Renowned Hong Kong cartoonist Yim Yee-king, also known as Ah Chung, dies at 85

Artist designed book cover satirising Mao in the 60s, but grew weary of political criticism, eventually finding new inspiration by moving to Los Angeles

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 3:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 11:04pm

Renowned Hong Kong cartoonist Yim Yee-king died in Los Angeles in the early hours of Saturday, just three days after he turned 85, his family announced on Monday.

In a Facebook post on memorial page Ah Chung Studio, set up for the artist on Sunday, the family said Yim suffered sudden heart failure and died peacefully at home surrounded by his wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.

His funeral will be held according to the Buddhist rituals he wanted and his ashes kept in the Hsi Lai Temple, a monastery in the northern Puente Hills of Los Angeles.

Referring to Yim by his pen name, the post stated: “Ah Chung often said that resonance among his readers was the greatest driving force behind his artistic creation, and giving the public some free space to breathe amid the secular conflicts was the greatest reward for him.”

They thanked those who had cared for and loved the cartoonist.

The announcement was posted with a drawing by Yim, on which he wrote a phrase in Chinese saying: “I am set free as I return to nature.”

Born in Guangzhou in 1933, Yim lived through the hardships of the second world war. After the war, he settled in Hong Kong with his family but they were too poor for him to continue his education beyond Form One. He did odd jobs while teaching himself painting and in 1952 became a full-time artist.

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

Four years later, he had his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong.

At the early stage of his career, Yim was known for producing political cartoons that were published in papers such as the now-defunct Tin Tin Yat Pao.

In October 1967, two months after Commercial Radio broadcaster Lam Bun was believed to be murdered because of his criticism of leftist rioters on air, Yim was invited to design a cover for a book satirising the Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong.

Known as the “little red book” for its red cover and published in a volume greater than the Bible, the collection of quotes from Mao was a major tool for ideological control and fuelled the devastating political turmoil in the 1960s and 70s in mainland China known as the Cultural Revolution, which also affected Hong Kong.

To express his criticism, Yim gave his cover a bright green background, on which a giant fist was upheld against a squatting and frightened man on the left.

In an interview with the Post in 2014, Yim recalled it was the “best period of his career”.

“I was even proud that I could use my drawing to express whatever I liked and to criticise people harshly,” he said. “But, after a while, I grew tired of it.”

The artist grew depressed and started to drink heavily as he felt like “just some silly man standing on the street yelling and telling everybody off”. He also said he found his political comics “meaningless”.

He came out of his funk in the 1980s, when his wife suggested the family move to Los Angeles, where Yim started a gallery with a friend.

He was never bounded by academic training and he explored his own way all the time
Wong Kee-kwan, cartoonist

It was then that Yim established his simple, almost Zen-like, style of drawing with freestyle illustrations in watercolour and ink to accompany his calligraphic lines about nature and life, interpersonal relations, and the search for mindfulness.

The Facebook page of the artist’s gallery featured his latest work on Sunday morning. In the painting, shown on the page Ah Chung Gallery, set up in 2012, a man lies with both hands folded under his head, legs crossed and a blue vest unbuttoned. Next to him is a round fan.

It bears a written message by Yim in Chinese that when translated, means one who is lonely is free of disturbances and one who is bored is free of burden.

Local cartoonist Wong Kee-kwan, also known as Zunzi, said Yim’s death was a big loss.

“The last time we met was one to two years ago at a gathering when he visited Hong Kong,” Wong said. “He mentioned that he had experienced some close calls with heart problems.”

Wong said Yim realised long ago that art should be learned from the world outside schools. “One thing great about Yim was that he was never bounded by academic training and he explored his own way all the time.”