Born into a fairly traditional Chinese family, but growing up in multicultural Malaysia, artist Kara Yong was often faced with seemingly contradictory expectations as to what kind of person she should try to be. The older women around her would prioritize serving husbands and taking care of children, while the girls her own age were breaking away from this old-fashioned mentality. Here, she tells writer Alix-Rose Cowie how her vivid paintings explore her ongoing search for an understanding of herself in the face of constant questions and endless presumptions.
When illustrator Kara Yong was born, the youngest of three daughters in a Malaysian-Chinese family, her mum named her 嘉 (Jia). “It meant class or elegance,” she says, “a refined beauty, to be her princess. I think it was something she truly aspired for me to be, for my own good. But instead, she gave birth to a rebel.” Today, she goes by Kara.
In her series of self-portraits, Identity, An Optical Delusion, Kara deconstructs the characters of her Chinese name and surname and the expectations and reputation they came with. She asks: “How do we portray ourselves if not by starting with our name, the first representation of what our parents hoped we would become, and what society would recognize us by?” By interrogating her own identity as a millenial Asian woman she creates work that’s relatable beyond just herself.
Kara spent her early years in Kuala Lumpur, growing up in a flat with her family. Her grandmother was seemingly always in the kitchen grinding herbs with pestles and mortars, while her mum looked after the kids. “I used to yell across a balcony to the neighbor’s daughter, then we’d skip down the stairs to a Chinese herbal store to get sweets,” she remembers. Her mum eventually persuaded her dad to save up enough to move the family to a smaller town on the outskirts of the city, with better academic resources and opportunities for Kara and her sisters.
Growing up in a Chinese family in a multicultural country in the 90s, Kara was caught between conflicting information and ideals. Women from older generations, mothers and grandmothers, were serving their husbands while at the same time raising strong, defiant daughters. “We were told to pursue higher education and be independent,” Kara says, “but we still had to dress well and listen to comments like, ‘What kind of girl are you? You’re so sloppy’ or ‘You’re too messy, no man could stand living with you.’”
“Cari makan” is a colloquial Malay term which means to search for food, or less literally, to make a living. Kara’s artwork, Cari Makan, or Find a Husband who does, speaks to these contradictions of independence and subservience she grew up with. In it, a woman wrangles a pair of giant chopsticks to pick up a grain of rice from a steaming bowl. “The rice bowl represents one’s livelihood,” she says. “Growing up I would be lectured with, ‘You haven’t even learnt how to find your own rice yet and you still manage to spend so much money.’ I’m glad that with more opportunities for women, we no longer need to feed our girls the mentality that they must depend on someone else.”
The pressure to make money is a present theme in Kara’s work. In her piece Expectations, a woman’s head is squeezed from behind by a giant hand while Malaysian ringgit banknotes float by. She created the piece to remind other women her age that they’re not alone in facing pressure to afford their own place, or get married or engaged to secure a financial future.
Locked down at home during the pandemic, anxious about finances and what would happen next, Kara started drawing to distract herself. Faced with her own reflection in her flat, day and night, like many of us, she began asking fundamental questions like, “Who am I?” and “What is my story?”. Her identity is the foundation of much of her work. “I spend a lot of time looking back and picking out memories that molded me into who I am now, and convert them into self-portraits,” she says. She wonders how pivotal events in her life — the death of her childhood dog, hiding relationships from her family as a teen, living with depression in her twenties — have shaped her. “I just want to learn how I came to be this person.”
While Kara’s work is personal and specific to where she grew up, it taps into the shared truths of experiencing life as a woman anywhere. As much as her own journey is a source of inspiration for her, the stories of other women are too. “There is a softness, a quiet strength in women that I find beautiful,” she says. “Being a woman myself, it only makes sense that I can relate to all the trapped emotions and struggles, which makes it easier for me to capture them.” Some of her daily drawings in lockdown became a series called Women Rising, in which women from all walks of life are portrayed in vivid colors and empowered poses. “I wanted to see them in an optimistic light, and share that optimism with those who are still struggling.”
“Asian women have grown up through the years with a culture of expectation that’s hard to put into words,” Kara says. Through her work, she’s breaking down a façade built up by years of these expectations. Whether expressing her truth or someone else’s, Kara thinks what ties her works together is honesty. “There are many beautiful works out there, more beautiful than mine,” she says. “But I’m not out to compete in a beauty pageant. I’m out to express an honest point of view.”