Jeff Wong and Susan Olivio
Drawing since he was a young boy, it’s inevitable that Jeff would follow the same footsteps as his father, who initially discouraged his sons to go into the arts and advertising. Jeff is an award-winning illustrator and currently works as a graphic designer. He has one of the largest collections of mystery writer, Ross Macdonald’s works, showcased in the book he designed called, It’s All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives, published by Fantagraphics Books.
A: Tell us about your father, your childhood and how you developed your art career.
J: My father was born outside of Canton, China where they speak the Toisan dialect, and came here to the US in the ‘30s. He attended a trade school, Franklin Delano Roosevelt design school before the war. In the ‘50s he handled a lot of overflow work in advertising; he did work for Frank Gianninoto, who landed an account with Philip Morris, and worked on the Marlboro package design for the company. He designed the packages for products such as the Milky Way candy bar wrapper, Three Musketeers, Lux soap, Clairol, Pfizer, Elbow Macaroni, Swanson TV dinners, Nestlé, Viceroy among others. Much of this work went uncredited; a friend of mine wanted to do an article for the AIGA about my father’s design work, but it never got written because my father didn’t want to make any waves or stir up any trouble since other people had claimed credit.
He was an immigrant with a heavy accent and he got screwed over—he made a lot of money for other people, and got taken advantage of a lot so he didn’t want us to go into art or advertising because of his experience. I think my parents were very fearful living through the McCarthy era. My dad was very open-minded and liberal. He had a friend from art school who was gay and he was a friend of the family. My father’s approach was basically as long as you try your best, that’s enough for me. He instilled a sense of pride in us.
I was born here in the States and I am the youngest of 5 brothers (but, I grew up with 4). From 4th to 8th grade I went to Public School 104 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. My brothers were like surrogate fathers since they were much older than me, 10, 12, 14 years apart.
I used to draw all the time and it was just something I did. I got accepted to a specialized art school, the High School of Art and Design. In college I went to the School of Visual Arts. There I discovered painting and drawing. In my 2nd year I took a caricature class and it was kind of a revelation to me because it’s a blend of comic book art and illustration. So I focused on that for my last two years and did an independent study.
In my senior year I took my portfolio around to different magazines and started getting published and later had a growing freelance illustration career. One of my first gigs was with High Times magazine, after, I worked at the Village Voice, Guitar World, Dallas Observer, Boston Globe, National Lampoon, Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated. Around 2000 a friend gave me a computer and introduced me to working digitally using the program Painter. One of my biggest jobs was working on The Sistine Chapel of Sports for Sports Illustrated's 50th Anniversary, which was published September 2004. It took me 6 months to complete it digitally. It’s essentially the entire ceiling repainted with sports figures. For the first time in their history they did a double gatefold cover in the magazine. The illustration was shown at the Society of Illustrators in 2004. The Society of Publication Designers awarded it a Gold & Silver Medal the same year. In connection with the publication of Painter: The World's Finest Painter Art from Ballistic Publishing the leading independent publisher of books for the digital arts industry, it received a Master (Gold) Award.
In 2008–2009 the illustration and advertising industries crashed, everything just collapsed. I slowly built up my career and started doing graphic design, like what my dad did. Since 2017 I’ve been working my first 9–5pm doing graphic design at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
A: How was it growing up in your neighborhood?
J: Bay Ridge growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s was mostly Norwegian. In the ‘80s we started getting more Russian, Korean, and Arabic people. Now it’s more ethnically diverse but still a conservative neighborhood with a lot of Republicans who are not so open.
A: Did you experience any stereotypes or discrimination growing up?
J: I experienced stereotypes growing up but not anything out of the ordinary. I grew up with, (in a sing-song voice) Ching Chong Willy Wong, or Chinese, Japanese, look at these dirty knees . . .
I think for me I resented the Asian stereotype of the nerdy math student and that’s partly why since in the ‘90s I grew the handlebar moustache in a way to set myself apart from that stereotype and partly because it’s fun.
A story I like telling is my friend Bob Fingerman who was a roommate in my 1st apartment—he helped out this elderly man at the supermarket one day, on July 4th; he helped take groceries back to the elderly man’s apartment and some guys in a speeding car went by honking their horn, screaming—the elderly man said, “It’s the ones that wave the flag the hardest that hate what America stands for the most.” I never heard it put so simply.
A: What are your thoughts about the term people of color?
J: I think everybody is a color really—it’s sort of a weird term. It reminds me, I had a friend, my friend Nick who was Black and he talked about how racism was everywhere—he said look at the game of Pocket Billiards; where else do you have the white ball knocking all the colored balls under the table (laughter) I thought it was an amazing observation. I said to him, Nick, I can never know what it’s like to be Black, and what you’ve gone through, but I do know what it’s like not to be white.
For me I’ve always felt sort of in between cultures because I’m not Chinese enough to fit in with the Chinese community because I grew up here and I didn’t learn to speak. My brothers and I, none of us ever learned the language. Especially in the ‘50s during the McCarthy era, my parents told my brothers to say they were Protestants if anyone asked their religion. My parents wanted them to assimilate and not stand out.
Sometimes stereotypes happen because there’s truth in it. Some of it is fear. Some Asian families come over through weird deals and they don’t want to get deported. I think my mom feared that. So there’s that aspect. They seem to be more insular communities and keep to themselves. I don’t know if they are xenophobic themselves. I don’t know.
Part of the problem with America is we became a service nation with a sense of pride that isn’t always warranted. We have big, gas guzzling cars. If we wanted to compete, we should have built better cars. After a while, people start feeling certain kinds of work are beneath them. Here in New York, Mexicans are the backbones in the restaurant industry, busting their asses in the back and Americans don’t want to do that. We farm out these jobs. We don’t have a steel industry anymore. What do we do?
I remember Johnson a little bit as a President. I remember at the time, Blacks were referred to as Colored. I remember Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy getting assassinated.
When Kung Fu came out I wasn’t offended that David Carradine wasn’t Chinese and was cast as the leading role. I loved the Mr. Moto movies starring the German actor Peter Lorre as the Japanese detective and the Charlie Chan movies starring the Swedish actor, Warner Oland; I grew up watching them. I have fond memories watching them with my brothers. I don’t feel bad about it. It’s acting. I don’t think I need to see an amputee play an amputee necessarily. Maybe it’s the right thing to do now but . . . it’s acting.
Sometimes I feel like an interloper—I don’t belong here or there but I can fit in here and there.
I can’t say that I was really attracted to Chinese girls—part of it was it reminded me of my mom too much. Susan is my first Asian girlfriend.
S: And you are my first Asian boyfriend. (laughter)
A: Tell us a little bit about yourself Susan.
S: I’m half Japanese. My dad was German, Irish and Swiss. I’m a navy brat so we lived all over and the longest place we lived was in San Diego. I was into jewelry making for 15 years, lost my passion for it, took up digital drawing, and lately I’ve been into cryptocurrency. In the dot-com days I learned some trading. I was born in Bangor, Maine, we moved right after and so my sister was born in Morocco. We got used to moving a lot but we spent a lot of time in California, from 1st–7th grade. Then we moved to Idaho in a town of 1000 people. Junior high and high school was in Idaho. First chance I got, I got out of there. My mom was a housewife. My sister is 13 months apart and lives here. She’s the reason why I moved to Bay Ridge. Before that I lived in Florida, got divorced and 5 years later moved here to live near my sister. Jeff and I met here at the Lock Yard bar 4 years ago, 2 days before my birthday.
I don’t speak Japanese at all but my middle name is Kimiko. My parents wanted us to assimilate so my parents gave us American names.
People can’t tell what I am. Sometimes people speak to me in Spanish. I don’t get insulted by it. I can blend in anywhere I feel. My dad didn’t speak Japanese at all, and my mom didn’t speak English so I don’t know how they communicated at the time but somehow they did. My mom didn’t teach us Japanese—she figured we live here so we didn’t need it. We did some Japanese customs but mostly we grew up American. My mom had some superstitions. I remember one custom that stands out for me—Japanese women can’t leave the house on New Year’s day until the afternoon. As a kid it was a bummer, we couldn’t go outside to play until the afternoon. We had to have a clean house by New Year’s day otherwise you’ll have a dirty house for the rest of the year.
I’ve been working from home since 2001 for a company that sells cleaning supplies generating custom reports, IT work, I work many roles.
A: What ethnicity do you identify with?
S: I only recently started putting Asian. I’m only half. I never really thought about it. I consider myself American.