For two years in a row, I saw Kam Mak unveil the Lunar New Year stamp in front of the teachers, students, parents and grandparents of PS 124 in Chinatown during their annual New Year celebration.
I remember Principal Alice Hom introducing Kam to the children, saying to them "Maybe someday, this could be you." So great that the school would publicly acknowledge the accomplishments of an artist. And being a lover of stamps, I thought it would be worthwhile to interview him for Creative Times at some point.
During this past summer, I kept seeing someone who looked a lot like Kam in the Carroll Gardens Park. He was usually playing basketball with two boys. Finally, I approached him and it did turn out to be Kam with his son and son's friend. Little did I know, he lived only a few streets away from me!
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Kam in his artist studio in the top floor of his home, and gathered some information about his work and his life.
How Kam Landed the Job of Designing the Lunar New Year Stamp Series
As Kam shares, "There is little in the U.S. that celebrates the contributions of the Chinese to this country." It was this fact which motivated the OCA (Organization of Chinese in America) to lobby the United States Postal service in the 1980s to do something which would acknowledge Chinese heritage. The USPS decided that the Lunar New Year would be a good vehicle to celebrate the richness of Chinese culture. After the first series of Lunar New Year stamps was completed in 2004, the OCA lobbied for a second series and Kam was chosen to do this next group of 12 stamps which would run from 2008 - 2019.
Kam, who has worked in conjunction on the project with USPS Art Director Ethel Kessler, states that the Lunar New Year stamps have been a huge source of pride for the Chinese community. "The stamps have been mentioned in most Chinese newspapers in New York," Kam shares. He also relays his hope that people in the U.S. who don't celebrate the Lunar New Year will develop an appreciation for Chinese culture and history.
Kam is sometimes asked why he does not make the Chinese Zodiac animals more central to the design of the stamps. His response? After decades of celebrating the Lunar New Year, he feels that the animal is just a small part of the symbolism of the celebration. According to Kam, There are actually other symbols which just as powerfully convey the essence of the New Year and the beauty of the Chinese culture.
A Little About Kam's Life
Kam is also a celebrated children's book illustrator who wrote and did the artwork for My Chinatown based on his own experiences growing up there. In 1971, when Kam Mak was 10 years old, he and his family moved from Hong Kong to New York's Chinatown. Kam said it was quite the dangerous neighborhood back then, full of gang violence. His mom worked 6 days a week 12 hours a day in a sweatshop. His dad lived mostly in a bunkhouse in Long Island, where he worked in a restaurant. He came home one day a week to be with the family.
Kam's dad, who passed away a few years ago, ultimately became the person who took care of Kam's children when they were very young. The death, according to Kam, hit his now teenage son particularly hard.
Kam's mom, who lives in Chinatown, is extremely proud of the fact that her son has been publicly lauded by Chinese organizations and newspapers for his honor of being chosen to create the Lunar New Year stamp series. According to Kam, the public recognition helped his mom feel connected to her son's choice to make art his central work.
Kam is married to illustrator Mari Takabayashi, who created the children's books I Live in Brooklyn and I Live in Tokyo. Kam and Mari have a son in middle school and a daughter who is in high school.
For more information about Kam, visit his website: http://www.kammak.net/