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Hong Kong Alternative Comics

Whenever a pencil touches paper and we pay attention to the varying weight and texture of the marks it makes, our awareness is heightened of the human being behind them. Pencil has become the preferred medium of Hong Kong comics artist Chihoi, in intense, exquisite comics and in larger gallery pieces. “Its tip reflects the force of the hand, and the force from the heart. Everybody is familiar with this simple tool because pencil and paper are among the first tools that a kid uses, it’s a more direct tool than a brush. It can be a fast tool when you do sketches. But it can be a very slow tool if you want to fill out the space on the paper. It’s challenging to make a big drawing with pencil. And pencil is among the cheapest tool in an art materials shop. One doesn’t have to learn or become professional to use it.”

Chihoi’s comics are the fruits of modest means, self-taught draughtsmanship and meditative patience. Understated and allusive, usually short yet potent, they conclude not so much with an ending as with an awakening, leaving us in that liminal state of emergency rousing from an interrupted dream. This year, eight of his tales spanning the last decade have been compiled into his first English-language compendium, The Library from Conundrum Press in Canada. In the title story, a man loses himself within the library’s bizarre special collection in search of a secret book which he is not supposed to know about. He unearths it in a reading room full of skeletons and weeps as he finally reads Tales of the Lost City.

With perseverance, Chihoi has become not only a comics artist, but also a comics activist who networks with creators, publishers and festivals across Europe and North America while nurturing Hong Kong’s spirited alternative comics community, independent from both the dwindling mainstream of local martial arts and action formulas and translated manga from Japan. As his parents couldn’t afford to by him such comics back in the Eighties, Chihoi grew up free from their clichés. Instead, as a teen he warmed to French literature and European cinema, only stumbling across the potential of the medium through Lai Tat Tat Wing’s experiments in the mid-Nineties and first contributing his own comics to Craig Yeung’s seminal anthology Cockroach. His more recent inspirations include Germany’s Anke Feuchtenberger and Finland’s Amanda Vähämäki, kindred poetic storytellers in pencil.

Today Chihoi can make drawing his living, participating in PubArt Gallery’s politically charged exhibit last summer about universal suffrage with a group of 24 local cartoonists called Comic Daemons and preparing a solo show for Gallery Exit next August. Since 2008 he has also been drawing three or four episodes every week of Fa Fa World, his endearing, lighter-hearted strip in Hong Kong’s newspaper The Sun about a father and daughter’s daily lives (below). “This job brings me my main income. Drawing them is like a warm-up exercise, so I can draw my other stories the rest of the time.”

In his other personal works, there is an undeniable melancholic tone, tinged with the most fragile hope, as in his new comic for ArtReview Asia, ‘Waiting for the Return’ (scroll down below). In many ways this is another Tale of the Lost City as it acknowledges Chihoi’s ambivalent nostalgia for Hong Kong’s pre-SARS good old days. “People today work too much, sleep too little. The city is moving ahead, old buildings are torn down for ugly highrises. This is the sacrifice for freedom, it is too capitalistic.”  Chihoi cherishes his Caran d’Ache Pencil Extender, because it helps him use his pencil stubs to the very end.

Web-Exclusive Extra: Chihoi Interview

Paul Gravett:
What has brought you to make such lyrical and atmospheric comics? They are nothing like the traditions of Hong Kong martial arts manhua - where did you draw your inspirations from?

My inspiration comes from the night in Hong Kong. My influence is difficult to say because when I was a little boy, my family didn’t have miuch money to buy Hong Kong comics for me, and teachers at school forbade comics because they thought if you read too many comics, your literacy will drop. Discovering Lai Tat Tat wing’s experimental work at university was a real shock to me. Also reading a lot of French literature and European comics influenced me. I had no formal training in art, so I just tried by myself.

Can you give non-HK readers a bit of background on Leslie Cheung and the locations you’ve drawn, real or imagined, for your new ArtReview strip?

Leslie was a big pop music star and movie star since the 1980s. He had been a very prominent figure in HK pop culture throughout these 20 years. On the 1st April 2003 he committed suicide, jumping from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Central. It was at the time of SARS when everyone was very depressed. Now when we look at the Mandarin Oriental, as I’ve asked many friends, the second thought that comes to our mind is Leslie Cheung. The building has become very symptomatic. 

What personal feelings are you trying to convey about Hong Kong, past and present, through your strip?

A kind of nostalgia of the good old days, though I’m also skeptical to this nostalgia of mine.

Is today the bad new days in Hong Kong? What are people nostalgic about, what has been lost?

The system is politically bad and little by little is getting more corrupted than before 1997. Beijing’s influence on HK has been quite rude in many ways. We seem to be losing the autonomy we used to have. Many Hong Kongers think we are more like a colony than before 1997. On the other hand, people are nostalgic about the greater equality of chance to climb up the social ladder. The expensive rent or housing expenses have kind of “paralysed” all kinds of industries, or at least our motivation to do something new. It’s hard to think freely.

Your preferred medium is pencil - what appeals to you about this?

It’s a very direct tool. The pencil tip reflects the force of the hand, and the force from the heart. Everybody is familiar with this simple tool because pencil and paper are among the first tools that a kid uses. It’s a more direct tool than a brush. It can be a fast tool when you do sketches. But it can be a very slow tool, if you want to fill up the space on the paper. It’s challenging to make a big-size drawing with pencil. And pencil is among the cheapest tools in an art material shop. One doesn’t have to learn, or to become professional to use it.

I remember when you came to London for the exhibition Manhua! China Comics Now which I curated in 2008. You kindly did a drawing for me in one of your books and you drew very very small and so close to the paper, I couldn’t see what you were drawing! Do you prefer this way, to work at a small scale and very intimately with the paper and pencil?

I’m not sure if I’ll be able do that same sort of drawing when I get old!

You’ve illustrated the longer piece, The Train, based on the Taiwanese poet Hung Hung’s fiction Wooden Horses (above). Most of your own comics have been quite short so far. Do you prefer the short story form or would you envisage creating a longer graphic novel of your own? Do you have such a project in mind?

I draw more and more slowly these years. It takes maybe two months time to draw a 16-page story. And with other jobs and projects at hand, i guess I don’t have so much time to focus on longer stories. In my mind I’m thinking to draw a series of short stories on the same theme (e.g. the same setting in the library) to build up a long story.

I loved your solo exhibition in Fumetto in Lucerne, Switzerland in 2010 where you made big new drawings for the gallery walls (see Coming above, 2010. What exhibitions have you been involved with more recently?

I had a group exhibition with other HK comic artists back in August. It was a political comics exhibition called Universal Suffrage Now!  Apart from that, I joined the gallery show at Art Basel HK this year in May. My upcoming exhibition will be next year in August, in the Exit Gallery in Hong Kong. So I’m drawing slowly some bigger drawings.

How do you feel about the near future and political climate for Hong Kong?

Freedom here is 100% capitalist freedom, it creates lot of problems. People work too much, sleep too little, the city keeps moving ahead, old buildings get torn down and replaced by ugly highrise. This is the sacrifice for freedom, it is too capitalistic. In 2003, there were 500,000 people demonstrating against Article 23 which can charge you if you say something critical. The public has become more motivated about politics, which influences them to demonstrate. For me, I want to see more young people getting involved in drawing comics. I’ve done workshops. They are not always very motivated, it’s difficult work. But I don’t want to leave Hong Kong, I have to be here.

Waiting for the Return
Click image to enlarge.

Bonus: Here’s a 2009 subtitled interview with Chihoi and studio mate Kongkee for Art Attack, Hong Kong:

Posted: October 29, 2013

This Article originally appeared in ArtReview Asia magazine No. 2.


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My Books

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Featured Books

The Library
(Conundrum Press)

The Train