In today’s volatile social climate, many parents worry that their children will grow up exposed to messages of division, xenophobia, and fear-mongering in the media. To counteract these negative messages, it’s important to teach children acceptance, empathy, and understanding in a way that’s relevant and easy to understand.
These positive qualities are what Alina Chau, an award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books, seeks to portray in her work. She was previously part of the animation and gaming industries for a decade, having worked on an award-winning animated show, before becoming a full-time graphic artist. Chau illustrated various children’s books before releasing her debut graphic novel, Marshmallow and Jordan, in 2021. Her colorful and immersive watercolor-style art is influenced by nature and her unique multicultural background. It’s also this background that instilled in her the value of openness to other cultures.
Chau was born to an Indonesian-Chinese family but spent most of her early life in the then-British colony of Hong Kong. In 1997, coinciding with Hong Kong’s handover to China, Chau moved to the US, eventually studying animation and film at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Cover for Chau’s debut graphic novel Marshmallow & Jordan
“I experienced a unique blend of cultures in my life,” Chau says. “I grew up in a British colony and received a British education. While I am Chinese, my Indonesian heritage made me different from a lot of my peers in Hong Kong. We practiced Chinese culture differently, and I didn't even know how to use chopsticks until I was in high school, because Indonesians eat with a spoon and fork. I grew up trilingual, speaking Mandarin at home, Cantonese outside, and British English at school.”
Chau shares that, interestingly, it’s when she moved to the US where she felt that she fit in. Attending film school at UCLA, she was part of a very diverse student body, which she describes as like a “mini United Nations”. However, as time went on, she saw how xenophobia and political polarization uncovered and worsened the hidden fractures in American society, with the rising anti-Asian sentiment over the past few years hitting closer to home.
“My relationship with nationality and identity is complex, as an Indonesian Chinese who grew up in a British colony then later immigrated to the US. I’m not British, but I’m not fully Chinese either. I’m an American citizen, but my experience is quite different from most Chinese Americans. Not having a strong sense of nationality has given me a different perspective that's beyond political boundaries. Despite our differences, humans also have so much in common, regardless of where one came from. That's what I try to express through my work,” she says.
Chau says that her current production process is adapted from the animation pipeline and she was able to apply animation techniques and perspectives to create a more dynamic still art style. Initially, she got into painting and illustration as a creative outlet, due to the demands of the film and animation industry making her feel burnt out. She gradually gained attention for her work and began earning from it as a side gig. Several years later, she decided to shift careers. Her boss at the film company was really supportive and left the door open for her to come back if being a full-time artist didn't work out. But, fortunately, it did, and Chau has participated in numerous projects since.
In Marshmallow and Jordan, Chau wrote and illustrated the story of Jordan, a girl from Bali, Indonesia, who was the star of her basketball team until an accident left her without the use of her legs. She meets a mysterious white elephant, named Marshmallow, who helps her discover a new sport, water polo.
Chau also illustrated One Perfect Plan, a poetry book about Bible stories, authored by Nancy Tupper Ling. Chau says that she portrayed the Biblical characters in a more historically accurate way, depicting them and the cultural setting as Middle Eastern, rather than Caucasian, which many Bible-inspired works in the West are prone to do.
Another one of her recent projects is Love Like Chocolate, which was written by young adult novelist Tracy Banghart. The book’s inspiration is Banghart’s family story, having an adopted daughter from Thailand alongside her biological son. The book is about how the family welcomes a new member and bonds together through baking and sweets, introducing the daughter to American desserts while incorporating Thai recipes to make her feel comfortable.
Photo credit A Pocket of Time Photography, Chau working in her home studio with her pet dog Piglet
A project close to Chau’s heart is one she developed in the midst of Trump’s travel restrictions and the xenophobic sentiment surrounding his legislation. In The Spirit of a Dream tells the non-fiction story of 13 contemporary immigrants of color and their inspirational biographic tales. The book explores the cultural heritage, integration, and impact of their contributions in various fields. Chau felt compelled to highlight the value of first-generation immigrant stories and to provide a stimulus for classroom discussions, as well as a representation of inspiring figures from diverse backgrounds. Some of the figures depicted in the book include astronaut Anousheh Ansari and world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
“Having three cultural heritages is not a very common life experience, I hope through my art and stories, I can bring a unique perspective and start a conversation about our shared experiences and embrace our differences and find common ground.”
Name: Alina Chau
Email: [email protected]