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Comic book hero

Tony Wong is out to rescue HK’s comic industry – again

Tony Wong Yuk-long started his comic career at the age of just 10, when local newspapers started to regularly publish his work. “I was riveted by the comic sections in newspapers ever since I was six. I would draw on newspapers, my school books – any space that I could. I loved drawing comics so much,” Wong, now 63, says.

In the early 1960s, at a time when some families survived on as little as HK$50 a month, Wong – still a primary school student and with no formal training in drawing – was pocketing more than HK$100 a month. “One picture paid about HK$2. My daily pocket money was 10 cents, so it was good money,” he says.

In fact, the money was so good that Wong decided to quit school to become a full-time comic artist at the age of 13. With an already strong CV, he had no problem finding a position at a newspaper that published comics, but it turned out to be a long way from the dream job for which he was hoping. “The boss did not pay me a salary. He offered me two meals a day and a place to sleep at night and that was it. I was the office boy, doing the cleaning and transporting comic scripts. I only got paid cash if my work was published,” he says.

Wong knew that life as an office boy would take him nowhere, so he tried to set up his own comic publishing company a number of times – but without success. It wasn’t until 1970, when he created the hugely successful Oriental Heros series of comic books, that his life as a comic artist – and that of the local comic landscape – changed forever.

Oriental Heros became Hong Kong’s best-selling comic book series and earned Wong the nickname “Hong Kong’s King of Comics”. It also helped him lead the local comic industry to its golden age in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Wong’s publishing company, Jademan (Holdings), was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 1986 and in doing so became the world’s first listed comic company.

When asked why readers find Oriental Heroes so fascinating, Wong says it is the action that captures their attention – an area in which he was inspired by a childhood love of movies and wuxia (Chinese martial arts fiction). “The action scenes I create are different from Japanese and US comics. Oriental Heroes is about a group of heroic youngsters. The story mixes martial arts from different countries, but Chinese kung fu is the dominant element. The exciting battles have won the hearts of many fans, and the series is the cornerstone of my comic business’s success,” he says.

Wong’s success saw Hong Kong comics break the Japanese dominance of the local industry. “When I first started in the comic industry, 90 per cent of the market was occupied by Japanese comics, before my comics took down the Japanese. In the 1980s, Hong Kong comics represented 80 per cent of the market and Japanese comics 20 per cent,” he says.

The good times were not to last, however. As the digital age developed and new kinds of entertainment, such as online gaming, grew in popularity, comic reading fell off its perch as the favourite pastime for local men. “You used to see men reading comics or comic newspapers at Chinese restaurants at the weekend when they are having yum cha in the ’70s and ’80s. Reading comics was the best way to kill time for many men, but now there are so many other things that they can do, comics have become a much less popular hobby,” he says.

At its peak, Hong Kong’s comic book industry pulled in annual sales of HK$300 million, but now the figure stands at barely HK$100 million. Wong pointed out that this is not just a local trend, but that worldwide comic books sales are declining. “The online game industry has pushed people away from comic books. The Japanese and US markets seem to have declined less than Hong Kong, however, because companies have other sources of income besides selling comics. Japanese companies have a long history of selling toys and other side products related to comic books. The US comic industry was kept alive by selling copyrights to movie makers. In Hong Kong, the market is too small. Selling comics is all we have,” he says.

As well as online gaming, Wong also blames a lack of respect for copyrights on the mainland for the deterioration of Hong Kong’s comic market. “Many mainlanders upload my comics onto forums and people read them for free. That has devastated the [local] industry,” he says.

Wong refuses, however, to let his comic dream come to an end. He believes that, just as new technology signalled the decline of the industry, it might also be its rescuer. “I believe mobile phone apps will bring new life to the comic industry. We’re trying to solve technical problems that allow readers to view pictures smoothly on their phone. The market potential is huge, because of the millions of smartphone users in Hong Kong and on the mainland. If I charge only HK$10 a month for a comic app, the income would be huge. Also the cost of delivering comics through apps is much lower than having to produce printed copies. So don’t give up on local comics yet,” he says.

If mobile apps rejuvenate the comic market, Wong expects the sales of print copies to follow suit. “You see some novelists start by distributing their works online. Then, when they become famous, people want to own a physical copy. I think same thing will happen with comics,” he says.

Wong is grateful for support that the government has given the local comic industry in recent years. “The government has provided various funding for the creative industries. It also facilitates the hosting of comic conferences. Looking ahead, it would be a blessing if the government introduces a CEPA [Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement] for the comic industry, as right now there are still many hurdles for local comics to be published on the mainland,” he says.


A trip through Tony Wong’s best-selling comic book series

Oriental Heroes First published in 1970 under the title Little Rascals (pictured), Wong’s most popular series features young people living in local public housing estates who fight against gangsters.
Weapons of the Gods This series follows the battle between various factions for 10 powerful divine weapons.
Legend of Emperors Fictionalised stories of ancient Chinese rulers combine with elements of Chinese mythology.
Mega Dragon and Tiger One of Wong’s first science-fiction comics, events centre on a gladiatorial tournament in a postapocalyptic world.