Mr Kiasu's creator Johnny Lau talks to us about the return of his iconic creation, Mr Kiasu, the importance of kiasuism, and why he thinks the death of bookstores has been greatly exaggerated.
8 DAYS: You’re back with a new Mr Kiasu comic, Mr Kiasu: Everything Also Like Real. Why did you decide to revive him after an 18-year hiatus?
JOHNNY LAU: In the last two decades, I’ve worked in Gallery Hotel as a creative director for six years and I’ve also done Chinese comics, among other things. So, if you’d asked me this time last year whether I was going to revive Mr Kiasu, I would be looking at you and saying: “No, it won’t happen.” I thought it was good that we exited the industry while [the character] was at its peak as people always remember you in your heyday. However, less than a year ago, I met Bunsho Kajiya, the managing director of [publishing house] Shogakukan Asia, who read my old comic book, liked it and asked me to consider making a comeback. At the same time, I bumped into Melvin Ang, the Executive Director of [film company] MM2 Asia, who told me he was interested in making a Mr Kiasu movie. I also met two founders from [toy and collectibles store] Action City, who claimed they were big fans of the comic, and showed me a prototype of the Mr Kiasu figurine that they wanted to make and sell. Everyone was really persistent even though I rejected them a few times. Eventually, it was the publishing [proposal] which changed my mind ’cos Kajiya-san told me that he could take my book to other parts of the region, not just Singapore. That made my heart jump a bit, and I agreed (laughs). After all, I started out in publishing almost two decades ago. So now, we have a comic book, a figurine, and a movie that’s in the pipeline. It’s funny how everything just came together at the same time.
How has Mr Kiasu the character changed over the years?
There’s always this unspoken formula in comics where you don’t alter the characters too much. When that happens, fans don’t want to read it anymore. So when we were writing Mr Kiasu for the first 10 years, he was always courting his long-time girlfriend Ai Swee. So when people asked me if they would get married in the reboot, I said I don’t know (laughs). The only big change in this book is that I made him slightly older, simply because it’s been such a long while. This is implied in the story by him getting retrenched. In all the previous books, he’s always working in the office and being kiasu (fear of losing). I would say that is the biggest change.
What do you think is the most kiasu trait of Singaporeans?
It has changed somewhat. In the beginning, it’s always about being the best. There’re always rankings for ‘Best City’, ‘Best Airport’ and what not. I would think that this mentality is still there, although we don’t show it as much now (laughs).
Some people feel that kiasuism is an ugly Singaporean trait.
During my 10 years of creating the comic, people would queue up at autograph sessions just to tell me that I make Singaporeans look very bad in my books. Yes, being kiasu can be ugly, but you can also turn it around and make it into a force that you can use for good. We just happen to have this word that describes this behaviour and it has a negative connotation to it. However, behind that, it’s about the drive of the nation. The glass is either always half-full or half-empty, it’s really up to you how you want to see it.
How kiasu are you then?
No, not at all (laughs). I hate to queue. Sometimes I don’t understand why people like queuing up. It’s kind of ironic ’cos people queue to get my autograph during book signing sessions. I would tell my fans: “Just buy the book lah, don’t have to get it signed.” I’ve always been quite chill, even during my school days.
So, how much of you do we see in Mr Kiasu?
Many people think that I’m Mr Kiasu. Sometimes that’s true as I’m the one writing it, but it’s more about my observation of the surroundings, and the behaviour of people. I’m more like a medium as I look around, digest what’s happening, and then put it in a way that’s easy for people to read.
People are very into technology these days and they don’t read books as much anymore. How are you going to appeal to them?
That’s right. I read something quite interesting early this year. In New York City, there’s a revival of independent bookshops and their buyers are all very young, about 16 to 21 years old. When asked why they were buying physical books instead of e-books, they said that e-books are read by their parents and that they are passé. (Laughs) They are now discovering that books are so cool. Given that New York always sets the trend first, it can happen everywhere one year later. That’s good news for me.
You talk about wanting to groom the next generation of comic-book artists.
My intention for returning to the industry is that I want to create a platform for new and younger artists, and hopefully in three years’ time, I can groom a new artist to work on Mr Kiasu instead of me. It’s the same as Batman and Spiderman — the characters have become so iconic that there are so many different artists who’ve drawn them. That’s what I want to do. I want to pass it on after two or three more books so that we can bring in new talent and refresh the industry.
Mr Kiasu is in all major bookstores now. The sitcom Mr Kiasu is on Toggle.