Davy Liu's script for a happy life: Be a cowboy, not a cow

September 30, 2016 17:35
Renowned American-Taiwanese artist Davy Liu hopes that every child can pursue their dreams with the support of their parents. Photo: HKEJ

Renowned American-Taiwanese artist Davy Liu knows what failure means.

It's something that has followed him most of his young life. 

And so when he finally made a breakthrough in his chosen career, he has an advice to give to the young people: don't give up, pursue your dreams. 

He also wants to advise parents: don't lose hope on your kids, encourage them to make their dreams come true.

“Many Chinese parents think of their kids as glass beads when they should be as precious as diamonds,” Liu said.

Born to parents who believed that knowledge was everything, Liu struggled as a student.

He was the youngest, and his brother and four sisters all did well in school. He always ended up second in class, counting from the last.

But he loved painting, and he showed great talent in it.

However, his parents and teachers were not impressed. They told him to work harder for his grades, or else he wouldn’t be able to make a decent living when he grew up.

In 1982, his family migrated to the United States. That's where Liu met his eighth grade art teacher, Poppy Kincaid.

It was a life-changing moment when the teacher handed him a piece of blank, white paper and asked him to draw something, anything that he fancied.

Liu was troubled; it was an impossible instruction.

In Taiwan, he had never heard any teacher ask their students to do whatever they pleased.

Teachers there were expected to ask familiar questions and students to give familiar answers.

But Kincaid was different: she wanted her students to explore and to tap their creativity.

“You can do it,” she told Liu.

The 13-year-old boy was greatly encouraged, and in the following year, he was selected among the top 20 in a national art competition.

His entry was a vivid painting of a dragon consisting of the various landmark buildings of the world.

“My parents were shocked. They joked that a poor worm from Taiwan suddenly became an outstanding dragon in the US,” Liu recalled.

Liu did not mind his parent's remarks, and pursued a career in art.

He enrolled at the Ringling School of Arts and Design in Florida, and after earning a degree in illustration, he applied for a job at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

From the thousands who applied from across America, Disney chose eight, including Liu.

He felt like walking in the clouds. It was a dream job, and soon enough he was involved in the production of memorable feature films such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Mulan, and The Lion King.

He later joined Warner Brothers to work on Space Jam and Quest of Camelot, and in 1998, he was offered to become an art director at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic.

At the peak of his career, Liu quit his job. He was just 30, and he wanted to establish his own studio.

"Follow your dreams ... you can do it!" kept echoing in his ears, and so he did.

“Even after having worked at Disney for a decade, I still felt like I was nobody," Liu said.

That's probably because he never got encouragement from his parents.

"Even after I have achieved so much in my chosen career, my mom would still think doctors and lawyers are more respectable people. Never did she say she was proud of me,” he lamented.

In 2004, he founded Kendu Films, a production outfit for inspirational movies, picture books, musicals and similar artistic projects.

“Kendu” sounds like and means “can do”, the attitude he would like to bring out in every child and family.

“Asian parents tend to shoot down their children’s dreams because of fear and love," Liu observed. "They think a good life is to have a high-paying job.

"American parents, on the other hand, hope that their children would follow their heart and pursue their dreams. That's the major difference."

He said traditional Chinese education breeds brilliant "cows" (workers) for earning money, but sadly it seldom produces "cowboys" (creators) who dare to dream and create.

While the income from his startup is just fair, Lu said he is very satisfied because he is being true to himself.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 29.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Liu drew inspiration from his eighth grade art teacher Poppy Kincaid, who encouraged him to follow his dream and cultivate his creativity. Photo: HKEJ
Liu was selected among the top 20 in a national art competition with his work of a vivid painting of a dragon consisting of various landmark buildings of the world. Photo: HKEJ
Liu with his illustrations for the movie The Lion King. Photo: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal