Right on Q

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 February, 2008, 12:00am

Alfonso Wong Kar-hei created Old Master Q, one of the best-loved and most enduring Chinese comic book characters ever. Yet the former Hong Kong resident tried to dissuade his children from following in his footsteps, saying comic artists get little respect and have poor prospects.

'He discouraged me from entering the field but it's contagious, you just can't help it,' says the cartoonist's eldest son, Joseph Wong Chak.

The younger Wong made some concessions - he became an architect and now serves as a professor at Shih Chien University in Taipei - but kept the Old Master Q strip going when his father retired 11 years ago because of ill health.

'I thought it would be a great loss if the comic had to grind to a halt because my father couldn't draw any more. The comic has brought laughter and happiness to readers for more than 30 years,' he says.

So the 58-year-old academic set up a company in Taipei to produce the comic instead.

'My father's teachings were a total failure,' says Wong, who is on a visit to mark the 45th anniversary of the comic series. The celebrations include an exhibition at local malls featuring comic book covers, photos of its creator and other memorabilia.

Tianjin-born Alfonso Wong studied art on the mainland and worked as an artist for Catholic publications after moving to Hong Kong in 1960. Later, using his eldest son's name as a nom de plume, the artist developed a strip around the character of Old Master Q, an eccentric xenophobe who sports a Qing-style plait and traditional Chinese attire.

Called Lo Fu Zi in Cantonese, the strip was a hit as soon as it appeared in a local newspaper in 1962 and was serialised two years later. Imbued with an offbeat humour, the escapades of Old Master Q and his bumbling friends, Big Potato and Mr Qin, highlight the changing social climate in Hong Kong between the 1960s and 80s. It explores the growing influence of western pop culture, for example, through Old Master Q, who pokes fun at people's pursuit of trendy fashion, art and rock music even as he secretly hopes to keep up with the latest fads.

Alfonso Wong created more than 20,000 comic strips, and close to 100 million copies of Old Master Q books have been sold worldwide. But ensuring that the iconic comic strip remains relevant presents a challenge, says Joseph Wong, especially when young people now gravitate towards manga and computer games.

Old Master Q must be plugged into today's pop culture, he says. That's why the character has discarded his traditional kung fu shoes for trainers, and delivers slam-dunks to show off NBA-style basketball prowess.

Collaborations with hip bands and singers help keep the characters current. Wong's company recently licensed the Old Master Q brand to Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou Jie-lun's boutique for a new line of hip hop T-shirts.

'Comics don't just appear in the traditional print format these days. They can be seen in different media,' Wong says. 'And it shows the versatility of Old Master Q. He can present different images, do break-dancing, hip hop and play basketball.'

Many strips are repackaged from his father's work, but Wong ensures that young readers can still relate by having the characters adopt more contemporary lifestyles; the Valentine's Day edition, for instance, features Old Master Q strolling around Lan Kwai Fong.

The production process has also changed. 'In the past, my father drew all the strips himself,' says Wong. 'But we have moved from a one-man show to a team operation that combines hand-drawing and computer-generated graphics.'

They've established a smooth-running system, but the early years tested his mettle. 'I was panic-stricken at first,' he says. 'I knew nothing about the industry and had to train myself to copy his style. I was worried that I couldn't do it well because my father was so talented.'

Later this year, Wong hopes to expand Old Master Q's fan base by launching an English version of the comic series.

The English publications have an added purpose. Although comics are often disparaged as a bad influence on young readers, they can be a good educational tool, he says. 'Many kids on the mainland want to improve their English. Reading comics can help improve their everyday language skills in a light-hearted way.'

He got the idea for the project from his daughter, who was born and raised in the US. 'She didn't know Chinese when she was a child but was inspired to learn because she wanted to understand Old Master Q,' Wong says.

The comic strip has legions of fans of all ages. In 2006, local primary school pupils voted it the best-loved comic in a poll organised by the Education Bureau. Recently it became the first comic strip allowed for online viewing in thousands of mainland elementary schools.

Emerging designer Henry Wong Wai-ka is another fan. The 27-year-old, who runs an online lifestyle concept store featuring his label Urabbit, hopes the creations will be as popular as Old Master Q one day.

'I hope to create characters that people can connect with just like Old Master Q was a part of how I grew up,' says the Parsons School of Design graduate, recalling some of the character's antics such as picking fights with animals.

Numerous films featuring the characters have appeared over the past decades, including Master Q 2001, starring Nicholas Tse Ting-fung and Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi, which combined computer animation with live action.

Director Herman Yau Lai-to, who produced the movie with Tsui Hark, says: 'Old Master Q is like an old friend I've grown up with. He's funny, sometimes selfish, but you can't dislike him.'

Like many people who grew up in the 60s, Yau, 46, began reading the comic books while having a hair cut at old-style barbers. 'Unlike many comics that focus on fantasy and superpower, Old Master Q is very realistic,' he says. 'It shows the lives of everyday people.'

But what does the comics' creator make of the updated version? Wong reckons his father, who's now aged 84 and living in the US, is happy with the revamp. 'He hasn't commented on it but I think deep down he's quite happy,' he says. 'He knows he wouldn't be doing it this way.'

Intriguing: Old Master Q 45th anniversary exhibition, Chung Fu Shopping Centre, Tin Shui Wai, ends Sun; Chung On Shopping Centre, Ma On Shan, Feb 25-29