All images by Zachary Tang for Rice Media unless specified
Johnny Lau is frank when he discusses his relevance as a comic artist, mentor, and creative entrepreneur in a world which, he posits, is drained of creativity. It’s a deliberate self-actualisation Johnny imbues in the 2017 iteration of Mr Kiasu, 32 years after “Mr Kiasu: Everything Also I Want” was published in 1990 to equal parts critical acclaim and criticism.
“When I brought him back, he’s ten years older. Usually (in comics), characters don’t grow or age. But in my case, I strongly believe that it’s necessary.”
“I felt he had to age at least a decade. So he’s 35, retrenched, and discovering a new world of working that he’s not familiar with. It reflects on how I feel in a way,” 57-year-old Johnny quips over coffee at Providore’s Paya Lebar Quarter Mall outfit.
“He went around asking what’s a cool co-sharing space and found out that everyone works in Starbucks. So he takes a multi-plug extension socket, goes to the nearest Starbucks, brings along with him his lamp and various electronics, and plugs them all in. I try to bring back his traits of being kiasu but in a completely new environment.”
In a way, Mr Kiasu plays a different role now from before—Johnny knows that people will look at the character as passé. It’s something he cannot avoid, so instead, he focuses on making Mr Kiasu relevant, even if it means being laughed at.
“You just have to have the stomach for it. I, fortunately, have the stomach for it.”
The Second Coming
Johnny was 25 years old when he first started work on Mr Kiasu, a character born and inspired from his time in National Service in 1989.
“Those days, everybody in the camp was using all kinds of Singlish words. But it was not widely used in society by the general public. Still, long before it became commonplace, army boys were already using words like Kiasu and Bochup—it’s army lingo.”
Johnny eventually picked the word ‘Kiasu’ because it was a term everyone knew. “I decided to put another word beside it so I can copyright and trademark the expression. The moment I put Mr Kiasu together, everything fell in place.”
Today, true to the Singaporean ethos of globalisation and upscaling, you’ll find Mr Kiasu existing beyond the traditional confines of a comic book. On mobile phones, a collaboration with DDTGDMobileGame resulted in the warfare game, TNT: Artilleryman available on both iOs and Android. More recently last year, a live-action reboot of the comic was produced by meWatch, starring Jaspers Lai as Mr Kiasu, alongside Singaporean actors such as Farah Lola, Joey Pink, Dasa Dharamahsena, and Jalyn Han.
Mr Kiasu has also been called on by National Library Board Singapore to help launch NLB’s five-year blueprint, LAB25, an initiative aimed at bringing the library closer to patrons beyond the physical community premises. In this partnership, Johnny creates a webtoon series where Mr Kiasu, along with four other characters work together to solve the mystery of a book heist involving Singapore literature.
The road paved with barter trades
Johnny’s journey to Mr Kiasu didn’t come easy. Few knew that Johnny’s academic background is in Architecture, a degree his dad, in a panic, made him pursue when he expressed earnest desires to go to Hong Kong to pursue his dreams of being a professional comic artist. He was 17 years old then.
“When I arrived in America at the University of Southern California to commence my study, I realised that I can’t even hold a ruler or a set square properly, unlike the rest of my classmates who had taken a draftsman’s course. I thought I was fucked. But a week later, I found out that none of them could draw a human figure. So I came up with a plan.”
He went around to his classmates and bartered a trade. They will help him draw straight lines, and he’ll help them draw human figures. He eventually also helped them draw trees and buildings. “
That’s how I managed to survive year one,” Johnny explains. “I pushed through and finished it. But while I was there, I also did as many general electives for films as possible. I learned as much as I could absorb—all under the disguise of architecture. My family never found out,” he says with a chuckle in his voice.
Post-graduation and upon completion of his national conscription stint, Johnny then worked for six months at an architect firm working on Ngee Ann City.
“I was drawing floor tiles for six months, Zat. I did five years of architecture only to draw tiles! Can you believe it?”
He eventually decided to quit. “I had enough of drawing floor tiles for a lifetime.” Still, In a bid to impede his departure, his boss told him that he was about to promote Johnny to another job scope: drawing staircases.
“I said, no, thank you.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Quitting at your peak
Pursuing Mr Kiasu full-time turned out to be one of the best decisions Johnny would have made, although not without a few bumps in the road. No publisher wanted to print his books then because it contained dialect, which, at the time, went against government directives.
“So, in the end, I used the salary I saved from my six months in the architecture firm to print the books independently.”
He eventually managed to find a distributor who was amenable to taking a small risk for a new artist like Johnny. His first book was sold at a book fair, though the reception was relatively subdued for the first three days. It was only after some publicity in the Straits Times and Zaobao that the books started moving. By the 10th day, he had already sold 500 copies.
“I sold my first comic book at S$7.90. I’m quite proud of that pricing even when everybody said I should price it at S$10. I said no because I felt S$7.90 sounded affordable so people wouldn’t have to think twice before buying.”
It’s a strategy that paid off. Within a month, Johnny printed 3,000 more copies and sold out in the same month. It was a feat unheard of during that time. “Everybody was so surprised that I could move that many books in that short amount of time.”
Johnny’s first book eventually did a total of 17 print runs, chalking up close to 70,000 copies, a feat made more impressive given that it was the 1990s when Singapore’s population was about 2.5 million people. By 1999, the total sale of the Mr Kiasu books peaked at 600,000 copies.
And then, he quit.
“I wanted to do something else”
“I call it quitting while you’re ahead,” Johnny intones when I ask him why he decided to drop everything so abruptly. “But that’s the thing, Zat. It wasn’t abrupt. I told all my co-authors that we would do this for 10 years when we started working on the first book. They all laughed at me.”
They found it funny not because the idea was silly but because they weren’t confident they could move anything beyond one book. Still, in the ninth year, Johnny reminded them that he would stop publishing and producing Mr Kiasu books, and again they laughed at him. This time, they didn’t think that he would seriously consider giving up all this success.
Success in this instance is a musical, a music album, a six-month radio show based on the Mr Kiasu concept, selling figurines, and partnering with McDonald’s to create the Mr Kiasu burger. “It was exhilarating to see a concept turn into a product like a burger,” Johnny recounts.
“I just wanted to do something else,” he offers when I press for a reason why he decided to give it all up. “With Mr Kiasu, I wanted to prove that a uniquely Singapore idea, if it has legs, can go a long way. Secondly, I hoped to pave the way for other up and coming comic artists. That has always been my passion—to look at young people come in and take up the mantle.”
Post Mr Kiasu
Immediately after, Johnny plunged himself into a gamut of projects, working for a Japanese anime company, being minted as creative director of Gallery Hotel (now InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay), founder of a dot-com company, and running a creative industry incubator for then MICA (Ministry of Information, Communication, and the Arts).
It’s a seventeen-year journey that eventually brought him back to his first love with the launch of Mr Kiasu: Everything Also Like Real, released in 2017, but this time, published by the notable Japanese publishing house, Shogakukan Inc.
“I think the world of literature and arts has become more extreme,” he replies when I ask what was the most interesting observation he’s noticed in his time away.
“It’s just like social media. It’s so widely used that anyone can take it, spread it, and whether it’s real or not, have the potential to take down a government, or, you know, a bookshop,” Johnny continues, making a subtle reference to last year when we published a story on BooksActually and its deplorable working conditions.
Still, he believes creativity now versus two decades ago has largely remained the same—”because there’s nothing new under the sun”. He says everything is about repackaging, although now it’s been pushed to the extreme. “There’s so much junk online that you can take, salvage, put together, and call art. And if you get enough people to say it’s art, you’re an artist.”
He makes an example out of Beeple’s ‘EVERYDAY: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS’ NFT that sold for an eye-popping S$69.3m. “That is a great reflection of what is happening now. People are taking fragments of imagination—some from themselves, though mostly not—collage it together, and it will be seen as creative.”
When pressed, Johnny shares that creativity, at least in the realms of comics, is nearer to the thought process behind the origins of Spider-Man or Mr Kiasu even. “At least we make an effort to come up with a design or a universe for this character. But when you take what already exists, mash it up, call it your own, and make money off of it, then I don’t know if that’s considered creative or not. It’s a grey world.”
I couldn’t resist asking Johnny’s opinion on the works of Singapore-based political comic artist Sonny Liew, best known for his award-winning graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.
“I think Sonny has his own niche, and I’m so happy that he’s been recognised for that. I remember meeting Sonny as a young boy when he came to my studio to show me his portfolio,” Johnny recalls.
“I remember he had pretty good art that I was sure would take him far. I’m happy for him, but sometimes, I also worry. I know he has an opinion on many things, but you don’t have to politicise everything. If Singapore is a place you choose to stay, you don’t want to constantly put yourself in that position. That worries me sometimes.”
Golda — The Boy With Super Wealth
As we near the one hour mark of our conversation, I ask Johnny what comic idea he would pursue now if he could base it on an entirely different character. That brought us to the comic series, SupeRich published in 2018 by Shogakukan Inc.
The main character in SupeRich is a boy named Golda who enrolled in a school that takes in only students with super abilities. The sole superpower Golda has, unfortunately, is his unlimited wealth. “Superpower means that I can use my ability to solve problems. With my credit card, I can solve a lot of problems.”
Unsurprisingly, Golda was often bullied in school—a problem he solved by paying people around him to fight off these delinquents who often taunt and mock him for not having real superpowers.
This was what got schools and educators riled up. “What kind of values are you teaching students? Are you trying to corrupt them?” they pressed.
“I said no,” Johnny recalls. “You have to read it in its entirety because that’s what the kids these days are doing. They live and come to a world where their parents are doing relatively well compared to a time back in the 80s. These kids don’t think twice about buying an S$800 pair of shoes. They think chicken comes as a drumstick because they’ve never seen the real animal. What I’m doing with SupeRich is merely reflecting real-world sentiments that some find difficult to accept.”
The turning point with Golda comes when he starts seeing the big picture of the impact his money has on the community. When he buys the whole neighbourhood, there will be people who benefit indirectly—the disabled and the poor- they all gain from it. Later, when these beneficiaries came to Golda to thank him for helping them, Golda couldn’t help but wonder why these words of appreciation from complete strangers made him feel good. That’s when he realises there are some things money simply can’t buy.
“Golda comes off as a bad boy,” Johnny explains. “It’s the same impression I gave when I first published Mr Kiasu. People weren’t shy to accuse me of making Singapore look bad. They say people call Singaporeans ugly. Now, I made it worse with this caricature of ‘kiasuness’.”
Teachers would queue up at the book fairs to give Johnny a piece of their mind. “They say their whole class read the book and that I corrupted them,” he recalls. “I let them scold me, some for as long as 20 minutes. After that, I thank them and ask: so you want to buy my book?” Johnny tells me with a laugh.
These days, Johnny sets aside time to donate all his meticulously organised sketches, works, and notes to be archived by the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. “I feel that it would pave the way for future comic artists or even ordinary people who want to know what has happened in the comic scene since my work spans three decades,” he explains.
“I don’t want to leave anything behind in the event of my demise. I don’t want my family to worry about what to do with all this ‘junk’ I’ve accumulated. Too often, I’ve seen so many artists leaving such things for their families to sort. For sentimental reasons, the family usually would keep the items won’t know what to do with them, so I’m getting ahead of it. Sorry kids.”
“What’s one piece of advice you would give younger, up and coming comic artists,” I ask as we wrap up the interview.
“It sounds cliché, but you need to have a clear vision of why you’re in this field,” Johnny shares as he sinks back in his chair and ponders wistfully at this question. “For me, it has always been mission-driven. From day one, I know I was put on Earth to do this. I use comics to change the environment around me as much as I can.”
“Whether my work persists in the form of merchandising or other licensing deals is not important to me. What is important to me is that at the end of the day, my books continue to be in the library long after I’m gone, making the same impact I intended when I published those books. That it endures is what truly matters.”