He Draws on His Experiences in Hong Kong : Cartoonist: Larry Feign’s acid observations about colony life made him a popular cartoonist there. Now back in the U.S., he’s turning his attention to this country.
After five years of straddling the cultural wall that separates Hong Kong’s Chinese and Western communities, Larry Feign is back in the U.S.A.
And he’s more than a little distressed.
“Not only are Americans ignorant about the rest of the world, but they’re proud of their ignorance. People absolutely don’t give a damn, and they go absolutely on their stereotypes,” Feign contends.
“Ignorance I can forgive. The unwillingness to give up that ignorance I find appalling,” he said in a recent phone interview from Fairfax, Va., where he and his wife took up residence earlier this year.
Feign, the perennial outsider, learned to parlay his acid observations about Hong Kong’s cultural divisions and political foibles into a reign as the British colony’s most popular, English-language cartoonist. Now, he’s turning his attention to his homeland.
Although he has returned to the United States, he continues to turn out his daily strip, “The World of Lily Wong,” which runs prominently on Page 2 of Hong Kong’s biggest English-language daily, the South China Morning Post. Feign has brought his main characters--Lily, a strong-willed Hong Kong woman, and Stuart, her indefatigable American suitor--into the United States, giving himself a forum for his views on life here after five years away.
“I’m trying to do it from an outsider’s point of view,” he says. “I come back, and I very much feel like a foreigner.”
Feign’s roots as a cartoonist go back to his childhood in Tustin. He did the drawings for an elementary school enterprise called the Dum Magazine that he sold for a nickel a copy.
He was expelled in 1971 during his senior year at Foothill High School for editing a mimeographed underground publication dubbed the Toilet Paper, which consisted primarily of “obnoxious things about the principal and the coaches and everybody we didn’t like,” Feign says. “The principal claimed it broke 35 state, federal and local laws.”
Feign was forced to finish his secondary education at a continuation school, where, he says, he became “the first white-collar criminal.”
He spent much of the ‘70s drifting. He entered UC Berkeley, an experiment that lasted two years: “I realized I didn’t know why I was going to school, so I dropped out.” He hitchhiked around the country before finishing his degree at a small Vermont college.
Next stop, Hawaii, where he worked on a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language while doing caricatures for tourists on the beach at Waikiki. “That was my first genuine professional experience as a cartoonist,” Feign says.
Before then, he had never aspired to a cartooning career. He just didn’t know it was something you could plan; he thought it was something that “happened to lucky individuals.” But people started approaching him with free-lance work, and with six weeks to go before graduation, he dropped out again.
“I had a choice between doing two research papers and a thesis or designing a line of T-shirts,” he recalls. The T-shirts won.
When girlfriend Cathy Tsang (now his wife, Cathy Tsang-Feign) moved to Anaheim to finish earning her master’s degree in marriage, family and child counseling, he followed. Feign went to work at DIC Studios in Hollywood, drawing for the animated “Heathcliff” series.
“I drew cats day and night, which I loved,” he says. What he didn’t love was the ritual of being laid off for five months at the close of production each year. In 1985, he and Cathy decided it was time to move on.
“I just didn’t like the idea of twiddling my thumbs for five months until they recruited for the next season,” he says. “We both decided we didn’t want to live there anymore, so we up and left.”
Their destination was Hong Kong, where Tsang-Feign was born. “I went there out of curiosity more than anything else,” says Feign, who had ideas of making a living by illustrating English-language textbooks. The drawings in most of the books he had seen were of very poor quality, he said, but he soon discovered why: the pay was lousy.
Feign discovered something else when he got to Hong Kong--that he was able to gain some acceptance in both of Hong Kong’s very distinct worlds without really being a part of either. Through his wife’s family, “I was able to get into the Chinese community and feel accepted, somewhat.” Because of his skin color, he could mix easily with the expatriate business community.
“I was sort of in a ‘Twilight Zone,’ ” Feign says now. “It was almost like being an undercover agent.”
Feign started incorporating his outsider’s observations on life in Hong Kong into his drawings, first with the single-panel comic, “Learn Cantonese the Hard Way,” that he sold to the Hong Kong Standard. The strip, ostensibly a way of teaching English speakers a word of Cantonese each day, was actually more a vehicle for Feign’s observations on mixed marriages and on other facets of Hong Kong’s cultural scene.
“I really hit a nerve with that series,” Feign says. “According to my editor, I was the first cartoonist to bridge the cultural gap.”
Westerners in Hong Kong, Feign found, are often transferred there by their companies and are paid high salaries and given free rent along with other perks and benefits. “There are very few foreigners there who have to make their own rent,” Feign says. The attitude, he says, is quintessentially nouveau riche : “Most of them come there to make a hell of a lot of money . . . to be able to have a full-time maid and travel. Money is everything.”
Feign found that attitude expressed in the way people responded when they learned he was a cartoonist. “In America, the very first reaction is usually, ‘Oh, how interesting,’ ” he says. “In Hong Kong, it was, ‘Oh, can you make a lot of money doing that?’ ”
Whereas the average Chinese in Hong Kong makes $400 a month, Feign estimates, the typical expatriate clears at least $3,000. “Compared to your average Chinese, I was well off. Compared to your average foreigner, I was a poverty case.”
When the single-panel format of “Learn Cantonese” began to feel too constricting, Feign salvaged a few of the recurring characters and resurrected them in “The World of Lily Wong,” a daily panel strip with continuing story lines.
At first, he stayed with the culture-clash themes that made his first strip popular, but when the larger South China Morning Post lured him away after a year, its editors asked him to introduce some political themes into the strip. He hit hard, largely at the ineffectual bureaucrats running the colony and at the Brits, who he feels have sold Hong Kong down the river. The colony, according to treaty, is to become part of the People’s Republic of China in 1997.
Feign found that his strip became Hong Kong’s most popular outlet for political commentary. “In the media, there’s not much real hard-hitting criticism,” he says. “For someone to criticize in blunt terms is considered a pretty radical stance.
“Most people are afraid to speak out publicly. My cartoon would come along and make very strong statements. In the English press, I became probably the most outspoken political commentator in Hong Kong.”
Far from being condemned for his strong stands, Feign was celebrated for them. Many of Hong Kong’s leading political figures confess to reading--and enjoying--the strip. But ultimately, Feign became disillusioned, believing that the cartoon was not making a difference, despite its influential readership.
“I found in Hong Kong, I could get under people’s skin and confirm what people were thinking, but nevertheless, I feel I had zero impact,” Feign says. “I was trying to arouse people into making their own statements in their own spheres, and that was a fruitless effort.”
At the same time, Hong Kong’s fast-paced, dynamic lifestyle--which had been such a stimulant--was beginning to lose its appeal for Feign and his wife. “You’re crammed all the time, and you’re crowded all the time. People are always on the go to make money, money, money, money, money,” the cartoonist says. “My wife and I resisted it for a long time, (but) after a while it starts to get to you, and you start to look at your bank book a lot more carefully. That jealousy starts to creep in.”
He also found that the Hong Kong political and social structure was beginning to disintegrate with the approach of 1997. “The whole atmosphere of the place really soured,” Feign says. “The society is more and more panicky, and you feel this nervousness in the air. Inflation’s going absolutely out of control because people are trying to grab as much money as they can.”
Finally, Feign and his wife decided it was time to go. “It’s such a dynamic place, and it’s shooting itself in the foot. It’s like watching a relative you love refuse medical treatment,” he says. “It was too sad to sit there and watch the place die.”
The couple left, taking a circuitous route back to the United States that included Beijing, a trans-Siberian railroad trip to Moscow, and trips through Eastern Europe and Italy.
Living at least for now in Fairfax, Feign continues to turn out “The World of Lily Wong” for the South China Morning Post, sending the strips along each day by fax. (His cartoons have been collected in best-selling books in Hong Kong; the next, focusing on Lily’s misadventures in the United States, will be published in November.)
“I’m quite interested in keeping (the strip) going, as long as my editor thinks it’s relevant,” Feign says.
He’s also interested in starting a strip for an American audience, but he is finding that the structure of the American cartoon industry works against what he wants to do. He would like to do a strip for a single newspaper that comments on life in that particular region, but most papers buy only nationally syndicated strips, he says. The result, he feels, is bland, uninteresting cartoons. “People like to read cute little cartoons about middle-class families,” Feign says. That, he finds, is the ultimate irony--that it’s all right to mine social and class divisions for humor in conservative Hong Kong, but not in the United States. It’s one more aspect of life back home that Feign is still getting used to.
“Hong Kong is a more conservative society, but America is such a squeamish society, where everyone has to censor themselves for fear of offending someone,” he says. “The kind of stuff I do is still socially unacceptable in America. . . . I’m not going to get it in front of an American audience that might be shamed into revising their attitudes.”