In conversation with Mr Kiasu creator Johnny Lau

By ANAND GURNANI | 3 September, 2009 - 16:02

The AYACC conference held in Guiyang, China in early August was truly a memorable one and amongst its many highlights, it brought together under one roof, a sterling line up of Animation & Comic Industry Personalities from more than 20 countries from Asia and the world over. One of the masters from Singapore, Johnny Lau, the creator of the record breaking, iconic character brand ‘Mr Kiasu’ in an exclusive conversation with Animation Xpress Asia Pacific, shared the meteoric rise and history of Kiasu. He also spoke about his approach to the animation and entertainment business and also about his next initiative Bubble Gum Crisis, a feature film franchise and 360* brand in the making, whose first feature was green-lit for US$ 30 Million a few months ago.


How long have you been involved in the field of comics and publishing?
I was 15 when my comic work first got published and my first comic book happened when I was 17, that was some 30 years ago.

How did it happen, I am sure you don’t plan a career at that early an age?
I did. When at 15 I saw my work published, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I struggled for two years, and then did my comic book as well. At that time it was my great ambition to go to Hong Kong and work for Tony Wong who was the king of comics there. But my father told me that he would not send me to HK and he instead wanted to send me to do and study something similar in Los Angeles, that something similar was “Architecture”.

Yes AR CHI TEC TURE! didn’t sound anything like comics to me, however the next thing I was in Los Angeles all by myself. The first day I was in class, everyone around me was drawing straight lines with set squares and I couldn’t draw straight lines to save my life, so I was already in trouble from the beginning and the lecturer was like “What the hell are you doing here?”

I subsequently discovered my classmates could draw buildings and straight lines and interiors but none could draw humans, so I said let’s make a deal, you draw buildings for me and I draw humans for you.

By year two, I was taking film classes and other creative classes without my father's knowledge and took as many other courses without majoring in them, so that while on the front it appeared that I was still studying architecture, on the back I was devoting a lot of time to film making, fabric painting, glassware, etc. I also took side courses for marketing.

I basically neglected architecture and for the first 3 years of the five year classes, I barely passed. Everyone thought I was a slacker but in fact I was spending a lot of time doing other courses elsewhere, by the fourth year of architecture I started applying whatever I had learnt into architecture. While people around me made straight buildings with cardboard paper, I would be doing sculpture with porcelain to create my buildings, my buildings would also have water flowing out and music as well. In my last 2 years I got perfect A and I made the DINS list in my final year.

That’s when I started developing a love for other creative forms, which subsequently shaped what I do in my work today.

So while you were studying architecture, and other creative things, did you kind of drift away from Comics which you said was the career option of your choice?
No. My love for comics was always on. While studying in LA, one of my favourites was the comic Life in Hell, by Matt Groening' and this was before he had created The Simpsons. It was published in the campus newspaper. Not many people knew him then, but I used to read him everyday. His work and approach influenced me directly to decide that when I come back to Singapore I want to start not just a comic studio but a comics business. The difference between the two is it being business driven in the comic industry rather than it being purely about creativity. I have learnt from Matt that creative and ideas can be a big business as well, at the same time I was also case studying Jim Davis who is the creator of Garfield, every Monday morning, he would just brainstorm for the strips for the week with his staff members and he would draw just the head and face of Garfield and the rest of the strip and the body was done by the team.

When did you create Mr Kiasu
I created my character Mr Kiasu in 1989. Kiasu is a word in the Chinese dialect Hokkien which literally means ‘afraid of loosing’. It’s a part of Singapore colloquial language today, when someone is risk averse, we say “don’t be a Kiasu” though at that time the term was not popular.

I started out thinking that some publisher could publish for me and I went around knocking doors and they were all slammed on me. The feedback was change the name to pure English since at that time the government was against Singlish, they wanted proper English like the Queen’s English.

So I decided to self publish, and I got together a group of people and decided from day 1 that I will be like Matt Groeing and Jim Davis and run it as a business, I would spend more time crafting the business rather than sitting in front of the table and drawing.

How did you manage both, the creative and business part? How did you traverse both the domains at the same time?
I made a very hard decision to partner another comic artist. I would start the sketches and he would finish it. It was quite new as a concept, and difficult to explain to people who knew that I was a cartoonist, “Why is it that you don’t do it yourself?” was what I was asked. At that time I could not tell everybody that I was interested in the business part. But by devoting my time to business, I was able to meet the press and media and sell them the idea of the book from day 1 and build the brand. And unlike others, I was never published in the newspapers first, I went straight to a book, without any name and track record, which were unheard of. I was self publishing going straight to the book and I even managed to convince a merchandising company to print 3 designs of TShirts of the character, we produced 500 T-shirts, 300 mugs and 1000 car bumper stickers and I launched it in a book fair in Singapore and I timed it with all the journalists to come up with the article at the same time.

What about the finances?
I was self publishing, I didn’t have money, so I asked my printers if they could give credit of 60 days instead of 30 days. They finally agreed to. Another one of the most common wisdom I defied was that before I came out with my book, the bestseller had sold 500 copies, and people warned me to not print more than 500. I printed 3000 books of 140 pages black and white.

So you defied conventional wisdom and went with your gut?
Yes and everybody thought I was nuts and my distributor told me Johnny you will loose your pants and your underwear. And then when I launched, the TV people saw the newspaper articles and they wanted to interview me and then radio too wanted to interview me and all this before the book came out. The peg was “Local cartoonist being enterprising and even having merchandising coming out.” The book fair where I launched was for 10 days and I sold 1000 copies in 10 days and that covered all my printing costs and I was left with 2000 copies and they were sold in the next two weeks.

Book 1 which was published in 1990 has now gone into 22 reprints and has sold 60,000 copies till date.

The next 10 years I focused on publishing 1 new book of Kiasu every year, and every time I printed a new one, the previous was reprinted as well. For one decade our book was the Number 1 book in Singapore and not just for comics but across all books. By 1993 McDonalds approached us to come out with a special item called the Kiasu burger which was an extra large burger, they did TV Commercials to promote it and toys, and it sold 1.2 million burgers breaking all Mc Donalds records of that time in Singapore. Because of Mc Donalds, we became a household name.

During that time, I thought of leveraging on the Kiasu burger opportunity and I went to a record company to create a singing and rapping album with Mr Kiasu and we timed it with the Mc Donald’s launch. 10,000 copies with five songs which I co-wrote and coproduced and we then came up with a radio show called Radio Kiasu. It was a Spoof show.

So I took the brand and expanded into different areas and because of my year one merchandise experience, by the time it got to Mc Donald’s, we signed up 40 licenses, including cakes, cereals, caps, shampoos, sneakers and then I thought ok now I am learning the business, why don’t we get all the licensees together and add more value to all.

We approached Takashimaya and created our own space called Kiasu Corner selling our merchandise there.

Now that’s truly inspiring!
I had what I call the beginner’s luck as I was not trained as a business man. What I have learnt in a nutshell, is that do 1 single idea. And rather than like a lot of my peers who focus on creativity alone, I focus 50% of my time on the business.

And what happened next with Kiasu?
Even after 40 licensees, we did not find it scalable; there was a limit I felt to this brand. And I subsequently decided to wind down the merchandising aspect. Opportunities came along again and we did the Mc Donald’s merchandise again and then we did Mr Kiasu into TV series, Mediacorp wanted to do sitcoms based on Mr Kiasu and there were two full seasons of sitcoms and my company got royalties. This was in 1998/99.

I had maxed out with the brand and by the end of 9 years I told my writers and colleagues that the tenth year would be it. So I stopped new series after the tenth year. First ten years we had new series every year and in the next ten years we just reprinted it. Next year we celebrate the 20th anniversary and will do a commemorative book.

What other ventures and initiatives did you involve in?
In the past ten years, I did many things; I got into the dotcom boom, pitched to VCs about creating online comics. Like everybody else I went to Silicon Valley and raised money and started something online but in a very short time I decided I wanted to go mobile and this was when the mobile was monotone in Singapore. I had nowhere else but Japan which was ahead of the time in mobile. By then I also knew that creativity and business have to come hand in hand.

We even had an office in Chennai, this was in 2000 and went on until 2005 that was also the time I started thinking about Japanese Animation, I am director of AIC, the company has been around for 30 years, and I became a small stake holder and director and set up a Singapore entity.

The same company which is now creating Bubble Gum Crisis?
Yes. It was around 2006, that I told my partner that I would like to make motion pictures from the Anime Properties that AIC owned. I did my pitching to the Americans who were not sure if they wanted to go ahead with my pitch. But after the success of Transformers 1 in 2007, I changed my pitch. In Bubble Gum Crisis the four leads are the four girls with a day job who get superhuman at night time and fight bad robots. Its Charlie’s Angels meets Transformers, and the idea sold. We signed for 30 Million USD for Bubble Gum Crisis.

So what’s your approach with Bubble Gum Crisis?
I want to do something more than what is being done by Japan, but at the same time looking at the success of Marvel comics into film. At AIC, we have gathered many IPs throughout the years and I would like to leverage these properties into Motion pictures. I was just in HongKong talking to toy makers for Bubble Gum…, I want to use all my experience that I have gathered in creating brand Mr Kiasu and scale up the Bubble Gum Crisis brand. We are exploring 360 Media Entertainment platforms.

I just feel that it’s a much bigger platform.

Singapore being such a small market, I had to look globally. English being almost like my mother tongue gives me the advantage and with the strong link to Japan, I feel I have that unique selling point. And I will be using the Hong Kong / China manufacturing base for creating merchandise. I can go back to comics for Bubble Gum as well. If at all we are successful, and we make a sequel, I would also come out with comic books and limited episodes of animation as well.

Brand is something I am now experienced in building, so I will be focusing now on the story, which will have the spirit of Anime, but made for the US market and not even any other market. If that can be achieved in terms of script, we have a limited budget of USD 30 Million not USD 300 Million so I will want to create some spectacular scenes and moments, but it need not have to be a very expensive VFX extravaganza. It has to be memorable and that is the focus.

I am a big believer of looking at stars who people think are past their time and help reinventing them. They are helping us and we are helping them. I stayed in LA for many years and every corner I turned, there was a star or a writer or a director and LOS Angeles is a place where you can find real talent. The Finance & Distribution deal for Bubble Gum Crisis is done and covered for US, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan and we are only now securing Japan.

We are currently in pre prod stage, and film release is targeted by Q2 - Q3 of 2010.

What is Go Home all about?
Go Home is a kind of anthology of comic and visual story works which was done in 12 days by 12 different artists creating 12 different satires, which is conceived, moderated, published and initiated by me. I worked together with ASEF (Asia Europe Foundation) to invite them to Singapore and made them do the entire thing in 12 days. I had them do the whole layout in Singapore. They had to sign every page they finished. They did the drawing and illustration and the story and the writing in 12 days and went back and did the inking afterwards.

What your comments on AYACC?
There is this part of me that did not want to give up comics all together. And the world is becoming a smaller place and I thought we should come together as much as possible, as many times as possible to come together and creating something that we all feel. Which is why I am in Guiyang, I know John Lent for 17 years and when I saw him and Mr Liuyi Wang trying to bring us all together, I just came here.

I think Guiyang is a fantastic platform to bring all the different countries’ representatives together for a week. I know many other cities in China has similar initiatives and intention- which I think is great. The key for Guiyang’s is to find a unique vision and area to focus on, and it can succeed in just one unique feature that will sets it apart from the rest. All the successful ideas, companies and event does that, so I think AYACC can become that.

From Comics to Toys to Mobile to Internet to Merchandise to Film, you have been involved in all…how same and different are these businesses?
All these businesses are different. Merchandise is all about manufacture, distribution and retail. In animation the considerations are totally different and if you do comic books, again there are another set of rules you have to follow. The only common thing is that they all need content and they all need to leverage themselves and crossover to other industries. So if I speak to a toymaker, I will be speaking a different language at and 2-3 pm I am talking to a film distributor talking a very different language and if I speak to a comic book artist it’s different.

It’s been a very interesting 20 years. When it comes to the Film business and the US market for Film, I am new in this business and everybody I am signing is a veteran and established in this space and they are like Johnny you are a baby. But I think I know a few things.