Add Ink, thick skin, and a reason to laugh: Harry Harrison’s secrets for young artists and Hong Kong

Sketch of Harry Harrison carrying the Facebook sign.
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Photo: Harry Harrison isn’t a big fan of social media, but he does upkeep his Facebook profile / Harry Harrison

For those who read the SCMP Harry Harrison‘s work needs no introduction. But for the uninitiated: he’s the cartoonist who’s been making those terribl(ly funny) political cartoon caricatures for the South China Morning Post for over 20 years. As far as Hong Kong English news goes, it’s impossible to have missed his cartoons – they’re literally everywhere from the SCMP, to The Guardian, The Asia Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine.

He’s also well known for the book Make Room! Make Room! published in 1966 – oh wait no he’s not. That’s just what the Guardian said. He is, however, also a children’s book illustrator which works oddly well despite his grotesque art style (naturally cleaned up for the kids). 

Harry’s View: May 2021 / South China Morning Post

In his artist biography, Harry says he was “banished to the colonies in the early 90s for crimes against art [and continues] to toil away in a far-flung corner of a foreign field that is forever England.” 

This is perhaps what really sets him apart in Hong Kong – he’s the last holdout of this older, colonial, English society in HK, able to comment on modern politics with a voice that’s biting but also sort of from a past era. Fat Chinese men in vests talking about politics, calling each other ‘mate’; policemen in riot gear pointing at kids calling them ‘sonny’, and giant pandas giving the stinky eye to Uncle Sam all come to life with Harry’s politically critical eye. 

While one hand illustrates the Chinese Zodiac for kids, the other is making caricatures of Carrie Lam and Joshua Wong alike with punchlines so British, it’s a surprise the National Security Law hasn’t been invoked at least ironically. His art is dark, dirty, biting, topical and full of local humour only a true ‘gweilo’, an Old China Hand, forever tainted by the flickering neon lights of Pax Britannica can create. 

Harry Harrison’s Illustration from Sarah Brennan’s ‘A Dirty Story’ / Sarah Brennan Blog

HT readers receive 10% off of Harry Harrison’s new book Add Ink: Cartoon chronicles of life in Hong Kong with the code HARBOURTIMES10.

These interview highlights have been edited for clarity and brevity.  

HT: How have protests and the pandemic affected your work over the last two years?

HH: It was hard to find another story that was more prominent than either of those ones. So it went from nearly a year of protests – very rarely would you do a cartoon outside of the protests – and suddenly it was COVID-19.

Usually, you get a bit of leeway with big events like [the mass protests and COVID-19]. Usually, you get a year or two where nothing really happens and you jump around different stories all the time – but that went from a marathon of protest cartoons straight into a marathon of COVID-19 cartoons, so it actually does affect the cartoon. For a start, there’s just no room for variety because often it keeps moving all the time.

There are only so many angles to the story and you really have to start looking for new angles. You have to keep jumping around to make it more interesting each time [and] make parallels between things.

“Better the devil you know” / Harry Harrison

HT: Have the major events in HK over the last two years affected your outlook on your illustrations?

HH: Certain topics you can be very direct with when you need to be then when other stuff comes up you have to dance around a bit more and be more artful about how you come across with your ideas … it makes you work harder.

HT: Have you been able to take away something positive from your challenges with these “certain topics”?

HH: I think there’s always something positive to be taken from a challenge like that… what you do is there’s always something else in HK that you can draw a parallel. you relate the same situation to an everyday life thing … and the implication is clear is that it’s not actually what’s going on in their lives is what’s going on elsewhere so you can make the comment but never having to mention the thing it’s about.

HT: How do you handle all the negative feedback?

HH: Before I ever did something like cartoons – when I was just illustrating – if you’re going to work as an artist, as an illustrator, or a cartoonist, you really have to develop a thick skin quite early because it’s not a question of you drawing something and everyone going, “Wow that’s really nice.” They’re going to change it, they’re going to criticise it, and you’re going to build up a resistance to any sort of criticism over the years.

Anything is better than being ignored, especially when you’re doing cartoons. Either way, I don’t mind if someone hates them or likes my cartoons, as long as they don’t ignore them.

“Hong Kong’s a very resilient place … It’ll always be a special place, I think, and the sort of spirit of Hong Kong can’t be trodden into the ground quite so easily.”

Harry Harrison

HT: Do you have any advice for young cartoonists?

HH: One thing is you really do have to grow a thick skin. Don’t worry about what people say. As soon as you start worrying about that then you’re not going to be willing to put your work forward; you have to do something else because it’s not a job where you’re not going to get criticised all the time. The other interesting thing is when you’re doing satirical cartoons, be more circumspective – don’t go head-on, go around the sides of the subject. You can still make the same point without being really blatantly obvious, rabid or attacking someone.

HT: Has it been harder for you to “skirt” around stricter press freedoms?

HH: Well I’m very good at skirting [laughs] but no one knows what’s going to happen in terms of that and I’m just going to bat on doing what I do for as long as I can do it. Hong Kong’s a very resilient place … and we’ll see what happens you know. It’ll always be a special place, I think, and the sort of spirit of Hong Kong can’t be trodden into the ground quite so easily.

HT: If readers could only take one lesson away from your book, Add Ink, what would it be?

HH: As grim as things get there’s always need to be room for a bit of a laugh. It doesn’t triviliase a topic, I think. You need to get a laugh out of some things because otherwise, you’ll cry, so I don’t think humour trivialises events if you do it right … there should be room for some levity.

You can listen to more of Harry Harrison’s interview on our latest podcast episode. HT readers receive 10% off of Harry Harrison’s new book ‘Add Ink: Cartoon Chronicles of Life in Hong Kong’ with the code HARBOURTIMES10 here.

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