In this excerpted oral history clip, Chinese American artist Kam Mak recollects winning the 12-year contract to design a vibrant new series of Lunar New Year stamps for the United States Postal Service in 2008. He discusses how objects and memories he associates with experiencing Chinese New Year in Chinatown—the dawn to dusk fireworks, the small red lantern that his mother hung, kumquats—and his own art aesthetic inspired his shift away from the iconic zodiac animals of the USPS’s inaugural artist Clarence Lee. He also recounts the lobbying efforts of the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) for the creation of a commemorative stamp and the very belated step towards recognizing the contributions of Chinese Americans who helped build this country that it represented.
Mak grew up in Manhattan Chinatown in the 1970s and ’80s. During his youth, he fell in with neighborhood street gangs which were very prevalent at the time, but his introduction to art through painting murals with Arlan Huang, Tomie Arai and City Arts after school gave him a new direction in life. As a professional artist, Mak takes as subject the everyday and ordinary in Chinatown, paying particular attention to street vendors and the live animals they sold. His oral history is part of MOCA’s Archaeology of Change project documenting gentrification and change in Chinatown in recent years. Listen to the full engaging oral history on MOCA’s Oral History Archive platform here.