Taking the Q

By Faye Bradley | HK EDITION | Updated: 2023-11-10 14:06
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When Alfonso Wong - the creator of Old Master Q - died, it was left to his son Joseph to carry on the legacy. Faye Bradley met the latter at an exhibition to celebrate the iconic Hong Kong comic character.

Artist Joseph Wong refers to the characters in the Old Master Q comic as his "kids". (EDMOND TANG / CHINA DAILY)

Old Master Q (Lǎo Fūzǐ) first appeared in Hong Kong ma-gazines and dailies in the early 1960s. The cartoon character was the brainchild of Alfonso Wong, who came to Hong Kong from Tianjin in 1956 and would remain there until his move to the United States in the 1990s. Wong had conceived of his protagonist as a weak-willed, somewhat-delusional character who nevertheless has his heart in the right place. The stick-thin, elderly figure who always finds himself at the receiving end was an instant hit with the Hong Kong audience.

The interest in Old Master Q has continued for more than 60 years. Hong Kong's comic aficionados are all too familiar with the series' cast of characters - the rotund, large-headed Big Potato; the average-Joe, Mr Chin; the protagonist's romantic interest, Miss Chan; and his bete noire, the pompous and wealthy Mr Chiu.

When Wong died in 2017, his son Joseph took on his father's mantle, continuing to bring out new works about the adventures of the bumbling do-gooder. Wong Junior had trained to be an architect but began complementing his father's role as both artist and publisher of the Old Master Q books since the mid-1990s. He was in Hong Kong recently to open an exhibition celebrating the series at Lucie Chang Fine Arts.

Installation view of the Old Master Q exhibition at Hong Kong's Lucie Chang Fine Arts. (EDMOND TANG / CHINA DAILY)

A selection of images from the published Old Master Q comics is on display at the exhibition. Original manuscripts also figure. While Alfonso's drawings were mostly in black and white, his son prefers color, and has made a number of abstract paintings based on the characters that figure in the much-loved comic. Large cutouts based on Joseph's creations for the series adorn the gallery walls.

The exhibition is the result of gallery owner Lucie Chang's sustained affection for the comic strip and its creators.

Chang first met Joseph more than 10 years ago, when she collected a manuscript by him from an exhibition in Hong Kong. Later, when she was managing the private museum located in the Hong Kong Parkview housing estate, Chang added a number of Old Master Q images to the collection.

"(For a long time) I have wanted to host an exhibition on Old Master Q and share the images with a bigger audience," she says.

Joseph's Old-Times series of paintings is her favorite. "I especially enjoy the blurring of forms, and repetition of figures in a single frame to suggest motion. It lends a videolike quality to the image," she says.

"I fell in love with his works; in particular his use of humor, the sharp lines and simple compositions," she goes on to add. "All of his works express a sense of joy and brightness."

A page from an Old Master Q comic book produced by the series creator Alfonso Wong. (EDMOND TANG / CHINA DAILY)

Dipping into the gene pool

Alfonso published his works under Joseph's Chinese name - Wong Chak. But he was adamant about not teaching his son anything of his craft while the latter was growing up. In keeping with the sentiment popular at the time, Wong Senior was concerned that if his children trained in art, they might never be able to earn a livelihood.

"My father told me, 'Don't draw, don't become an artist,' and he wouldn't teach us anything," says Joseph.

Luckily, he did not heed his father's advice. As a child, Joseph would be found bent over his sketchbook on most days, "not because I wanted to become an artist", but rather, because having a father who spent every waking moment making art, it seemed the most natural thing to do.

It was only after Joseph joined his father's publishing business that he began to get a sense of the nitty-gritty involved in creating comic books.

"I began to study and learn from my father's early works, observing the lines and brushstrokes in them, trying to understand his process," he says.

When he tried his hand at drawing the cartoon figures, to an extent, Joseph relied on his memory of watching his father at work as a kid. While that helped, he was not looking to replicate his dad's process entirely.

"I don't have the exact same techniques," he says.

The first time he stepped in his father's shoes as the creator of the Old Master Q books, Joseph had felt a "spiritual connection" to his predecessor's works, which became his guiding light.

A Hong Kong story

He says that his architecture degree, from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the US state of Michigan, and his time teaching at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where he is the director of the graduate program in architecture, have contributed to his artistic practice.

"Humor is essential to both comics and architecture," he explains, adding that for a cartoonist, studying math, particularly geometry, can come in handy. Training in music is useful too.

"The ideas of musical notation and structure, mathematics and geometry are all inherent in the process of creating comics," he says.

Like his father, he hardly ever gets stuck for lack of inspiration. And Joseph too is often looking for ideas in the most regular, everyday situations. Watching his father at work "taught me how to find the spiritual essence of the subject," he says.

Enduring love

Janet Wong, who grew up reading the adventures of Old Master Q in the '60s, remains a fan of the series. "I love the way the books dwell on the bonds of friendship that were palpable in Hong Kong society in that era," she says.

Jiang Feng, associate professor at the Department of Work, Employment, Management and Organization at the University of Leicester in England, contends that the Old Master Q series serves as a social connector.

"Through the whimsical adventures of Old Master Q and his companions, readers find both amusement and a sense of belonging," he says. "Additionally, the comic offers a creative medium to explore complex societal themes. In these different ways, Old Master Q continues to be a vibrant part of Hong Kong's cultural narrative, embodying the region's unique blend of tradition and modernity."

Jiang says he believes that the character of Old Master Q is a fine exemplar of the saying that Chinese people can be humorously serious. "Through its engaging, often satirical, narratives, the comic provides a distinctive lens to view and discuss social issues, which adds a layer of depth to what's basically an entertaining comic strip."

He applauds Joseph's role in carrying on the work his father had begun, "continuing to shape Hong Kong's cultural and social discourse" as a result.

Joseph Wong's paintings based on the iconic comic character have an animated feel about them. (EDMOND TANG / CHINA DAILY)

Keeper of a legacy

Joseph refers to the characters in the Old Master Q books as his "kids". "Some of them look pretty, some don't. If they don't, it's pro-bably my fault."

Still trying to improve his craft, and learn from his mistakes, Wong revisits his published works from time to time. He often puts images from a series started six or seven years ago on the wall and asks himself if they would pass muster if they were to be published today.

Such close scrutiny is perhaps necessary to keep up the benchmark his father had set.

"It took me quite a few years to reach that stage where readers are unable to tell whether the drawings are by my father or me."



A page from an Old Master Q comic book produced by the series creator Alfonso Wong.


Joseph Wong's paintings based on the iconic comic character have an animated feel about them.


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