Young artist Tam Ka-yan is on a mission to reconnect Hong Kongers to their culinary heritage by combining her love for food and her personal identity through her online illustrations.

Boasting close to 170,000 followers on her Instagram account, the Hong Kong-born artist embarked on her journey in 2019 as she began posting her illustrations on the platform.

A high school student at the time, the now 20-year-old Tam began to document the delicious food she came across in her daily life while experimenting with various art styles, which eventually evolved into the watercolor style she is known for today.

Hong Kong-born illustrator Tam Ka-yan poses for a photo in Hakone in Japan's Kanagawa Prefecture in September 2023. (Photo courtesy of Tam Ka-yan)(Kyodo)

"With my art, I hope to take documenting food to a different level by illustrating it and trying to recall what I tasted in the dish," she said, filling her Instagram account with colorful depictions of her favorite dishes, including traditional Hong Kong bakery items as well as memorable eats from cafes she has patronized.

Tam is also the proprietor of her own small business, an online pop-up store under the same Instagram account name, where she occasionally sells merchandise of her designs, such as keychains, stickers and, most recently, a new line of tote bags.

The illustrator says her current art style is heavily inspired by the Studio Ghibli films she grew up watching, including "My Neighbor Totoro," "Ponyo" and "Kiki's Delivery Service," which helped her to foster a deep appreciation for animation.

From the intricate hand-painted designs to the heartfelt moments captured on screen, Studio Ghibli's films became a wellspring of inspiration for Tam, who is currently an exchange student in Japan.

She recalls visiting the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo during her high school years, where she saw firsthand the sketches and artwork that formed the backbone of her childhood favorite films.

"After visiting that museum, I started to think more about the feelings that Studio Ghibli movies are able to not only invoke from people but also create personal connections, on top of the 'magical moments' that they create in their movies," she adds.

Tam's artistic influences also include Japanese artist Mao Momiji, who is known for his realistic art style and daily food illustrations, and the packaging and design of Japanese food items.

She also found deep resonance in Japan's artisan culture, which embodies dedication, expertise, and passion in various artistic fields, aspiring to cultivate a similar attitude of pride and enthusiasm in her own artistic journey.

"I think that Japanese people have a very motivated and determined attitude in terms of perfecting their craft and gaining expertise in their fields, especially in art and culinary (skills)," she says.

One of Tam's most notable projects is her "Toast Project," which she began on the advice of Madison Moore, an artist-scholar and assistant professor of modern culture and media at Brown University in the United States.

A digital painting of Hong Kong bakery items by Tam Ka-yan, published on Instagram on Nov. 21, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Tam Ka-yan)(Kyodo)

Moore previously taught at the University of Southern California, where Tam studies art and East Asian cultures. The project involved drawing toast almost every day, treating each slice as a blank canvas to reflect her background, upbringing, and taste preferences.

What initially began as a 30-day challenge has now grown to 250 toast drawings, and through this project meticulously documented on Instagram, Tam is able to showcase her artistic growth and collaborate with home chefs and food content creators.

After moving to the United States in 2021 for her studies, Tam began to understand the power of art and social media, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when she began posting drawings of Hong Kong bakery items.

"I started getting a lot more messages from Hong Kongers living abroad," she says. "The ability of triggering those memories and emotions from art was a revelation is important."

In September, Tam began her one-year exchange program at Waseda University in Tokyo, where she hopes to work with artists and deepen her understanding of Japanese society, as well as to connect with small local cafe owners by helping them advertise their businesses to her followers through her art.

While Tam said she is fascinated by Japanese culture and expressed a desire to live and work in various East Asian countries, she said a sense of nostalgia and a deep connection to her birthplace will always draw her back to Hong Kong.

With the city's vibrant food scene and the rise of Instagram foodie accounts, Tam hopes to build and connect with her community by capturing the essence of each dish through her illustrations.

As a proud Hong Konger, Tam also feels a responsibility to promote small food businesses within the city while shedding light on its often-underrepresented culture and sharing her cultural roots.

"I hope to become someone that younger me would've admired and looked up to, as well as being a source of inspiration," she said. "As someone born and raised in Hong Kong...I'm proud of being from Hong Kong, and I'm glad it is where I call my home. It's a part of my identity."

(Tam Ka-yan's Instagram account is @nomkakaii.)

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