'Grotesque' young cartoonists make light of the stresses of city living

By making light of the stresses of city life, 'grotesque' young cartoonists provide some much-needed comic relief, writes Vanessa Yung

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 9:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 November, 2013, 9:11am

Jasmine Tse Man-yan laughingly rejects the "ugly" label for the female character she creates. The double-chinned, sloppily dressed homebody is the antithesis of the cute, doe-eyed ones favoured in Japanese cartoons.

A designer at an electronics company, Tse began drawing hilarious scenarios featuring a self-referencing singleton named Tse Sai Pei as a fun way to liven up her Facebook page. Within a year, the 25-year-old has not only attracted more than 68,000 followers and released a book, she was also invited to hold a solo exhibition at Mingshi Gallery in Central, which opened last week.

"Inspiration for my work comes from my daily life and [the] stories I hear from people around me. I love observing and talking to people from different walks of life," says Tse, who studied visual arts at Baptist University.

"Nobody is born with a sense of humour, rather, I think it's cultivated. I'm a big fan of [comedian-director] Stephen Chow Sing-chi and I watch a lot of foreign television shows such as Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory, which are very different from local 'housewives' soaps. Humour is very much related to creativity. Humour is an art."

Meet Hong Kong's so-called grotesque young cartoonists. The description is a compliment of sorts - it refers more to their attitude and jaundiced takes on Hong Kong life than poor technique. Like Tse, many started posting their drawings on personal Facebook pages to share with friends. But a few, including Ip Yan and Panwa, have garnered sufficient interest that they are contributing regular strips to magazines, and publishing collections of their work.

Another visual arts alumna from Baptist University, Ip delivers social commentary through her Plastic Thing page on Facebook. Developed as an extension of a graduation project in which she invented a festival for each day of the year, the 23-year-old often takes aim at the foibles of young people like herself.

There's a series of "tutorials" for wannabe social climbers who pretend to be overseas-born Chinese with heavily accented Cantonese or no Cantonese at all; a strip satirising the fad of taking Instagrams of trivial things and another on people who doctor digital photos to post more attractive images of themselves online.

That’s what real people are like. I’m just being honest and direct

At 29, Panwa, who prefers to be known only by the nickname he acquired in school, is the oldest of the trio and the only male. The office worker and self-taught cartoonist adopts a variety of styles to present observations of social trends, everyday experiences - and to skewer human failings.

"That's what the real world and real people are like. I'm just being honest and direct," says Panwa, who started sharing his work online two years ago.

"I have the freedom to express myself in the truest, most straightforward manner. I'm not bound by a certain style. What I'm doing is very unadulterated. I'm like a kid who makes line drawings and expresses himself candidly in the most basic way."

Ip, who has about 139,600 followers on Plastic Thing, believes it's that touch of mischief and humour that makes their work easy to relate to.

"Hong Kong people are all very stressed and the fact we … [make] fun of the people and happenings, gives them a sense of comfort," she says.

Like Kam Siu-man and Yeung Hok-tak, two important cartoonists who found mainstream success, the budding illustrators aim to evoke some thought as well as laughs.

One strip by Ip contrasts how a television reporter (in a skeletal mask) braves flying debris and other dangers to report on the impact of a super typhoon while thrill seekers gather at the waterfront to experience the gale-force winds.

Inconsiderate behaviour, for instance, from people who decide to clip their nails during an MTR ride comes in for scrutiny, as does the discovery of a species of "pole sloths" that hog handrails, leaving other passengers in the lurch.

Panwa now contributes a regular Sunday strip in Ming Pao Daily and waxes philosophical on what he can achieve.

"We may encounter some nasty situations or annoying people in life, but by giving a different, rather funny interpretation of the situation, we can laugh off our anger," he says.

Poking fun at diners who talk at the top of their voices, he draws a couple yelling to each other across a long table while others wince.

Panwa says he hopes people can replace their anger with delight. It is also important to understand and recognise there's a darker, selfish side in everyone that leads to undesirable behaviour. He says his work serves as a reminder to resist inconsiderate behaviour.

"I'm not encouraging people to think positively, although it's always better to think from different perspectives. … The fact is there is always a lot more in the picture. I don't have a standard answer as to what my work means. Sometimes I'm shocked - in a good way - by how different people interpret them," he says.

Fanny Sit Yen-ping, a big fan of Panwa's, agrees. The retiree, who now creates art as a hobby, stumbled across Panwa's work a few months ago and quickly became a fan.

"His works are very simple, and seem almost spontaneous but they always prompt me to contemplate and reflect on different issues and my own flaws," Sit says.

"It's not merely entertaining. There's always this moment of revelation after seeing his work that helps me perceive things better. There are not too many words that might guide your interpretation, so there's a lot of space for imagination."

All the same, their mocking cartoons can bring a backlash, as Tse discovered when she took issue with some male cycling enthusiasts' penchant for wearing skintight shorts for the ride.

"There's a thin line between being funny and malicious, although some tend to interpret my work as the latter and get offended. They fail to loosen up and embrace all the funny stuff around them.

"They just don't know how to see things from another perspective," says Tse.

Panwa, too, found himself blacklisted by feminists after he uploaded a cartoon pointing to double standards in attitudes towards ogling. Abercrombie & Fitch had just opened a store in Central and excited women were eagerly uploading pictures they had taken with the shirtless hunks hired as greeters.

Panwa says it was unfair that it was deemed inappropriate for men to discuss the sexy cosplay models at an animation-comics festival held at the same time, but acceptable for women to gawp at male models.

Tse admits she has become more careful about what to draw, to avoid being accused of taking things too far. "Especially when there are more people seeing my work, I feel obligated to be more careful, as what I express may influence a large audience, which consists of younger schoolchildren, too," says Tse.

Nevertheless, the illustrators' rising popularity has brought a slew of opportunities. They are commissioned to draw regular columns for online and print publications, including 100Most magazine, as well as collaborate on projects such as designing an app interface for smartphones.

Ip, Tse and Panwa published their first books this year. Panwa and Tse are already working on their second. But the trio agree that their greatest gain has been non-monetary.

Tse treasures everything she has learned from people she has met and collaborated with, while Ip and Panwa enjoy the interaction with their followers.

They are all learning and growing together, Panwa says.

There was a time when they were preoccupied with earning more "likes" on Facebook, but not anymore.

"They say the test of someone liking doing something is if they are doing it even if nobody is paying attention. I'm sure if there is no one to see my work, I'll still keep drawing," says Panwa.