Comix Home Base
Samuel Lai heads to Wan Chai’s soon-to-open Comix Home Base to find out what innovative plans are being drawn up
The Statue of Liberty's head was chopped off with one swift yet mighty blow by Hero Wah, the protagonist in one of Hong Kong's most popular comics, which sold more than 200,000 copies every issue – A Man Called Hero. Across the Atlantic, McDull, the cartoon pig, was crowned Prince de la Bun in France, having won the Grand Prix at the 2003 Annecy International Animation Film Festival. Back home, Bruce Lee, the kung fu legend, was brought back to life and continued to kick ass 30 years after his death in Hong Kong's longest running comic book series, aptly titled Bruce Lee. The characters in Hong Kong's comics, aided by the boundless imagination of our city's comic book artists, have travelled across continents, won international recognition and challenged the boundaries between life and death.
Hong Kong is the world's third largest comics market after Japan and the USA and, over more than 100 years, many of the comic books which have been produced here have eventually been huge international successes. But there's never been one building in the city which puts the best of the industry under one roof and champions Hong Kong's comic artists and books. However, all that is now set to change with the imminent opening of Comix Home Base in the heart of Wan Chai. Next month, set to coincide with the city's annual Ani-Com fest, which is held between July 26 and 30, the HK$200 million creative facility opens its doors in Mallory and Burrows Streets. It brings together – for the first time – a dedicated place for designers, cartoonists, animators and artists to weave their magic and shout out about our illustrious comic book history.
"There has never been an art space in Hong Kong that focuses solely on comics before," says Chi-hoi, a well-known artist who has had his comics published in Italian and French, as well as Chinese. He's known for his melancholy-yet-reflective style and he tells us he's excited about the Comix Home Base, which he hopes will be a hub for the local industry. The building, which is undergoing its final touches of construction over the next couple of weeks, is to house artists in its studios, as well as a small library that collects Hong Kong comic books and magazines for archive purposes. The facility also features an exhibition hall, retail areas which will sell comic merchandise and venues for workshops, screenings and events.
The new Comix Home Base building in Wan Chai
"It's the perfect location for a facility which focuses on comics," says Connie Lam, executive director of Hong Kong Arts Centre, the organisation behind the project along with the government's Urban Renewal Authority. "Wan Chai has long been intertwined with segments of Hong Kong's comic book history. It's perhaps even safe to say that Wan Chai has been a cradle for local comics."
Indeed it has. Two of the most prominent local comic artists – Tony Wong Yuk-long and Seung-gun Siu-bo – were once residents of the neighbourhood. Seung-gun's Bruce Lee and Wong's Oriental Heroes – adapted by movie star Donnie Yen into Dragon-Tiger-Gate – spurred a highly popular cult following of martial arts comics during the 70s. Newer comic book artists such as Siu-hak, known for his cute panda characters, have also lived in Wan Chai. Shopping centres in the district, such as the Oriental 188 Shopping Centre, are havens for comics. "By establishing the Comix Home Base here, we hope to inject artistic energy into a community that's already brimming with lots of creative potential," says Lam.
The Green House before it was pulled down
The Comix Home Base has been converted out of a cluster of 10 pre-war tenement buildings which were built in the 1910s, collectively known as the Green House. They bore testimony to Wan Chai's urban development of days gone by. The buildings, now nearing completion, display an attractive mix of Eastern Chinese and European architectural styles. Chinese tiles sit on the Western-style roof, while French doors lead to cantilevered balconies. And the Green House, which was originally built with white bricks but was turned green in the 80s, is going back to white under the modern transformation.
"We've set new and unprecedented records in the revitalisation of the Comix Home Base," a URA spokesman tells us. He says it's the URA's first project in the city which has been designed to promote the cultural and creative industries. It's also the first project in which the URA pays the operator – The HK Arts Centre – to cover the management fees. "It's the URA's vision to integrate arts and cultural elements in urban renewal," says the spokesman. "The Comix Home Base is in line with our concept of revitalisation – refurbishing old buildings with special character, where practicable, for cultural and creative businesses."
So, the stage is certainly set for an extremely creative, thriving hub for our comic book industry, with, from next month, a raft of exhibitions, events and workshops on the way – as well as the potential for new comic books to spring out of the creative collaborations which are sure to take place within the space. The first major event at the base – yet to be scheduled – is to be a comics masterclass taught by Ma Wing-shing, the artist behind megahits A Man Called Hero and The Storm Riders, which was adapted into a movie starring Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheung. Connie Lam tells us there will be lots of exciting events in the future. "I will also invite overseas publishers to come and discuss opportunities to collaborate and have cross-over projects," she adds.
Comic relief: Some of the comic books available in the Home Base's new library
Local artists are understandably excited about this future for the Comix Home Base (check out their awesome website at comixhomebase.com.hk). "Comic artists and readers are like partners performing a dance – they must move and feel in sync," says artist Kong Kee, who's moving into one of the studios and is known for his adorably funny penguin characters and politically charged graphic novels. "Artists must draw things that tug the heartstrings of the readers and readers ought to give relevant feedback to the artists. There needs to be a space for such mutual explorations and interactions – and Comix Home Base serves as such a place."
Siu-hak echoes his view: "To have a gathering point for the local comic industry – in fact, for any industry – is critically important. All great anti-establishment movements and all great revolutions come from an anchoring place where you can gather talent and facilitate the exchange of ideas. Comix Home Base has the potential to become such a place."
Comic books in Hong Kong: an animated history
Hong Kong has a rich and colourful history when it comes to comic books…
The early days
The first Hong Kong comic strips – or 'manhua' in Chinese – were political satires drawn up by local pioneer He Jian-shi around the turn of the 20th century as a medium to send out anti-government messages. But the first actual comic book was born in the late 1910s, when Zheng Nu-quan from Guangzhou was invited to our city to draft Renjian Pictorial. Sadly, Zheng died in 1919 and couldn't witness the birth of the first compilation of caricatures who mirrored the lives of struggling Hongkongers.
The city's comic scene really started to develop into the 20s – but it was regularly interrupted by political turmoil and war between the 20s and 40s, so it never hit top gear. However, it really started to flourish once the 50s kicked in, particularly as Hong Kong became economically prosperous. Uncle Choi, a comic book created by cartoonist Hui Koon-man, was a big hit in this decade. Other long-running comics like Old Master Q and Cowboy also enjoyed mass popularity.
Comic books, by the 60s, were pretty much seen as a boy's best friend in Hong Kong. However, comic artist Lee Wai-chun changed this perception somewhat by creating Miss 13 Dots. By integrating fashion into her comics, young girls became comic readers too – many cherishing Lee's feminine works as fashion bibles.
1970s & 80s
The 70s and 80s were the 'golden period' for HK's comic books. Seung-gun's Bruce Lee and Tony Wong's Oriental Heroes were massive in the 70s. And the 80s saw the biggest Asian influence shape the local scene: the Japanese comic style. There's no denying the huge influence from Japan on our city's cartoonists in this period, both in terms of illustrative techniques and in the assembly production of the books. A Man Called Hero by Ma Wing-shing became one of the biggest HK successes in the 80s. Each issue sold more than 200,000 copies. Ma then produced another renowned work, The Storm Riders.
And then it was time for the kids (and big kids). A cute little piglet named McDull has been the biggest hit from the 90s right up to now, reminding Hongkongers of their childhoods. Also in the late 90s, political satire comics boomed again after Hong Kong was returned to China. Cartoonists started to make fun of the then Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa. The most famous satire is Fu Tzu-ts'an's Old Mong Tung. And now one of the biggest comic characters is Siu-hak's Panda-a-Panda. Perhaps the next big hit will be created in the Comix Home Base. Who knows...