Today, the first day of the Lunar New Year, Chinese communities all over the world are bidding farewell to the Year of the Dog and ringing in the Year of the Pig. The US Postal Service is celebrating, too, with the launch of the twelfth and final installment in its latest “Celebrating Lunar New Year” stamp series.
Since 2008, Hong Kong-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator Kam Mak has been creating vibrant USPS stamps that pay homage to the Chinese zodiac. Instead of going the obvious route and illustrating the animals associated with each year, he chose to depict symbolic objects that feature in Lunar New Year celebrations, from cumquats and bamboo to firecrackers and red lanterns. Each stamp also features small animal illustrations, in traditional paper-cutout style, by the late artist Clarence Lee, who created the very first USPS Lunar New Year-themed stamp series, issued in 1992.
In 1971, when Mak was ten, he immigrated with his family from Hong Kong to New York City’s Chinatown. The transition wasn’t easy.
“I was a very troubled kid, very bad in school, very lost,” he says. “English was really hard for me. One thing I was really good at was making pictures. My teacher told me about a city art workshop that gives kids paid summer jobs and gives them purpose.” He got recruited for the program, helped paint murals on the Lower East Side, and soon enrolled at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art. Now he’s a professor of illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Many of Mak’s fondest childhood memories stem from Lunar New Year celebrations. “Lunar New Year is like the Chinese equivalent of Christmas for [Christian] American kids — it’s the most festive, fun holiday,” Mak says.
Here, Mak explains the symbolic significance of each of his 12 zodiac illustrations, from 2008’s Year of the Rat stamp to his just-launched Year of the Pig stamp, which features some “very auspicious” peach blossoms.
2019: Year of the Pig
“The peach flower and fruit is the most sacred plant in Chinese culture. We have a god of longevity who’s always holding a big peach. The peach flower symbolizes growth, prosperity, long life. On the east coast, you can’t get peach blossoms — it cost me $50 to have a little branch flown here from the west coast by plane.”
2018: Year of the Dog
“Here we have lucky bamboo. The red ribbon wrapped around it symbolizes holding the family together. The number of lucky bamboo is very important: the number three is the most auspicious. I had to make sure that none of the paintings in the stamp collection pictured four objects because four is unlucky; the word for ‘four’ in Cantonese sounds like the word for ‘death.'”
2017: Year of the Rooster
“We give red envelopes, called ang pao, to kids on the Lunar New Year, full of money, to protect them from evil spirits. If you’re over 30, you shouldn’t be taking red envelopes. It’s embarrassing. It’s for kids.”
2016: Year of the Monkey
“The peony is a very auspicious flower that symbolizes wealth and honor. I cultivate peonies in my backyard in Brooklyn. I’ve had three for more than ten years.”
2015: Year of the Ram
“As a child, this is what we always hovered around: a tray with nothing but sweets. The tray my mother used was not a beautiful object, so I went to the Metropolitan Museum and looked at the inlay on a very antique dresser and borrowed traits from that to create my own little lacquer box with kingfishers and hydrangeas. The red lotus seeds mean fertility: have lots of babies. And the pistachio nuts, we call them happy fruits, because when they crack open, you see a smile.”
2014: Year of the Horse
“A drumbeat is like the beat of a horse running. It’s one instrument we use to scare away evil spirits and lead us into the New Year. When we play it’s always accompanied by the lion or dragon dance.”
2013: Year of the Snake
“On the Lunar New Year, we set off firecrackers to ward off evil spirits. The Chinese invented gunpowder not for war, but to celebrate.”
2012: Year of the Dragon
“To paint this image, I found a bunch of high school kids in Chinatown who belong to this Dragon Dance troop. They’re very dedicated and trained. They performed for me on a rooftop. They’ll be dancing in the Lunar New Year Parade in New York City on February 17th.”
2011: Year of the Rabbit
“Cumquats and other citrus fruits are very auspicious in the New Year. They have to be attached with their stems and leaves — this symbolizes that relationships and family are intact. When I went home for Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner, my mom gave me tangerines with stems and leaves attached. I put them around my studio — they’re good for business.”
2010: Year of the Tiger
“My memories of my grandma are tied to this image. One of her traditions was, right before Lunar New Year, she’d buy narcissus bulbs and plant them in dishes with pebbles. We wish that the flower will blossom on the first day of the Lunar New Year, because for the rest of the year you’ll have nothing but luck and fortune. My grandma would show me how to do it — you slice it just right on the bulb. Most important of all is the sweet fragrance of this flower — every time I smell it, it brings back childhood memories.”
2009: Year of the Ox
“For me, the lion dance was the coolest thing as a kid. We all enjoyed running and following the lion as it danced and pranced around Chinatown. We all thought it was so cool. The lion dance is meant to scare away all the evil spirits to start the New Year. That’s why you see them perform in front of businesses in Chinatown — so they can start the year fresh, with prosperity.”
2008: Year of the Rat
“The red lantern has a folktale behind it. This story was told to me as a kid: a monster came to a village in the winter to scare and take away the little children in the village. The kids ran into the mountains to hide. But one day an old lady came and said, ‘I know how to get rid of this monster — it’s afraid of the color red and loud noises.’ So the villagers hung bright red lanterns, lit fireworks, and beat drums. They scared the monster away and he never came back to the village. That’s why red is the color of luck for the Chinese.”
“Celebrating Lunar New Year” stamps are available to purchase from USPS.