The HK illustrator strives to preserve culinary heritage through art

Young artist Tam Ka-yan is on a mission to reconnect Hong Kongers with their culinary heritage by combining her love of food and personal identity through her online illustrations.

With nearly 170,000 followers on her Instagram account, the Hong Kong-born artist began her journey in 2019 when she started posting her illustrations on the platform.

A high school student at the time, Tam, now 20, began documenting the delicious food she came across in her daily life while experimenting with different art styles that eventually evolved into the watercolor style she is known for today.

Hong Kong-born illustrator Tam Ka-yan poses for a photo in Hakone in Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture in September 2023. (Photo courtesy of Tam Ka-yan) (Kyodo)

“With my art, I hope to take documenting food to a different level by illustrating it and trying to remember what I tasted in the dish,” she said, filling her Instagram account with colorful images of her favorite dishes, including traditional Hong Kong bakery items as well as memorable meals from cafes she patronized.

There she also owns her own small business, an online pop-up store under the same Instagram account name, where she occasionally sells merchandise of her designs, such as keychains, stickers, and recently a new line of bags.

The illustrator says her current art style is heavily inspired by the Studio Ghibli films she grew up watching, including My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo and Kiki’s Delivery Service, which helped foster a deep rating for the animation.

From the intricate hand-drawn designs to the heartfelt moments captured on screen, Studio Ghibli films have become a source of inspiration for Tam, who is currently an exchange student in Japan.

She recalls visiting the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo during her high school years, where she saw firsthand the sketches and artwork that formed the backbone of her favorite childhood films.

“After visiting this museum, I started to think more about the feelings that Studio Ghibli films can not only evoke in people, but also create personal connections, in addition to the ‘magical moments’ they create in their films,” he adds she .

Tam’s artistic influences also include the Japanese artist Mao Momiji, who is known for his realistic art style and everyday food illustrations, as well as the packaging and design of Japanese food products.

She also found a deep resonance in the Japanese craft culture that embodies dedication, experience and passion in various artistic fields, striving to cultivate a similar attitude of pride and enthusiasm in her own artistic journey.

“I think the Japanese have a very driven and determined attitude about honing their craft and gaining expertise in their fields, especially art and culinary (skills),” she says.

One of Tam’s most notable projects is her “Toast Project,” which she began on the advice of Madison Moore, an artist-scholar and assistant professor of contemporary culture and media at Brown University in the United States.

Digital painting of Hong Kong bakeries by Tam Ka-yan posted to Instagram on Nov 21, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Tam Ka-yan) (Kyodo)

Moore previously taught at the University of Southern California, where Tam studied art and East Asian cultures. The project involved painting toast almost every day, treating each piece as a blank canvas to reflect her background, upbringing and taste preferences.

What originally started as a 30-day challenge has now grown to 250 drawings per toast, and through this project, meticulously documented on Instagram, Tam is able to showcase her artistic growth and collaborate with home cooks and food content creators.

After moving to the United States in 2021 for her studies, Tam began to understand the power of art and social media, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she began posting drawings of Hong Kong bakeries.

“I started getting a lot more messages from Hong Kongers living abroad,” she says. “Being able to trigger these memories and emotions from art was a revelation that … art is important.”

In September, Tam began her one-year exchange program at Waseda University in Tokyo, where she hopes to work with artists and deepen her understanding of Japanese society, as well as connect with small local cafe owners, helping them promote their businesses before her followers through her art.

Although Tam said she is fascinated by Japanese culture and has expressed a desire to live and work in various East Asian countries, she said a sense of nostalgia and a deep connection to her birthplace will always draw her back to Hong Kong.

With the city’s vibrant food scene and the rise of foodie Instagram accounts, Tam hopes to build and connect with her community by capturing the essence of each dish through her illustrations.

As a proud Hong Kong resident, Tam also feels a responsibility to promote small food businesses in the city, while shedding light on its often underrepresented culture and sharing his cultural roots.

“I hope to become someone that the younger generation would admire and look up to and be a source of inspiration,” she said. “As someone born and raised in Hong Kong…I’m proud to be from Hong Kong and happy to call this my home. It’s part of my identity.”

(Tam Ka-yan’s Instagram account is @nomkakaii.)

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