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HK Magazine Archive

Drawn to Life

Six of Hong Kong’s leading comics—or manhua—artists tell Evelyn Lok about the highs and lows of the industry and of their love of storytelling.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 July, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:46pm

Lai Tat Tat Wing

Lai Tat Tat Wing worked an office job for eight years before returning to drawing, his teenage passion. He only formally entered the comic scene after being inspired by a performance by Hong Kong/international experimental theater company Zuni Icosahedron in 1991, and is now its current artist-in-residence. His signature character Woody Woody Wood currently appears in Ming Pao Weekly.

"Never pick what you love most as your job."

HK Magazine: How did you get into comics?

Lai Tat Tat Wing:
I’ve been reading comics since I was in primary two or three, and doodling too. Back then we were poor and the house was cramped. I killed a lot of time copying from Japanese comics. I learned that there was some form of hidden logic behind the way comics were laid out.

HK: Why do you love drawing comics?
LTTW: I enjoy longer stories, slowly seeing a story play out, how it’s twisted, noticing how actions are organized, how the characters are introduced and how a theme is developed.

HK: Where do you find inspiration?

LTTW:
I really admire the work of [director] Akira Kurosawa. For instance the way he adapted Shakespeare into the world of Japanese samurai, without creating conflict with Japanese culture. In film, a director decides how long a scene lasts and the atmosphere, music and all that. But comics are different. The pacing is decided by the reader themselves. How do you manipulate the squares in a comic to control tension and time?

“East Wing, West Wing” (2008)
“There’s a whole school of thought behind the control of time in comics.

How do you the translate the tension-filled moments of movies to manhua? There are tricks to control time.”

HK: What’s your working process like?

LTTW
: I always listen to music when I work. Every book I create is accompanied by a different soundtrack. In the 80s I got hooked on western chart music. To listen to music at that time, you also had to pay attention to music videos. It was here I learned that text and image do not have to be put together. In the world of music videos, no matter how crazy the visuals are—think Prince crawling out from a bathtub, then releasing a flock of doves—when you have a song as well, everything makes sense. I can appreciate strict structure, but I enjoy stories that are very free. There are a lot of authors who value storytelling—but authors who tell stories led by visuals are rarer.

HK: Ever wanted to be a music critic?

LTTW:
No, no, no. Never pick what you love most as your job. You have to have the space to be able to combat it, critique it, argue with it, be content with it. As someone who worships music, I can only compliment and appreciate it.

HK: What do you think of comics in Hong Kong?

LTTW:
The work you see nowadays seems to react to a situation, rather than to introduce a new talking point or world view. Before, artists would be like “let me imagine a world about triads in Mong Kok.” You’d compare and contrast it with reality and that’s the conversation between the reader and artist. But today, whatever happens on the news just gets drawn directly onto the page.

Read this:The Magic Flute” (1999), a sci-fi tale inspired by Mozart’s opera; “East Wing West Wing” (2008), in which giant politicians battle among the city’s skyscrapers; “Horror Horror Woody’s Cube” (Aug 2015), celebrating the 20th anniversary of Woody Woody Wood.


Little Thunder

First submitting works to comics magazine A-Club at the tender age of 11, Little Thunder (aka Cheng Sum-ling) has developed a colorful, sultry style that champions strong, sexy female protagonists. As well as a new book set to come out this year, she’s also featured in “Que Sera, Sera,” an exhibition of erotic work at the new branch of sex shop Sally Coco.

 
"I like planning comics when my imagination is the least restrained."
 
 
HK Magazine: How did you get into comics?

Little Thunder:
When I was about three or four years old,

I loved to watch the anime “Q Tailong” [“Obake no Q-taro”], and would draw the characters from the show. I also really liked drawing princes and princesses. I haven’t stopped drawing since.
 
HK: Why do you love drawing?

LT:
I like the feeling of improving, of finding something new. Drawing is what gives me this feeling the most: I can discover a new way to draw every day. When I was little I liked adventure stories. Lately I’m most attracted to stories where I can deeply express aspects of human nature.
 
Work from “Que Sera, Sera”
 
 
 
HK: What’s your working process?

LT:
I usually draw from 3pm to 5am: lately I’ve been listening to a lot of ghost stories or crime segments on internet radio while drawing. I like planning out stories for my comics right before I sleep, in that half-dreaming, half-awake state. It’s when my imagination is the least restrained.
 
HK: What do you think of comics in the SAR?

LT:
The comic culture of a place and the city’s own “personality” has always been closely related. Hong Kong was originally a place that had a lot of quirks and charm, but in recent decades that unique charm has been eroding, losing its focus. If we drew scenes of old Hong Kong today, kids in the future wouldn’t recognize it. If you want to protect the unique features of local comics, the best you can do is to protect the city as well as you can.
 
 
Read this:Kylooe,” (2010-2012) a trilogy about a young girl coping with loneliness by creating a fantastical, imaginary world.
 
Que Sera, Sera,” through October at Sally Coco, 3B, Po Foo Building, 1-5 Foo Ming St., Causeway Bay, 2110-0354. society6.com/littlethunder.

Chihoi Lee

A stalwart in both the comics and fine art worlds, Chihoi Lee has drawn a weekly column for the Hong Kong Daily News since 2008. “Fa Fa World” is a benign and humorous reflection of Hong Kong concerns as seen through a father-daughter relationship. It’s about to be compiled into its seventh anthology. His 2007 book “The Train” has just been translated into Finnish.

"In comics, the emphasis is on the drama."

HK Magazine: How did you get into comics?

Chihoi Lee:
I loved drawing since I was a kid, but I studied science in school, not art. [In university], a friend encouraged me to submit my drawings to the supplement pages of the The Sun and Express News. If it got published, I got a couple hundred dollars, which was really great for a poor student.

"The Train" (2007)

HK: What do you think of comics in Hong Kong?

CL:
After the financial crisis of 1997-1998, many comics columns disappeared from newspapers. Some editors didn’t want to take as many risks. Before ‘97 the CCP, Kuomintang and the US invested a lot in newspapers in Hong Kong. After the Handover, many companies also got closer to China, and relied on Chinese commerce for advertising—which affected editorial decisions. Even recently, there has been a lot of Occupy-related art but only online. Before the internet and after 1997 we only had the same two or three comics columnists, and in the late 90s to early noughties there were no new political cartoonists at all. We are getting a few more prominent new artists nowadays, which is a good sign.

HK: Is Hong Kong preserving the local comics scene?

CL:
There should be more resources given to print publishing houses. There are a lot of resources poured into culture, promotion and exhibitions, and that’s not healthy. Seeing works at an exhibition

or on a website are not the same as experiencing it in a book.

Read this: The Train” (2007) a dreamlike story about a strange train ride adapted from the work of Taiwanese poet Hung Hung; “Fa Fa World” (2009-ongoing), down-to-earth observations of issues that preoccupy a little girl and her father in Hong Kong.

Sir Youde Proposal” (2014—artwork in private collection)

“Margaret Thatcher originally fell over in Beijing after meeting Deng Xiaoping. I changed it to Hong Kong. I looked for a photo of this same view as close to September 24, 1982 as possible to make sure of what buildings existed then, the cars that diplomats used and the uniforms.”

 


"Sir Youde Proposal" (2014—detail view)


A Quick History of Manhua

Despite being called “manhua” in Cantonese—indicating decades of influence from Japanese manga culture—the roots of Hong Kong comics can be traced back to the Qing dynasty, when a Guangdong man named He Jianshi published drawings which satirised current affairs.

But the comic scene truly began to buzz with the work of Alphonso Wong (pen name Wong Chak), the author behind the long-running series “Old Master Q,” which first appeared in 1962.


Wong Chak and Old Master Q (Nora Tam/SCMP)

Other notables popped up in the 70s and 80s, incorporating cinematic influences into their works: From the legendary martial arts comics “Storm Riders” by Ma Wing Shing and “Bruce Lee” by Seung-gun Siu-bo to more experimental work by artists such as Li Chi-tak. In the 90s the city’s most iconic characters were born: Alice Mak Ka-pik’s McMug and McDull, anthropomorphic pigs that shone light on serious grassroots issues. From then scores of artists appeared, each offering a different commentary on Hong Kong society.

Find out more at Comix Home Base, which hosts regular exhibitions and is home to a library of Hong Kong comics.

7 Mallory St., Wan Chai, 2824-5303, www.comixhomebase.com. Closed Mondays.


Li Chi-tak

Li Chi-tak has been called the Wong Kar-wai of the SAR comics scene. He started in the industry at age 17, developing a firm hand for cinematic and experimental storytelling and a realistic style that embeds meaning into every detail. Li co-founded the city’s first independent comics magazine “Cockroach” and his 1992 “Black Mask” was turned into a film starring Jet Li. Japanese fans have dubbed him the “Hong Kong Katsuhiro Otomo” (the creator of “Akira”).

"I’ve been telling people for a while that the comic world is dead."

HK Magazine: How did you get into comics?

Li Chi-tak:
I started around primary school, I think. I read “Old Master Q,” Lo Koon-chiu’s “Children’s Paradise” and a whole lot of translated Japanese comics such as “Otoko-gumi” by Tetsu Kariya. After high school I wasn’t sure what to do, so I submitted a few comics and it just happened.

HK: Why do you love drawing comics?

LC:
Because of stories. I wanted to tell stories in frames. At first they were quite bad—I kept copying others. But once you fall deep into something, you realize that you shouldn’t do what other artists in the industry are also doing.

HK: What stories interest you?

LC:
I used to read comics to seek out a kind of excitement. But in my own work, I try to do

what other people don’t do. When I was younger I listened to a bunch of British electronic music and watched a lot of movies, a lot of weird Japanese films. It all must’ve created something within me, but I’m not quite sure how to pinpoint it.

   

The Voyager” (2011)

“Comics rely on pictures to express meaning, so I try not to use too many unnecessary descriptions.”

HK: What’s the industry like for comics artists?

LC:
It’s very difficult to be successful: It’s not just drawing a pretty picture. I feel young people are content with just drawing a nice illustration, and storytelling is often ignored. The most practical thing we can give artists is things to draw, so they can earn money.

HK: What’s are your ideal comics?

LC:
I’ve been telling people this for a while, that the comics world is dead. I really want to draw a magnum opus of sorts, but it’s tough.

I thought of a story a long time ago: it would be about little kids traveling up the mountain to learn kung fu, but underneath it all it would be about the world of comics. It didn’t happen in the end. It’s not what people want. People want cutesy stuff. But I don’t mind doing the opposite of what everyone else does.

Read this:The Voyager” (2011) and “The Lovers” (2011), both filled with surreal short stories; “Stone Gods” (2011), a legend about the world which lies between mortals and gods.


Jonathan Jay Lee

Jonathan Jay Lee is a Taiwanese-American artist based in Hong Kong, best known for his vibrant renditions of Hong Kong street culture. He works on art projects across town (you’ll find his work on the walls of SoHo’s Ho Lee Fook, for instance) and his own illustrations. He’s also worked with Marvel, in a one-off anthology where he recontextualized antihero The Punisher in Hong Kong. Among other comic projects, he’s currently working on “The Other Dead” for IDW Comics in the US.

"It’s not the story you tell but how  you tell it."

HK Magazine: How did you get into comics?

Jonathan Jay Lee:
My first exposure was [classic Japanese manga] “Lone Wolf and Cub” when I was maybe 4 or so. I remember amazing ink drawings of samurai action and feeling deeply embarrassed when my family teased me for checking out the nude parts. A childhood friend in the States got me into comics properly at around 7 years old. It was a Marvel book: “Uncanny X-Men.” I always felt alone in my devotion to comics like it was some kind of shameful love, but as an adult now I meet a lot of ubergeeks who grew up on the same stuff.

"Walking the Dog" (2014—Ho Lee Fook Collection)

“Comics are universally accessible. Pictures are stronger than words.”

HK: What do you love about drawing comics?

JJL:
Storytelling! It’s not the story you tell but how you tell it.  

Photo: KY Cheng/SCMP

HK: What do you think of comics in Hong Kong?

JJL:
Japanese comics have always had a healthy lifeline in Hong Kong. In terms of American comics, we had options in the 90s and early 2000s for comics shops, but things died down and the shops started closing. Since then, American comics have made a comeback thanks to both the toy and film industries, but I feel most people will be reading their content digitally.

Read this:Drifting Wolves,” (Heavy Metal Magazine Issue 267, 2014), a wordless fantasy tale about survival and tough love, inspired by “Lone Wolf and Cub;” “Strange Tales MAX - Issue 3,” (Marvel Miniseries, 2009) an anthology of stories by indie artists.


(Left to Right: "Drifiting Wolves," "Tribes")

See Lee’s work in group exhibition “Tribes,” through Sep 18 at Emergency Lab, 3-4/F, 506-508 Lockhart Rd., Causeway Bay.


Kong Kee

The co-founder of comics and animation team Penguin Lab, Kong Kee is the creator of “Ding Ding Penguin” and “Pandaman,” comics that reflect on Hong Kong social issues—the former with lighthearted social observations, the latter with a more belligerent take on political issues. His works are imbued with tragedy and comedy in equal measure.

"My character is an immigrant and can offer a different point of view."

 

HK Magazine: How did you get into comics?

Kong Kee: I’ve liked comics ever since I was a kid in the 80s. I grew up reading translated Japanese comics, a lot of “Ding Dong” [Doraemon] and “Dragonball Z.” I tried to draw some on my own—I’d staple them together and share them with my classmates.  

HK: Why is your main character a penguin?

KK:
I like two animals: whales and penguins. But whales are very hard to turn into a character that fits in with daily life! So I went with a penguin. It’s a small creature, you can draw a lot of them walking around and a lot of things can happen to them. [Ding Ding Penguin] is basically an immigrant, and can offer a different point of view.

Travel to Hong Kong with Blur” (2015)

“Hong Kong is very conducive to storytelling. I like looking under bridges and taking photos of construction sites. It’s very sci-fi.”

HK: What do you think of comics in Hong Kong?

KK:
I see an emergence of diversity. In the last decade or so there have been a lot more independent artists who use graphic novels or comics to talk about relatively personal themes. For example, works such as Yeung Hok-tak’s “How Blue Was My Valley” [about life in housing estates], or Rainbow Leung’s “Wo Che Village the Ups and Downs” [about the artist’s home on the verge of urbanization] take more of a personal angle to explore Hong Kong’s development. There are also funnier stories, such as by Lo Bin Tan, who looks at Hongkongers’ lifestyles through a very girly, OL [Office Lady] point of view.

It’s very hard to come by such a great diversity of work.

Read this:Pandaman” (2010), a vigilante comic which comments on the political state of post-Handover Hong Kong; “Ding Ding Penguin,” (2008-ongoing), a lighthearted comic about Hong Kong life; “Our Sai Yee Street” (2014) is a story about the struggle to live in small spaces in the city.

  


You’ve Convinced Me! Where Can I Buy Some of These Amazing Comics?

Kubrick

Shop H2, Prosperous Garden, 3 Public Square St., Yau Ma Tei, 2384-8929, www.kubrick.com.hk.

ACO (Art and Culture Outreach) Books

1/F, Foo Tak Building, 365-367 Hennessy Rd., Wan Chai, 2893-4808, www.aco.hk.

The Coming Society

2/F, Foo Tak Building, 365 Hennessy Rd., Wan Chai, 2467-7300, thecomingsociety.wordpress.com.

Clark’s Comics

Shop B7, Basement, Causeway Bay Centre, 15-23 Sugar St., Causeway Bay, 2890-7718, www.clarks-comics.com.

Metro Comics

Shop B8, Basement, Causeway Bay Centre, 15-23 Sugar St., Causeway Bay, 2895-1162, metrocomics.com.