How did a nice boy from the California suburbs end up as a cartoonist living in a remote village outside Hong Kong? Funny you should ask.
My mother wanted me to be a doctor. She said I’d be an artist over her dead body. And yes, she’s still alive.
My cartooning career began—against Mom’s wishes—in a Honolulu shopping mall, where I drew caricatures of drunken tourists staggering out of the Don Ho Show. There I met a brilliant and funny woman working across from me, chased her all the way to California, married her, and worked for a year in a Hollywood animation studio drawing for the “Heathcliff the Cat” show.
Two years later my wife and I went to her native Hong Kong to visit her sister in Kowloon for two weeks. For the heck of it, I looked for work and found more than I could handle. Cathy, who, unlike me, actually finished graduate school, found work as a psychotherapist.
We never returned to California.
One of the first jobs I found was designing gag t-shirts. I was paid around US$128 for this one, as a flat fee. It sold 1000 copies. Then counterfeits started showing up in every hole-in-the-wall shop and at every street vendor. It swiftly became possibly the most bootlegged t-shirt in the world, with millions being sold for as little as US$1.28. It even showed up on boxer shorts.
I was enraptured by Hong Kong: what a wild sensory overload of a place—the sights, the (extremely loud) sounds, the smells and flavors! As a foreigner married into a Chinese working class family, I inhabited a Twilight Zone between the last vestiges of an old-fashioned colonial society and a restless local population. What was a good cartoonist to do? Make fun of it, of course!
I came up with the idea of a satirical Chinese word-a-day feature, and sent them to the local English newspapers, including this one.
The Hongkong Standard hired me. I became the first-ever daily cartoonist in any Hong Kong English newspaper. My first book collection of these cartoons, AIEEYAAA!, was a huge local bestseller. I was set.
Until I ran out of ideas. That’s when I created a daily comic strip featuring a working class Chinese woman and her somewhat naïve Caucasian suitor. My editor named the strip “The World of Lily Wong”. No relation to Suzie. Here’s one of the first cartoons:
In 1987 the larger English newspaper, the South China Morning Post, hired me away. The editor, a gruff Australian, asked me to turn “Lily Wong” into a more hard-hitting political comic strip. And that’s what got me into heap big trouble.