Fans of Feign
- Written by Elizabeth Kerr, 1 April 2016
Larry Feign has spent a lifetime making us laugh at – and reconsider – ourselves, through his thoughtful and thought-provoking, satirical cartoons. Here he reflects on a career and a new path as a writer. Elizabeth Kerr reports.
Cartoonist and humour writer Larry Feign is proud to call himself an immigrant. An astute observer of human nature and culture collision, his immigrant status is just one of the threads that’s informed his work since the 1980s. Thirty-plus years in Hong Kong (25 of those in Wang Tong Village, Mui Wo), more than half his life, makes Lantau home and Larry a Hongkonger no matter what anyone says. He has a point.
“A white person in Asia is an expat forever. An Asian person in North America is an immigrant. So people ask me where’s home and I say Hong Kong, they say, ‘No, where’s really home?’” he begins, waxing not quite philosophically, but thoughtfully. “If I asked a Chinese person in Toronto that and they said Mississauga and I said, ‘No, where’s really home?’ they’d be offended. My brother-in-law is in Toronto and he’s proudly Canadian. Of course he has family here and comes back to visit but home is Toronto. It’s an interesting conundrum.”
That struggle over the meaning of home, identity, ethnicity and some peculiar double standards – as well as the day-to-day hilarity inherent in life in Hong Kong – helped shape Larry’s daily comic strip and most of his art, including the 1986 bestseller Aieeyaaa!, since he first landed here in 1985. His cartoons have appeared in numerous publications around the world and received several international awards, including three from Amnesty International.
Wang Tong Village and back
A native of Orange County, California, renowned for its real housewives and angsty teens, Larry refers to himself as one in a long line of “wandering Jews”. A natural cartoonist – something his teachers called ‘doodling’ – Larry’s wandering led him to a graduate programme in linguistics in Honolulu and two life-altering encounters. The first with a brash Hawaiian, who demanded he draw caricatures on Waikiki Beach, led to the second… meeting his wife, Cathy, a native Hongkonger, who was selling souvenirs in the same area. That’s a story with a magical-realist twist.
“This guy, Jeff, found me my calling, and he found me the love of my life,” Larry says with a smile. “I tried to find him when [we] went back to Honolulu for our anniversary and no one knew who I was talking about. It’s the weirdest thing ever. I can’t find him. He’s my guardian angel and he put me on the right track. That’s how I got into cartooning.”
Larry is, of course, best known for his popular The World of Lily Wong comic strip and his summary and sudden sacking from the South China Morning Post (SCMP). The strip’s cancellation became a free-speech cause célèbre around the world, made the SCMP look bad and got Larry blacklisted from cartooning in 2001, often forcing him to work anonymously.
Nonetheless, Larry wouldn’t change anything. He and Cathy, a psychologist, and their two Hong Kong-raised children gave up on Hong Kong twice in the past and failed both times. “I couldn’t handle [living in the US] and in under a year we were back here,” he recalls. The family later spent two years in London and never really felt settled there. “I found a lot of the stereotypes about ‘stiff upper lips’ true”, he says. “So when I had an opportunity to come back, I asked the kids, ‘Do you want to move back to Lantau?’, not Hong Kong, Lantau, both said yes.”
Lily Wong and local culture
Through much of it there was Lily Wong. Larry’s first cartooning gig in Hong Kong was with The Standard, back when it was a paid journal, where the strip stood out for its Western aesthetic and knack for understanding – and incorporating – the local culture. He was poached by the SCMP in 1987 and shepherded the strip into status as the second comic strip ever to go online (after Dilbert). When the city’s first internet provider asked Larry to put Lily Wong online to generate traffic his response was, “What’s the internet?” Lily also became a landmark for being Hong Kong’s first online retail sale – by an order for the book from Finland.
Lily Wong made waves not just for its political satire but for its sincere, informed observations about life in Hong Kong. Larry’s position as someone who straddled the fence between native residents and drop-ins never left him at a loss for material. When SCMP fame came calling, he found himself with access to a whole new world as a now-welcome guest to shindigs on The Peak and its ilk. It was a goldmine that exposed him to all manner of misconceptions about both Chinese locals and Westerners. “The expat crowd had these hilarious misconceptions and bigoted attitudes. Not all, but enough to keep me going,” he says. “[Conversely], I’d ride on a bus and get pointed and stared at. It was a great source for gags. I found a lot of great material by being in between those two worlds.”
Things have changed. Larry cites a newfound identity for Hongkongers and less connection with the transience that defined the city for so long. “Up until recently, there was a total lack of community identity, and that was one of the interesting aspects of it,” he says. “The Chinese didn’t think of it as home. Expats didn’t think of it as home. It was just a stop off for everybody. I found that kind of disturbing and that’s changed. 1997 focused that and created much more identification with the place, and that culminated in the Umbrella Movement. It showed that young people do have an identity and they don’t just care about money.”
Aieeyaaa! and beyond
Free agent Larry’s most recent artistic experiment was animating an Israeli television pilot (which sadly didn’t go to series) and updating Aieeyaaa!. Published in December last year, AIEEYAAA! Learn Chinese the Hard Way is a satirical dictionary which pokes fun at life, love and culture clash in Hong Kong and China. It features definitions in Mandarin, Cantonese and English, an introduction on how not to learn Chinese and, of course, wickedly funny cartoons.
Larry is also dipping into prose, and has one book he’s not talking about (yet) with a New York agent. A second is being polished. But one certainty is his retirement from cartooning – for reasons that transcend the form simply becoming a dinosaur. “The corporatisation of print journalism — where they don’t want anything controversial,” have killed it as Larry sees it. “If you look at papers in North America, the cartoon makes jokes about headlines, but they’re not controversial. They’re very safe.”
Lily Wong at least remains a testament to one of the territory’s greatest strengths – and the reason Larry kept coming back. “Hong Kong people can laugh at themselves.” What more could a cartoonist want?