Joseph Wong Chak never intended to be a cartoonist. That may sound surprising given that he is the author of Old Master Q, also known as Lou5 Fu1 Zi2 (老夫子), a beloved comic strip that has been published since 1962. But Wong is actually the second generation author of OMQ, as he calls it; it was his father, Alphonso, who first penned the strip, using his son’s actual name as a pen name.
“Oh god, that’s a story!” exclaims Wong from his home in Taipei. He was six years old when his family moved from Tianjin to Hong Kong, in 1956. “When my father started doing the comics he wanted to have a little extra money. He was raising three kids at the time. He got rejected again and again so he had to change his pen name doing different styles. Then one of them got published. And then another newspaper asked him. Eventually he was doing five or six different newspapers and eight to ten magazines.”
The most successful of those early comics was the one penned under the name Wong Chak. OMQ follows the adventures of the titular old master, who is dressed in magua (maa5 kwaa2 馬褂) and a half-melon hat like a time traveller from the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). His name in Chinese reflects the clothing, suggesting a certain venerability, while the Q in English was a cheeky reference to the word “cute.” Earnest and good-natured but preternaturally hapless, the old master is greeted with a string of misfortunes and indignities that he manages to shake off with good cheer.
Joining him is sidekick Big Potato (Daai6 Faan1 Syu2 大番薯), who shares the old master’s fashion sense but has a stumpy build and a remarkably big head; archnemesis Old Chiu (Lou5 Ziu6 老趙); everyman Mr. Chiu (Ceon4 Sin1 Saang1 秦先生); and Mss Chan (Can4 Siu2 Ze2 陳小姐), a beautiful but vainglorious young woman. Arranged in four, six or eight frames, the comic has minimal dialogue and is structured around a simple, often absurdist punchline.
“Very Lucky Escape”, which first appeared in 1968, is a good example. The old master is riding a bicycle through the woods when he is chased by a tiger. He manages to alert a police officer, but it’s too late: the tiger is making a quick escape in a taxi. “The Whole Family” shows the old master making a quick escape from a police officer after he tries hawking toys on the street; his toys are running just as fast as him. In “Longevity Noodle,” the old master is enjoying lunch when he discovers his dish may actually be one endlessly long noodle. It’s a gag that is satisfying in its simplicity.
That straightforwardness made Old Master Q an almost instant success. 1960s Hong Kong was a place of great inequality and hardship, and comics were an affordable form of escape. And OMQ was particularly accessible. “It’s not political, it’s funny, and it’s easy to understand. Even if you’re illiterate, or if you can’t read Chinese, you can understand what’s happening,” one bookseller told Coconuts.
When Alphonso Wong died in 2017, at the age of 92, there was an outpouring of support. Many Hongkongers — along with people in other countries like Singapore — remembered how they used to make a point of getting their hair cut whenever a new OMQ edition came out, because it was always on hand at barbershops, where it was a reliably charming read that kept kids happy.
By the time Alphonso passed away, he was living in retirement in the United States, and it had been more than two decades since he had penned the comic. His son had taken over in 1995. “My father was really ill due to his age,” says Wong. He and his younger brothers were all working in the United States: the brothers as animators and illustrators for major studios like Pixar and Disney, and Wong as a professor of architecture with his own visual art practice. “I was teaching in a university and I was doing my own works of art – two-dimensional works and installations. So I had my own life,” he says. As the eldest son, though, he felt a responsibility to help his father. He took a sabbatical and returned to Hong Kong to help his dad.
“I never really wanted to take over his comics,” says Wong. Growing up, he read comics “here and there, like anyone else.” But he never seriously considered it as a career. It didn’t help that, like so many Hong Kong parents who had earned through success through years of struggle, Alphonso cautioned Wong not to follow in his footsteps. “My father told me, never do art. And more than that, never do comic art. You’ll go nowhere,” he recalls.
Of course, Wong hadn’t really listened – even a career in architecture had led him to art. And when he returned to Hong Kong, he began to understand just how important OMQ was to entire generations of people. “I went to the Hong Kong publishers and realised they didn’t really want to stop publishing,” he says. “They said, ‘We have tons of letters from OMQ fans, do you want to see them?’ I went into the warehouse and saw perhaps tens of thousands of letters. Wow. I didn’t know that. That means there were lots of people really relying on the comics every day. Only then did I understand that comics, as popular culture, have such an impact on people.”
Wong extended his sabbatical and eventually quit his job to focus on OMQ. “My father was a natural genius in comics. He was just very good at it. I was not,” he says. “I had to learn everything. Suddenly I realised that comics are a special form of artwork. How to express things with the simplest, quickest kind of line drawing. How to tell a story very precisely and quickly with only one frame. That’s a very difficult thing.”
That’s true whether it’s a one-joke strip like OMQ or a more elaborate graphic novel. Comics are able to distil complex ideas and emotions into a deceptively simple format. OMQ is undoubtedly silly, but there’s a pathos behind its goofiness. As Wong worked to understand his father’s creative process, he thought back to one of their favourite pastimes as a kid. “When I was six or seven years old, my father always took me to see cheap movies, black and white silent films – Charlie Chaplin,” he says. Like Chaplin, OMQ uses slapstick and broad humour to explore the human condition and the stresses and inequities of Hong Kong life in particular.
It may seem like dessert, but there’s actually more meat than you’d expect – enough even for some academic explorations of OMQ’s significance, as in “Chiaroscuro of the Uncanny,” a 2018 paper in which scholars Kum Hoon Ng and Lian Hee Wee describe Wong Chak as “an artistic master of the uncanny who transcends the bi-cultural tension inherent in a Hong Kong modernising between the East and the post-Enlightenment West.” That’s a heady statement, but it’s a sign that as goofy as OMQ may seem, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Wong is certainly aware of that. It’s why he’s kept the torch burning for so long. And while the comic is the same as ever — albeit published online instead of in print — the Old Master Q concept has expanded to include contemporary art. In 2014, Sotheby’s staged What the @#$% is Going On?, an auction of original OMQ works by Alphonso Wong. Four years later, it held another auction, this time with new comics painted on canvas, as well as Joseph Wong’s Implication series of riotously coloured depictions of OMQ characters with their faces blacked out.
“I painted them in memory of my father,” says Wong. “I blackened the faces so they appear as shadows. On the other hand, I put all kinds of colour into the painting. mainly because my impression of my father is that he’s pretty versatile in all kinds of things, not just comics. Sports, adventure, climbing, jazz. He’s just a kind of playful Renaissance man.”
More paintings from the Implication series are back on display this month at Lucie Chang Fine Arts. Old Master Q · Blossoms Under The Moon runs from September 27 to November 25, featuring around 20 original works by Alfonso and Joseph. It’s a reunion of sorts, not only between father and son, but between Old Master Q and its legions of fans. And it’s a renewal of sorts: a way for an old master to stay relevant even when the comics have long since disappeared from barbershops.
Old Master Q · Blossoms Under The Moon runs from September 27 to November 25, 2023 at Lucie Chang Fine Arts.