“Once Upon a Hong Kong” by Don Mak

Once Upon a Hong Kong, Don Mak (Victionary, December 2020) Once Upon a Hong Kong, Don Mak (Victionary, December 2020)

“Everybody has their own Hong Kong story,” begins the introduction to Don Mak’s Once Upon a Hong Kong. Over a series of 18 illustrations, Mak has the opportunity to tell his story. Mak takes readers on a journey through daily Hong Kong life—from Hong Kong Park to Temple Street to Lantau Island.

Each painting is brought to life with rich details: facial expressions that convey everything from joy to exhaustion, a diversity of people and characters and busy scenes of market days or of lion and dragon dances. Color plays a big role—bold and vibrant in some scenes and muted greys in others, Mak conveys a sense of both love for his home, but also reflection.


Mak’s images are accompanied by short texts. The words are brief: a single line of Chinese text on the left is accompanied by its translation on the right. The brevity both maximizes the space for Mak’s paintings and serves as a contrast to the detailed imagery, while guiding the reader to reflect on the larger themes in Mak’s take on life in Hong Kong.

The text, written by Miss Black Cat, is pensive and poetic. In a busy restaurant crowded with tables pushed closely together and people busy eating, the text below reads: “Those who crave space will never find it on the menu.”

Accompanying a painting of a vast construction site are the words: “How long will remnants of the past stay hidden and buried here?”


Inspired by Czech writer Miroslav Šašek’s “This is …” series, Mak’s striking illustrations are charming, but there is also a thoughtfulness about them that makes the book suitable for children and adults alike. Once Upon a Hong Kong serves as a visual memoir for present day Hong Kong, with the book jacket stating as much—Mak is looking to use these works of art “as a legacy for his daughter in the future”. But while observational and candid about life and culture in Hong Kong, Mak’s illustrations also feel deeply personal, with his final illustration tying the book together.

There is much to admire about Mak’s work and plenty for the reader to observe and reflect upon in subsequent reads. Mak goes beyond the documentation of the ordinary (made less ordinary by his striking work). Equally, young readers will find the illustrations fun and captivating.

A scene of Hong Kong’s watch shops is accompanied by the words: “Nothing lasts forever, but a few have mastered the art of restoring time.” Mak may not be able to restore time, but with Once Upon a Hong Kong he has captured it.

Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.