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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?