How an unhappy cartoonist became one of Hong Kong's leading artists

Unhappy cartoonist Yim Yee-king transformed himself into Ah Chung, one of Hong Kong's leading artists, writes Mabel Sieh

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 9:42am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 9:42am

In a painting on display in the atrium of Sunshine City Plaza in Ma On Shan, three generations of a family sit happily together. The Chinese caption reads: "Because of him, there is you. Because of you, there is me. Thank you for your love." This and other paintings are the work of local artist Yim Yee-king, otherwise known as Ah Chung.

"The culture of family life has changed over time. In the olden days, fathers were strict authority figures and sometimes unreasonable, and children were expected to be submissive," the 81-year-old says.

I believe all experiences, including bad ones, happen for a reason
Yim Yee-king, artist 

Yim is a self-taught comic artist known for his simple, freestyle illustrations in watercolour and ink, and his inspiring messages about nature and life, relationships among family and friends, and living in peace and harmony. His own family spans four generations, including his 106-year-old mother, a son and a daughter, and several grandchildren, Yim is not a strict father, he says.

"I treat my children and grandchildren as friends. I see them as human beings who are entitled to enjoy the same rights and freedom that I do."

Like his paintings, he adopts a simple, almost Zen-like approach to relationships. "Every person is a 'universe' - a unique individual with his or her own thoughts and feelings. When two people, or worlds, come together, it is like Mars crashing into the earth. Conflicts will appear. It is inevitable," he says with a laugh. "If we can see and respect each other's universe and stop expecting others to be like us, there will be harmony. It needs a lot of tolerance from both parties and also a bit of luck."

Yim has never taken happiness for granted, and has experienced many unpredictable twists and turns in his life. Born in Guangzhou, he lived through the hardships of the second world war. After the war, he settled in Hong Kong with his family, where poverty prevented him from studying beyond Form One. As a teenager, he had to take any work he could find, while sharing a cramped Sham Shui Po flat with his four siblings and mother.

"There wasn't any space to move at all. I always dreamed of finding a job in a factory that provided a room with a bed and a desk." After taking several odd jobs, he finally landed a stable job delivering newspapers to subscribers' homes. This was the job that would change his life.

"I had to work from 5am until 11am. After that, I was free. With no money, no entertainment, no friends and because I didn't want to go back to my tiny room, I ended up sitting in Bing Tau Fa Yuen [now the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Garden] in Mid-Levels all day. I was so bored with nothing to do, so I took a pen and some paper, and started drawing. I drew flowers and trees, benches and people - anything I saw. After a while, my interest grew and I started saving my wages to buy sketchbooks and pencils. I also began to visit galleries and noticing different artists' styles. I'd ask myself: Do I like this style and why?"

When he became more confident in his abilities, he applied for a junior illustrator's position at a Chinese newspaper. He was in his mid-20s and it was the start of a 30-year career as a political cartoonist.

"It was the best period of my career. I finally had a good life and everything I needed. And I was happy. I was even proud that I could use my drawing to express whatever I liked and to criticise people harshly. But after a while, I grew tired of it.

"I thought: What if I was them? Would I also face such harsh criticism from others? I suddenly felt that I was just some silly man standing on the street yelling and telling everybody off. It was such a meaningless job. I didn't enjoy it any more."

He grew depressed and started drink heavily. "I was so unhappy that I would just sit in Victoria Park after work and cry."

In his 50s, his life took another turn when his wife suggested that the family move to Los Angeles. He was more than happy to give up a career that didn't give him peace of mind. Unable to speak English, but hoping to stay close to the art business, he learned to frame pictures and opened a picture framing gallery with an English-speaking Chinese friend.

"I did the work; my friend did the talking. When customers came in, I couldn't communicate at all so I sketched. I used my drawings to talk to customers."

One day, a Taiwanese gallery owner noticed his sketches and invited him to work for him. "It was a risk. If I failed [as an artist], I wouldn't know if I could start a business again. But I wanted to paint, so I closed my shop and started painting."

Later, he entered an art competition in Los Angeles - coming third on his first attempt and winning the following year. He also started drawing to express his thoughts and feelings, and these works became the Ah Chung collection.

His first painting as Ah Chung was of a man saying: "It is not that I have no mouth; it's just that I don't want to speak."

"I signed it off with my new name, Ah Chung, because I wanted a different identity to my previous life as a political cartoonist.

The word "Chung" is Chinese for "bug". "The bug lives on a leaf. The leaf is his entire universe. He has nothing to worry about because he's got everything he needs," Yim says.

"Today, many people complain about things and are always unhappy. They think life should go the way they expect it to. They expect people to treat them nicely. But I am the opposite. I believe all experiences, including bad ones, happen for a reason. Adversity is a normal part of our lives. There is no absolute good or bad. When something good happens, it can bring bad consequences. When something bad happens, it can be good for you. Good and bad are the same thing - it's all in your mind.

"And there is always something beautiful in life, even in the darkest moments. We just need to take notice and be grateful."