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  • Sep 14, 2020

Obituary: Theresa Lee Wai-chun (c.1930–2020)

Portrait of comic artist THERESA LEE WAI-CHUN, whose iconic character

On September 11, the passing of Hong Kong’s renowned comic artist Theresa Lee Wai-chun, known as the “pioneer of Hong Kong girls’ comics,” was announced on her official Instagram account, which said she had died on August 27. According to Headline Dailyshe died of an unspecified illness.

Hong Kong-born and raised, Lee is well regarded for her Chinese-language comic series Sapsaam Dim (13-Dot Cartoon) (1966–1980), which follows the carefree adventures of the righteous-minded and fashionable female character named 13 Dots. Named after a Shanghainese slang term for “fun-loving and frivolous girls,” according to Lee, her ink-on-paper illustrations feature the heroine and her friends in various activities such as trying to raise money for collapsed buildings or helping new immigrants adjust to the city. As one of the few female-centered comic series at the time, Sapsaam Dim was a beacon of feminism and independence for Hong Kong women. Its bubbly, optimistic storylines also provided escapist relief from the waves of sociopolitical change and civil unrest throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Sapsaam Dim ran biweekly as a standalone publication from 1966 to 1980, selling up to 50,000 copies a month at its peak.

Lee began her career early on, doing illustrations for Children’s Playground magazine as a student. Following her studies in Chinese painting, she debuted her own work in 1965 with a detective character, Miss Flower. That same year, she won the newspaper Tin Tin Daily’s child fashion design contest. In 1978, she illustrated for children’s magazine Sannei Gogo. In 2008, over two decades after the last Sapsaam Dim comic, she released Lyun-lyun Baa-lai (Love in Paris), a graphic novel depicting 13 Dots in Paris. In 2014, 13 Dots was the focus of Lee’s solo presentation at Hong Kong Arts Centre’s Comix Home Base, and in 2015, led to a fashion project at the Hong Kong Design Institute, where 50 students designed outfits inspired by the comics. In 2017, depictions of 13 Dots in the cheongsam traditional dress were displayed on train doors at the Hong Kong International Airport. 

She was awarded the Hong Kong Arts Centre’s inaugural Honorary Fellowship in July 2018 for her “achievements in the arts sector and enduring dedication to nurturing young artists,” alongside contemporary artist Samson Young. In an email sent on September 12, the Centre remembered Lee as a passionate “dreamer and . . . dream-maker” who “challenge[d] women’s submissive position in society at the time” with “love and passion in all her works.”

A public farewell ceremony for the artist will be held on September 29.

Fion Tse is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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