Steampunk Month

An Interview with James Ng

With all my talk about making steampunk more racially inclusive and reflective of other cultures besides what we commonly see, I thought I would bring to your attention some art that syncretizes the machinery of steampunk with a distinct Chinese flavour. 

The artist is one James Ng, born in Hong Kong, spent his time between Hong Kong and Vancouver, went to art school in New York, and is now freelancing. He is based in Richmond, British Columbia and does work for clients all over the world. Recently, James was in London, England, for the Digital Artists Awards, in which his piece “Night Patrol” won first place in the Concept Design category.

When you visit James’ website, you’re probably going to be most arrested by seven large, very epic-looking paintings, a few of which are in this post. When I first saw them, I went “squee!,” had a joygasm,, and proceeded to pore over every single detail. Even if I’m not a mainlander, I found facets of his art that were familiar to me. So I thought I’d get in touch with him to talk about his artwork, inspirations and himself.

The most boring question: where are you originally from? Tell us a bit about growing up in HK!

I am from Hong Kong, but I have moved between there and Vancouver when I was young. I also went to school in Chicago and New York after high school. I graduated from School of Visual Arts in New York in 2008. Growing up in Hong Kong was great. It is a very special city that has strong traditional Chinese values, but heavy western influence. This reflects greatly on my artwork, especially in my latest series that is based on Chinese history. My work has been described as a hybrid of eastern and western art, with heavy influence of sci-fi and fantasy.

How did you get inspiration for the paintings featured on your website?

I am guessing you are referring to the first 7 paintings on my website. I’m very interested in the Chinese Qing Dynasty and the modernization of non-European countries. Because Europe was the first to modernize due to the English industrial revolution, other countries around the globe have been playing catch up ever since. The standard of modernization is basically westernization, as China becomes more modern, it also becomes more like the west. 

I began to wonder… what if China was the first to modernize during the turn of the last century, if China was the standard that other countries had to work towards, what would things look like today? Maybe skyscrapers would look like Chinese temples? Cars would look like carriages? Perhaps China will still be in Imperial rule? And maybe we would have fantastical machines that look both futuristic and historical. That’s the idea behind my personal project.

This is the inspiration behind my current project. Each piece also has their own concept but is part of this larger idea.

Do your first seven paintings have stories behind them?

Yes, they are all part of the idea I described. These are their individual concepts:

The Imperial Sheriff, aka the Iron Kirin. A kirin is the Chinese equivalent to the Western unicorn.

The Imperial Sheriff, aka the Iron Kirin. A kirin is the Chinese equivalent to the Western unicorn.

Imperial Sheriff: The “Iron Kirin”, sheriff of the Imperial city, who got his name from his famous steam powered arm.

Night Patrol: Assassins and thieves that dare to enter the forbidden palace would be wise to avoid the night patrol. Stepping into the circle of light generated by the patrol robot will not only cause the guard dog to attack, but will also set off the gong and baton alarm that summons more guards to deal with any intruders swiftly.

Imperial Airship: Designed to be the Empress’ airship. It is big enough to block out the sun as it approaches a village, and generating mass air pollution in its path, demonstrating the awesome power and corruption of the Imperial family.

Immortal Empress: Based on the Chinese historic figure Empress Dowager Ci Xi, who ruled over Qing Dynasty for nearly 50 years. Though she is over a century old and has a head full of grey hair, she looks young and survives by staying permanently attached to the massive life support surging into her golden throne. She becomes part of this floating machine that she is attached to, being almighty and almost haunting.

Imperial Inventor: Losing almost everything in a horrible engineering accident, the inventor now focuses all his time creating new machines for the Imperial family. His only companions are his robotic servant, and pet parrot, for whom he also created a robot friend for.

Harvester: Cuts and waters crops with ease. A mix between a tractor, a robot, and multiple farming tools, the harvester is the ultimate farming solution.

Bridal Carriage: A mix between a bridal carriage from traditional Chinese weddings, and a western steam engine car.

Do you consider your work to be steampunk?

I did not even know of the term steampunk until I started posting my work online and people kept calling it that. My idea was based on Chinese history and the power shift of different countries after the Industrial Revolution. And I guess steampunk is an idea based on the Industrial Revolution as well. After I learned of this term, I did a lot more research on this theme, and it was very helpful in giving me new ideas as well as better ways to depict old machinery. To answer your original question, yes, I do consider my work steampunk, but this is because my work falls into this category due to similar subject matter; I did not set out to fit my idea into this theme.

If you were asked to define steampunk, what would you say?

I would say, it is an idea or sub-genre of science fiction or fantasy, that relates to our actual history of the world. It may be viewed as a theory of how the world would be if steam power was still the main source of energy.

The Imperial Airship - an industrialized, high-tech Forbidden Kingdom

What is your favourite element to depict? (e.g. steele, brass, copper, silver)

That’s a weird question! I would have to say gold is my favorite element to depict. It has such intense highlights and intense shadow, making it very easy for me to paint. The hardest things to paint are always the dullest flattest objects.

How long have you been using your current medium? What else do you like to use when creating?

I currently use pencil, charcoal, and the computer programs Corel Painter, and Photoshop. I have been doing digital painting for 2.5years, and there is still much to learn. Besides my art tools, I need music when creating artwork. Inspiration also comes when I am not working or at my table, regular exercise as well as gathering with friends is a definite must.

On your Info page, you mention that you’re travelling all over, and were recently in London for an Awards ceremony. How does it feel to be a globe-trotting artist? Do you visit HK much?

It feels amazing to be able to travel as a freelance artist. I have just returned to Vancouver from London. I visit HK regularly, and I do not have to pay rent there because I can live with my family. It is a great place to save money to plan for my next city. I am planning to live in Shanghai or Beijing for 6 months after the new year.

So, in your free time, when you’re not being James Ng the Artist who makes incredible images, what else do you get up to?

Not good at depicting the feminine form, sez he.I spend about 75% of my waking time doing artwork, or communicating with clients. I try to make the rest of my time as fulfilling as possible. I visit the gym or swimming pool 5 to 6 times a week, and I would go out on the weekend nights to relax with my friends. I also plan to learn kickboxing and a music instrument. I am completely talentless when it comes to music, and I always feel people should tackle their weakness. This applies to the way I approach my artwork as well. I am currently painting a dancing female on my spare time, because I am horrible at depicting feminine beauty.


So folks, isn’t he just great? I think we can expect even more coolnessosity from him in the future. Don’t forget to check out his site for more artsy goodness!

Jaymee Goh still has family in China. They reside on Hainan island, a little off the south of the mainland. She’s never met them and can’t speak a lick of Hainanese, but thinks the family tree looks pretty darn awesome.


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