With a billboard wrapped around the windows blocking all natural light, it is impossible to tell the time in the flat where Lau Kwong Shing has hunkered down for months. Days melt into the nights and his body clock is all messed up.
Except for a stroll in the dead of the night and an occasional dance in the dark to cure insomnia, the comic artist is hard at work. And the evidence is everywhere: a plastic bag full of wood shavings, a pile of 4B-6B graphite pencils on the desk and a thick stack of sketches by the scanner he uses to upload the drawings.
Anyone who has followed the protests in Hong Kong would no doubt recognise the works of the 29-year-old, who delivered criticism with bold pencil strokes and a wicked sense of humour.
One of his latest pieces features the Chief Executive Carrie Lam with a thermometer pointed at her head. The temperature reading? “On9”, a Cantonese profanity meaning “asinine.”
An earlier work depicts her withdrawal of the controversial extradition amendments bill as a band-aid offered to a heavily injured protester – too little too late.
Intrigued by the charm of daily lives, his oeuvre features mostly muted sketches that are almost poetic. But they have taken a sharp turn into politics since the protests last year. “I have an obligation to understand what is happening at the place I live,” says Lau, who in the past, had felt mostly like an outsider instead.
“I grew up thinking I was Japanese,” says Lau, who – although born in Hong Kong – spent most of his childhood in the land of anime and graphic novels. Among his few belongings today is a full set of One Piece comics, whose colourful adventures first drew him into the world of manga. His parents were on an adventure of their own too, which brought their family of four to Kyoto.
He started doodling as a toddler and by the age of six, young Lau knew full well what he wanted to be one day. What he did not know then was that drawing would also save him.
Their adventure came to an abrupt end when his father was fired and the setback forced the family to return to his parents’ hometown in the coastal province of Shandong, where anti-Japan sentiment still ran strong in the 90s. There he found out he was not Japanese.
But it also did not matter. His accent and experience alone were sufficient to draw the ire of locals. At school, the eight-year-old was taunted and bullied by peers and teachers alike; on his way home, he was pelted with stones.
“A lot of Hong Kong people experienced their political awakening during the protests last year, but I felt the impact and started thinking about geopolitics and discrimination at a very young age,” says Lau. The hostility only subsided when his classmates noticed his knack for art and he traded his illustrations of Pokemons and cartoon characters for peace.
His stay in Shandong was brief, but it left him scarred and he became more introverted. Even till today, Lau appears affable but reserved, and often needs months to warm up to new acquaintances.
With his father back on his feet, the family moved back to Hong Kong. “Even though I was too young to be aware of this, for my parents, it felt like they were finally home,” he says. As for Lau, he found himself in heaven in this new home, envied and worshipped by his friends for having returned from Japan.
Most of his teenage years were spent in a tug of war, fighting for the freedom and space to draw. His brother, four years older, was his biggest fan and, with his meagre income, bought copic markers, dip pens and a Wacom tablet to support his sibling. But his parents increasingly disapproved of his hobby. “My mother did not see it as a reliable career, especially in Hong Kong.”
What did she want you to be instead? He chuckled. “A policeman. Then only.”
He found a middle ground by studying fine arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, but his work grew to be at odds with others’ expectations. For him, being an art school student was a restrictive label, not a prestigious one.
It culminated in an ultimate act of defiance. After deferring for a year to think it through, he dropped out, refusing to let his value and life be defined by a graduation certificate.
It is not a decision he has ever regretted, though his subsequent early career was by no means easy. To make ends meet, he took on whatever gigs he could find, painting murals at schools, sketching quick portraits at event booths and decorating glass bottles for Christmas.
The money he earns – around HK$6,000 a month – allows him to keep working on his comics, which are sometimes published in local magazines.
His current apartment is not much, one of 24 units on his floor alone at the Monster Building in Quarry Bay, which earned its nickname for its massive size, yet it is luxurious compared with his previous dwellings.
He started out in a subdivided unit that cost only HK$1,400 in rent and moves to a new neighbourhood each year, upgrading to a slightly bigger flat and leaving his footprints all over the city.
He would later depict this relationship in a piece that is part of his ongoing column in a local newspaper, Mingpao, where he imagines the future of Hong Kong. He enters and leaves the apartment, day in and day out. A slave to his mortgage for life.
Despite the challenge of forging a career in illustration, he is against the popular notion that the local comics industry is past its heyday. “Artists from the older generation often describe it as a sunset industry because the traditional comic books they knew, published weekly and sold at newspaper stands, have disappeared. But the comics have only been transformed to a new format, which they don’t recognise,” says Lau.
“The new generation has their own way of surviving, such as producing webtoons for smartphones and making their own zines. Many have great achievements, even on international platforms. However they do not necessarily label themselves as Hongkongers, so local people would not know their work.”
His own turning point came when he was invited to the prestigious Angoulême International Comics Festival three years ago. “It blew my mind,” says Lau, who for the first time realised the many possibilities of comics, whether in style and format.
“The experience changed the trajectory of my creative direction. I developed a distinct artistic style, which makes my works far more noticeable,” says Lau, who settled on graphite pencils, the humble tool he first chose for their affordability.
It would not be long before his art drew the attention of publishers and a video game-maker, paving the way for his current success. The recent foray into politics put pressure on some of his work relationships, but also brought unexpected gains – landing him a book deal with a Taiwanese publisher.
Most encouraging to him, however, was the overwhelming public reception of protest artworks and the recognition of local talent. “Whether or not the revolution is successful, this should be considered a giant leap of our time.”