Sarah Kwan talks to Xindi Wei about her illustrations that often explores the connections between Scottish / British and Chinese culture, as well as the non-profit she co-founded representing issues affecting East and Southeast Asians (ESEA).
“It’s so funny when it comes to inspiration because I can just be doing the most menial tasks, and then I’ll see something and then connections will just form in my mind,” says Sarah Kwan from her flat in Edinburgh, Scotland.
For her, inspiration can be found everywhere, from doing dishes to going out for a stroll. “I guess I can be inspired by basically anything, but it does take a while for these ideas and thoughts to develop fully in my head.”
Smiling in her woollen jumper, the artist and campaigner is telling me about her prints and ESA Scotland, Scotland’s first non-profit organisation representing East and Southeast Asians. She chats about how she loves to play on words and enjoys puns that connect her Scottish Chinese background.
One of her designs is called ‘Aye & Brew Tea Set’, which mixes a very popular Scottish soft drink with a Chinese tea set. “So the title that I ended up choosing was AYE, meaning ‘yes’ in Scotland, and then it’s an ampersand, then BREW, which means ‘tea’. When said together it forms the name of the popular soft drink it depicts.”
She goes on: “It’s a soft drink that is sometimes referred to as ‘bru’, it sounds like ‘brew’ which links to tea – and is so popular in this country. It is a play on words, and with the mixture of the visual of being a tea set with this really popular drink in Scotland – it seems to have resonated with quite a lot of people. They see it and they understand what it means.”
Kwan’s Chinese parents immigrated to Scotland in the 70s. Being British Born Chinese raised in the UK, a predominantly white country, Kwan says she took a little while to figure out who she was and what her place was in society. She says: “There’ll be people from other cultures who have a similar sort of experience to me growing up, but when I was young it did feel quite isolating – like I was facing many adversities alone.
“A lot of my work has spoken about identity.”
Her most recent series explores what connects people as people in society rather than what separates them. In The East meets West series, identity plays a big role. “It’s a series exploring the connections between these two cultures and the similarities rather than differences,” she says.
One of the art pieces from the series is called the Lucky Cat Sith, depicting a big black lucky cat beckoning viewers. “It’s a mixture between the lucky cats and the Highland legend in Scotland where black cats with white chests were thought to be witches that could turn into cats. And after transforming so many times, the witch would remain a cat forever.”
“I like to include a lot of colour and humour in my work”, Kwan tells me. “I love being able to tell a story, and do the research and find out some really interesting stories that I can share. Things like folklore and myths and tales that that people might not have heard of before. A little bit of education, or interest of things that people might not have necessarily known, and I like doing it with some light hearted humour – because we all need a bit of a laugh.”
Since Kwan’s teenage years, she has enjoyed making art and drawing. “It was just something that came naturally that I was always drawing or making something. I just loved the process of making things, and I just thought if I could do this for the rest of my life, then I would be really happy,” she remembers.
However, her journey to becoming an artist wasn’t always smooth. After graduating with a Fine Art degree, Kwan found herself at a lost place. “I graduated during the recession in 2008, and it was a miserable time to try and find a job and stay motivated,” Kwan recalls. “So I didn’t actually make art for a couple of years after I graduated. I managed to sort of keep painting a little bit, but then I just stopped because I felt really disillusioned by it all.
“I just didn’t know how to pursue it because there’s no clear-cut path on how you become an artist. So I just felt a bit lost for a while.”
Then, Kwan started a job where she would design chalkboard signs in order to advertise products. This somehow got her going again. “I just started drawing again. I just really enjoyed designing chalkboards to help advertise products,” she says. “I continued designing chalkboards for free in the next three jobs I had and I also moved onto painting window displays on glass, which led to other clients paying for my services.
“After that point I became a freelance artist and began doing more commissioned work for clients, not just signs and displays – but also commissioned drawings and paintings. And I developed my designs in my own ‘East meets West Series’.”
Apart from her life as an artist, Kwan also volunteers for ESA Scotland, the first non-profit organisation in Scotland dedicated to mobilising the ESEA community in Scottish society. When I ask her what prompted her to co-found such an organisation in 2020 in the coronavirus pandemic, Kwan explains that it was largely because of the racist rhetoric that the pandemic brought towards Asian people.
“The world was just starting to become not a nice place to be at that time. Starting this organization really helped me feel like I could support people,” she recounts. “It made me feel more empowered and less scared, because it was quite a scary time.
“So that’s why we started because we saw all of this negative rhetoric going on and that was a difficult thing to go through and we just wanted to do something to help, especially for people who were more vulnerable in our community.”
She says the group has helped over 250 people now, supporting some members in the community with food vouchers or digital equipment, advocating for policy changes and sharing helpful information and resources. ESA Scotland continue to apply for public funding to support ESEA people.
Kwan says: “We’re trying our best to make a positive difference. Discrimination, sadly is what we have to face as people of colour in this in this country and in this world.
“I think it’s about time that East and Southeast Asian people are given more opportunities to speak out and be heard.”
Now, despite recently having won the Indepedent Award from Creative Edinburgh Awards: 2021 for her work celebrating and supporting people from East and Southeast Asian cultures, Kwan hopes to continue doing this East Meets West series, for as long as possible. “I’ve got so many ideas swirling around in my head, and not enough time to explore everything,” she says excitedly. “But certainly I want to continue this series as far as I can and I look forward to also creating new ones in the future.”