Four years ago, James Ng was a digital artist with an interesting project that caught the eye of the steampunk community. His “Imperial Steamworks” series recreated an alternate world where the Qing dynasty was the leader of the 19th century Industrial Revolution. We featured him once on Tor back in 2009, and since then, James, who spends most of his time between Hong Kong and Vancouver, has been successful both in the art world and in the science fiction/fantasy community. His work has been featured in multiple magazines like OnSpec and Spectrum 18, books including The Steampunk Bible and Steampunk: The Art of Victorian Futurism, and art festivals in cities such as Moscow, Vancouver, Seattle, and Sydney.
I got the opportunity to touch base with James about his newest works and picked his brain for his thoughts about how his time with the steampunk community has influenced his artwork, and new turns he is taking professionally and artistically.
James happily admits that his world has opened up in the past few years because of the growing popularity of steampunk: “The change is huge! It basically went from me reading books and drawing up theories on alternative history, to actually having people to share those ideas with. Some people only see my work as a mash up of steampunk and imperial Chinese aesthetics, without the correlation to history or speculative history. But this is fine and I don’t blame them; I prefer that the viewer enjoy the work for what they feel is most appealing. What matters most is having a community to share my new works with. Whenever I finish a new piece, I’m excited to publish it and to see the feedback, especially from the steampunk community since there are people who have supported my work before I even knew of the term ‘steampunk’. It is also great to have an audience to draw inspiration from.”
Newcomers to the sub-genre have also taken to James’ work, and he spoke about a fan who recently contacted him about cosplaying a character from one of his works, the Imperial Sheriff for San Diego Comic Con. In addition to the satisfaction of being the inspiration for fellow Asian and Asian-Americans in steampunk, James adds that, “It was especially touching to see how much effort he put into the costume,” and encouraged the use of cosplay as its own form of art: “I always told him to only use my work as inspiration and to treat the costume as his own artwork.”
His newest work, however, takes a more fantastical view of the aesthetic. While, James has drawn industrial-sized harvesters and mechanical musicians as part of his work, “The Crystal Herbalist” combines an element of the fantastic in its creation.
James doesn’t consider this fanciful turn any different from the industrial development that the steampunk aesthetic is fascinated with, however. “In today’s world, most cultures are catching up to the western modern society. They set the bar other cultures aim to match. But what if everyone was on the same playing field, and technology from non-western worlds moved forward without the goal of meeting a certain standard? If the Chinese believed in their herbal medicine and wanted to continue to make it more effective, this would no doubt drive experiments and research in creating technology that is more suitable for their practice,” he explains.
“Think about it this way: We have made incredible technological progress in the last 200 years, probably more than our entire history as a human race. This progress was driven mainly by Western science and belief, which is why western practices are the most effective in the modern world. There is no denying the effectiveness of western medical practice, my father is actually a western doctor in a hospital in Hong Kong. I simply wonder what possibilities there might have been if the massive influx of technology was developed and driven by a different culture and from different beliefs.”
Along with this poetic interpretation of how advanced medicine can be indistinguishable from magic, James is also fond of including nature with the machine. “The Crystal Herbalist,” for example, is assisted by two cute chipmunk companions.
“I picked the chipmunk for the herbalist because I wanted a small animal that could hop up and down the cabinets putting the ingredients in the furnace, an animal that is adapted to carrying small nuts or fruits. The first thing that came to mind was the cartoon Chip and Dale,” James recalls. “I used to watch that when I was really little, I had no idea what they were saying but their voices always made me laugh. I actually wanted to engrave ‘Chip’ on the shell of the steampunk chipmunk, but that would mean that the original Chip died, and that’s just too sad.”
In the midst of our interview, James had also been preparing for VCon 37 in Vancouver, which selected him as a Guest of Honor. That convention’s theme was post-apocalyptic, and James let me have a peek at the painting that he unveiled there, created especially for the convention.
James doesn’t associate steampunk and the apocalypse, but he enjoyed working on this project nonetheless because it gave him the opportunity to incorporate Chinese mysticism: “Chinese culture is deeply rooted in the beliefs of supernatural forces, spirits and gods. I wanted to do an image that reflected this part of my culture. In Hollywood, all you see about Chinese culture is Kung Fu, dim sum, and triads. I think the spiritual beliefs of traditional Chinese culture is very interesting, one of the most intriguing for me is the practice of exorcism.”
The result is a fun blend of classic Chinese mythology with one of the most popular horror tropes – exorcists fighting off a zombie invasion on the back of a giant armored turtle.
The story that the “Exorcist” painting tells is as follows:
The undead of Eastern legends require more then physical punishment to be eradicated, an exorcist often performs spiritual rituals to acquire the favor of the gods to aid in the banishment of restless spirits.
This boastful exorcist barges into action on the back of his menacing steam-powered leviathan, modeled after Xuan Wu the Black Tortoise, one of the four ancient Chinese divinities. Ascending the stairs on the back of the tortoise's neck, the exorcist performs a banishment ritual at the altar atop the head of his mount. A family of owls have heeded the holy calling, inhabiting the tree that sprouted from the shell of the tortoise to house its young. A steam powered owl was constructed to lead the pack, they carry a golden bell and a Taoist mirror to hypnotize and weaken the undead horde.
Often criticized as being more of a showman then a holy man, this exorcist is loud, flamboyant and downright obnoxious. Many members of the summoner circle question the excessiveness of the clumsy vehicle if the exorcist's command over the spirits is well versed. The tortoise causes havoc in the village it is hired to protect, trampling the crops and crushing the pavement, earning the exorcist the nickname of “Turtle Egg,” a Chinese slang that means “bastard.” However, none can question the efficiency in his combination of spiritual rituals and downright brute force.
“The turtle is one of four holy animals, the other 3 are the dragon, tiger, and phoenix,” James explains. “I used the turtle because the dragon and tiger is kind of cliché, and the turtle is kind of funny because it’s so slow. On the turtle’s back is a kind of a little pavilion where the exorcist sits. The neck of the turtle forms a staircase-bridge that leads to the top of the turtle’s head where the exorcist’s altar is.
“To continue with the theme of animal companions, there is an owl holding a yin yang mirror, a traditional exorcism tool to repel the undead. The steampunk owl flies above the turtle holding a golden bell that echos through the path of the exorcist. A bell is traditionally used to lure and hypnotize evil spirits. One of the exorcist’s most useful tools is his blessed scripture charms. In the films, if he can successfully pin the yellow charms onto the foreheads of the undead, they will freeze in place. Just the mere sight of these holy writings will scare off any spirits. People nowadays still go to temples to worship and pay respects to the gods, sometimes in exchange for these blessed charms from the monks that live there. Obviously not because they want it to battle undead, but just for good luck.”
After VCon, James has even more artistic ventures ahead. For Hong Kong, he’s returning to his favorite medium of pen and ink to illustrate an upcoming novel. And in Vancouver, a local beer company has hired him to create steamworks-themed designs for their product line and even a steampunk-inspired tap handle.
And what advice can James give to an aspiring freelance artist, in steam, in SF/F, or otherwise? “I think it is very important to be able to be critical of your own artwork. Find what is the weakest part of your skill set and improve on it. Even if you finish a piece of work that is your best work to date, look at it with a critical eye... there’s always something you can improve on,” he says. Plus, being a freelancer is a “risky” career path, but he considers the risk of failure to be one of the biggest opportunities for success. “If there is no chance to fail in your life goal, then there is also no room for success. After all, something that is guaranteed is not worth celebrating when achieved.”
Tor.com's 2012 Steampunk Week is giving away three James Ng prints and sketches this week. Go here to enter.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker had a dream when she was seven years old that she’d grow up to be an artist. What she’s does now isn’t a bad consolation prize. She is the founding editor of the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana and a published academic scholar. She also tweets.