It is no exaggeration to say that Patrick Yee has been drawing his entire life. Since his primary school days, Patrick has been very attracted to arts and crafts, in particular drawing. After serving his full time National Service (NS), he pursued a Masters Degree in Editorial Design and Illustration in the United Kingdom (UK) and since then, he has never looked away from the world of drawing and illustration.
Patrick has illustrated more than 100 children’s books and amongst them, is a unique Singaporean series about Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister. The first book is titled: ‘A Boy named Harry’ (The Childhood of Lee Kuan Yew) and the second is ‘Harry Grows Up’ (The Early Years of Lee Kuan Yew). Patrick has an extensive teaching career as well and currently teaches in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP). On top of his busy schedule, he finds time to teach drawing to little children with special needs at institutions like Rainbow Centre, Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore School and AWWA Special School.
I got to meet Patrick (pictured below with his book: A Boy named Harry), to talk about his passion and to find out more about the local industry of illustration.
Shiok (S): How did you start your career as an illustrator and what was it like growing up with this dream?
Patrick (P): I pursued a Masters’s Degree in the UK after serving my NS because back in those days, it was very hard to find such courses in Singapore. I started working in the UK initially and was approached to work for some agencies even before graduation. UK was known to have good courses in the field of editorial, illustration and in the arts which contributed to the reason why I choose UK in the end.
S: Have you always loved drawing?
P: I started drawing in my primary school days and after NS I just felt that I needed to pursue something that I really like. In fact, right now, I’m still in the industry teaching drawing and arts in schools including children with special needs. Some of these children can draw very well.
S: Do your siblings have similar interests?
P: No. My siblings took on more typical career paths of those times, like sales and marketing. Art was not very popular back then and also it was known that if you work in the field of the arts you won’t be able to make a living. I didn’t have a lot of encouragement from people around me but thankfully, my parents were supportive of what I chose to do at the end of the day.
S: It sounds like you had a fortunate childhood.
P: I was always very happy when my teachers would take my drawings and show it to other students, sometimes even in other classes. Sometimes I would also teach my neighbours how to draw and I felt the satisfaction. So, yes I had a fortunate childhood where everything seem to align to what I love doing. I initially wanted to go to Japan for further studies instead of the UK but I couldn’t speak Japanese and back in those days, the Japanese weren’t fluent in English either.
S: Let’s talk about your illustrations. A lot of your works are very uniquely Singaporean. Do you have particular favourite Singaporean artist or movies which you look up to?
P: I used to think that Fann Wong was a proud person in the past but after working with her on a project, which was turned into a television show called Mission Possible, I admire her as a person. We went to Chiang Mai, Thailand for the project to teach the children there how to draw. We brought the paintings back to Singapore and auctioned it and the proceeds from the action went back to the village that the children were from. After that experience, I came to admire Fann Wong better, so you can consider her as one of my favourite actor in Singapore.
Besides that, I don’t really have any favourite Singaporean thing per say although I do get inspiration from my experience in Singapore.
S: Where exactly do you get your inspiration from?
P: I like to go to the children’s section in book stores actually. The children sections have a lot of inspiration and I like to play with children as well so that helps as well.
S: You seem to have a very busy life. How long do you spend illustrating or drawing in a day or a week?
P: I work in the day, I draw at night. This is pretty much my daily life.
S: Do you ever go on a break or holidays?
P: I really don’t have the time for a good long holiday. Even during school vacation periods, I am involved in vacation plans of the students. I have had very short trips here and there but I’m just too busy. In fact, I have not been to the movies in a very long time. I don’t even remember when was the last time I was at the movies. But having said all these, I’m very happy with what I am doing because I am doing something that I really like.
Although I must add that, in Singapore, people like to give deadlines, for example for the publishing of a book, that are not very ideal. Sometimes I am rushing only to have to wait for a reply and then I have to rush again. That is probably something I don’t really like about my life.
S: Do your students even know how famous and established their teacher is?
P: Some do, but most of them don’t know. Those who do find out would often ask what they can do as an illustrator if they choose to go into this field as a career.
S: And what would you typically tell them if they ask about a career in illustration?
P: In Singapore, get another full time job but keep illustrating as a hobby and a passion. Illustration is just not very big in Singapore and I need to tell them the facts of the industry and how they should preserve their passion but also remain practical in their life choices.
After teaching for a while, you can see that children these days don’t really understand much about their future and life in general. Their thoughts are very much influenced by their peers and friends. You also don’t really want to stress them out or else they will end up complaining. That is how kids these days behave.
S: Is this a career which you will encourage?
P: For this career path, you need to look beyond Singapore. Look for an agent to represent you because the local market is so small. A lot of children these days are doing graphic designs with technology which is good but the truest form of art is still drawing on paper and then using technology to enhance it.
S: What other challenges do you face in your career as a teacher and an illustrator?
P: Different people have different opinions. It is difficult to get them (students) to understand the fundamentals of drawing. In terms of as an illustrator, I get tight deadlines which might amount to nothing much in the end and it is hard to get inspiration sometimes. Also, many bookshops are closing down and it seems like sooner or later, every hard copy reading material will be replaced by online versions.
Drawing is more of a personal art and it allows us to create our own styles and characters. Students have a hard time with that and all they want is to jump to their final works for submission. They do not go through the entire process of thinking about inspiration, ideas and preliminary works.
S: Would you attribute it to the education system in Singapore?
P: Pretty much. The education system has this pressure even on Arts students. You end up chasing for work and submission such that the quality of the work they produce goes down. It is a stressful place for students in Singapore. The push for meeting deadlines and the compromise of quality is very real in schools.
S: What do you enjoy most about illustration?
P: The freedom to create anything bearing in mind that different people have different opinions.
S: What do you enjoy illustrating the most?
P: I like to draw animals. I have a pet tortoise at home and it’s the easiest pet to maintain given my hectic schedule.
S: What is your favourite illustration thus far?
P: I like ‘Rosie Rabbit.’ It is a simple book and it was the first book to be translated into eight different languages worldwide and it comes with a soft toy as well. It was a big moment for me, because at that time, this work gave me a better and more comfortable life when I was in the UK. I don’t even remember how many of that book has been sold. I was partially supported by the High Commission of Singapore back then during my studies but financially, it was still very difficult for me before my big break of ‘Rosie Rabbit’.
S: Why did you decided to come back to Singapore because it seems like you were very successful in the UK?
P: I think in one simple word: loneliness. There wasn’t much for me to do in the UK and all my friends and family were in Singapore so I decided to come back. The market may be small in Singapore but we all have to start somewhere and then work our way from our starting point.
S: Any future plans or projects that we can look forward to?
P: I am looking to do a book about my life actually. I want to create something like a comic. To talk about my journey as an illustrator, about my life in UK. Luckily, I have photos which I can draw inspiration from.
I’m also dreaming and planning for an arts centre where I can teach more people how to draw but rental in Singapore is so expensive!
Big projects that are coming up for me includes a picture book about Singapore for SG50. It is called ‘The Birthday Party’. And I am also working on a third book titled ‘Harry Builds A Nation’ for the ‘Harry series’ to talk more about the life of My Lee after he stepped down as Prime Minister and this will be published in the middle June 2015.
S: Lastly, since we have spoken about Mr Lee, and you have books about Mr Lee. What are your thoughts when you heard of his passing?
P: I feel that he has done enough for Singapore and the most important thing is for him to be remembered. I am glad he didn’t had to suffer so much due to his illnesses.
Mr Lee is a hero to me and I have been thinking to do more books about him and after his passing, it coincides in a certain way that I want to preserve his memory and to teach more people about him. Seeing that this series is one of the best sellers, it would be good for a third book as well.
S: It seems like you had to do a lot of research.
P: I had the good help from my editor but no doubt, I had to read and find out more about Mr Lee as well.
<End of Interview>
Patrick opened our eyes to the illustration industry in Singapore and through his love for drawing, many young people have got the opportunity to learn from him what it means to preserve one’s passion.
To find out more about Patrick Yee and his works, you can visit his blog here: http://patrickyeeillustration.blogspot.sg.
The episode of ‘Mission Possible’ which featured Patrick:
‘The Birthday Party’ and ‘Harry Builds A Nation’ will be launched on 25th July 2015 at Kolma Ayer Community Centre as part of the nation’s SG50 celebrations.