In the Mood for Hong Kong: Jonathan Jay Lee’s Illustrations

For decades the Oriental Watch Company announced its presence on Des Voeux Road Central with a neon sign. It was simple but memorable: red Chinese characters written in the vigorous beiwei style, set against a green backdrop with the company’s English name rendered in simple white letters. At night, the sign came alive with animated vertical stripes.

It is now gone, like most of Hong Kong’s neon signs, removed in 2022 by order of the Buildings Department. (Unlike many signs, though, the watch company sign has been collected and restored by Tetra Neon Exchange.) But visitors to this month’s Digital Art Fair will get to experience the old landmark in a new immersive installation by illustrator Jonathan Jay Lee. 

“When you first enter the fair you pass through a tunnel with a massive six-by-three-metre LED screen with a mural on one side,” says Lee. As the illustration is sponsored by the watch company, he thought it was only natural to pay homage to its old neon. “It’s kind of sad to see such an important part of Hong Kong’s landscape change. Part of why people like my work is that it feels like a snapshot in time. But the truth is that Hong Kong is always changing.”

There’s a healthy dose of nostalgia in Lee’s work, which depicts Hong Kong in the gauzy glow of neon or sunlight filtered through hazy humidity. The scenes he creates are faithful in their details: the mosaic tile floors of an old si6 do1 (士多), the cluttered stalls and colourful umbrellas of a street market, the tin of chopsticks on a daai6 paai4 dong2 (檔) table, the mass of fuse boxes and wires that accumulate next to the entrance of a decrepit tong4 lau2 (唐樓). But there’s a kind of emotional truth embedded in his illustrations that captures the spirit of this place. Lee’s work doesn’t just look like Hong Kong, it feels like it.

That sensibility might come from Lee’s status as an insider-outsider. As he put it in a 2021 TEDx Talk at City University, “I don’t belong here.” Lee was born in the United States to Taiwanese parents. They moved to Hong Kong in 1992, when he was seven years old. “We lived up and down the KCR,” he says, referring to the Kowloon-Canton Railway, which is now known as the MTR East Rail Line. In his TEDx Talk, Lee recalled accompanying his mother to a market in Sha Tin when he received an unexpectedly hard stare from a stranger. “Don’t worry, it’s probably just because you’re speaking English,” Lee’s mother told him. 

As he was growing up, Lee fell in love with Marvel comics, which led him down the road to becoming an artist. He applied to art and design schools in Hong Kong and was rejected – and yet he was accepted into the illustration programme at the renowned Parsons School of Design in New York. In his final year, he created a comic book that drew from all the artistic and cultural influences of his upbringing. That got him a job with Marvel and launched his career as an artist for hire. 

“Marvel opened doors for me,” he says. “But honestly I wasn’t very good.” Still, he was getting enough freelance work from Hong Kong that he contemplated moving back. “When you’re stuck in a place you look forward to going somewhere else, but after you leave, you miss all these little things,” says Lee. “In New York, I lived on the edge of Chinatown, so I’d walk down and get a beef tomato for $2.50. We’d go to yum cha on the weekends. All the things I missed.”

Hart Avenue (2018) – Courtesy Jonathan Jay Lee

He moved back just as the global financial crisis hit at the end of 2007 and found an apartment in Mongkok. “It was a crappy one-room studio with a bathroom where you showered over the toilet. But it was freedom,” he says. He began rekindling his relationship with the city he had left behind as a teenager. “I saw Hong Kong through a new lens,” he says. He was hired to illustrate a series of maps that documented different streets around the city. “Every month I’d learn about a different street. Through that I learned there was a lot of rich history here.”

As a freelancer, Lee has had to hustle. “You have to be hard-headed and strong about it,” he says. When the Savannah College of Art and Design’s now-defunct Hong Kong campus offered him a job, he discovered he was ineligible because the Hong Kong government required professors to have a master’s degree. So he studied part-time until he could be hired. 

Though he has personal projects, most of Lee’s work is done for clients – like the immersive mural for the Oriental Watch Company. He says it’s hard to extricate one side of his practice from the other. “A lot of the work I do with clients leads to personal breakthroughs,” he says. And it’s through this work for hire that he has been able to develop the kinetic, comics-influenced style that captures Hong Kong’s energy. 

“One of the challenges of illustration for me is to capture a feeling,” he said in the TEDx Talk. “Because illustration is a visual medium, how do you capture all the senses – [from] sights and sounds to smells to temperatures and emotions of a place?” Lee explained how he tried to capture the rowdy spirit of Lan Kwai Fong — the famous nightlife destination in Central — through blurred lighting and a slightly reflective ground. “My intention as the artist was to suggest that you, the viewer, maybe had a few drinks and was also a little bit drunk or tipsy,” he said. 

Given his penchant for moody, nocturnal imagery, it probably isn’t surprising that Lee is a night owl. “Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but I put on some music, some lo-fi, some chill hop maybe,” he explains on a video call from his cosy home studio, where he is sipping a whisky highball at 10pm. “I don’t like bright lights, I always like being in dark rooms. Sometimes I lose track of time because when you’re in the zone, you’re in the zone. And then it’s 4am.” 

Maybe that’s the key to creating illustrations that aren’t just things to look at – but instead are things to feel. 

The Digital Art Fair runs from October 19 to 23, 2023 at K11 Musea. 

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