Richmond cartoonist and illustrator Kristina Luu loves dragons. In a Zoom interview with Pancouver, Luu happily declares that she’s “always been a dragon girl”. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she wanted to represent this mythical creature in her art.
“North American pop culture makes us think of dragons in the European sense, with the lizards and the wings,” Luu says. “But in Asian folklore, it’s more associated with the ocean…and with life and nature itself.”
Luu, who prefers the pronouns she and they, had an opportunity to depict dragons when a friend was organizing an illustrated book. It was based on the theme of Asian heritage matched with magical witchy vibes.
The B.C.-born Luu had spent her childhood living in Ho Chi Minh City, so she was very aware of Vietnamese folklore around dragons. In those years, she travelled to a popular tourist destination, Ha Long Bay, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“It’s this archipelago in northern Vietnam that is known for its limestone islands,” Luu says. “If you’ve ever seen photos, you’ll know that it’s a very breathtaking, unique land formation—with these tall towers of limestone with plants growing on them and very sheer cliffs.”
She reveals that in Vietnamese, “Ha Long Bay” actually means “Dragon Landing Bay”. According to Luu, old boats float on the azure-coloured water like giant open baskets.
“The myth was that the bay itself was a place where the dragons would land to protect the local Vietnamese people from the invaders across the sea, and also from the ocean itself and the storms,” Luu states.
Luu illustrates children’s books
In her Dragon Sea illustration, Luu captures that sentiment. She shows two women in a small boat affectionately looking at a school of dragons swimming below the surface.
“I kind of very, very subtly implied that maybe the dragons and the women on the boat had some sort of association,” the artist says.
This colourful and festive image will be part of an upcoming exhibition of large Lunar New Year lanterns. We are a Family will be at šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énk Square (north of the Vancouver Art Gallery) from February 9 to 28.
It’s one of four exhibitions as part of The Lantern City, which will celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Dragon.
Luu says that she drew for fun as a kid in Vietnam. However, in her younger days, she dreamed of a career in environmental science. It wasn’t until she was well into her teens and back in B.C. that she considered working as a professional artist.
After graduation, Luu moved to Oakville, Ontario to enroll in a bachelor of applied arts program at Sheridan College. She graduated in 2019 with a specialty in animation.
“It wasn’t until after working in entertainment for a little bit that I thought, ‘I kind of love working in storytelling but not necessarily television,’ ” she says.
Slowly, Luu gravitated toward publishing and she now draws children’s comics for a living. She’s perhaps best known for illustrating the Besties series of graphic novels, which are written by Kayla Miller and Jeffrey Canino.
“They are wonderful, fantastic people that I’ve had the honour of working with,” Luu says.
In addition, Luu is part of the Fruit Salad Comics collective of eight artists.
Fond memories of Lunar New Year in Vietnam
Luu places a high emphasis on promoting equity and diversity through her art. That includes supporting LGBTQ rights and victims of sexual violence.
“The type of professional work I do is usually centred more on inclusion,” Luu states. “I do this because I care about it and I love it.”
She’s delighted that her Dragon Sea illustration will appear on a Lunar New Year lantern. In Vietnam, Lunar New Year launches the six-day festival known as Tết. Luu recalls wearing the ao dai traditional tunic in Ho Chi Minh City at this time of year, surrounded by peach and apricot blossoms.
Like in other parts of Asia, kids would receive red-pocket envelopes containing money at family gatherings. Moreover, there were many tasty dishes, including bánh tét, a sticky rice cake. It might include banana leaf, coconut, or meat. Bánh chưng is the square version.
Luu also recalls being served canh khổ qua, which is a bitter melon soup.
“It’s a play on words because the term khổ qua sounds like ‘the suffering has passed.’ That’s why people like to eat it during Lunar New Year because it’s a way of saying the suffering has passed; the new year has come in,” Luu says. “So, a bitter melon is also a very common dish for that reason.”
She points out that Vietnamese people have been exposed to many ideas as a result of colonization. The Anti-French Resistance War ran from 1946 to 1954. That was followed by the Vietnam War.
“It’s a very challenging history,” Luu acknowledges, “but I feel like so much of the Vietnamese population has risen above it and really grown into its own as a result.”
Kristina Luu’s Dragon Sea is part of The Lantern City exhibition called We are a Family. It will be at šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énk Square (north of the Vancouver Art Gallery) from February 9 to 28. Luu’s image will be displayed alongside other lanterns with designs by artists Anuximana, Rashmi Tyagi, Richard Hunt, Damian John, Odera Ibokwe, and Jerry Whitehead, and Studio 101/Eastside Arts Society.
For more information on Kristina Luu, visit her website or follow her @stripeyworm on Instagram or X (Twitter). Visit The Lantern City website to learn more about what will be on display at Granville Island, Jack Poole Plaza, šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énk Square, and the Pendulum Gallery. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.