As millions around the world prepare to celebrate the Lunar New Year, the United States Postal Service (USPS) will also carry on its tradition of issuing a Lunar New Year stamp.
On Friday, the Year of the Monkey stamp will go on sale nationwide. The new stamp, created by illustrator Kam Mak, “incorporates two elements from the previous series of Lunar New Year Stamps,” according to the USPS: two bright red-orange peonies — which symbolize wealth and honor in Chinese culture and often decorate the traditional drums played during lion dances — and late artist Clarence Lee’s paper-cut design of a monkey. The design also features the Chinese character for “monkey,” drawn in calligraphy by Lau Bun.
Lee, who died in 2015, designed the first series of Lunar New Year stamps (the first stamp was released in 1992), and also the U.S. stamp for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“I feel my father would be very proud. I’m very happy to see his work continue,” Lee’s daughter Cathy Lee Chong told NBC News. “The greatest tribute to an artist is to have their work appreciated and revived.”
History of the Lunar New Year Postage Stamp
Getting the USPS to create a Lunar New Year stamp series was no easy task. The inspiration originated with the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA), known currently as OCA - Asian Pacific American Advocates, who began urging the USPS in the late ‘80s to issue the first U.S. stamp to honor the contributions of Chinese Americans.
"When he was selected by the U.S. Postal Service to design the [Lunar New Year] stamp series, the project was an enormous way for him to give back to the Asian community and to inspire pride in our cultural roots."
According to the OCA, Jean Chen, a Georgia chapter member, was inspired by an old photograph that only showed Caucasian workers in a book about the history of building the Transcontinental Railroad. “This obvious slight of the numerous Chinese laborers involved in the Transcontinental Railroad construction incensed Chen, who felt that the Asian contributions to the US had been ignored for too long,” the OCA wrote in a 2009 newsletter detailing the Lunar New Year stamps’ history.
After drumming up support from other OCA chapters around the country, the USPS issued its first Lunar New Year stamp celebrating the Year of the Rooster in 1992, and Lee was commissioned to design it.
In a 2008 radio interview with Voice of America, Lee recalled that the stamp turned out to be very popular not just in the U.S., but also in China. “The Postal Service was surprised that the stamp made over $5 million, and was very successful because this was the first [U.S.] stamp with a Chinese character on it, Chinese artwork, paper-cut artwork. It was very colorful. And so they were buying up all these stamps because it had a Chinese theme,” Lee said, noting that, back then, there were some-20 million stamp collectors in China.
After the success of the Year of the Rooster stamp, the USPS commissioned Lee to design a full series of 12 stamps for the Lunar New Year.
The Artist Behind the Stamps
Lee was known as a “pioneer in the Hawaii design industry,” and has been honored as a Living Treasure in Hawaii.
Whenever he spoke to stamp collectors in major U.S. cities and in China, he often shared how the stamps gave him a chance to honor his parents. Lee’s mother was a Chinese-American from Hawaii; his father emigrated from China, and worked hard to support his wife and five children as a butcher in Honolulu's Chinatown.
Lee credited his parents for nurturing his passion for art when he was a child. “I remember my father getting butcher paper, that was a pink, waxy butcher paper, and he would bring it home for me, sheets and sheets of it. And I would just sit on the floor and just start drawing,” Lee said in 2008.
“I really feel that my father was brilliant and humble. He beat the odds. His family did not come from privilege.” Lee Chong said, reflecting on her father’s legacy. “While most of his childhood friends were determined to be doctors and lawyers, and take the expected route for Asian males at the time, he followed his passion to become an artist.”
She added, “When he was selected by the U.S. Postal Service to design the [Lunar New Year] stamp series, the project was an enormous way for him to give back to the Asian community and to inspire pride in our cultural roots. My father is an example of the American Dream in that his hard work and perseverance served him well in making his mark.”
The Second Lunar New Year Series and a Continuing Legacy
After the first Lunar New Year stamp series ended in 2004, the OCA again fought and lobbied to renew the series. In 2008, the USPS unveiled the first stamp in the second Lunar New Year series designed by Kam Mak, an illustrator who was born in Hong Kong and grew up in New York City’s Chinatown.
According to the USPS, Mak’s stamps combine elements from the first series to create continuity.
“I’m thrilled I was given the opportunity to tell a story through my paintings to showcase how beautiful my culture is,” Mak, 54, told NBC News. “I’m proud to be a part of it. I’m proud that Clarence Lee’s animal designs help enhance the series.”
Mak added, “He established an incredible reputation by creating the first Lunar New Year stamp series and created an incredible following — not just Chinese or Asian people who the celebrate the Lunar New Year, but many people outside of the culture fell in love with the whole series of stamps.”
Mak said creating the stamps has been especially meaningful because it's also inspired him and others to learn more about history. “When I’m working on a stamp, I know it’s not just about the Lunar New Year. It honors the Chinese Americans who came before me. It’s paying homage to all those Chinese Americans in the past and in the present who continue to contribute to this country. We helped build this country. It’s acknowledging all those contributions. We appreciate that.”