A Tortured Path to Writing and Cartooning

Philip Chen

I am, by nature
and experience, a very serious man.  Just
look at the things that I have done and you will see no flights of fancy, no
falling off the beaten path, and certainly no aspirations of the literary kind.

As the immigrant
son of strict Chinese parents, there was no opportunity to indulge in anything
but adhere to rules.  Life from an early
age was rigorous: obedience to parents, and constant studying.  If you were found doing anything that was not
“educational”, you could expect to be punished and not by being given time
outs, either.  Comic books were frowned
upon and I remember that any Mad Magazine
found in my room was torn up and thrown away. 
My purchase of an Ann-Margret album was smashed.  All this was evil stuff that diverted you
from your essential purpose: study and then study some more.

At an
intellectual level, even at a young age, I understood why my parents were so
strict.  Growing up in the United States
in the 1950s and 1960s as an Asian was not easy.  We lived in Washington, D.C., which at that
time was at the intersection of southern institutionalized racism and northern
false hope.  Opportunities for Chinese in
America, during the time of the Chinese Exclusion laws, were few and far
between.  As a young child, I was
resigned to the fact that I would be channeled into some technical field.  Any aspiration of going into architecture,
art, or other creative pursuit was, simply put, a non-starter.

There were no
laws that said Chinese could not pursue these avenues, but society, reinforced
by my parents, said that any attempt to do anything but pursuing a technical
education was doomed to failure.

So I
became a serious man.

I went to
engineering school and did well.  I
worked as an ocean research engineer and then went into environmental and power
plant engineering when funds for ocean research mysteriously dried up.  Even in engineering, this notion that Chinese
could not do anything but be technicians was manifest.  Despite my having been educated at two very
serious and highly rated universities for my bachelor and masters degrees and
having had straight A’s in English at university, a well-meaning engineering
manager once told me, “Phil, your problem is that you don’t write good.”  I had to bite my tongue from correcting him
that he meant “well” not “good”.

You see, the
mantra of the time (and unfortunately still true to some extent today) is that
non Western Europeans are unable to master English and because of that  they are often relegated to analytical
functions.  Managerial positions
(concomitant with higher pay and stature) were meant only for people who could
master English.

By the
mid-seventies, American society had opened up slightly, thanks in great measure
to the civil rights movement led by African-Americans.  As a serious man, I saw an opportunity to
broaden my knowledge of the rapidly developing area of environmental law and
its application to my job as an environmental engineer.

That’s when it the serious life started to unravel.  

Starting legal
studies at night and eventually finishing full-time at a major law school, I
found that I could have a career that did not box me into a strictly technical
field.  I became a trial attorney in
1979.  Even then, I admit that not many
Chinese Americans were trial attorneys, although there were many practicing
patent law, the equivalent to being an engineer in the legal profession.  One thing led to another and I saw myself
spiraling away from the walls of my childhood imprisonment.  In quick succession, I became a municipal
securities attorney, an investment banker, and private equity manager in
Africa.  Quite a path for a young
immigrant child who was told that he could never aspire to do anything except
engineering calculations and drawing plans on a piece of vellum.  I started to see a world that I had never
dreamed about.  I dined at the finest
restaurants, stayed in the most luxurious hotels and resorts, had junior
personnel ready to do whatever I asked, and even flew on the Concorde.

But I
remained a serious man.

I did this for
twenty years, pursuing the career of a serious man.  I married, had two children, bought a house,
bought a summer home, and planned seriously for a professional life.  Although my career was eclectic, I never
wavered from the path that fate had chosen for me, however tortuous it might
have been.  I had no intention of doing
anything else.

it happened.

In 1990, I
suffered through a long period of restless nights, triggered by violent,
incredibly vivid nightmares.  In these
nightmares, I saw gangs of what looked like ordinary Americans rampaging
through my country killing people and destroying buildings.  I saw majestic skyscrapers crash to the
ground in flames.  Even when I would be
startled awake, these images continued to play out in the darkness of my
bedroom, as though I was watching some urban horror movie.  These dreams haunted me during the day as
well.  It was as though I were trapped in
an endless loop of these scenes of destruction and human tragedy.

During that same
time period, I was traveling frequently to Europe for business.  I remember buying a new novel by a famous
author who had been paid a handsome advance. 
I prefer not to identify the novel or the writer, but I found the book
to be so utterly pornographic in its depiction of violence against women and so
mundane in its repeated details of life, that I could not finish it – and I am
not a prude by any means.  I threw the
book away into a trash can at Heathrow Airport.  As a serious man, I said to myself – I can do
better than that.

I was carrying a
lightweight laptop for business and on those long overseas flights, in lonely
hotel rooms (mostly in the U.K.), and during weekends at home, I started to
type out a novel about gangs of foreign spies who hid in plain view in America
for decades and struck when ordered to do so by their masters.  I did this without any formal training in
writing or experience as a storyteller. 
My previous writing had always been serious technical, legal or
financial papers.

I found that my
story was easy to transcribe.  It was as
though my characters lined up one-by-one to tell me their tale and I merely
transcribed their stories.  I finished
the draft in about one and one half months and produced a 560 page
manuscript.  My nightmares stopped upon
the completion of this manuscript.  It
was as though the story was told.

For twenty
years, I tried to get literary agents and publishers to look at this
novel.  For twenty years, my efforts were
continually rebuffed.

In 2001, I watched
aghast as jetliners were used by foreign agents in an attack on America.  I was astonished to later learn that these
agents had lived amongst us, some for decades, as they plotted this horrendous
attack.  My first action after September
11th was to take my principal character’s office off of the 100th floor of One
World Trade Center, because I did not want people to think that I was trying to
profit off this tragedy, although the action in the story takes place in 1993.

My story still
had no takers.  It was as though the
guardians of the sacred temple thought that my tale of foreign agents hiding in
plain view for decades, marrying innocent Americans, raising children, buying
homes, holding down jobs, stealing the identities of dead babies, and living the
casual suburban life was preposterous. 
Things like that just didn’t happen in this country – not in
America!  Of course, until it did in June
2010 when Russian spies were found to have been doing exactly what my fictional
spies did for twenty years.  The only
difference was that my spies didn’t grow hydrangeas.  One of my fictional agents was even a
gorgeous female who posed as a financial consultant.  I started posting excerpts of this story on
Scribd.com in May 2009 (see, http://scribd.com/PhilC68)
and the novel was first copyrighted in 1991. 
I add these facts just in case anyone doubts my history.

That is when I
decided to self-publish, in August 2010, just in case any more of my story was
broadcast on prime time news.  Like that
Swedish discovery of a mysterious object buried on the floor of the Baltic Sea
– a principal story line in my novel.

Remember how I
reacted on September 2001 to the attack on the World Trade Center?  I now believe that the skyscrapers that I saw
in my nightmares crashing to the earth in flames were the Twin Towers.  The reason that I was able to so accurately
portray my principal character’s office in the Twin Towers is because I was
describing my own office as a managing director for Lehman Brothers situated
above the 100th floor of Two World Trade Center in the late eighties and early
nineties.  I left the firm in 1992, but
had I stayed there and if my office was on the same floor on that dreadful day,
I would not be writing this today.

This story that
the watchdogs of the dead tree book industry so roundly dismissed has now been
on sale for a little more than one year. It has been purchased over 4,400 times
and has received close to fifty four and five star reviews on various sites.  It also has the unqualified recommendation of
noted U.S. book critic Alan Caruba who concluded his review with, “If
you read just one novel in 2011, make it Falling Star.

But writing a
novel is not necessarily a departure from being a serious man.  Writers tend to be serious about what they
do.  But cartooning?  That is another story.

became less serious.

When I was
sixty-three, my cardiologist telephoned me and told me that under no
circumstances should I pick up anything heavier than a pencil (a slight
exaggeration) over a weekend until he could set up an angiogram.  He was concerned that I was going to burst
some pipes or something.  So with
absolutely nothing to do, I surfed the web and came across an interesting
astronomical theory that there has to be a parallel universe filled with
strange matter in order for our universe to maintain cosmic balance.  Don’t forget, serious men read serious stuff.

As I sat there
reading that article in BBC News, I started thinking (something that tends to
get me into trouble), just what kind of life could or would live in such a
place?  Would leaves seek help for their
fear of autumnal demise?  Do elephant
seals sue for protection against orcas? 
And, for that matter, just what do the statues on East Island think
about as they stand there for centuries staring out at the tranquil waters of
the Pacific Ocean.  So without any formal
training in art or cartooning, I picked up a number two pencil and started
drawing.  My first cartoons appeared on a
local message board where they developed a small but vocal following.  Then the New York Times asked me to
contribute to their experiment at local news reporting on the web, aptly
called, “The Local”.  Eventually, I started my own cartoon blog and
posted on various forums and message boards to which I belonged.

Followers of my
cartoons compare them favorably to Gary Larson’s Far Side, a comparison that pleases me as Larson is one of my
favorite cartoonists.

do I reconcile being a serious man, a writer of thrillers, and cartooning?

Actually writing
a novel and drawing a cartoon are not that different.  In each case you are telling a story.  In the first case, your story is related
using only words, constructed in such as fashion that the reader is led on a
journey into your mind.  In the latter
case, your cartoon paints the story in more visual ways and the caption is the
punch line.

the future holds.

As 2011 fades
into 2012, I am working on Volume 2 of my series.  In this volume, there will be more clarity in
what lies at the bottom of the ocean. 
However, Mike must deal with another encounter of the human kind as he
is assigned to stop the distribution of a new drug with a most unusual side
effect.  But before he can solve that
mystery, one of his actions in the first volume comes back to challenge Mike’s
continued service to CSAC.  I am also
assembling volume 2 of There is
Strangeness in the Universe
.  The
tentative title is
Happy Holidays?  And Other Tragedies in Life.

Books by Philip Chen
Only one man can
save the planet; small problem he just died.

Mysterious but silent objects have been found buried deep in the murky depths of the ocean.  Dormant for decades, they are now awake and sending messages to outer space. Mike, pulled back into a clandestine world to finish a job he started as a young Navy Ensign and help decipher these strange messages, is attacked by gangs of ordinary Americans and must fight for his very life. 

From the deepest reaches of the abyssal plains to the arid but mystically  beautiful deserts of the American Southwest, Falling Star takes you on a journey through the darkest aspects of human existence to enlightenment of mankind’s soul.  It is a realistically written novel and contains scenes of graphic violence and strong language.

It may be strange to you, but it is life for us.

Philip Chen was
born in China in 1944 and immigrated to the United States in 1949. Growing up
in Washington, D.C., during the 1950s and 1960s, Philip learned both the pains
and triumphs of American society at a crucial turning point in America’s
history.  In the fifties and sixties, Washington stood at the crossroads
of southern institutionalized racism and northern false hope; a point not lost
on the young Chinese immigrant.

After receiving a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering with Distinction from the
University of Virginia and a Master of Science from Stanford University, he
worked as an ocean research engineer in the development of deep submergence
systems. Part of his work dealt with vehicles that could freely dive to 20,000
feet of water depth. He also participated as a hyperbaric chamber operator for
manned dives inside a pressure chamber to 1,500 feet. He holds one U.S. Patent
for an underwater mooring system.

After his stint as an ocean research engineer, Philip was an environmental and
energy engineer, a trial attorney, a public securities attorney, an investment
banker, a corporate executive, a private equity manager (in Africa), a
strategic consultant, a cartoonist, an illustrator, a website manager, and
author. He received his law degree from the University of Minnesota.

One of his mentors once told Philip that it wasn’t that he couldn’t hold down a
job; he couldn’t even hold down a career! Philip’s biography has been included
in Who’s Who in America and in Who’s Who in the World for many years


3 thoughts on “A Tortured Path to Writing and Cartooning

Anything you want to say about this post?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.