“Hong Kong is kind of…sweaty in a sexy way,” says Kaitlin Chan from her desk chair in a Wan Chai studio. The cartoonist and cultural worker, whose illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker, sits comfortably cross-legged as she describes the emblematic sense of longing in Wong Kar Wai’s film In The Mood for Love as a major source of inspiration for her work.
“I don’t want all my work to be about me, but I feel confident that my lived experience informs a lot of what I like to talk about,” she adds. Chan’s comics hold a bittersweet degree of self deprecating humour. She does so through magnifying the little things — the small, negligible moments that don’t always get a second thought, continuously asking the question of what could’ve been. These include a casual exchange with an old woman at the wet market or a quick remark from a passing stranger.
Chan’s acute desire to notice the unnoticed stems partially from a place of grief. She lost her father at the age of 14 and her college thesis advisor only two years into her first job. It made her reflect, “I wish I paid more attention to the textures and the feeling of being alive on the most boring and mundane days.”
Chan describes her artistic style with the term observationalist. “I can be a bit of a creep sometimes,” she says with a smile. With a strong proponent of people watching by Southorn Stadium and long walks by the waterfront, the artist finds Hong Kong a perpetual source of sensory stimulation. “Hong Kong, to me, has a theatre of the streets,” she says, adding that her art is a way to catch up with all that goes on in the densely populated city.
Much like the local artists around her, Chan characterises the creative energy in Hong Kong as a newtonian pushback to the city’s “hyper-capitalist context… and the high-pressure cooker society.” She recognises the ever-present sense of urgency in Hong Kong, and the city’s burgeoning political and social strife as the ultimate creative force. To Chan, the collective pursuit of individuality in the city’s creative scene is the serendipitous side effect of Hong Kong’s capitalist march towards gentrification — a rage against the machine, as she so candidly puts it.
In her comic Phantom Me, Chan explores a series of hypotheticals that she describes as “an imaginary, better me.” What would it be like if she was an Ivy-League graduate with a stable income? Or married to her high school sweetheart? What would it be like if she never struggled with depression and anxiety? She visualises these thoughts in a collection of pencil drawn illustrations.
Chan shares much of her work on Instagram, a platform she also describes as limiting. While she admits that her traffic on Instagram severely trumps the click rate on her website, she warns of how reductive the content on the site can be. “Humans can be messy, ambivalent, ambiguous, and vague. It’s great to have strong values, but we also contain a lot of fluidity that isn’t very sexy.” It is easy to oversimplify, she contends, but the reduction of all of life’s complexities into a single post isn’t helpful.
As an active member in the local LGBTQ+ community, Chan addresses her experiences as a bisexual cis-female in her work. Fence Sitter, a comic about “one who takes neither side of an argument, but maintains a neutral position; one who is bisexual, or who is uncertain about their sexual orientation,” pinpoints moments where Chan struggled with her identity — both in terms of her sexuality and cultural heritage.
From describing her limited fluency in Chinese as “speaking half a language” to characterising her bisexuality as being “half straight and half queer,” Chan equates the notion of being whole to having a definitive identity. But it’s okay, “now that [she’s] dating someone whose first language is cantonese, [she’s] realising that it’s okay not to always have the words.”
With a poetic love for the clichés of ’90s Hong Kong and a taste for the city’s anarchic creative scene, Kaitlin Chan’s attention to detail strikes a chord in those also struggling with identity and belonging. Her work is precise and unassuming, framing mundanity as curative, bittersweet, and ever-fleeting.
Chan is currently working on a memoir on queerness, friendship and identifying between labels. You can find more of her work on her personal website here.