It's a Hard Place to Raise Hackles
American expatriate Larry Feign pokes fun at British and Chinese with his rapier-sharp pen. HONG KONG: CARTOONIST
BACK in his native America, cartoonist Larry Feign fired such acid satire from his pen that he was kicked out of high school and vilified in college. In Hong Kong, Mr. Feign has dressed the colony's British governor in heart-emblazoned pajamas and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in an Iron Lady leotard and cape. But his cartoons have yet to provoke the umbrage he is accustomed to.
``Here, it doesn't matter what I say. It makes no difference in the world; the people in power who are looking at this stuff just ignore it,'' says Feign.
Feign has been inspired by the Beijing students' struggle this spring for democratic reform. And, despite the apparent indifference of the colony's rulers, he has sharpened the political irony of the situation in ``The World of Lily Wong,'' a daily cartoon in the territory's largest English-language newspaper.
``Lily Wong is the one section of the morning paper I turn to every day,'' said Martin Lee Chuming, a legislator and the leader of an alliance aiming to promote democracy in China.
Feign, who has emerged as a champion-in-levity for the territory's liberal movement, says his political conviction has swelled along with that of hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents. He says he felt this resolve most poignantly during a rally of more than 1 million Hong Kong residents on June 4 as China's Army wound up its massacre of liberal activists in Beijing.
``I had tears in my eyes, not just for the people in Tiananmen Square, but to see Hong Kong people politically aroused, pointing their fingers at Beijing and demanding that Britain do something to protect Hong Kong,'' he says.
Spotlighting official folly or frailty, Feign has recently lampooned the way British officials submit to Beijing, the reluctance of British rulers to foster democracy in Hong Kong before China regains control in 1997, and the campaign of China's leadership to whitewash the June 3-4 massacre.
Feign's trademark is a sort of Pacific Rim revue of oriental and occidental faux pas. He alternately highlights the gaffs of one culture according to the standards of the other, underlining the absurdity of racial prejudice and the shared humanity of Asians and Westerners.
Some foreign residents of Hong Kong consider Feign's books, ``Aieeyaaa!'' and ``Aieeyaaa! Not Again'' (``Aieeyaaa'' loosely translates from Cantonese as ``Oh, No!''), required reading for new expatriates. Sales of ``Aieeyaaa!'' have exceeded 16,000 copies, making it one of the best-selling English language books ever published in the territory.
Much of the humor from Feign's early cartoons springs from the refusal of Lily, a secretary at a government office, to swoon to the courting of a hapless American expatriate. For this cross-cultural romance Feign drew from his own marriage since 1983 to a native Hong Kong Cantonese.
Feign says he has inhabited a ``twilight zone'' of bicultural hilarity since moving to Hong Kong in 1985 to be with his wife's family. Living in two worlds at once - that of foreigners and local Chinese - Feign gathers attitudes on expatriates from his Cantonese in-laws and views on Cantonese from his expatriate friends.
The cartoons spoof the clash of Cantonese and expatriate cultures so candidly that a local newspaper columnist labeled Feign, who used his Chinese pen name at the time, an ``anti-foreigner racist.''
Yet Feign's early work in the United States often satirized human frailties rather than cultural disparities. In grade school Feign created a character called ``Hoiman the Mouse'' and with a friend sold a monthly, two-page squib called ``Dum'' for five cents.
``That was my first professional cartooning experience and when `Dum' folded my career went downhill for the next 17 years,'' he says.
In high school, as the ``resident hippie outcast'' in Tustin, Calif., Feign printed an underground newspaper that twitted teachers into eventually giving him a harsh lesson in the adversities of running a free press. He was expelled for passing out copies of the newspaper.
``They claimed that the newspaper broke 35 federal, state, and local laws,'' Feign says. ``I was the only one who ever got expelled from there for a white-collar crime. The principal was convinced that I was the leader of a communist conspiracy.''
Feign went to Berkeley and soon dropped out. He hitchhiked around the country and enrolled at Goddard College, where he single-handedly turned the school's two-page weekly newsletter into a 16-page magazine of reviews, satire, and a source of small-town controversy.
Feign ridiculed students studying ``alternative energy'' who moved about campus in a van rather than on foot. He derided the ``cultural imperialists'' at the college radio station who rambled on about New York City discos to an audience primarily made up of Vermont farmers. Dozens of enraged students summoned Feign to a meeting and demanded that he resign the editorship.
``I can't help it, I see this hypocrisy and I can't help it - I seem to get people mad wherever I go.''
Everywhere but Hong Kong.
Feign says he has trouble raising hackles in Hong Kong because the colony's benevolent despots have long observed a tradition of tolerance or plain indifference to criticism from those they rule.
Also, the ringing of cash registers drowns out any laughter over Feign's political satire. Although hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents this spring rallied in support of China's democracy movement, they still seek power in moneymaking rather than politicking, he says.
Yet Feign appears to underestimate the political punch of Lily Wong.
``In terms of political effectiveness, one cartoonist is often more powerful that 10 editorial writers, and the satire of some of Feign's cartoons is quite effective,'' says Mr. Lee, the legislator and a leader of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China.
While Lily Wong may not affect decisions of the British crown or Chinese rulers, Feign says he expects to at least stir up his peers.
``My only hope is to arouse some expatriates here; to make them take a stronger stance and care a little bit more about this place so they don't just treat Hong Kong like one long tea party.''