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Sunday July 8, 2007

Doing Malaysia proud


Benny Wong’s Bahasa Malaysia manga is one of the top entries received for Japan’s inaugural ‘Nobel Prize’ of the manga world. 

THIS past week has been a hectic, if not heady, time for Benny Wong Thong Hou. Being one of the winners of Japan’s first International Manga Award and receiving his trophy in the motherland of manga – his maiden trip abroad – the Malaysian comic artist has been giddy with excitement, to say the least. 

The 27-year-old, who was informed of his third placing on June 22, is currently enjoying his reward – no prize money but an excellent opportunity to meet mangaka and people in the manga industry during a paid 10-day trip around Japan. 

Looking dazed but no doubt pleased with the trophy, Benny Wong being congratulated by Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso in Tokyo on Monday. – AFP
It was quite a feat for the young chap, whose submission – a manga in Bahasa Malaysia entitled Le.Gardenie (published by Gala Unggul Resources) – was among the 146 from 25 countries received for the government-organised competition in just one month after it was announced on May 22. 

Hong Kong’s Lee Chi Ching, 43, was the winner for his work, Sun Zi’s Tactics, which portrays the life of the famous Chinese military strategist at the end of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.  

His manga has been translated into many languages, including Japanese. Besides Wong, the other runners-up are Kai, 28, from Hong Kong, and Madeleine Rosca, 26, from Australia.  

We managed to speak to Wong on the phone from his hotel room in Kyoto (credit to the Japan Foundation KL) on Thursday. The guy was still in a daze over his win and experience. 

“Wow, it was really a rush! They only told me a week before the ceremony. I’m quite a busy guy who spends most of my time working.  

“And I’d never gone overseas before! In a week, I had to settle my passport and visa,” Wong rattled off. 

“Of course it’s unexpected,” Wong said of the runner-up position. “I’ve been through a lot of struggle and I work very hard, but sometimes I feel lost and don’t know what I’m doing. This award woke me up. I was really glad that I could represent Malaysia for this award.” 

On Monday, Wong and the other winners received their trophies from Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Aso in Tokyo. A known manga enthusiast, Aso mooted the idea for the award this year, proudly touting it the “Nobel Prize” of the manga world. 

The young man remained somewhat incredulous even on the day Aso handed him his award with the press cameras clicking away and the reporters interviewing him. 

Wong’s manga, Le.Gardenie, was among 146 submissions for the International Manga Award.
“I was actually sick that day. I was a bit dizzy and didn’t really know what was going on. I gave a small speech in Mandarin and hoped that I had looked presentable,” he said. 

His manga, Le.Gardenie, is a coming-of-age tale about a group of teenagers in a secondary school with fruit-based names such as Lemon, Orange and Kiwi. The tale is set in an imaginary world, and Wong describes it as a character-driven tale. 

“The judges said that although the story is very clean and smooth, they were more interested in the way I presented the story, how I drew the characters, especially the angles I had chosen,” he revealed. 

Significantly, the achievement has validated Wong’s ambitions in the local comic industry, which began long ago when he was still a student following manga such as Video Girl, I’s, and Dragon Ball

However, his father forbade him from reading manga and urged him to concentrate on his studies instead.  

“He wanted me to be an engineer. And I was totally uninterested in doing calculations, especially in physics,” the Malacca-born Wong recalled with a laugh.  

He ended up studying business administration. But when his friend introduced him to comics publisher Gempak Starz in 2000, he decided to try his hand at being a mangaka, first freelancing for the company, later working for it full-time. (He has since left Gempak.) 

So how did Dad take all this – his “rebellion” and his success now? 

“My father was ambivalent about my career at first, but luckily my first book, Innocent, was well-received and I started to have fans,” Wong said. 

The determined young man worked hard to make a name for himself. “I proved to him then that drawing manga is a viable career and a proper job, so my dad became ‘a little’ proud of me,” he said with a chuckle. 

Now, his parents are “very proud” of him. “I totally changed my parents’ thinking!” he added triumphantly. 

Wong, who counts Inoue Takehiko and Katsura Masakazu among his favourite mangaka, will likely be meeting his idol in Japan tomorrow. 

“I think I’ll be meeting Inoue on July 9. I don’t know how to feel about that. I sometimes feel very blur,” he said, chuckling. 

In Japan, he visited Kyoto Seika University – it has courses for manga artists – and the famous animation outfit, Studio Pierrot. He also toured the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum in Takarazuka, Osamu’s hometown.  

“It has been really fun ... but tiring too. Sometimes I have to change trains five times to get around,” he said. 

But Wong will have very little time to rest when he returns home on Tuesday. To start with, he will be busy with Komik Factory, the company he set up a few months ago, and creating a new entertainment comic magazine called Powder (tentatively set to be published in September). 

He will also be scouting around for comic assistants. “Now I’m the one giving opportunity to comic artists to get published.” 

About the chances of his work being accepted by international publishers such as Tokyopop, Wong says that he’s open to that, though he believes that Malaysian manga artists should work hard to refine their art first before considering overseas markets. 

“Sometimes these markets won’t give you a second chance,” he lamented. 

And it’s gratifying to know that the man who has done Malaysia proud is proud to be a Malaysian. 

“I’m proud of Malaysia, not of myself. Malaysia gives me the opportunity to be a comic artist and I feel like I have a responsibility to promote the Malaysian comic-reading culture,” he concluded.  

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