Pride and Joy
Jennifer Choo 
Eng thinks her optimistic outlook is a key contributor to her success today as an artist

We live in the age of third-wave feminism, a time when fashion designers produce T-shirts declaring “We should all be feminists” and rallying cries of “Down with the patriarchy” resound across Twitter and Instagram.

But educating little girls (and boys) that great things are achieved by great dreamers regardless of gender is a lesson which should start early as the inspiring book series Little People, Big Dreams aims to do. Targeted at readers ages five to eight, the books feature the life stories of outstanding women in history from Coco Chanel to Frida Kahlo, each story accompanied by cool artwork.

While most of the books are authored separately by Isabel Sanchez Vegara and Lisbeth Kaiser, the illustrations are done by specially chosen artists who best suit the feel of the famous women depicted. For iconic Mexican painter Kahlo, Malaysian illustrator Eng Gee Fan was picked to lend her vibrant yet whimsical style.

Eng, who is currently based in Perlis, was always enthusiastic about art growing up in Kota Tinggi, Johor. She loved watching anime and would sketch the characters, then make them into toys. Eng was also actively involved in her school’s drama society and made costumes for the plays they put up.

After high school, she furthered her studies at Selangor’s New Era College, majoring in visual communication. “During my studies, one of my professors continuously encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and find a way to bring my art into the society. Heeding his advice, I began to attend art markets, selling my art and handcrafted items under the name Minifanfan (which eventually became her brand). My confidence was built from day to day, from knowing that people enjoyed my work and from clients who told me how much they loved what I do,” she reminisces.

After graduating, Eng worked as an in-house designer for two years before quitting to pursue art full-time. “This was a turning point in my life. After a few months of travelling and working in New Zealand, I met my boyfriend, who is my husband now. He is from Perlis and worked several years in the IT industry. We had to make a decision before our working holiday visa expired and in the end, we returned to Malaysia in 2013 to begin our minimalist lifestyle by moving back to his hometown.”

“There are several reasons for this. First of all, the living cost and rental could be a major issue if we were to build a base in KL. Secondly, we enjoy and have gotten used to the simple life after living in a small town in New Zealand. Last but not least, we are able to afford a bigger working space here and also have more time to spend with our family,” notes Eng.

Work studio in Perlis

Currently, all her focus is on Minifanfan, which combines her style of drawing with handmade products that are sold online. She also does commissions for clients such as Chatime and IKEA. The latter found her portfolio online.

“I was so happy to receive an email in 2014 from IKEA inviting me to design its ang pow packets. It was only my second year back from New Zealand and this project really encouraged me. A few months later, I received another invitation from the furniure retailer to illustrate the Raya green packets, followed by another commission for the 2015 ang pow design.”

Barcelona-based writer Sanchez also sought Eng out online to collaborate on the book. “She found my artwork on the internet and emailed to invite me to illustrate her story about Kahlo as she thought my style of drawing would suit the subject. Coincidentally, she was vacationing in KL so we met up and had a short discussion. After I received the initial script, I started to sketch and storyboard every scene. We would continue our discussion via email. After both of us had agreed on the final sketches and scenes, I would start the digital drawing and colouring using the computer. The whole process took around three months to complete.”

She feels it is one of her best projects yet. “I’m really happy and proud of myself after completing the project. I never thought that I would ever have my own illustrations appear in a book, which is sold worldwide. Also, I’m a big fan of Frida Kahlo! I studied her art and history in college, which is why I was so surprised and lucky to be chosen to draw her story. Little People, Big Dreams – Frida Kahlo may be my first book for but I hope it won’t be my last. I would love to work on more books.”

Little People, Big Dreams – Frida Kahlo is one of Eng’s favourite projects yet

Indeed, Eng’s irrepressibly upbeat spirit can be felt through her work; even the tagline for Minifanfan is “Happy Drawings for Happy People”, something she is completely unapologetic about.

“I think that I succeeded in becoming an artist because of my optimistic outlook. I did not have a particularly happy childhood but it didn’t dampen my spirits to think and live better. I always tell myself that I can’t make everyone happy but I have the ability to make myself happier. I love sharing this joy and happiness with people through my art.”

And what put a smile on her face every time? “My life partner, my furkids, as well as great music and movies always make me happy. I love to travel around the world; this is the best way to release stress and rejuvenate my mood. There are many things in this world that will make you feel depressed. At the same time, there are also many beautiful things in this world that can make you happy. So always choose to be on the happy side. Life is really that simple.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 256.