Friday, November 28, 2014

The World of Larry Feign

(please click on the images to see them bigger)

Thanks to Sin Ann, I managed to get in touch with Larry Feign, the famed cartoonist of The World of Lily Wong strip which ran in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s. The American animator was at the right place at the right time, arriving in the former British territory in 1985, at a time when Hong Kongers started to question their fate when HK was to return to China in 1997. This was reflected in the movies like A Better Tomorrow, and the It’s A Mad Mad Mad World series directed by Clifton Ko, which deals with HK people’s obsession to migrate to the West before 1997.

Feign, who is married to a Hong Konger, did not quit HK and stayed on till today, living on Lantau Island with his wife and two daughters. This is despite the fact that his Lily Wong strip was cancelled by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) in 1995, allegedly under pressure from Beijing.

Lily Wong was revived a few years later in time for the handover in 1997 and the strip went on for a few more years. Sadly it is no more and Feign has since gone back to animation and writing.

I used to buy Lily Wong books when I visited HK in the late 1990s and ordered some books from Feign’s website as well. So this is a good opportunity to catch up with an old friend, someone whom I have only met in the funny pages. This interview was conducted over skype on 18 Nov 2014.

The first Lily Wong strip

Q: What is Lily Wong doing now in 2014?
A: To be honest, I don’t know. Lily left HK and went to Australia and I have since lost track of her.
I lived with her day in and out for 15 years or longer. She became very real to me, like another person. I stopped the cartoon in 2001 and a couple of years later, I felt some spirit left me. She’s gone and I don’t intend to bring her back.

You are not the first person to ask me this question. So I don’t know. Her kid, he should be a teenager by now. (Lily was pregnant and gave birth in the story)

The strip stopped 13 years ago. The newspaper which I was contracted to to do the cartoon went out of business. I had nowhere to publish Lily. I could have done it online. In fact, Lily Wong was the second ever daily strip to go online in the 1990s. Dilbert was the first.
Drawing Lily for almost 15 years was a full time job. It took 40 to 60 hours a week to produce the strips. It might sound heartless or awful but I couldn’t continue drawing Lily full time without pay. I had a family to support.

Q: What have you been doing since 2001?
A: I went back to animation production and started an animation business. It was fun for me. I enjoy that, a change from the dying newspaper industry. These days, I work on animation part time. It is commercial work, for websites, etc. My wife is a psychologist, so we are able to support ourselves. The writing does not support me. There are books that I have written that await to be published.

Q: Was there ever an interest to produce a Lily Wong animation?
A: There were earlier attempts in the early 1990s. A local TV station in HK tried that, a short 3 minute cartoon for a variety show. But it was a terrible job. They changed the characters. It was awful, so it was abandoned.

Then there was a movie producer from Japan who actually commissioned me to do a script. They tried to raise money for it, but nothing came out of that.

The most interesting one is from 1991 when a Broadway producer from New York wanted to buy the rights from me. So we negotiated the contract and a script was produced. 15 minutes of full musical treatment. The producer hired an experienced songwriter to write fours songs for it. It was produced on stage in front of investors. But they couldn’t raise the money. So somewhere in the house, I have a terrible handheld video of this 15-minute Lily Wong musical. The actress was a Filipino.

So there were these three attempts.

Q: When did you start drawing cartoons? And why did you stop?
A: I drew cartoons since I was three years old. It was a disease that I just can’t do without. But in 2007, something changed in me. I lost the disease. I do not have the desire to draw or publish cartoons anymore most of the time. But now with the HK protests, for the first time in a long time, I have this desire. But I don’t have an outlet anymore in HK.

So this creative urge has been redirected to writing. Cartooning is a hybrid art. So do you write a cartoon or do you draw one? For me, drawing is the hard part. I don’t enjoy it as much. For others, drawing is second nature to them. Like Bill Waterson. After retirement, he went into painting. Others retired from cartooning to write novels. I went into writing scripts in animation. I oversee the art design but I do not draw.
In 1995, when I was forced to stop the strip by SCMP, there was no outlet for me. I felt physically very bad. Lily Wong was an outlet for me for many years, and now it was shut off and I felt like exploding. But I do not feel that way anymore. I am just focusing on writing. I got pretty good at cartooning, so it’s a shame that I have stopped. But I like what I am doing now.

"Cartoon that got me fired"

Q: What are your views of the recent HK protests?
A: For many years, I was critical of HK young people in the universities. They were only interested in their grades, career and money. But now they have changed. I am ashamed of myself for having such views previously, but I am excited now to see these young people because they care about this place. Whether you agree with them or not is another matter. But this next generation cares and that is good for HK’s future.

I support the developing democracy in HK. I am on their side. I do not agree with all their tactics. They are naïve. But the government is stupid and stubborn, and has many missed chances to make this problem go away. I have been out on the protests. I have seen the political changes in HK for the last 25 years and it is not all good. I am worried.

HK in the 1990s was the most interesting place in the world. It is still a fascinating place to observe this experiment of one country, two systems, which is not seen elsewhere. But I am pessimistic.

Q: How did you end up in HK in 1985?
A: I was working in a LA animation studio in the early 1980s. My wife is from HK and we were both students in Hawaii and we got married there. I was offered a job at Tokyo Disney studios in 1985, but it was a long wait for the paperwork to be done. So we went to HK to visit my wife’s sister. It was strange but I felt no culture clash. I fell in love with the place. There were no animation jobs, but I was asked by a text book publisher to illustrate text books. This was three weeks after I arrived in HK. I had to hire assistants for the project. So I said forget about Disney, I’m staying on.

And the gamble paid off. Two months later, I did some sketches for a daily cartoon. SCMP was not interested, but the Hong Kong Standard was. So it was a dream come true, to have a daily strip within six months of arriving in HK. So I stayed. It was good luck and good timing. I have no regrets.

Q: You have stopped drawing Lily Wong, but you are still selling the collected books online. How are the sales?
A: They are small but steady numbers, especially to Europe. So I have orders from Finland, Germany, Holland. But not so much from America or Canada. I do some have orders from Singapore and Malaysia. The New Straits Times (NST) in Malaysia ran the strip in the 1990s. When the strip was cancelled by SCMP, NST asked if I can continue the strip for them. But they had no budget, so that didn’t happen. NST reran the whole strip again.

It almost ran in The New Paper in Singapore in the 1990s. An assistant editor from America was interested but his editor turned it down. The idea was to relocate the cast of Lily Wong to Singapore and it will become a Singapore strip.

When Lily and family visited Singapore

There is another Singapore connection. In 2001, I went to Singapore for the Asian TV conference. A Singapore government official tried to lure me to move my studio to Singapore. There was to be subsidized rental and guaranteed work visas. Every couple of months, he would call me. I was so tempted. I love the food in Singapore. But my wife is so well established in HK, so that didn’t happen.

The last Lily Wong strip

Thanks, Larry and Lily. Hope to see you again soon.

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