by John Batten
In the stairwell of Wan Chai Library is a group of photographs depicting Wan Chai in the 1960s. Included, appropriately but almost too obvious for its timeless cuteness, is a street-side bookstore. Rows of children quietly read serial story-books and comics on the pavement. It is one of those familiar, iconic scenes – like rooftop schools and lines of people, containers-in-hand, collecting water from communal water taps – associated with and representing Hong Kong’s indomitable, ‘Lion Rock’ spirit.
Undoubtably, one of the cartoons being read on the street is Old Master Q. First drawn in the early 1960s by Alfonso Wong and whose recent death, aged 93 years, evoked memories from around Asia. A Singaporean friend of mine recalled that as a child the chance to read Old Master Q comics in the barber-shop was the only reason for him to willingly have a haircut.
Old Master Q is Hong Kong’s oldest continuous drawn comic and crosses generations. Started by Alfonso Wong, the series is now drawn by his son ‘Young Wong Chak’ (Joseph Wong). Wong’s characters – Old Master Q, Mr Potatohead and Mr Chin etc – with their anachronistic traditional Chinese clothes are stuck in a mid-1960s time-warp. This can be compared to Charles Schultz’s long-running Peanuts, depicting Charlie Brown, Lucy and Snoopy, in a similarly frozen 1960s, but set in a mythical American suburban locale. Both Wong’s and Schultz’s cartoons are skillfully timeless – and they each use the standard techniques of straight humour, irony and ‘moral’ or educational situations in their comic strips, but deal with social and pseudo-political issues that can be personally identified with.
Old Master Q also uses simple slapstick and physical humour – this is best seen in the 1970s films based on Old Master Q cartoons. These cartoons, like Peanuts, are entirely imaginary but rooted in a real world, and because they tackle universal situations the stories cross cultural and international boundaries. This is also the appeal of the films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, whose universal comedy and underlying moral messages continue to be enjoyed around the world.
Alfonso Wong’s Old Master Q has been accused of being plagiaristic. Plagiarism is a harsh allegation because Wong’s cartoons borrow heavily from the traditions of pure comedy that plays on an audience’s assumptions, understanding of stereotypical situations and universal humour. Locations and nuance in Old Master Q may be changed, while retaining universal story-telling tropes.
There is a contemporary example of this: a Donald Trump joke was doing the rounds recently. If you didn’t hear it (or read it on the internet), it goes like this: An airplane was about to crash. There were four passengers on board , but only three parachutes. The first passenger said, “I’m Steph Curry, the best NBA basketball player. The Warriors and my millions of fans need me, and I can’t die.” So he took the first pack and left the plane. The second passenger, Donald Trump, said, “I am the newly-elected U.S. President, and I am the smartest President in American history and many people don’t want me to die.” He took the second pack and jumped out of the plane. The third passenger, Pope Francis, said to the fourth passenger, a 10-year old boy, “My son, I am old and don’t have many years left, you are young, so I will sacrifice my life and let you have the last parachute.” The little boy said, “That’s OK, Your Holiness, there’s a parachute left for you. America’s smartest President took my schoolbag.”
This joke, however, isn’t original. I recall hearing versions of it years ago – Donald Trump replaced by Ronald Reagan, or during the invasion of Iraq, George Bush. In the creative world, topics and approaches repeat themselves. Humour, comedy and cartooning have standard approaches, a rythym or a routine, or a ‘tic’ or mannerism. These can be universally shared, with just location or time changed. All creativity is derivative – and feeds off and embellishes the entire world’s wonderful creative mix!
Those Wan Chai Library photographs don’t lie. Our first interactions as children, when we were learning to read and write, and as an introduction to concise writing, literature and art (yes, cartoons are art) is probably through cartoons. It would be correct to say, that Alfonso Wong is responsible for generations of children around Asia learning the literate joys of art, writing and the ability to laugh at ourselves. That is a great legacy.
Reading cartoons on an MTR Station platform surrounded by smartphones
(Photograph: John Batten)
John Batten is an art critic, and convenor of the Central & Western Concern Group