The Chinese illustrator showing us how we can all be heroes

Siyu Cao shares stories about cultural differences and connections through her webcomics. Then along came COVID-19…
The Chinese illustrator showing us how we can all be heroes

Tiny Eyes Comics was only meant to be a side hustle. A designer by day, Chinese-born, Paris-based Siyu Cao’s innocent portrayal of the “big world through tiny Chinese eyes” – from family traditions to cultural differences – is as charming as it is heartwarming.

“I was born and raised in China and I’ve lived in the US, the UK, and now in France,” Siyu tells Grazia. “During my time abroad, I realised that even though it’s much easier to travel nowadays, we don’t necessarily understand other cultures better. There are many stereotypes and misunderstandings about Chinese culture, and I want to break them and build bridges instead.”

Siyu Cao

Shedding light on subjects such as the stigma attached to goods that are made in China and the lack of Asian representation in mainstream TV and films through her work, Siyu explains, “Stereotypes are abstract and over-generalised. On the contrary, I wanted to create everyday stories that are fun and personal. Combining words and images, webcomics is a very accessible form of communication to reach people from different social and cultural backgrounds.”

Keen to clarify that her illustrations are neither intended to be autobiographical or universal to the Chinese experience, she continues, “The girl in my comics is not me, and she doesn’t represent all of us, either. It’s a character that people can relate to. Sometimes her stories are inspired by my own experience, other times it’s from my observations or stories that I heard from other sources.”

However, her simple sketches have played a big part in demystifying Chinese culture. “There are expatriates who have found it helpful to understand their surroundings in China. There are Chinese immigrants who’ve told me they felt seen and understood. I’ve also had universities and scholars asking to integrate the comics into their education module, presentations and theses. I’m truly happy to see that Tiny Eyes Comics has become a platform that connects people from various backgrounds.”

And with the global outbreak of coronavirus, never have we needed that connection more. “I was really worried about the situation in China and it was sad to see the tension and discrimination it has triggered in the rest of the world. I wanted to help with the least I could do – drawing comics,” she recalls.

A post of her protagonist wearing a mask on the metro, coupled with an explanation of the cultural difference that the Chinese wear masks for protection [as has become customary following the SARS outbreak] was prompted by reports of Asian women being ejected from carriages and subjected to racist abuse in Paris.

And a heartbreaking tale narrated from the point of view of a delivery driver in Wuhan shows that everybody has a part to play in fighting the current threat to public health, and even the ordinary among us can be heroes. “I don’t know to what extent, but at least I hope that my comics can humanise the current situation in some way.”

In time, Tiny Eyes Comics will become a chronicle of this period, although Siyu remains modest about her contribution. “I simply want to create stories in our everyday life with true emotions, whether it’s in times of peace or in times of war.” In a wish shared by the world, she adds, “For the near future, I hope the coronavirus crisis ends soon for everyone and we can all enjoy life again. For the long term, I hope to continue to build connections between cultures and people.”

Photos: Instagram and courtesy of the illustrator