Installation view of WONG CHAK’s “Indulging in Imagination” at Comix Home Base, Hong Kong, 2016–17. Courtesy OMQ ZMedia Ltd.

Indulging in Imagination

Wong Chak

Comix Home Base
Hong Kong

“Indulging in Imagination – Exhibition of Old Master Q’s Comics Works” is the third show of Hong Kong Arts Centre’s “Tribute to Master Series” at local favorite Comix Home Base in the city’s Wan Chai district. Housed in a cluster of historic shophouses built in the 1910s, Comix Home Base is the first art space dedicated to showing Hong Kong’s comics and animations, and the current exhibition on artist Wong Chak is a hit after previous editions that featured local comics masters Ma Wing Shing and Theresa Lee Wai-chun. Showcasing manuscripts and newly commissioned installations, the exhibition pays tribute to Wong Chak, the father-and-son artist duo who created the light-hearted comic character Old Master Q (OMQ), now a household name. 

Spread over three floors in Comix Home Base, the exhibition is divided into four sections, and visitors are greeted by a larger-than-life Old Master Q print on the center of the floor as they enter the third floor. This image references From Solid to Flat (2001)—a story in which OMQ runs through closing doors, barely slips through but emerges as a squished cardboard figure, and then falls to the ground like a spent animated character. This placement invites viewers to think about how OMQ—both the character and the comic series—pulls imagined, sketched scenes off the page and into real life, a theme that is echoed in the rest of the exhibition. 

A fictional newspaper, Today Post, features artwork by WONG CHAK, born Alfonso Wong Kar-hei, produced in the 1960s. Courtesy OMQ ZMedia Ltd.

WONG CHAK, Journey to the West, 1964. Courtesy OMQ ZMedia Ltd.
WONG CHAK, Journey to the West, 1964. Courtesy OMQ ZMedia Ltd.

For the first section of the show, titled “Humour in Adversity,” Comix Home Base’s staff prepared copies of the fictional Today Post, an imitation of local newspapers from the 1960s filled with Alfonso’s works, including creations other than the famous OMQ series. Alfonso published the first OMQ comic book with Ng Hing Kee Books and Newspaper Agency in 1964, and eventually bequeathed the successful series to his son Joseph Wong, who has carried the torch in Taiwan since 1990s. This succession makes OMQ a unique inter-generational endeavor, contributing to its long-standing popularity among Hong Kongers of different ages. In the exhibition room, beside the newspaper stands, Joseph Wong—now also known as the “Young Wong Chak”—appears in a video interview to describe the partnership with his father, as well as his view of Old Master Q as an ordinary character who acts in ways that people wouldn’t dare to attempt in real life. 

The second part of the exhibition, “Intriguing and Curious,” delves into the series’ main characters—the titular character, foolish Mr. Chin, kind but clumsy Big Potato, gorgeous Miss Chan and the everyman Mr. Chiu. Unsurprisingly, the protagonist dominates the spotlight, and is highlighted as a character that is “more Hong Kong than a Hong Konger” in the sense that he is “clever but not studious, good at fighting but not strong, middle-class but not a petty-bourgeois, precise in emotion but content with what he has.” This emphasis appears in the storylines as well. The End of a Hero comments on how expertise developed overseas doesn’t necessarily translate in Hong Kong Exchange of Politeness and Wide Shoulders reflect on the influx of western customs and fashion and subsequent local negotiations. Journey to the West, an early manuscript’s cover, is perhaps the most intriguing. It references the 16th-century Chinese literary classic of the same name; Old Master Q, Big Potato and Mr. Chin wear costumes of the novel’s lead characters, but carry modern items from the Western world—a bottle of Coca-Cola, a camera, cigarettes, a pistol, a radio and a sign that reads “To New York.” Using simple visual language, Alfonso Wong highlights the cultural challenges under early phases of globalization in a humorous way. 

A multi-media installation by Hong Kong artist anothermountainman, I am Julian Opie from the East (2016), stands out in the exhibition. It includes four videos of Old Master Q on foot, drawn in British pop artist Julian Opie’s signature style of minimal black lines. The numerous screens play the same animation, but face different directions and are placed at different heights; whenever the animated character turns his head with a look of scorn, the visitor spots him in a new location in the room. Accented by black-and-white prints that depict different parts of the body, this installation animates Old Master Q—in both senses of the word—and turns him into a moving image. On one wall, anothermountainman makes another contribution, this time as a curator of Old Master’s Q’s artwork—sculptures and abstract paintings—created by the character within the comic strips.

Installation view of ANOTHERMOUNTAINMAN’s I am Julian Opie from the East (2016) at Comix Home Base, Hong Kong, 2016–17. Courtesy OMQ ZMedia Ltd.

The popularity of Old Master Q was evident in the constant flow of visitors. Even the security guards at Comix Home Base were enthusiastic enough to serve as self-appointed docents. Though the news of Alfonso’s death spread after New Year’s Day, his legacy lies in the many comics that still entertain us, decades after their creation. Daring and unconventional, Old Master Q and his friends live to make us snicker, laugh, even guffaw. But peel away the veneer of humor, and we find timeless figures whose cleverness and sensibility are very much needed in Hong Kong today, as the city tries to bridge polarizing views and find its way through growing social and political turmoil. 

“Indulging in Imagination” was on view at Comix Home Base, Hong Kong, until January 5, 2017.

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