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Chihoi in Action

By Edward Gauvin

Kaleidoscope, a marvelous, eye-widening exhibition on the history of Hong Kong comics, is a ten-minute walk down to the river from the center of town. The exhibit is composed of individual units that are practical, durable, and ingeniously designed, like high-end luggage: black, on casters, all the edges metal-lined. Pick a drawer, pull it out, and you’ll be looking at vintage books and comics under plastic. Side panels slide out to show posters and old newspapers. Video screens and interactive computer displays are built into the back.

Each unit is dedicated to a decade in the history of Hong Kong comics. Apparently, the 60s were the era of everyday life in comics, as represented by Lee Wai-Chun’s long-running series Miss 13 Dot. In the 70s, action comics took over, with Seung-gun Siu-bo’s chartbreaking Bruce Lee. The 80s were the hero heyday, when the Asian economic boom turned comics into a veritable industry, although some personality was sacrificed to assembly-line production. The 90s saw the rise of licensing: comics both made from and spun off into movies, games, TV, even music and the internet. As piracy and wider availability of comics led to a drop in readership, artists of the 00s tried to find new ways to reach audiences: a focus on community, openly political content, avant-garde art. Though commerce with mainland Chinese artists is developing, Hong Kong comics have a distinct identity and, for the first time, are making a reputation for themselves in Japan, reversing the traditional tide of influence. Major titles of the last decade include Yeung Huk-tak’s How Blue Was My Valley, chronicling life in a public housing project; City of Powder, a record of urban changes like the demolition of the Star Ferry terminal; and Siuhak’s intriguingly titled Fake Forensic Science.

“Carandash pencils are the best,” Chihoi was explaining, with his typical meticulousness, “but I can’t always find them in Hong Kong.”

Chihoi is part of the first generation of truly indie comics artists in Hong Kong: indie applying to every part of the process, from production to distribution. His adaptation of a Taiwanese writer’s work, The Train, was brought to Europe by the Francophone Swiss publisher Atrabile, and he cites European rather than American comics as influences.

He bent back over his work. “But I can’t quite get the same fineness of grain. Do you see?”

In his drawing, a girl stood with her back to us, facing a window he was busy painstakingly filling with fine horizontal lines. It seemed extremely labor-intensive.

Unlike many comics artists, who work on a much larger page that is shrunk to the size of the published comic, Chihoi draws his originals on A4 (approximately 8 ½ x 11) paper, usually dividing it into six panels.

“It’s hard for me to balance the compositions on a bigger piece of paper,” he said. "Well, OK, once I used A3.”

A3 is about 11x17. It was for a story from a collaborative collection called Hijacking, in which he and fellow artist Kongkee switched off interpreting the same short stories by Hong Kong writers. For a story about the 70s Hong Kong cityscape, he used a collage technique to match the writer’s style, going so far as to cut out each individual raindrop in a series of drizzly panels.

Another story for the same collection was written by Xi Xi, an author whose cancer and subsequent therapies had left her right hand useless. Determined to keep writing, she taught herself to compose with her left hand. Chihoi, too, limited himself to left-handed drawings. He felt they brought out a childlike naïvete native to Xi Xi’s voice. Both versions appear here in Steve Bradbury’s translation.

Published Feb 21, 2011   Copyright 2011 Edward Gauvin

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