Jason Li began thinking about his mother’s stories when he moved far away from home. Until then, her tales of growing up in the hillside shantytowns of Tai Hang had been amusing anecdotes he had half-listened to as a child. But when he began studying engineering and education at Brown University in Rhode Island, he felt compelled to write them down.
“It was about me processing my upbringing,” he says. As a Hong Kong student at an Ivy League school, he felt like the odd one out. “Not many of my classmates had a parent who grew up in a shantytown.”
You might know Li through his cheeky cartoons and illustrations, which he posts online through the moniker Hong Kong Gong. You may know him through Add Oil Comics, a series of social advocacy comics that amplify marginalised voices around the world. Or maybe you know him personally: Li has a large social circle that seems to extend to the outer reaches of Hong Kong’s creative sphere.
If you haven’t heard of him, though, you will soon. Li is now putting the finishing touches on The House on Horse Mountain, a graphic novel based on his mother’s childhood. The novel’s five vignettes are drawn from “dozens of scraps of memories,” he says. “She told me these stories when we moved to Canada.”
The book is full of anecdotes about Hong Kong in the 1960s, when millions of mainland refugees tried valiantly to get by in the face of water shortages, terrifying typhoons and the daily grind of poverty. It’s a world that finds few echoes in today’s Hong Kong, but at the same time, many of the book’s stories are relatable to anyone who has navigated the precipices of childhood.In 1990, after he had just finished his first grade of school, Li and his family moved to Toronto, where they lived in Markham, a suburb popular with the wave of Hongkongers who left before the handover. He thinks his mother started sharing the stories because she was scared Li would lose touch with his roots. The family moved back to Hong Kong when he was 11, but the stories continued for five or six years, until Li threw a “teenage hissy fit” and his mother stopped.
Around that time, Li began drawing for fun, and by the time he went to university, he had settled into the cheerful, naïve style that has become his trademark. He began drawing comics that ridiculed the pretensions of the Ivy League social scene. Later, as he began to recall his mother’s stories, it occurred to him that he should turn them into a comic. He began writing down what he could remember in a notebook, and then he asked his mother to delve back into her memories.
As with so many passion projects, life got in the way. Li finished university and moved to San Francisco, where he found a design job in Silicon Valley, but found the tech culture wasn’t for him. That’s when he found a job in Barcelona. He moved to Spain and, in his spare time, he channeled his experiences as an ethnically Chinese person in Spain into a comic. “Ethnically, I’m 100 percent Chinese. Socially, I’m 0 percent Chinese. Culturally, I’m a bit of of a mess,” he wrote.Before he moved to Canada, Li only spoke Cantonese. When he returned to Hong Kong, his parents enrolled him in an international school to keep up his English. Like so many Hongkongers who have lived abroad, that has left him in a state of cultural limbo. Though Hong Kong has a rich comic scene, Li feels more kinship with the Western graphic novel tradition, and he cites Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel and Kate Beaton as inspirations.
At the same time, Li’s experience of living in four different countries has given him a certain empathy for outsider stories. That’s what inspired Add Oil Comics, which got its start during the Umbrella Movement in 2014, when Li based a strip on a letter written by a student protester to her parents. The comic went viral on social media after it was promoted by independent news outlet InMedia, and Li has worked on them ever since. Each comic is based on a story shared on social media, like an essay about suicide by Singaporean writer Winnie Lim.
“It’s my way of giving back, in a form that I have some expertise in,” he says. “In some cases, it’s also an outlet or pressure-release valve for political events that are nagging at me at the end of the day.” After Donald Trump was inaugurated as US president, Li channelled his frustration into an Add Oil Comic. Not all of his work is political – some of it taps into the same vein of cultural history as The House on Horse Mountain, like a series based on “Cantonese mom’s cooking” that honours the genius of homestyle cooking passed down through the generations.Moving back to Hong Kong from Spain in 2010 gave Li a chance to sit down with his mother to discuss her childhood in more detail. He wants the book to explore themes of family and childhood, but he also sees it as a chance to shade in a period of Hong Kong history that is often depicted in stark terms. “I want to challenge people’s perceptions around shantytowns, which are usually portrayed in the media as these exotic favelas with slightly sad residents,” he says. His mother’s stories prove just the opposite: though life on the hillsides was undoubtedly hard, it also had its moments of joy, whether through family or a tight knit community.
Li says it only slowly dawned on him that his mother had grown up in a shantytown. “I had a sort of funny culture shock because my mom always talked about living in wooden houses, muk6 nguk1 (木屋), when I was a kid,” he recalls. “Only when I was an adult did I realise that ‘wooden houses’ is also a term for shanties. I guess I switched to English language schooling early on and never made the connection between the two words.”
Language was a particularly tricky question. “My written Chinese is no good,” he says, so there was no question about writing in English. He was wary of incorporating too many Cantonese expressions into the text, lest he alienate international readers. “I’ll think about dialogue in Cantonese and it will come out really clunky in English,” he says. So he has stuck to standard English in order to appeal to a more universal audience, though he hopes to translate the book into Chinese in the future, to make full use of the aphorisms, slang and nicknames that echoed through his mother’s childhood.
Li says his mother’s reaction to the project has been difficult to gauge. “She’s a very pragmatic person,” he says. That was useful for establishing the facts of what happened, but it left it up to Li to shade in the emotional depth of the story. “This is definitely my interpretation of her childhood,” he says. “I don’t know if it will emotionally resonate as much with her as it will with me.”
Jason Li is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to publish a portion of his book as a standalone comic. Click here to contribute.