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Mr Kiasu brought back ‘for a good cause’

SINGAPORE — He was depicted using a mobile phone the size of a brick nearly two decades ago. Fast forward to the present, and the iconic comic character Mr Kiasu is revelling in the abundance of freebies in the digital sphere.

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SINGAPORE — He was depicted using a mobile phone the size of a brick nearly two decades ago. Fast forward to the present, and the iconic comic character Mr Kiasu is revelling in the abundance of freebies in the digital sphere.

“He’s like, ‘Wow, finally the world has caught up with me’,” said his creator Johnny Lau with a chuckle.

But Mr Kiasu very nearly remained stuck in the ’90s. When the National Library Board (NLB) broached his revival with Mr Lau as part of its ongoing information literacy campaign about six months ago, Mr Lau’s reply had been: “No, no, no. Sorry, he’s retired.”

NLB staff asked Mr Lau, 48, to reconsider and presented him with modern-day scenarios where Mr Kiasu’s antics and mass appeal could contribute to the initiative.

Mr Lau spoke with co-author of the original comic series Lim Yu Cheng and with another team member Nick Tan, and ultimately decided to bring Mr Kiasu back “for a good cause”.

The NLB’s S.U.R.E. campaign — short for Source, Understand, Research, Evaluate — is “very relevant to people today, because every day we are bombarded by so much information, we’re reading things (that tread the space) between true and untrue”, Mr Lau said.

With the worthy-cause checkbox ticked, the cartoonist then requested that the campaign’s message not be blatant in the comic book. His aim is to ensure a satisfying reading experience and that includes giving “resolution” to the most frequently asked question from readers: When is Mr Kiasu going to pop the question to long-time girlfriend Ai Swee?

“It’s the 21st century, so certain things have to be resolved. Even Clark Kent can marry Lois Lane, so … ” Mr Lau trailed off, leaving the question to be answered when the book, Everything Also Want To Be Sure, is unveiled on Dec 15.

The revival of Mr Kiasu has not been without friction. After his comeback was announced last month, one of the co-authors of the previous comic books, Mr James Suresh, wrote to the media questioning why he and two other co-authors were not acknowledged. Mr Lau responded that there were four people — Mr Lim, Mr Suresh, Mr Eric Chong and himself — who developed Mr Kiasu’s look and style after he conceived the idea for the character in 1989. Mr Lau declined to comment further on the incident, citing sufficient ground covered in both letters.

When the Mr Kiasu comic books wrapped up in 2000 after nearly a decade of success — new books launched were best-sellers and the character was used by companies in their promotions — the architecture-trained Mr Lau was happy to distance himself from comics. He dabbled in different projects, such as consulting for a company looking to distribute Japanese animation and running a start-up doing desktop and mobile applications.

In 2005, Mr Lau’s uncle, who co-owned the Gallery Hotel, got him on board as Creative Director. Mr Lau joked that his job was to oversee curtain colours of the rooms. “I told my mum, who said, ‘You’re crazy, forever doing stupid things’,” he quipped.

He soon turned the hotel into a platform and partner for creative collaborations. He teamed up with the then-Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts on a creative exchange programme bringing 16 youths from various countries together, and offered 16 of the hotel’s rooms for them to rip apart and redesign.

After the S.U.R.E. comic project, Mr Lau will be busy with Ip Man the Musical, which will debut next year at the Kallang Theatre. The global collaboration will also involve British composer Martin Koch and Hong Kong producer Raymond Wang, who produced the Donnie Yen Ip Man movies. Students from LASALLE College of the Arts and Republic Polytechnic will be roped in to perform and help with lighting, said Mr Lau, who is Associate Producer.

People have asked why he keeps “changing industries” and his mother has stopped explaining to others what he does, but the common denominator in his seemingly diverse slate of projects is content creation, he said.

It should come as no surprise, however, that he has meandered his way back to comics, which he dubs the “kiasu-est medium” demanding the best of illustration and words. Besides the S.U.R.E. project, Mr Lau will be leading some illustrators to the outskirts of India next month to create comics to educate pregnant women on malnutrition.

“The power of comics is that I may choose not to use words,” he said. “We can bring information to people who may not be able to (otherwise access or understand) that information. To me, it’s a universal language.”

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