Hakka-Chinese Canadian illustrator’s in-your-face-art pokes fun at Asian stereotypes.
by BEATRICE S. PAEZ
Illustrations courtesy of NESS LEE
An ambush of tiger moms herds its daughters along a straight path, asking them not to spend hard-earned loonies and toonies on cute stationery but to focus on investing in the future. And then there’s Bruce Lee — every Lee must be descended from him, right?
Who better to poke fun at Asian stereotypes and subvert representations than Ness Lee, who saw herself as the perpetual outsider among Asians in high school? Or as she calls the experience, “life as a banana surrounded by lemons.”
Rather than oblique references to one’s cultural heritage, Lee, a Hakka-Chinese Canadian illustrator, peels away the layers to understand her culture, and her place in it.
Deep, irreverent and filled with colourful humour, Lee’s illustrations also dare to be overtly sexual at times and to make caricatures of Asian families (there’s sweet, hapless Aunty Mapo and there’s an illustrated pin about how close knit the extended family is).
Growing up in Markham, Ont., Lee had a hard time fitting in at school. She hung out with other Chinese-Canadians, but always felt apart from the group because they conversed in Cantonese, even though she could only speak English.
It was a frustrating and lonely period, but what helped get Lee through it was the full support she had from her parents to pursue art.
“A lot of friends’ parents pressured them to go a different route,” she says. “Out of my whole year, me and three other people went into the arts. Everyone else went into the sciences.”
With the piece, “Mama Knows Best,” Lee pays homage to her mother and gives a nod to the “Tiger Mother.” In it, Mama Lee tosses the conical straw hat, which is also known as the coolie hat — a symbol for tradition, but like the rest of the pack, she is still characteristically, “riding her daughter.”
“It was a thank you to my mom,” she says.
Years later, as a student at OCAD, Lee would revisit that sad time in high school for her thesis project, “I Don’t Speak Chinese.” Through it, she found her style as an illustrator and came to grips with lingering insecurities she had about her identity.
“I’ve been using [being] Asian as a front, but I don’t know enough about Chinese culture and [I] used that to fit in,” she says.
Her illustration, featuring Chinese soldiers armoured in dumplings, and armed with chopsticks and sauce, speaks “about being comfortable in your own skin,” says Lee. Always one to add a light touch of humour to her work, you can spy one soldier chowing down his dumpling armour.
There’s also “Ching in Chong,” playing ping-pong that references “social games we play within language,” says Lee.
Lee also plays with kitschy Asian symbols and icons – like Maneki Neko (the lucky cat), sumo wrestlers and the Sriracha sauce bird – and lends personality to their otherwise generic depictions.
The red-hot rooster on the Sriracha bottle comes alive as it swoops in to show those green-feathered, Kellogg’s roosters who the boss is now. Then there’s Maneki Neko, the famed “beckoning cat” believed to bring good fortune, who appears less than content and is uncertain about fate and delivering good luck. (Perhaps, the burden of its post as a ceremonial breadwinner is too much work for a cat.)
Lee’s sumo wrestlers are hulking figures in her illustrations and offshoot projects. They’ve been spotted wrestling snakes outside an airplane, hanging tight to a sweater or blazer as a brooch and cuddling or judging you, depending on which side of the “bipolar” sumo wrestler doll you choose to face the day with.
Her dolls are her personal ambassadors, helping Lee get her name out in a crowded field for illustrators. Crywolf, the Ossington boutique, known for its inventory of wearable illustrations (silk-screened t-shirts) and quirky knickknacks, is also home to Lee’s neurotic sumos. Sewn with help from her mom (Lee says she’s a terrible seamstress), every one of them wars a distinctive expressions. One side wears a happy face, but flip it to the other side, and you’ve got one sad and angry sumo.
So, what’s with Lee’s obsession with sumo wrestlers and other proudly rotund characters? All it took was a trip to Japan, and she found her muse. “I thought it would be so funny to have a fat doll. Dolls are usually so pretty and skinny,” she says. “They’re just so fun to draw.”