Reinvention & Nostaligia: Artwork by Grandpa Chan

Translation by Ji Lee, Relayed to Annie Kesselhaut


How many people can reinvent themselves, especially in their senior years, and be truly successful at it? To most, it takes careful planning and a fail-safe in place, and even then nothing is guaranteed.

But 76-year-old “Grandpa Chan” finds himself with a new career revolving around the elements in life he loves most: art and family.

Grandpa Chan’s Instagram could be the envy of any struggling social media influencer, currently at 345,000 followers as of this publication.

Grandpa Chan explains:

“In the beginning, we used to treat this as my diary for the grandkids. We wanted to share small, everyday things. The view from our living room, things I saw in the park, different places in São Paulo, things that happened in different places around the world, our interest towards animals and plants, etc. As we looked for the subjects every day, our point of view widened. Also, as we shared our stories with Arthur and Allan [grandchildren], we wanted to remind them about Brazil’s nature and culture so they wouldn’t forget about them.

I made my drawings and uploaded them out of a sense of duty because my family insisted I did. But when the number of followers increased and we read the comments, we were touched and we felt grateful. We also became more thoughtful about the subject of the drawings, and we began to feel a whole new amazing world of possibility begin to open. Now at 76, I’m starting a whole new career I couldn’t even imagine a few years ago, all thanks to the internet. If I can do it, I believe anyone at any age can do it too.”

Allan, do you remember that last winter I taught you how to draw on the iPad? Do you still know how to do it? I’m pretty sure you do.

Boys, Grandpa remembered the times, well before the plastic appeared, in which dishes and mats were made with bamboo or straw. I also remembered the ladies carrying a bunch of baskets on their heads for sale.

Grandpa Chan is originally from Korea but migrated to Brazil during the height of the Korean War.  His son and grandkids Live in New York. In every post, the story is written in three languages – English, Korean, and in Portuguese. This widens his audience. Regardless of the language, however, the emotion behind every story is clear.

“My upbringing was very hard because of the Korean war and because my family was always very poor. My wife’s family wasn’t as poor but she also went through the war. For us, saving electricity, water, and being frugal have become part of who we are. So we are wary about this time of abundance. We hope they [grandchildren] grow to be people who can help those who are hungry and to treat their neighbors well.

It’s not much fun to learn about history through school books. So I try to teach thema little bit about Korean modern history through our short stories and drawings based on our past experiences. Korean history is sometimes sad, sometimes heartbreaking, and sometimes amusing.”

September 28, 1950 was “Chuseok” (Harvest Festivities Holiday in Korea). It was the day when the United Nations forces and the Korean troops successfully landed on the Incheon beach to reclaim Seoul against the communist army. The reason why I remember this day is because my mother wanted to make simple flour cakes to celebrate as she ground the wheat on the millstone. Then, Boom! Suddenly in the backyard, there was a huge explosion and a scary fire spread to our living room. We ran out. Wow, how could this be? Our entire neighborhood was engulfed in flames. We ran mindlessly following the chaotic crowd towards “Wangsimni” district. We slept on the market floor that night but there was no place to go in the morning as our house was in ashes. The sky in that morning was especially blue.

Ageism is still very present, despite the some of the regulations on equal opportunity that have been implemented. The wonderful thing about the internet, though, if one truly has the skill and talent, people will take notice. No need for social media marketing or hashtags. Maybe in Grandpa Chan’s case, it’s an anomaly. But still very plausible.

“I heard the word “internet” a long time ago, but I had no idea what it was and I had no interest in it. I started to read the internet news on the computer three years ago, and two years ago, I started to do the internet banking though my phone. I’ve never used email to communicate with someone.

“I never tried to learn it on my own. Still today, my wife teaches me: to look for news on the computer and on the smart phone, to send the photos from my smart phone as email, etc. I don’t like dealing with these things so it’s very hard for me to learn.

 “For old folks like me, the internet can be very intimidating. And in order to use it properly, one must learn its capabilities and functions. Even after you learn it, if you don’t use it frequently, then you’ll forget. Also for me, learning Instagram in the beginning was so hard, I almost said I can’t do it. But my son’s perseverance moved me, and finally after many hours when I succeeded in uploading my drawing, I felt a great sense of accomplishment.

“Many old people’s problem is loneliness. When you step inside the internet, you can always find people you can talk to. The Internet also makes it easier for old folks to understand young folks’ interests and through this, connect with them better.”

A few days ago, it was a day of reuniting separated families from the South and North Koreas. Among many applicants, less than 300 family members were allowed to reunite. Take a look at this grandma with a pretty hat. Her name is Keum Sum Lee. She’s 92 years old. While fleeing from North, she lost her husband and her four years old son. How must she have felt when she finally embraced her 70 years old son whom she couldn’t forget for her whole life? Your grandma’s family also fled to South from North Korea. She watched the news while crying.

When grandpa saw a street garlic vendor near home, I was so happy I followed him for a while. As the man walked energetically, he screamed: “Look at the garlic!” In that moment, I remembered the early days of our immigration. While we were driving and crossing the canal near the Central Market, I saw a garlic vendor on the street. There were mountains of garlic. Wow! These garlics which were braided and hung in bundles, looked just like the ones in Korea. Brazilians also eat garlic! I thought this one fact alone would make our immigrant life easier. You guys can’t imagine how many sad stories there were around the world because of the saying “garlic stinking Koreans.” You guys know Brazilians even add garlic in their rice, right? Ah, you used to eat Brazilian rice all the time!

His success wouldn’t be possible if not for Grandpa Chan’s family. It has been a collaborative effort. He illustrates, then his wife, Grandma Marina, writes the stories/captions. His son acts as the project manager. This gives the artist the creative freedom he needs.

“My wife and I work as a team. She comes up with the most of the stories and the subjects: Scenes from the streets, news, boys’ photos, animals, plants and thoughts she has. Then I draw. Sometimes I can draw well to illustrate a thought. Sometimes my drawings can’t express a thought well enough.

“Everyday we upload the drawings and the stories on Messenger and we have a group discussion. In this process, we learn a lot about each other. Grandparents in the world love to see their grandchildren more than their children by a thousand times.

“Whenever there’s a new feature in Instagram, I receive lots of help from my family so I can learn more about what young people around the world are interested in.”

The DNA of football flows in every Brazilian child. In our second year of immigration, at the 1982 World Cup, I fell in love with the brilliant Brazilian football, so different from the European football.

Arthur, Allan, imagine if you were lost inside a dark cave flooded with rain. And what if your parents didn’t hear from you for more than a week? On June 23, 12 boys, members of a Thailand football team, along with their coach, went on a tour of the Tham Luang cave after their training and ended up being trapped inside due to heavy rain. Only after 10 days were they found alive by specialized rescuers. I believe it must have been the anxious prayers of their family and the world. They endured the 10 days only taking the water from the ceiling of the cave. Doctors and nurses were the first to enter the cave carrying special foods but it isn’t yet known how long the rescue will take. Let’s pray together. One thing Grandpa learned in life is the power of prayer.

His thoughts on new technology and its possibilities:

“I try all sorts of techniques, materials and ideas, but I’m often not happy with the results so I throw them out. Even with watercolor which is my favorite medium, things don’t always go well. I also try to use trash materials such as foam and cardboard to create 3D pieces in order to recycle them in interesting ways.”

Take a look at people who are carrying heavy loads. Take a look at people who have hard lives. Let’s be empathetic and let’s try to help them.

On his growing community of fans:

I’m more and more amazed about the supporting comments from the followers who sound like family. I’m very grateful for their support, but at the same time, I feel the pressure. Sometimes I can’t sleep thinking about what I should draw. I want to make simple and warm drawings. My wife wants to write comforting stories, and sometimes she wants to write stories that make you smile. I try to always go back to the mindset of how I drew in the very beginning.

March 1 will complete 100 years since the people of Korea shouted the cry for independence from Japan. On March 3, 1919, during the funeral of Emperor Gojong, people all over the country united as one. In the face of the pain of having the country under the Japanese rule, people dressed in white to mourn the emperor and went out in tears to give their emperor the last goodbye.

Current Projects:

Attending to many requests, Grandpa Chan’s family made some of the drawings available as prints on his website. Part of the proceeds will go to support The Unloneliness Project, from The Foundation for Art & Healing. Founded by Dr. Jeremy Nobel, the project believes that creativity and connectivity are keys to help people overcome loneliness. Donations help get the word out and put programs together in hospitals, film festivals, and more. Another portion goes to his three grandchildren’s college funds.

In March this year, Looking Back, Life Was Beautiful, a collection of Grandpa Chan’s drawings and Grandma Marina’s writings for Instagram was released in book stores in Korea. The book is in Korean only for now, but hopefully will be released in English sometime soon as well.

Learn more at:
Instagram: drawings_for_my_grandchildren
Book: Looking Back, Life Was Beautiful


Art curated by FORTH art editors.

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