Kei Lam, illustrator, tells us about her life as a Hong Konger who grew up in France

Kei Lam born in Hong Kong arrived in Paris at the age of 6. A talented illustrator and author, she has published banana girl and The Flavors of Concretegraphic novels that transcribe the experience of the new generation of the Chinese diaspora in France.

“Hong Kong is who I am”

You moved to France when you were still little, do you remember your life in Hong Kong?

“Yes of course, especially in Banana Girl, and Saveurs du Béton I talk about those memories. I remember the crowds and the food everywhere. (laughs) I think that’s what is most characteristic of Hong Kong I remember brunch or eat dim sums all together with my family. I have a lot of memories from Hong Kong. So, is it still the Hong Kong of today, I cannot say. I love Hong Kong, it’s a city that I think represents who I am. It’s a special place, a bit messy but wild and natural. It’s rare, I think there are few cities in the world that bring together the city, the sea, the mountains… it remains a place that is dear to me.”

How do you think your life as a native Hong Konger who grew up in France is similar to that of French expatriates in Hong Kong?

The major common point that I see is uprooting. These completely opposite cultures necessarily created a form of change of scenery on both sides. And this uprooting I think can lead to a form of loneliness at times because few people understand it. But it’s still very joyful and very rich!

“I wanted to focus on the vision of young people today.”

banana girl and The flavors of concrete are very autobiographical graphic novels, why publish something so personal?

So I don’t think it’s that personal. In the sense that lots of people share my experience, and that this life story is part of a time when migrations are increasing. Today more and more of us are uprooted. For me, this is the major challenge for the years to come, and this trend has already begun. I have the feeling that a lot of people live these situations there and that it is just little written or publicized. In France I have known very few stories that speak of my generation, I have only seen representations of that of my parents. I wanted to emancipate myself from this historical inking and take an interest in the vision of today’s young people. I found few models of representation. Out of modesty and shyness I decided to use my experience with that of my parents as a witness to history.

You talk a lot about your parents in your novels, are they proud of your books?

I have the particularity of having a painter father so I think that already made things easier. They are very encouraging. And as I received a prize this year in Angoulême with the Museum of the History of Immigration, they are very proud. They know there are few stories like that.

“Yellow on the outside, white on the inside”

Your father is an artist. Did you also want to follow in his footsteps?

So not at all. Precisely because my father was an artist, I saw all the troubles that entailed, I knew that it was a difficult job made only for enthusiasts. At first I wanted to do physics and chemistry, I even worked as an urban engineer. I studied transportation for 6 months in Shanghai. I was not then at all destined for art. But this desire to write a book stayed with me. And I started.

Why these titles? Why banana girl and The flavors of concrete ?

banana girl was obvious to me. The banana is yellow on the outside and white on the inside, so for me it was the embodiment of the interbreeding that I have known. In France they often brought me back to my origins, they asked me where I came from, but I feel French. banana girl for me it embodies not belonging to any history, to any culture and to both at the same time.

The flavors of concrete, it was more of a reflection. But it’s a title that I really like. For me, concrete represents the Parisian suburbs and its somewhat cold appearance. And the flavors in the plural, it was to emphasize its nuances. This suburb is hard but also joyful, I wanted to show these nuances which are too often forgotten in the cinema.

“Paris for someone who dreams of being a painter is paradise”

In relation to your drawing itself. What are your sources of inspiration? Your influences?

I go to museums a lot, I read a lot, my interest in certain subjects is a bit obsessive. My inspirations are in the people I meet, the conversations I have, cinema… It’s constant, it doesn’t stop.

In your graphic novels you explain that you moved to Paris following your father’s dream as a painter. The Paris your father dreamed of, do you understand it after growing up there?

Completely. I understand that Paris can make people dream. When you go to the Musée d’Orsay, the Arts Déco… you see that the history is extremely rich, so for someone who dreams of becoming a painter, it’s paradise. In Hong Kong I didn’t find a lot of artistic things compared to Paris. So yes I understand it.

“When you want to tell stories, regardless of the medium”

For our readers who haven’t read you yet, can you describe your books in three words?

It’s hard to limit them to three words (laughs). But I will say, they are light, multicultural and testimonials.

Which of your volumes is your favorite?

I’ll say that’s gonna be my next. My writing desires today have changed, and I see what I need to improve.

So what are your next projects?

I’m working on a third, less autobiographical book. It’s a parenthesis that allows me to test something else. And at the moment I turn to the cinema. When you want to tell stories, whatever the medium. I want to explore the world of cinema that I know little about. And see what my look can bring to it but also how this new creative aspect can enrich me as an artist. I don’t know where I’m going yet. But I understood that it is necessary to have fun and to learn, more than to fix concrete objectives of results.

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