James Ng (pronounced “Ing”) was born in Hong Kong in 1985. After high school, he received a scholarship to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York, majoring in illustration. He works as a freelance concept artist and illustrator for games, books and comics. He lives in Hong Kong but travels often to the United States for work and exhibitions. His website is jamesngart.com.
You are probably best known for your Chinese steampunk series of works entitled Imperial Steam and Light. The series explores the idea of the Industrial Revolution arriving in the world through China rather than the West. I am most interested in the aesthetic ramifications of this. Because the English Industrial Revolution happened during the Victorian era, the utilitarian items it produced were socially required to be ornately decorated. Even things like elevators and bridge supports were expected to be beautifully adorned, no matter how unnecessary the adornments. The idea that form should follow function had yet to exist. Your Imperial Steam and Light work seems to make corollary assumptions about the aesthetic effects of the Industrial Revolution first arising in China. Can you talk to us a bit more about this idea?
“Form follows function” is an idea I stick by for all my work. When I designed the concepts in Imperial Steam and Light, I visualized them from the perspective of someone who is in that world. Ornamentation actually serves a function to distinguish class in the Qing Dynasty, which the series is inspired by. If I am an engineer living in this world designing an airship, the ornamentation is functional in that it indicates that the ship belongs to the Imperial family. It is not purely decorative.
Beyond aesthetic considerations, the series explores the idea of how technology and modernization in general would be different if scientific development had been led by China rather than the West. For example, modern science developed in the West and as a consequence, Western medicine is extremely advanced and effective today. However, if China had led scientific development, would Chinese medicine have developed to a whole new level? I explore this idea in Crystal Herbalist.
Does the fact that China, rather than the West, birthed the Industrial Revolution in your series necessarily mean that the history of colonialism is reversed in this world? Does China colonize Europe like in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt? If so, what is it that is drawing China to Europe? The history of European colonization of China is centered on envy of resources like silk, tea, spices, gunpowder, etc. Is the Chinese colonization of Europe driven by resource envy? Or cultural envy? Even if Europe misses out on the Industrial Revolution, it still has the Renaissance and the cultural treasures and intellectual property produced by that period. Is that what would drive China’s reverse colonization? They want to loot all the tchotchkes out of the Louvre? They want to kidnap Beethoven and make him into the Emperor’s court composer?
This reminds me of a question that stumped me for a second during a convention panel. I was asked if I created this series as a fantasy “rematch” for the Chinese to take revenge. The Imperial Steam and Light world assumes that Western colonization never took place. Thus, my birthplace of Hong Kong would never have had British influence. Whether that is a good or bad thing, it is hard to dispute that Hong Kong became one of the wealthiest cities in the world because of British influence.
I didn’t create the series out of bitterness about the past, but as a way to envision the future. When I visit China, I often see historical Chinese buildings being torn down to make way for modern skyscrapers that lack any elements of my culture. If my series has a message, it would be that it is possible to modernize without losing historical cultural identity.
In the Imperial Steam and Light world, the reason that China does not invade the West is because it is itself under invasion by Manchurians. Manchurians are people from the North who invaded China to create the Qing Dynasty. The majority of the Chinese population are “Han” people who see Manchurians as outsiders. In this world, China is already ruled by foreign invaders who are too occupied with maintaining their minority rule to worry about invading additional countries, which has correlations to real Chinese history in our world. The Qing Dynasty was constantly occupied with quashing rebellions against Manchurian rule, which made the idea of expanding overseas to Europe impossible. My upcoming comic book will focus on this conflict.
In my series, I have written in the West as a third party that is interested in the riches of China. Some Westerners have allied themselves with the Empire, while some have allied themselves with the rebels. It is also interesting that you mentioned the Renaissance. One of the Westerner characters in the story is a descendant of Leonardo DaVinci. She is of course allied with the good guys in the story. Perhaps DaVinci’s flying machine will come into play in this world as well.
Finally, in the series, China does not colonize the West but it does become a bully to its neighbors. There is a female pirate character from India who fights against unfair trade treaties imposed by the Imperial Chinese.
I notice that despite the use of Western representational painting techniques, your work also embraces elements of Chinese painting such as the uniform isometric viewpoint. What are some of the other technical or philosophical elements in your work that derive from Chinese tradition?
My signature stamp would be the most obvious element that is derived from Chinese paintings. I also enjoy the use of negative space and calligraphy. I should add that the calligraphy was done by my father. I can read and write Chinese, but I have no calligraphy ability, which is of course a distinct art form in Chinese culture. I had him write the calligraphy, and then I painted what he wrote. I think he enjoys being part of my work.
Have you read Ken Liu’s outstanding novel The Grace of Kings? Liu calls his book a “silkpunk” novel. He does an interesting thing with technology by having a fanciful culture inspired by Chinese civilization achieving many of the same military and engineering accomplishments of the Industrial Revolution. However, they are achieved with fanciful, but logical and plausible, technological inventions that use materials such as bamboo and silk that have long traditions in Chinese civilization, rather than using technologies that first developed in the West (in our world). His technologies are thus harmonious with the culture that produced them. Your Chinese steampunk pieces, on the other hand, seem to embrace an uncomfortable clash between natural materials and fine Chinese ornamentation on the one hand and heavy, noisy, belching mechanical elements on the other hand. Was this tension intentional?
I am aware of Ken’s work. I actually did a small ink piece for his short story, “Good Hunting,” which I really enjoyed. The clash of natural materials with rustic and heavy machinery in my work is absolutely intentional. As I talked about earlier, I wanted to show that modernization is possible while keeping our traditions. To show that, merging the two clashing visuals into something that is pleasing is a goal I set out to accomplish. I should also note that to help visualize these concepts, research is very important. I read up on how a steam engine functions, its history and limitations. I embellished the visuals with fantastical elements, but I always kept in mind that, in order to convince the viewer to believe in the unbelievable, I have to base it on real function and real history.
In the science fiction/fantasy community in the West, there is a lot of discussion about the issues of diversity, cultural appropriation, and the colonial gaze. Is this an issue that you feel as an artist living in Hong Kong? How do you feel when non-Chinese artists take on Chinese material? Are there examples where you feel that the artist “got it right”? Honest answer.
Oh, for sure there are examples where non-Chinese create visuals that reduce Chinese culture to a joke. Characters whose only personality is “being Chinese” as if that’s a real person. It’s hard to find an Asian character who is not a hot chick, nerd, chef, or Kung Fu guy. I tried to stay away from these types of themes in my work. Instead, I tried to explore things such wedding traditions in Bridal Carriage, and Chinese superstition in Exorcist.
To be honest, it’s hard to find examples where I feel they “got it right” completely. One exception might be the Kung Fu Panda series. It is ironic because Kung Fu and pandas are probably some of the most stereotypical things about Chinese culture. However, they got a lot of the details correct: the pronunciation, the small visuals, the colors and themes. I think it is okay to use some generic visuals or characteristics, as long as that is not the only thing there, and the culture isn’t reduced to serve as a joke or plot point.
What are some of the common mistakes or clichés that non-Chinese artists should avoid when representing Chinese material? Honest answer.
The font! The red calligraphy delivery menu font that looks like slices of oranges is non-existent in Hong Kong or anywhere in Asia. At least I have never seen it. Nonetheless, it is always there when a non-Chinese tries to create a Chinese visual. A lot of Chinese-owned businesses in the West use that font, but I think that they are simply relying on that as an easy way to identify themselves to non-Chinese because the association is already ingrained in the West. I don’t think it’s offensive or anything dramatic, I just think it’s not needed and overused.
Is there currently an identifiable aesthetic to science fiction/fantasy illustration, manga, or anime coming out of Hong Kong that is distinct from what other Asian cultures are producing? If so, how would you articulate the differences? And where do you feel you fit, in relation to that aesthetic?
Yes, Hong Kong comics have a distinct style that looks like ink and watercolor. The drawing and proportions are similar to American comics but the coloring looks much more traditional. Themes usually revolve around fantasy in ancient China with magical weapons and secret martial art techniques. Hong Kong comic legend Ma Wing Shing’s Stormrider series is unforgettable. The art is amazing and I feel it is criminally underrated by comic fans. I myself have not thought about producing a Hong Kong-style comic book. Even the book I’m working on now is more Western in art style mainly because I’m better at Western painting. However, I have made it a point not to use too much hard-edge ink like in the Marvel and DC books. I want to try to maintain a softer feel to the work so it resembles traditional Chinese artwork more.
What are some things that influenced your work?
This list can go on forever. One that comes to mind is William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Blake explored the idea of growing up as an adult with experience while maintaining a child’s curiosity and innocence. An example would be riding a bicycle. If you ask an adult who does not know how to ride a bike to hop on and try it, most of them would decline because they fear falling or looking foolish. However, a child would probably hop on and hurt himself a few times but learn to ride the bike in the end. The adult’s decision is rooted in experience, knowing that falling hurts, and looking foolish sucks. The child’s decision is rooted in innocence and curiosity. To mature as a person, it’s best to have the heart of a child but the experience of an adult. Try and experiment with new things and learn from everything, but have the knowledge to prepare yourself for the endeavor. Every single new piece of art I do, I try something I have never done before to make myself uncomfortable so I can learn. I do a ton of research first so I’m not just blindly hopping on a bike and falling all over the place. I don’t think my clients would like that.
Another thing that has helped me as a freelancer is martial arts. It really taught me self-discipline. As I am my own boss in my work, I have to schedule everything myself to make sure I’m on task.
Recently I’ve been a big fan of the phrase “progress over perfection.” To me, the finished artwork is just the by-product. It is the development of skills and understanding during the production that is the art. If I strive for perfection in the product, I will never be happy with my work. However, if I strive for progress within my production, I will always improve. If I were to determine that I’ve reached “perfection,” I would cease to be an artist because I’m “done.” However, striving for progress is never-ending. I would prefer never to reach perfection and instead keep progressing forever.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wished I had?
My Imperial Steam and Light project is now heading to the next step as a comic book. I’ve written a story and 250 years of alternate history and designed the main characters. You can check out some drafts at bit.ly/imperial_steam. It’s a large page with lots of images so please let it load for a few seconds.
Also very important, my favorite food is meatball sub.
What project would you most like to work in the future?
I’m working on my dream project now: my own story, my own characters and robots, my own world. I would love to find publishers willing to be part of it. I currently have twelve chapters planned. I’m thinking of funding the first three chapters via Kickstarter. You can support me for now by giving me some feedback via social media!
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