Dim Sum Stories Told Through Cartoon Illustrations

Cynthia Koo (Photo by Mike Hong via World Journal)

Cynthia Koo grew up in the dim sum restaurant that her father runs in Chinatown. So she loves dim sum. And she happened to become a professional designer. That’s where “Wonton In A Million” comes from. The brand that Koo created by turning dim sum dishes into cartoon images now appears in various forms from stickers and postcards to T-shirts. And it is getting increasingly popular. Koo said she is glad to help promote Chinese cuisine together with her brand. “Some of my customers were attracted to the cute cartoons first, and then from there went to try dim sum for the first time,” said Koo on June 15 at the Museum of Chinese in America as the first guest of MOCA Shop Talk, a program hosted by the museum to showcase the work of artists, designers and small business owners.

“Wonton In A Million” offers a collection of various dim sum dishes from shrimp dumplings and wontons to shumai (dumplings) and cheung fun (rice noodle rolls) in cute cartoon images and has them printed on products like stickers, notebooks, postcards, T-shirts and aprons. The brand has been a hit on the internet immediately after it was launched in 2015.

Before Koo was born, in Chinatown, her father had started working at Oriental Garden, a local restaurant specializing in Cantonese cuisine. In the more than 30 years since then, the former handyman has become the manager of the restaurant known for its variety of dim sum dishes. For Koo, dim sum is the food that she has been most familiar with since childhood.

She graduated from Columbia University with a major in East Asian Studies and a minor in computer science but Koo’s real passion is in designing. She taught herself the skills and went to work at a company as a product designer. In her free time, she helped design the website and do marketing for her father’s restaurant.

One day in 2015, when she was having dim sum in her father’s restaurant, Koo suddenly had an aha moment and thought the dishes could be humanized as cartoon characters. Koo said at that time, she only thought to take it on as a project – design six or seven characters for postcards, and then wrap it up. To her surprise, the design immediately became popular on Etsy, an online shop selling originally designed products. And the orders kept coming. Koo realized the potential of the brand. She continues to design cartoon images for more dim sum dishes and expand the products from postcards to many more items. Two months ago, she quit her day job and began to focus on developing the “Wonton In A Million” brand.

Koo said she plans to fully build the characters of the dim sum dishes to tell stories of Cantonese cuisine and even the culture in Chinatown, and the history of Chinese Americans via cartoons and other forms. Koo, who has been living in Chinatown for most of her life, said the old shops in the neighborhood that are run by people in her father’s generation have been facing a decline [in business and significance]. She hopes those from the younger generation like herself can help attract more people to Chinatown with their innovative ideas and products, and revitalize the neighborhood.

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