As millions around the world prepare to usher in the Year of the Boar on Feb. 5, the U.S. Postal Service has issued the last stamp in its second series of Celebrating Lunar New Year postage.
Chinese American artist Kam Mak created the new Forever stamp, which features bright pink peach blossoms. “The peach is very auspicious and represents long life,” says the illustrator. It’s also the first tree that blossoms in the Lunar New Year, marking the beginning of spring in Chinese culture.
The Year of the Boar (aka Year of the Pig) stamp also includes elements from the previous series of stamps — a paper-cut design of a boar by the late Clarence Lee and the Chinese character for the animal drawn in calligraphy by the late Lau Bun.
Mak says that designing the second Lunar New Year stamp series has been the highlight of his career so far. “I appreciate that I was given the opportunity to tell a story of how we celebrate the Lunar New Year through my paintings. Also, being able to share the history of how the stamps came about means a lot to me.”
The idea for a Lunar New Year stamp began in the late 1980s, when Jean Chen was reading to children as a volunteer at a library in Georgia. She was shocked to come across a book about the history of the transcontinental railroad that showed a photo of only Caucasian workers celebrating the completion of the railroad in 1869. “I was thinking, it’s not equal, no Chinese people, why not? That’s why I protested,” recalled Chen, who died last year.
Chen, who was a member of the Organization of Chinese Americans (now known as OCA — Asian Pacific American Advocates), inspired the group to urge the Postal Service to issue a stamp honoring the contributions of Chinese Americans in the U.S.
Hawaii graphic artist Clarence Lee designed the first stamp in 1992 to commemorate the Year of the Rooster.
The stamp brought in more than $5 million in sales, not just in the U.S. but also in China, according to Lee. “This was the first U.S. stamp with a Chinese character on it, Chinese paper-cut artwork. It was very colorful. They were buying up these stamps because it had a Chinese theme,” recalled Lee before his 2015 death, noting that back then there were some 20 million stamp collectors in China.
Because the stamp sold so well, the Postal Service commissioned Lee to complete a series of all 12 animals associated with the Chinese lunar calendar.
His favorite stamp was the boar. “It’s just flying through the air and it seems happy and very active,” Lee said.
The stamps also gave him a chance to honor his parents. Lee’s mother was a Chinese American from Hawaii; his father emigrated from China. “I’m sure everybody has a story like that, ancestors that had braved coming across the ocean and making a life that’s better for their children and their children’s children.”
Lee’s father worked hard to support his family as a butcher in Honolulu’s Chinatown and sent his son to Yale University, where he studied design.
“I remember my father getting a pink, waxy butcher paper, and he would bring it home to me, sheets and sheets of it. And I would just sit on the floor and just start drawing,” said Lee.
After Lee’s popular series ended, the OCA fought again to get the series renewed.
In 2008, the Postal Service selected Kam Mak to design the second series. Mak felt Lee’s images of the animals would help complement his own design concept, which celebrates some of the holiday customs and traditions that have endured throughout time. So Lee’s paper-cut designs appear in gold in the upper left corner of each stamp, above Lau Bun’s calligraphy.
Among the stamps Mak has designed, his favorite is the one for 2010, the Year of the Tiger. It features narcissus flowers.
“It was something that my grandmother would cultivate right before the Lunar New Year, and as a little boy I’d help her. And the fragrance from the flower reminds me Lunar New Year is coming and always brings back really fond memories of being with my Grandma.”
Carrying on the legacy of the Lunar New Year stamps has been an extraordinary journey for the Hong Kong-born artist. Mak’s family immigrated to America in 1971, when he was 10 years old. His parents worked long hours in low-paying jobs to support their family of seven. His father washed dishes in a Chinese restaurant; his mother worked in a Chinatown sweatshop.
Mak struggled to learn English, growing up during an era when Chinese gangs were rampant in New York City’s Chinatown and trying to recruit new members.
His friend joined a gang. “It was a rough time,” recalls Mak. “One day I heard my friend got shot in the back of his head in a Chinese theater. The whole scenario really scared me straight. And I realized, ‘Oh boy, I want to make sure that I don’t end up being in that situation.’ From then on, I really started taking school very seriously. Because I think that was really my way out.”
Mak discovered his passion soon after he got involved with the City Art Workshop, which encouraged inner-city youths like him to explore the arts.
Now 57, Mak is a professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, where he teaches painting and lives in Brooklyn. He’s also illustrated numerous books including “The Dragon Prince,” by renowned author Laurence Yep.
In 2001, Mak was surprised when Toni Markiet, an editor who had worked with famed author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, encouraged him to create his own picture book about how he grew up in Chinatown. And he did. The title of the book is “My Chinatown: One Year in Poems.”
Since 2006, Mak has been mentoring young people who all get a copy of his book through a literacy program called Behind the Book.
“They’re mostly Latino and African American kids from the inner city. I lecture in Brooklyn and in Harlem. So besides reading them the book, I take them out to Chinatown and have them experience all the things that I experienced growing up. I think it’s fascinating for these kids, because everything they saw was all new to them. I just want to stir their imaginations and want them to learn about other cultures, besides what they only know in their own neighborhood.”
Mak wants people to be proud of who they are, and not feel ashamed if they’re different. He recalled what happened when he spoke at a public school in Chinatown.
“After my presentation, a group of immigrant Chinese kids came to me and emotionally said, ‘Kam, I’m so happy there’s a book that is about me.’ I said, ‘Yes, this book is about all our similar experiences.’ And at that moment, I felt really emotional because, wow, the book itself had moved other kids, and they would not feel that they are isolated, that there’s actually a book that plays a very positive light about how they grew up.”
Looking back, Mak reflects, “I’m very grateful I could come to this country, and for all the opportunities it’s given me. I’m proud to be an immigrant. Because this is the last stamp in the series, it’s bittersweet, because I learned a lot and met so many wonderful people through this journey.”
Most of all, Mak adds, “I feel fortunate I was given the chance to use my artistic skill to pay homage to the Chinese laborers who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad, and all those who paved the way before me. We helped build this country.”