The Enduring Charm of a Timeless Classic – Exhibition of Old Master Q Original Sketches
by| 01 Aug 2014
The year was 1961 and I was still a child in my second year of primary school. One day during recess, I saw the girl sitting reading a comic book. Out of curiosity, I peeked out of the corner of my eye. A four-panel comic strip immediately caught my attention. The Old Master Q comics may seem commonplace today, but it was such a novelty that I somehow gathered the courage to open my mouth: “Can…can you sell me this comic book?” “Sure…” said my classmate (her name was Yuen Po Chun). “How much?” “Twenty cents.” This was my first encounter with Old Master Q.
Then one day in 1964, my dad came home from work and, as usual, settled into his wicker chair where he normally read the papers, except that this time he was chuckling away as he read. My brother and I curiously gathered around him to find out what he was reading. It was Old Master Q and Mr Chin, which was the first issue of the Old Master Q comic books. That night I brought it to the evening school where I received extra English tuition. The book was circulated around the whole class. One classmate even had the ingenious idea of drawing the head portrait of Old Master Q with a question mark. Before the comic strips were published as a collection, we could only read about Old Master Q, Big Potato and Mr. Chin as each character appeared in his own column, in the evening edition of Sing Tao Daily, the feature section of Tin Tin Daily News as well as Siu Lok Yuen (“Little Paradise”).
Old Master Q has since become a childhood hero for me and many of my peers. Through him we learned to ponder the meanings of many traditional Chinese expressions, such as Noi Jan Cam Mei《耐人尋味》 (deep insights worthy of extended pondering), Fu Zung Zok Lok《苦中作樂》 (finding joy within bitterness), Dak Ji Mong Jing《得意忘形》 (getting carried away), Lung Haau Faan Zyut《弄巧反拙》 (clever intensions, clumsy results), Ji Jau Zai Gong《以柔制剛》 (overcoming brute force with softness), Sin Fu Hau Tim《先苦後甜》(bitterness first, then sweetness). We thus learned how to find our own enjoyment (Zi Dak Kei Lok《自得其樂》) in days of material scarcity, get up and smile again after falling on our faces, assert ourselves when confronted with moral dilemmas, and even more importantly, we learned that when facing overwhelming opponents, walking away is the best of strategies (Zau Wai Soeng Gai《走為上計》). Before we knew it, we had spent five brilliant decades with the Old Master, who truly became an old friend.
It is a pleasure as well as good fortune to have the opportunity to take a concerted look back at such beautiful times. Invited by Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery, we can meet the true and authentic Old Master Q in close proximity. Some of us might even be able to invite our hero back to our own homes to privately converse with him - a joyful experience indeed! What special charm does the Old Master possess, that makes him a favorite of such a wide audience? Behind the endless stream of nonsensical comedy and farcical stories, the source of his unique charm came from the ingenious comics artist Alphonso Wong, or Wong Chak Sr, now already in his 1990s. Without his quirky and wildly imaginative mind as well as his boldly virtuosic skills, combined with a persistent spirit to continue innovating and creating for half a century, how could we have enjoyed the fruit of his labour - five decades of laughter and joy?
Old master Q is the oldest published comic book, and enjoys the widest audience, in the Chinese-speaking world. If one is to ask me which period over the five decades is my favourite, I would say without hesitation that I unreservedly enjoy all parts of it, both old and new. The 1960s marked Old Master Q’s meteoric rise to success. Works from this period are of course outstanding, and aptly display the artist’s mastery of the genre – whether it is his vivid portrayal of the characters’ motions and postures, or his detailed depiction of their colourful facial expressions. Both his concepts and execution show the comics’ unique approach and infinite development potentials. Fresh but not raw, the comics looked complete and elegant from the start. Old Master Q in the 1960s is deeply connected with local culture and therefore particularly close to my heart. To this day, the first 100 issues of Old Master Q comic series are still among my most cherished possessions.
The 1970s and 1980s saw Old Master Q’s progression to full maturity. Confident, powerful and smooth lines were employed, its colourful and fascinating characters were portrayed vividly. Each topic was picked up and developed into interesting tales with ease, as the artist became intimately familiar with his creations. This was also the period when Old Master Q began to reach beyond Hong Kong, eventually garnering renown and popularity in Taiwan, Southeast Asia as well as Chinese communities in both Europe and North America. Alongside such developments, its topics also became more internationally minded, encompassing a diverse range of subjects. He also became a firm believer that action speaks louder than words, transforming the Old Master into a mime virtuoso. In this period, both the artist’s creative energy and the comics’ readership reached an unprecedented peak.
Towards the end of 1990s, Old Master Q returned to simplicity and its emotional impact intensified. Loyal readers were no longer interested in new plots and stories, but found great joy in their old friend’s unfailing young-at-heart spirit, as he continued to fly down urban roads on his motorbike and stand firmly against trendy apparels and accessories. This is why I believe in the merits of all works that make the readers laugh at first sight.
Some scholars think that the main reason children enjoy reading comic books lies within its power to ease the pain of entering the world of grown-ups. In my opinion, an old comic book is also a key to unlock the door that takes us back to the joyful and carefree times of childhood. For this reason, my friend, please accept this key which I offer to you sincerely.
Yeung Wai Pong is the Committee Member of Hong Kong Cartoon Institute.