The story appears on

Page A12

March 12, 2018

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Spreading Lunar New Year traditions in US

FOR many people, Chinese-American artist Kam Mak may not ring a bell, but his Chinese Lunar New Year stamp series has highlighted and refreshed a lot of fond memories among overseas Chinese.

Mak, who moved to New York with his parents from Hong Kong when he was 10 years old, has been commissioned by the US Postal Services to design the second set of Celebrating Chinese New Year stamp series since 2008.

The USPS’ first set of 12 zodiac stamps was designed by Chinese-Hawaiian designer Clarence Lee and first introduced in 1993.

“I hope I showcase our culture, customs and traditions well,” Mak said in a recent interview. “(What) we want to really highlight is how beautiful our tradition is and the custom ... especially to people who don’t really know about the Lunar New Year.”

The Year of the Dog stamp, released by USPS early last month, continues Mak’s concept of using the Chinese New Year symbols to highlight the customs and tradition of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

The 56-year-old artist says he specifically chose three stalks of lucky bamboo to symbolize three types of good fortune: fu (happiness), lu (wealth) and shou (longevity).

“The bamboo stalks are artistically curving and twisting, which symbolizes life’s paths,” he explains “Though the journey may be fraught with twists and turns, the budding leaves on top are always optimistically facing upward to heaven.

“The red ribbon of fate floats throughout the middle,” he says, “signifying joy and rebirth, entwining us together in peace and cooperation while anchoring us firmly to the earth.”

On the right side of the design is a red square positioned on one point (diamond shape) with additional script characters fu written on red paper, he says. The color red has been used to symbolize luck in Chinese culture. The word fu stands for good fortune or happiness.

“Recalling my childhood in Hong Kong, my grandma would pay someone to write fu and other couplets on red paper by hand, and she would post them around the house just before the Chinese New Year,” he says.

The stamp also incorporates two elements from the previous series of Chinese New Year stamps — Lee’s intricate paper-cutting design of a dog which Mak says had gained a great following.

“So I think this is a beautiful concept, incorporating the traditions, the customs and still have the animal there,” he says.

Selection of symbols

Mak, who now teaches painting at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, says the selection and presentation of the symbols were a major challenge during the design process.

“The biggest challenge of stamp designing is how to convey your ideas in a space of a square inch,” he says.

The zodiac series require the designer not only to think about the composition, but also to understand Chinese culture. The first draft he presented to USPS made officials shake their heads. “No, no. The illustration will lose too many details when printed on stamps,” they told him.

Mak started to think about how to simplify the illustration. “The stamps designed by Clarence focus on the images of the zodiac animals. I wanted to show in mine the variety of the Chinese culture,” says Mak. “So I decided not to put the spotlight on the animals but on other cultural symbols such as peonies, daffodils, oranges and red envelopes. But not everyone likes the idea.”

Mak had to do presentations again and again to explain the meaning of the symbols to the USPS officials and other people who viewed the drafts until they were approved.

In 2010, on the stamp for the Year of the Tiger, Mak drew five white daffodil flowers. Some people immediately opposed it saying that white is not a blessed color in the Chinese culture, and the white flowers may affect the sales of the stamp, he says.

It was only after he explained that, with the yellow stamens and the white petals, the daffodil flower is also called jin zhan yin tai — a gold wine cup on a silver plate — in Chinese and is believed to bring good fortune, did USPS accept the idea.

“In China, most people know the origins and meanings of the cultural symbols,” says Mak. “But in the US, even Chinese-Americans may not know much. So I have to explain everything to the audience. After listening to my speech, many people said they like the stamps very much and are enchanted by the Chinese culture.”

For the Chinese community

The issuance of Chinese zodiac stamps is the result of a longtime effort by Chinese-American communities in the United States. The Organization of Chinese Americans (now OCA Asian Pacific American Advocates) started to push for the stamps in 1988 under the suggestion of a member in Georgia named Jean Chen who is also a stamp collector.

More importantly, they hoped to bring to light how Chinese immigrant workers played a big blood-and-sweat role in building the transcontinental railroad essential for the US economy. They decided on the Chinese New Year theme.

“This series has a different meaning for us. It’s incredible to see my culture displayed on a stamp in America,” Mak says. “It’s never too late.”

Recognition of Chinese culture in the US goes beyond stamps. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the Chinese New Year a public school holiday in 2016.

Mak says it was a thrill for the Chinese-American community. Many kids including him back in the days had to skip school for the festival. “That was wonderful. It’s about time,” he says.

On February 24, Mak led a stamp-making workshop at a special program held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate the Chinese New Year. This is the ninth consecutive year for the museum to hold celebratory events for the festival.

“I’m so happy to see all that stuff going on, and we are promoting our culture,” Mak says. “This country has many different cultures from different countries and regions and we should all embrace that multiculturalism.”

Mak thinks the holidays are a great opportunity to ingrain customs and cultures into the next generation, like what they eat and do around the Chinese New Year. “I think it is through the holidays that I find is a wonderful way to share the customs.”

“One of my students, who’s born here, couldn’t even speak Chinese but she’s performing a lion dance at the MET,” says Mak, who goes to inner city schools to read his book “My Chinatown: One Year in Poem.”


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend