Charlene Chua grew up in Singapore and immigrated to Canada as an adult. They have illustrated almost twenty picture books, including Hug?, Going Up, Raindrops to Rainbow, and Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao.
Charlene Chua draws many things, from baos to dragons and everything in-between. When they are not drawing, they enjoy cooking, reading, and playing with their cats. Their favourite baos are still char siu baos, and their favourite dumplings are air-fryer wontons!
Q&A with Illustrator: Charlene Chua
What made you interested in becoming an illustrator?
I always liked drawing, even as a kid. Later, I got interested in comics and wanted to be a comic book artist. In the late 1990s, there weren’t any schools that offered illustration in Singapore, much less so anything for comics and graphic novels (the term “graphic novel” wasn’t even much in use yet). So after my compulsory schooling, I enrolled in a diploma program for Visual Communications instead. Long story short—that didn’t work out, and I got a job in tech/design instead. Things were alright, although I missed drawing. Eventually I met my future husband, and he encouraged me to give illustration a try. I did and (again, long story short) eventually I moved into being a full time illustrator.
What were your favourite books when you were a kid? As a young reader, did you see yourself in the books you read?
I really love the Fighting Fantasy series of books—these were like Choose Your Own Adventure but had a more Dungeons and Dragons sort of feel to them. Later I liked various comics, especially X-Men for a time. Growing up in the 80s and 90s in Singapore, most of the books I read were imported from the US and UK. Characters, especially main characters, were hardly ever Asian, and certainly never Singaporean Eurasian-Chinese.
As I young child, I remember being puzzled that there were no toys that looked like me; I liked Catra from She-Ra because she had black hair, and that was the closest I had to a doll that looked like me (I was also sad for years that I did not have green eyes). However contentious it may be these days, I remember seeing Psylocke in the X-Men comic in the 90s and feeling really happy to see a strong, beautiful, Asian woman fighting alongside the other characters. That was about the first “real” positive representation that I associated with, both with the character and also the artist (Jim Lee).
What are some of your favourite subjects to draw?
I draw a lot of human characters, although when I am tired or sad, I find I always return to drawing animals. Particularly birds, horses, and cats. Birds were my favorite when I was little, and horses were my obsession in my pre-teen years. Cats—well I have cats, I love cats, ergo I like drawing them too.
What is a challenge you have faced as an artist?
What isn’t?! Everything from getting started, finding my voice and style, getting paid, making enough money… to having my art stolen, and now the gleeful misuse of AI generated images by “artists” threatening to make illustration as a career redundant. (I might add, all these AI generators are trained on real human artists’ work… often without our knowledge or consent, and certainly without renumeration.)
What advice do you have for kids who are interested in art and illustration?
Draw what you love. If you like animals, draw animals. If you like manga and comics, draw manga and comics. You get better at drawing and painting what you enjoy. Enjoy your art; what you enjoy doesn’t have to be the same as what others like. For that matter, what you enjoy looking at and what you enjoy making may also be different, and that’s ok too (though that is a hard lesson for any artist to learn at any age).