Hong Kong is charged with many meanings for Saiman Chow. It’s the place where the multidisciplinary creative was born and raised. It’s the place his parents decided to leave to seek a better future in the United States. And it’s a place where he can’t imagine leading the freelance life that he does now. “I don’t think I go a week without thinking about what my parallel life in Hong Kong would have been like,” says Chow, who has made a name for himself as someone who transcends disciplinary boundaries, flitting between—and across—the realms of illustration, design, animation and fine arts. “I think it would have been nearly impossible for me to have a career as an independent artist there.”
Chow, who immigrated to Los Angeles with his family when he was fifteen, has fond memories of drawing and making his own comic books in his childhood. However, it wasn’t until he took some night courses at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, that he realized that pursuing a career in art and design could be a serious option for him. “It was comforting to learn, as an immigrant, that it was possible to make art—and to make money from it. That’s when I decided to go to art school,” he says candidly. After graduating with a BFA in Illustration from ArtCenter in 2001, Chow garnered commissions from big-name clients like Nike and Adidas.
These days, Chow is based in Brooklyn, New York, where he shares a live-work space with his wife, who is a sculptor. His clients—which include the likes of the New York Times, MIT Technology Review, Pitchfork, Nike, Lyft and Adult Swim—seek out Chow for his vibrant, psychedelic and often humorous creations to enliven their editorial pieces and brand projects. Despite his impressive portfolio, Chow strikes me as incredibly humble. Several times during our interview, he says he’s “not very talented.”
Emily Luong, art director at the MIT Technology Review who has commissioned Chow for a number of editorial illustrations for the magazine, says, “He’s able to visualize concepts that are typically extremely hard to draw, like the cloud or deep learning, and show them in a way that’s both beautiful and engaging. I find him super easy to work with. He hears feedback and interprets that quickly—and without ego—which is important. Also, he’s just a lot of fun, his emails always make me laugh and seeing how creatively his brain works is a real pleasure.”
During our nearly two-hour conversation over Google Meet, Chow mentions that he has attention deficit disorder three times. The artist seems to see the condition as both a blessing and a curse. “I need stimulation all the time. If I’m bored, I need to find a new medium to play with or a technique to try out,” he says. “It’s often hard for me to focus on things. It’s an issue I’m always struggling with, but, in a way, it’s a good thing because when I am stimulated, I put a lot of passion and devotion into what I do.”
Whether it’s personal artworks or commercial projects, a recurring theme in Chow’s work is exploring how the threads of identity, cultural heritage and nostalgia intertwine to impact his present self. “Part of me is still sort of in Hong Kong,” he says. “Because I feel like I’m in between all these places, I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere. There’s a sense of displacement, like I’m stuck in a purgatory that you might find in Chinese spiritual traditions.”
Chow created Kowloon, a series of ink-on-paper illustrations named after an urban area in Hong Kong, to examine how his ever-shifting relationship with Cantonese, his mother tongue, plays a role in his identity and his way of perceiving the world. “When I look at some Chinese characters now, they don’t have any meaning. They’ve become shapes,” he explains. “The personal project came out of a need to reconcile the idea of language and my past. I thought it would be interesting to play around with symbols and forms, and to express these ideas in a new way.”
What started as a way for Chow to reflect on the gradual loss of his native language resulted in a distinctly abstract visual vocabulary that plays with the pictorial features of Chinese characters as well as lines from English cursive writing. These works unexpectedly caught the eye of Nike, and Chow went on to design a mural using a similar style for Nike’s flagship store in Vienna, which was unveiled in 2017. “When I moved to America, my English was terrible,” he says. “I see Cantonese as my first language and visual art as my second language.”
Over the past decade, Chow has reinvented his style and approach over and over again. He refrains from putting his work into any particular boxes or describing it in an absolute way. Instead, he continuously experiments with new methods and technologies to expand his practice. For a 2018–2019 exhibition at sp[a]ce, a nonprofit art gallery located in ad agency Ayzenberg Group’s Pasadena headquarters, Chow created a series of paintings, titled At A Distance, that involved combining procedural generation methods with airbrushing techniques, which he taught himself. Not only that, keeping up with the latest technologies has enabled the multidisciplinary creative to hone his animation work and evolve as an artist. “Five to ten years ago, animation required much more planning because you needed to write out storyboards and hire other people to work with you at a relatively quick pace,” he says. “With new apps, I can work more intuitively and spontaneously.”
In many ways, the movement throbbing through Chow’s recent works mirrors the urban landscape in Hong Kong, which is known for its neon signs, diverse mix of architecture and frenetic energy. This liveliness is perhaps most evident in his series of animations for Adult Swim, the adult-oriented branch of Cartoon Network with late-night programming. Chow was commissioned to create five station IDs, each 15 to 20 seconds in length, for its sci-fi sitcom Rick and Morty. “Basically, the only requirement from the brief was that I needed to include a reference to the show in some way. It could have been a character, theme or anything else,” he says.
For the project, Chow started out by deciding on an overarching concept for the five IDs. “I wanted to tie them together in some way to tell one story. Having some kind of structure for a project helps me move forward; otherwise, I go all over the place. Once I have that down, I create a bunch of visuals, and it’s a process of elimination. I’m not very good at sitting and writing a bunch of ideas down, so it’s just a lot of trial and error,” he says.
Watching the five short videos back-to-back feels like falling into a trance. Each one snaps the viewer out of the slew of rigid, rational images and motions we’re typically bombarded with on a day-to-day basis. Amoeba-like blobs float around in a spacey, surreal soundscape. Dislocated body parts collide into one another. Colorful yin-yang symbols are juxtaposed with a grid of green flies that might suffer from a wandering eye condition. Chow has a knack for combining imagery and references in an unpredictable way. “I really enjoy visuals that surprise and tickle your brain a bit,” says Chow, who points to the absurdism in Japanese manga as an influence on his aesthetic sensibility.
However, Chow doesn’t believe in absurdity for absurdity’s sake. “I’m interested in spiritual wisdom, chance and faith, so there’s always a connection to those ideas at some level. Oftentimes, people will look at my work and say that it doesn’t make much sense to them, but to me, it makes sense,” he says. “I’m not going to explain everything to everyone though. In the end, I’m interested in how I can communicate certain ideas without using a visual language that I’m familiar with or that has been used before.”
Ultimately, Chow’s biggest motivation is the process of creation itself, rather than any particular outcome. Perhaps that’s why he admits to spending “an unreasonable amount” of time working. “I’ve always felt like it’s a privilege to do what I do. It’s not a right,” he says. “After I graduated, I told myself that as long as I don’t have a full-time job and I’m able to do this every day, that’s all that matters. I’m just trying to be grateful for all of the opportunities.” ca