Culture | Pencil-drawn stories of Hong Kong’s future

The Daily talks with comic artist Chihoi

The man with a thick black mustache, grim and pencil-drawn, is seeking a book mentioned in another book his grandma gave him. He is duped by what can only be described as? a librarian in Chihoi’s graphic novel The Library into descending into the depths of the City Library of Hong Kong, where pure-hearted Hong Kong residents search endlessly through files and the house of books for their lost culture.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Chihoi is a comic artist who also draws a four-panel newspaper column four days a week for a newspaper in his native city. Drawing in Chinese first, his work, both original and translated, has been published by Conundrum Press from Canada, Joint Publishing from Hong Kong, and Canicola from Italy, among others. Chihoi’s work is available at Montreal’s very own Drawn and Quarterly.

The McGill Daily (MD): Do you think being from Hong Kong influences your work?

Chihoi (C): Yes, because there is a very big comic culture there. We use to have a kind of mainstream comics tradition of lots of kung fu comics since the 1960s. In the 1960s, they were very prevalent. They could sell 200,000 copies every week. And the stories were about gangsters fighting against bad people, and in the 1980s, they became more and more violent and pornographic. And so my parents and teacher didn’t encourage me to read comics anymore.

One theory says that in the 1960s and 1970s, the police were very corrupt, and the people longed for a proper hero. So the gangster comics, they show lots of heroes who have good hearts who fight against the bad guys.

MD: So were the gangsters the heroes?

C: Yeah, yeah.

MD: Where did you get the inspiration for The Library?

 C: The two stories in this book The Library come from the idea of my perception of the political situation in Hong Kong nowadays after returning to China. I don’t want to make it a political story but in my mind [it is], especially the first story, “The Library.” I drew this story last year during the so-called election of the chief of Hong Kong. At that time, Leung Chun Ying was elected to become our Chief [Executive].

 But actually we don’t have universal suffrage in Hong Kong, so he’s not actually elected by us but by 1,200 privileged people*. This guy, we call him the “underground communist” because he has lots of hidden connections that he never tells you. And at that time, I think many Hong Kong people had a very big fear. I tried to picture this fear in my mind.

 The other story, “Borrowed Books,” takes place also around the same library. I tried to, how to say, describe the disappearance of my own culture of Hong Kong with all the books burnt, all the classics burnt. And I don’t want to make it a political story, so I tried to build, tried to draw, an old couple so that it looks like a normal human story, a certain story that talks about human relations instead of a certain political situation.

MD: Reading The Library, I find very little text in your work. Why do you choose that aesthetic?

C: In high school, I started to go to the international film festival every year and I watched lots of movies from all over the world, and I liked very much the French cinema at that time and I started to learn French as well. I discovered the European comics from the French translations. My visual aesthetics and how I narrate the story, I think they all come from the cinema that I went to at that time.

MD: What can comics do that other mediums can’t? Why would someone draw comics instead of write?

C: When you write words, you can tell a lot of lies. You can hide a lot of logic in your mind, but when you draw pictures, draw [panel] by panel, it’s just in your head. You visualize them. You and the readers together discover the unknown parts in your mind. I think you cannot tell lies in images. This is what I think is the difference between visual narratives and the written.

*The Chief Executive, the head of the government of Hong Kong, is elected by a 1,200-person committee and not by the general population.

Chihoi is currently working on more stories that take place in The Library’s library, which will be finished in two years. Although Chihoi is acutely aware of the political situation in Hong Kong, he is not a political organizer. On that note, the occupation mentioned earlier should take place next July.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.