. A bucolic view over a rural part of Yuen Long — “the view I passed by every day when I was a kid” — reveals the Shenzhen skyline rising in the distance. “In 20 or 30 years it will be full of buildings, so I wanted to capture it now,” says Mak.

It could well be that in 30 years, Mak’s drawings will be as cherished as This is Hong Kong. Even the most lovely of illustrations can be deceptively powerful.

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