by April Xu, Sing Tao Daily, Jan. 10,2018
The following translation is a condensed version of a story about Kam Mak, the New York-based designer behind the new Year of the Dog stamp. The story was written by April Xu and appeared in Sing Tao Daily:
The U.S. Postal Service is slated to unveil its Year of the Dog stamp on Jan. 11 in Honolulu, Hawaii, to celebrate the upcoming Lunar New Year. It is the 11th of the second set of the Chinese zodiac series of stamps that USPS has issued annually since 1993. Kam Mak, born in Hong Kong and a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology who has designed this and other stamps in the set, shared the story behind the stamps with Sing Tao.
The first set of 12 zodiac stamps, designed by Chinese-Hawaiian designer Clarence Lee, was first introduced in 1993 and issued for 12 consecutive years. Since 2008, USPS has been working with Mak to launch the second set.
Mak, 56, moved to the U.S. with his parents from Hong Kong when he was 10. He showed great interest and talent in drawing as a child. After graduating from the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Mak was admitted to the School of Visual Arts and became one of the six freshmen who received a full scholarship that year.
After graduation, he taught at the school for two years before he took the teaching position at FIT. He is also a renowned children’s book author. “My Chinatown: One Year in Poems,” an illustrated picture and poetry book by Mak that pays homage to Manhattan’s Chinatown, was selected as the 2002 Parents’ Choice Recommended Award Winner by the Parents’ Choice Foundation.
On the Year of the Dog stamp, which is printed as a Forever stamp that costs 49 cents, Mak presents four Chinese cultural symbols including a paper-cut dog figure at the upper left side, the character for “dog” in Chinese calligraphy, three lucky bamboo stalks tied by a red string in the middle, and the calligraphic character for “fortune” on a piece of red paper.
Mak said the selection and presentation of the symbols were a major challenge during the design process. “The biggest challenge of stamp designing is how to convey your ideas in a space of a square inch,” he said.
Mak said that the zodiac series require the designer not only to think about the composition, but also to understand Chinese culture. The first draft he presented to USPS made officials shake their heads. “No, no. The illustration will lose too many details when printed on stamps,” they told him. Mak started to think about how to simplify the illustration. Then, some people on the design team came up with a good idea: enlarge Mak’s illustration and then take the most explicit part for the stamp.
But this was not the only thing Mak needed to work on. He also had to make his design different from the previous set. “The stamps designed by Clarence focus on the images of the zodiac animals. I wanted to show in mine the variety of the Chinese culture,” said Mak. “So I decided to not put the spotlight on the animals but on other cultural symbols such as peonies, daffodils, oranges, and red envelopes. But not everyone likes the idea.” Mak had to do presentations again and again to explain the meaning of the symbols to the USPS officials and other people who viewed the drafts until they were approved.
In 2010, on the stamp for the Year of the Tiger, Mak drew five white daffodil flowers. “Some people immediately opposed it saying that white is not a blessed color in the Chinese culture, and the white flowers may affect the sales of the stamp,” he said. It was only after he explained that, with the yellow stamens and the white petals, the daffodil flower is also called “jin zhan yin tai” – gold wine cup on a silver plate – in Chinese, and is believed to bring good fortune, did USPS accept the idea.
After he finished the design, Mak was invited to speak at some schools where he shared his thoughts about the design. “In China, everyone knows the origins and meanings of the cultural symbols,” said Mak. “But in the U.S. even Chinese Americans born here may not know much. So I have to explain everything to the audience. After listening to my speech, many people said they like the stamps very much and are enchanted by the Chinese culture.”
The issuance of Chinese zodiac stamps by the USPS is the result of a longtime effort by the Organization of Chinese Americans (now OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates), a major advocacy organization in the Asian community. The organization started to push for the stamps in 1988 under the suggestion of a member in Georgia named Jean Chen who is also a stamp collector.