When the pandemic hit, Leanne Gan found herself compelled to help those around her — specifically, the community in New York City’s Chinatown. Gan, a Chinese-Filipino American graphic designer and illustrator, relied on her craft as a means of uplifting ailing small businesses during a vulnerable, xenophobic-fueled time for them. Since 2020, she’s raised more than $20,000.
“One of my favorite dumpling shops in Chinatown closed under the stress of the pandemic and anti-Asian racism,” Gan told In The Know by Yahoo. “This was a wake-up call for me in getting involved in preserving and protecting places I love before it’s too late. I started selling prints of places I loved and donating the proceeds back to the places I drew to keep them afloat during the pandemic and it’s been amazing seeing how people have shown up in these efforts to keep these spaces alive.”
“I only started illustrating at the start of the pandemic in 2020 and my first accidental illustration project was a drawing I did of my favorite lesbian bar, the Cubbyhole, when they were indefinitely closed,” she added. “The bar was able to raise a lot of money selling prints of the drawing I did and being able to give back in this way is what inspired all of the art mutual-aid fundraisers I’ve done since then.”
Before relocating to Brooklyn, N.Y., where she now resides, Gan grew up in the San Gabriel Valley (S.G.V.) in Los Angeles County. The S.G.V. is home to one of the largest concentrations of Asian residents in the United States — a privilege Gan didn’t recognize until she left for college.
“Asian Americans were the majority there and it wasn’t until I went to college in the Pacific Northwest that I learned what a privilege that was,” she explained. “I was asked if I ate dogs, for help with calculus homework (never taken it before!) and called ‘Little China’ by my roommate’s brother in my first year in Tacoma.”
Despite initially wanting to go into physical therapy, Gan took interest in designing front covers for her college’s paper. It was during this time that she gained experience designing on campus, taught herself various programs and resolved to pursue graphic design full time.
In 2018, one year into the Trump administration, Gan began working as a graphic designer for the American Civil Liberties Union. A nonprofit organization known for its dedication to the defense and preservation of individuals’ legal and human rights, the ACLU represented a means for Gan to “fight back” the best way she knew how: through her art.
“The ACLU was involved in a ton of cases against his racist agenda and I wanted to be a part of their work fighting back,” Gan said. “It can be stressful and overwhelming working with issues that I care about so personally. Overall I am really grateful to get to use my abilities as a designer to help spread awareness when the organization is responding to moments like abortion bans and anti-trans bills.”
Still, Gan’s appreciation for the S.G.V. and her Chinese-Filipino heritage greatly informs her point of view as an artist.
“Some of my first illustrations of things like Tiger Balm and haw flakes I did because I was feeling both homesick in 2020, and these items carry so much nostalgic weight as a Chinese-Filipino person growing up in the S.G.V.,” Gan said. “My upbringing is present in all of my work and I’m always looking for ways to highlight that in future projects.”
Gan hopes that her story serves as inspiration for others to get involved in their own communities. An impact can be made — and when it is, it’s incredibly gratifying.
“Whether you’re a baker, a ceramicist, an illustrator or whatever — there are infinite ways to use your talent to help your community,” Gan shared. “In using illustration to raise awareness and funds for places and people I care about, I have never felt more joy and optimism for the future.”
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