Jan 04 2017

Obituary: Alfonso Wong Kar-hei (1924-2017)

by Katherine Volk

Portrait of Alfonso Wong Kar-hei. Courtesy OMQ Zmedia Limited.

On January 1, 2017, the much-loved Chinese cartoonist Alfonso Wong Kar-hei passed away after a prolonged illness at the age of 93 at his home in California. Wong is known as the creator of the witty Old Master Q manhua—comics—that first appeared as black-and-white four-to-six frame strips in Hong Kong newspapers in the 1960s and still remain popular today. 

Born in Tianjin, China, in 1924, the artist moved to Hong Kong in 1956, where he started his career drawing in Bibles for French Catholic missionaries and as an art editor for his church’s magazine. The first Old Master Q strip, published under the allonym “Wong Chak” after Wong’s eldest son, appeared in 1962 and featured the now-iconic trio—Old Master Q and his friends, the rotund and large-headed Big Potato and the bookish, reliable Mr Chin. The manhua became a common household name in Hong Kong for addressing contemporary life in the ever-changing fragrant harbor and poked fun at cultural idiosyncrasies—over the years, other personalities have been added to Old Master Q’s stable of characters and the strips have been compiled into volumes and adapted into animated and live action films. Wong has spoken about the themes in his work to Sotheby’s Hong Kong: “I firmly believe that drawing comics is not to laugh at other people who fall, but to make my readers laugh by falling, like a clown who makes fun of himself to entertain the audience. My whole life is a comic book.”

Wong retired in 1995. From that point on, the Old Master Q franchise was managed by his eldest son Joseph Wong in Taiwan, who continued to create and publish the adventures of the characters under the name—his own—Wong Chak. Today, graphics designer Ronny Cuxun is credited as the artist for new editions of Old Master Q.

The senior cartoonist was notoriously press-shy. On the official Old Master Q website, run by one of the Wong descendants, it states that the artist wished to retire in peace, “fishing and creating pottery.” In 2014, Sotheby’s Hong Kong opened the largest ever selling exhibition of his original sketches, entitled “Old Master Q: What The @#$% Is Going On?” Two years later in 2016, the Hong Kong Arts Centre collaborated with Comix Home Base to produce a retrospective exhibition of Wong’s work paired with newer comics created under the helm of Joseph Wong, film screenings and installations. “Tribute to Masters Series III – Wong Chak Indulging in Imagination – Exhibition of Old Master Q’s Comics Works” runs until January 5 at Comix Home Base.

Katherine Volk is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.

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