The Key Keeper

by James Ng

The Key Keeper is a new addition to my personal project loosely titled Imperial Steamworks. The idea for the project stemmed from my own interests, combined with my environment while growing up.

I am very interested in the Chinese Qing Dynasty and the modernization of non-European countries. The Qing Dynasty was the last dynasty in Imperial China; it was during this period of time that China was invaded by other countries that had already gone through an industrial revolution. The foreign powers forced them to sign unfair trade treaties and to give up land to foreign rule. My home of Hong Kong was one of these lands. Since then, Western countries have set the bar for being “the modern city”.

The standard of modernization is basically westernization – as China becomes more modern, it also becomes more like the West. I began to wonder… what if China had been the first to modernize during the turn of the last century, if China were the standard that other countries had to work towards, what would things look like today? Perhaps China would still be in imperial rule? Maybe skyscrapers would look like Chinese temples? Cars would look like carriages? And maybe we would have fantastical machines that look both futuristic and historic.

The recently deceased key keeper and his pet cats had the responsibility of organizing all the keys and locks for the imperial dungeon. With the keeper gone, no one except his pets could pair the thousands of keys to their corresponding locks, and the feline family refused to go to work without their master. The Imperial Inventor (depicted in an earlier painting), with permission from the court, reanimated the keeper’s skeleton with steam engines to keep the loyal pets satisfied until they could find a better solution. The skeletal remains of the eldest cat were also reanimated to serve as a pack leader and a mobile key cutting machine.

I think my style of art is really influenced by my upbringing. As I stated before, I was born in Hong Kong, arguably the most westernized Asian city. I also lived in Canada during half my childhood, and went to college in the States. I identify with both Eastern and Western culture, and I think it really shows through my artwork.

As far as the Steampunk genre goes, I did not even know of the term steampunk until I started posting my work online and people kept calling it “Asian Steampunk”. The images were based on Chinese history and the power shift within, and between, different countries after the Industrial Revolution. Steam was the main source of power during this era, which was why most of my creations use steam engines to generate power. After I learned of this term, I did more research on this theme and fell in love with the imagery. It was also very helpful in giving me new ideas as well as better ways to depict old machinery. I do consider my work steampunk, but this is because my work falls into this category due to similar subject matter; I did not set out to fit my idea into this theme. I am very proud to be bringing my Chinese roots into the steampunk world, which is a genre that is predominately Western. However, I am not trying to “hard sell” my ethnic background, I am merely continuing my personal project and using these images to promote my initial question: What if China had been the first to modernize during the turn of the last century… What would things look like today?

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