How do you turn Chinese history into something even children would want to learn? You get popular illustrator Lee Kow Fong to put his spin on historical cartoons.
Lee, or Ah Guo, as he is known to those acquainted with his pastel-hued watercolour paintings, was commissioned by the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall to breathe fresh life into comics that are over a century old, for its latest exhibition, Between the Lines – The Chinese Cartoon Revolution.
The exhibition showcases close to 150 comics from the late-1800s to the early-1900s in China and Singapore. They highlight how Chinese cartoons were an important medium for connecting the Chinese diaspora, and a powerful means through which they expressed themselves and asserted political will to end imperial rule in China.
Lee’s five hand-painted original illustrations for the show are done in his signature style of child-like whimsy, and they feature his adorable cartoon characters. Among them is the well-loved penguin, Xiao P, which Lee says represents hope, optimism and a carefree childhood – a running theme in his illustrations, and one he credits to his “dreamy” Piscean tendencies.
He reinterprets, for example, a 1907 cartoon, Carving China Up, which depicts foreign imperial powers trying to carve up a melon symbolising China, as a picnic where his animal characters try, but fail, to cut and share a melon that looks like a globe.