I had the chance to attend the opening of Jeremy Nguyen and Amy Hwang’s fantastic new cartoon exhibit, Asian Babies, at the the Pearl River Mart Gallery last week. I asked Amy to give us her thoughts on putting together the show and about the history of Asian cartoonists in The New Yorker. If you’re in NYC, the show runs through January 12, 2020.
When I started drawing cartoons for The New Yorker in 2010, I did not think much of the fact that I was possibly the only cartoonist of Asian* descent contributing at the time. It was hard enough to get into the magazine, so I was mainly focused on staying in it by consistently sending in cartoon batches hoping that more would sell. Eventually, I realized I was an anomaly. Being the only Asian New Yorker cartoonist contributing at that time, I felt pressure to keep producing cartoons as if I was an endangered species.
My cartoons are not explicitly “Asian” in topic or style, and without seeing my surname at the bottom corner of my drawings, most people probably wouldn’t think that I am Asian-American at all. I decided from the beginning to sign my cartoons legibly with my full name so that anyone seeing them would surmise that I was both female and Asian, both of which are underrepresented groups among cartoonists. I did this in hopes that there might be some recognition of that fact even if it was subconscious. I also did this so my friends wouldn’t ask me which cartoons were mine. But they still did.
Nearly ten years later, there are now several New Yorker cartoonists of Asian descent currently contributing to the magazine. Many, like myself, are based in the United States: Colin Tom, Jeremy Nguyen, Christine Mi, Suerynn Lee, and Evan Lian. Alice Cheng and Hartley Lin are in Canada, and Maddie Dai is a Kiwi living in England. All of them seem young to me. Or rather, I feel old next to them. But I am still caught off guard when any of them will mention my work as if it has been around forever. The passage of time is funny that way. I was well into adulthood when my first cartoon was printed in the magazine, but many of them were practically kids.
Jeremy Nguyen approached me a little over a year ago to curate Asian Babies with him. He had the idea to have a group show featuring New Yorker cartoonists of Asian descent, and the Pearl River Mart Gallery was the perfect venue for our small group. The exhibition developed organically. When we started planning, we had about five cartoonists. In late 2018 and into 2019, four more had their first cartoons printed in The New Yorker, so we added them. There is no way of knowing if we included every cartoonist of Asian descent in the show, but we tried our best by looking at everyone’s surnames which certainly isn’t 100 percent foolproof.
One month before the show was slated to open, Jeremy came across the name Monroe Leung. He was listed with other cartoonists who had had only one cartoon published in The New Yorker. His cartoon was published in 1949. Jeremy was able to contact Monroe’s daughter Corinne Leung Katow with the help of cartoonist Michael Maslin, and we secured permission to include Monroe’s New Yorker cartoon and other works of his in our show. I think people will be as surprised as we were when they discover his works among the others. In my view, he was years ahead of his time.
Monroe passed away in 2004, several years before my first cartoon was printed in The New Yorker. And while he may have been the only New Yorker cartoonist of Asian descent in his lifetime, I take comfort in knowing he is no longer alone today.
*Asian in this article refers to East Asian and Southeast Asian
— By Amy Hwang
Asian Babies: Works from Asian New Yorker Artists
Pearl River Mart Gallery
395 Broadway, NYC
Open every day, 10 a.m. to 7:20 p.m. Free and open to the public.