A former Disney animator talks about being the first Chinese artist on the team, and why his mum still struggles to see him as successful

Pressure from Asian parents isn’t something that goes away when you graduate secondary school

Lauren James |

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Davy Liu worked on The Lion King.

If there’s one thing Davy Liu has learned from Disney films, it’s that dreams are worth following. But it wasn’t stories like The Lion King and Aladdin that taught him that; it was working as an animator on those movies and realising he could be a successful artist.

When he was young, his parents discouraged him from drawing. But Liu believed in himself, and at 19, became the first Chinese artist to join Disney’s animation team. And now, he wants to inspire young people.

Growing up in Taiwan as the youngest of six children, Liu struggled with his parents’ expectations; they couldn’t understand why their son was failing at school and why all he wanted to do was draw.

“I had so much tutoring that tutors were afraid to come to my house,” Liu, 48, says. Instead of playing piano and doing sums, he loved Japanese cartoons – which his mum saw as “mind pollution”.

“In Asia, drawing is something you do as a child and isn’t serious,” Liu says.

Liu’s world opened up when he was 13 and his family moved to Florida, in the US. He did not know English, so his mum told him to say “yes” to anything he was asked. This advice proved a problem when his peers at his new school asked him whether he was related to Bruce Lee and if he knew kung fu. Sometimes he was beaten up, but Liu made friends by drawing his classmates.

Liu says Asian parents define success as having a career in finance, law or medicine.
Photo: Lauren James/SCMP

One of his teachers noticed his talent and decided to nurture it by introducing Liu to classical art. He says: “My world became huge as a 13-year-old. I would copy the paintings of Michelangelo. For a human to create such a beautiful and extraordinary piece that tells a story was beyond me.”

“If I hadn’t met my art teacher, I’d probably be selling bubble tea,” Liu adds. “My talent would have been hidden. One day, she saw me looking sad and I told her it was because my mum didn’t want me to draw. So she walked me home one day and asked my parents to go easy on me because I had potential, they just needed to believe in me. They listened to her. That was a big turning point.”

During his career, Liu has worked on many award-winning films, including Mulan and Beauty and the Beast. But his mum still doesn’t know what to make of his career. “Even after I finished The Lion King in 1994, she still wasn’t sure about having a kid who was drawing cartoons,” the artist says. “She didn’t realise what an achievement that was. Disney was only taking on eight students every year. She had no idea how hard it was to get in. I don’t blame her: I think we have such a huge gap in understanding in our cultures.”

Liu probably could have worked at Disney until he retired, but he wanted to inspire young people to follow their dreams. His focus is on Asian students in particular, as he has first-hand experience of how parents often try to dissuade their children from creative pursuits in favour of careers they see as more respected, like medicine or law.

Liu founded his own animation company in 2004. It’s called Kendu Films after the words of his art teacher who once told him: “You can do it.” He has produced a series of beautifully-illustrated stories called Invisible Tales, featuring a fox called Kendu, who discovers the importance of friendship, teamwork and following his dreams. Liu now tours to different cities giving talks to young people and parents on the importance of creativity, while sharing his Kendu stories.

For those struggling to balance their dreams with their parents’ expectations, Liu’s advice is not to disregard what their mum or dad wants. “Respect your parents: they’re putting you through school. They want the best for you, but are being realistic about the jobs out there. But don’t forget your dream, and don’t feel worthless if you don’t measure up to others’ expectations. Fourteen or 15 is the perfect age to start thinking about what you’re passionate about, and taking small, realistic steps towards your goals.”

“In Taiwan, no one told me I could do anything,” he recalls. “My teacher believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. She told me ‘you can do it’, and I thought she was nuts. But then I realised that I couldn’t live for my parents’ approval. My mum thought I wouldn’t be able to get a job as an artist – she wanted to protect me from making that choice, but I knew I had to be happy and had to do something I loved.

“In some ways I’m blessed that I never got straight As. Walt Disney suffered – he started out of a barn and went bankrupt many times. I decided to take ownership of my choices, and pursue art with all of my heart, soul and mind.”