No holds barred in cartoon swan song

There is nothing obvious that marks Lily Wong as a threat to national security. The civil-service secretary, who lives with her American husband and their baby in a tiny flat in Kowloon, could be said to live the life of any number of Hong Kong Chinese women. She loves her family, moans about pollution, cares about her appearance and drives a hard bargain. Yet almost two years ago the cartoon character was killed off, an apparent victim of her newspaper's determination not to upset the Chinese government as the handover drew near.

Despite her innocuous life-style, The World of Lily Wong, described as the Doonesbury of the East, always made political waves in Hong Kong. For eight years the strip poked fun at East-West relations as well as at Deng Xiaoping and the People's Liberation Army. Hong Kong Democrat Martin Lee described it as depicting "with sometimes devastating accuracy the foibles of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, Hong Kong's political classes and ordinary Hong Kong people".

"That was my brief, to sail close to the wind," says the cartoon's creator, Larry Feign. A 41-year-old American, Feign came to Hong Kong in 1985 and created Lily soon after. He has frequently been asked whether Lily was based on his Chinese wife, Cathy, but denies this. "Anything coming from Lily Wong comes from me," he says.

Lily had started as a satire on Hong Kong life, but John Dux, Feign's first editor at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, encouraged the cartoonist to be overtly political. "He used to tell me, `make it meaner, make it nastier. If you're not getting at least one hate letter a day you're not doing your job'."

The first signs that this freedom might change came in 1989, when, Feign says, he was asked to "go easier" on China. The following week's cartoons, which dealt with pro-China, anti-democracy business people in Hong Kong, required a certain amount of "clearance" before printing.

But it was in May 1995, prior to publication of a strip which dealt with the use of executed prisoners' organs for transplant, that Feign found his contract abruptly terminated, in a decision widely believed to be political.

The South China Morning Post's editor-in-chief, David Armstrong, ascribed his decision to cost-cutting, despite the obvious profitability of the newspaper (one of the most profitable in the world). Feign promptly offered to continue at a lower rate but this was declined.

"No one ever wanted to rock the boat in Hong Kong, but it's worse than ever. I figured all along that Lily Wong would be cancelled, but I was surprised by the timing and the [way in] which it was done," he says.

Since then, sources at the Post have said the cartoon was "unpopular" - a charge Feign rebuts, pointing to the continuing sales of Lily compilation books. "In Hong Kong, English-language books tend to be considered `best- sellers' if you manage to sell over 2,000. My best-selling Lily Wong book sold 24,000. I have 11 books out, still all in print, still doing well," he says. "Without Lily Wong in the paper I thought the interest would die, but it's really heartening for me to know people still enjoy her."

It is just as well for Feign that his books do well; since the strip was dropped he has not been able to get work as a graphic artist within the territory. "Since Lily Wong left print I've been doing freelance illustration for books and corporate stuff, illustrating books mostly. I'm increasingly involved in the World Wide Web.

"But I don't actually do anything for anyone here. I've been blacklisted across the board. I can't even find commercial work for company newsletters because they're so scared of having this `notorious anti-Communist' even remotely connected with their company. Which is so absurd but that's the way it is. That's the state of mind here."

Feign does not know where his future lies after 1 July. But until then The Independent is helping him to resurrect Lily Wong for the 100 days up to the handover. It will be her swan song, and out of the confines of her natural environment, she can be as irreverent and as political as in her heyday - a prospect the cartoonist relishes.

"A political cartoonist in a civilised country can be quite influential, can really raise the hackles of people in power. Look at Steve Bell and John Major's underpants, or the members of the Bush family who stated publicly how much they hated Doonesbury. I've missed Lily. She'll be in the limelight for three months, which is exciting for me," he says. "In fact, I'll be more free than I was. I won't pull any punches."

Letters, page 16

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