Spring has arrived in Washington, D.C., and with it, the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The annual celebration runs for two weeks in early spring, when the 3000 cherry trees around the so-called Tidal Basin, an artificial inlet not far from Washington's grassy National Mall, blossom into clouds of white and pink. The Festival includes parades, concerts, boat cruises on the Potomac River and special museum exhibits. This year, the poster seen all over town advertising the Cherry Blossom Festival events is the work of a Chinese-American artist.
Joan Lok, a slender woman in her early forties with a mane of dark hair, is a community affairs specialist by profession and an artist by avocation. Her poster for the Cherry Blossom Festival was chosen from among many other entries in an annual competition.
“The work is basically watercolor and ink on rice paper,” she says. “It is done freehand, without a sketch, and the scenery is of the Tidal Basin when the cherry trees are in bloom. Throughout the entire painting you see a lot of pink, and little white cherry blossom flowers. Of course with the Jefferson Memorial, white marbled, and blue skies, and the reflection.”
Joan Lok grew up in Hong Kong. She says she always wanted to paint, and always had a flair for it -- as a schoolgirl, she was the one asked to make the stage decorations for the school play or to participate in art competitions. But her parents had other ideas.
“You know, I'm from Hong Kong, the Chinese culture,” she says, “and even though my parents really appreciated my talent in painting, they are from the old school. They really think that art is not a job or a profession. And therefore, although they encouraged me to continue to do it, they encouraged me to do it as a hobby, not as a profession.”
So, to please her parents, Joan enrolled in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University to study hotel management. To please herself, in the evenings she took courses at the School of Fine Arts. But it was studying hotel management that changed the course of her life, by bringing her to the United States.
“I never thought of even traveling overseas, when I was in Hong Kong,” she recalls. “It was just not something I thought of. And then I was studying hotel management in the Hong Kong Polytechnic, and one year on the bulletin board Walt Disney World was looking for exchange students,” says Joan Lok. “I actually had no intent to apply, but I remember one morning waking up and having nothing else to do, and I just typed up my resume and thought, 'let's give it a try'. And I put that in, I went for the interview, and before I knew it I got selected, and then I was on a plane and came to America.”
It was 1983, and Joan Lok was all of 21 years old. After an 18-hour flight she arrived in Orlando, Florida, where Disneyworld is located.
“I do have to say that Walt Disney World gave us almost royal treatment,” she says. “They had a representative welcoming us at the airport, and of course, Florida being a very happy, sunshine state, when we landed it was completely different from the urban setting that I came from in Hong Kong. I mean the sky was blue, and the people were friendly, and I immediately loved where I am.”
In sunny Florida, fortune continued to smile on Joan Lok.
“The program was one year,” she says. “The first week that I arrived Walt Disney gave us a full week of orientation, and then after that we were actually to go into the pavilions to be their cultural representatives. And the first day I went in I met my future husband, and I think the rest is history, because I fell in love and I ended up marrying him and staying in the States.”
With her new husband's support, Joan enrolled in college, and received a Bachelor's degree in marketing. Then she took a break to raise two sons, who are now 14 and 8. Currently she is back in school, studying for a Master's Degree in Business Administration.
“I don't think I would have the opportunity to continue the education after putting it down for 15 years,” she says. “In some other country, if you put down your education, it's very hard to go back. But it America, I don't think that it's [held] against you. As a matter of fact, your life experience actually helps you.”
In the meantime, Joan Lok works for a federal regulatory agency as a community affairs specialist. Her field is promoting financial literacy - holding workshops and seminars to teach people how to open bank accounts, how to build assets, how to use credit wisely. She says she finds this a very fulfilling job, because it helps people better their lives. But in her free time she continues to paint, mostly delicate Asian-style watercolors on rice paper of flowers and birds and fish. She feels that her painting helps keep her in touch with her cultural heritage.
“For example, I could have become a watercolorist, and just done Western painting. But then living in America sometimes there is a certain urge for you to extend the art of calligraphy, the art of Chinese painting,” she says. “So you can connect to your homeland, to your roots, a lot better when you're practicing your art.”
Joan Lok says she hopes that her art can be a bridge between cultures and peoples. One example of this bridge is her delicate Oriental-style poster advertising this year's Cherry Blossom Festival in the American capital.