Through independently publishing her own hand-made comics and zines, Kaitlin Chan provides a space where individuals can feel seen and represented, and tells the kind of stories she wishes she’d been told earlier in her life. She tells Ryan Cahill why queer people need spaces where they’re free to be themselves, especially in her home of Hong Kong.
Raised by a Chinese-Australian mother and a Cantonese father, Hong Kong artist Kaitlin Chan first became interested in art as a child when she experimented with making her own picture books, but she always felt that her passion was undervalued. At school, sports and music were favored over traditional art forms, and there was a sense that it wasn’t a realistic aspiration to become a jobbing artist. It wasn’t until she was at university, surrounded by like-minded queer individuals, that she started to hone her artistic flair and find her niche.
These days, she’s established her own personal aesthetic, with work that champions and builds on the banal. Honing in on everyday encounters and occurrences, fans of her work find a sense of familiarity in her illustrations. Through independently published comics and zines, individuals can see themselves in her narratives, whether that’s coming to terms with their bisexuality or relating to insights on mental health issues. She isn’t afraid to share things she’s found embarrassing, and her self-proclaimed unpolished approach only adds to the charm. “I want people to see my work and feel like it’s OK to not be that good [at something],” she says. “I’ve always felt like I’m not actually very skilled at art. I think it’s gross to strive to be better than other people because I don’t really want to be better than anyone else, I want to be OK.”
Themes of queerness and sexuality are the undercurrents to a lot of Kaitlin’s output, and it’s clear she’s an advocate for equal rights, especially in Hong Kong where attitudes to queerness are arguably behind those of the Western world. Having been raised in a Christian family, she admits that she was embarrassed at first to openly talk and share work about queer feelings, but as her queerness has become more entwined with how she sees the world and interprets her feelings, it’s become easier to explore. “I think even if I wasn’t queer, I would definitely feel that the gender binary is a really disruptive thing. I’ve seen the way it has caused a lot of problems in a lot of people's lives. It’s making people feel depressed, upset and insufficient, and I feel like all my work is trying to prevent that,” she says.
When it comes to her creative process, she has a very linear way of working. She uses a photo album on her phone as an ever-burgeoning mood board. This contains colors, patterns and typography that catches her eye and that she then uses as a source of inspiration. In her comics, she will often try and map out the entire scenario through text first, before free-hand drawing the imagery afterwards. “When I’m drawing, I feel like I’m trying to beat the voice in my head. I have to be faster than my doubt, so I think a lot of my work reflects that urgency, where the lines are a little bit expressive or deranged.” She says, explaining that while the drawing process is frantic, it’s also therapeutic, giving her the opportunity to dream up new narratives and bend the realities of her experiences. “A lot of people think my work is autobiographical but it’s more like autofiction. I sometimes alter events to reflect the way I would have liked them to have gone. In a comic you can make yourself look more composed, smart or witty and there’s something funny about that, about sitting in that discomfort and trying to rewrite the narrative from a different perspective.”
Sharing queer narratives beyond her own is also something that Kaitlin is particularly passionate about. In June 2018, she co-founded Queer Reads Library with Beatrix Pang and Rachel Lau, a new initiative created as a push-back against the increasing censorship of queer materials in Hong Kong. Through donations and their own private libraries, she and her friends have collated a series of LGBTQ+ materials that they take to events, pop-ups and showcases, giving individuals the opportunity to explore some of China’s queer history. Hong Kong has some of the most expensive housing in the world, meaning that many people live with their parents into their 30s, and they often crave a space to be able to express their queerness openly and honestly. Kaitlin hoped the library would be an antidote to that. “It isn’t just a space to gather, but a mental space where people don’t feel attacked or harassed or made fun of or degraded, so I just think that if there’s a space in art and literature where that is happening, I want to facilitate that connection for people.”
Despite the success of Queer Reads Library and her prior projects, she’s already looking ahead to the next project, which she assures is her most ambitious yet. For the past two years, she’s been working on a graphic novel about how queerness and friendship expand our possibilities for being. As part of the project, she’s interviewed eight queer people within her community, but the book has also been an opportunity to write about her own life experiences and address some of the raw, unprocessed feelings that she’s been harbouring. “[Working on this project has been] good for my own mental health. I was really unsure about the project at first because books that are primarily about friendship and community are sometimes not as commercially appealing, but maybe that is what makes it interesting! I hope with this book, people can understand that by loving your queer friends, you’re learning to love yourself.”