It was nearing the end of May. With less than two months to go before the Hong Kong Book Fair 2016, Ah To’s book still hadn’t yet hit the presses. In fact, it was looking like the book might not be published at all. Talks had broken down between the author-illustrator and his unnamed, major Hong Kong publisher. Despite a promising start, his publisher began to exert control over the book – could he, for example, cut out that part about Mainland Chinese president Xi Jinping? After all, it had been less than a year since two Hong Kong-based booksellers had disappeared and re-appeared mysteriously in China.
The book was to be a compilation of Ah To’s previous works that had been appeared online and in magazines, with a dollop of new, bonus content. The bulk of the collection would be devoted to his comics about Hong Kong’s current events and politics. Given its focus on Hong Kong, omitting the odd strip or two with references to Mainland Chinese leaders was understandable, if it meant being able to access a larger audience overall. Or so Ah To thought at first. But when the publisher pushed to change/omit ten different comics, he started to feel uncomfortable, like he was being forced to practice self-censorship. In response, he insisted on keeping the original collection intact. They parted ways shortly thereafter.
Ah To took to Facebook to lament his sudden loss of a publisher and his diminishing chances of having the book out in time for the book fair. Luckily, news of his plight reached sympathetic ears, and local, indie publisher Whitepaper decided to take him on. They then worked furiously to have the book edited, printed and shipped over the next two months: Diu La Sing! Suck It Up! (鵰娜猩！頂硬上！) successfully debuted at the Hong Kong Book Fair 2016.
But that was not the end of his troubles. Hong Kong’s major publishers also happen to operate the major bookstore chains in the city (which are vertically integrated under the same brand name). Their stores were similarly cagey about distributing Ah To’s book in their stores. They rejected the book, or so they claimed, because of Diu La Sing! Suck It Up!’s copious use of profanity. In order to circumvent the big bookstore chains, Ah To and Whitepaper ended up striking a deal with Circle K, a convenience store chain, to sell the book at a handful of their locations around Hong Kong.
The comics in Diu La Sing! Suck It Up! include gags of all sorts: local politics, current events, Cantonese puns and life in Hong Kong. However, a common theme runs through many of these stories: China’s heavy-handed influence on Hong Kong, which is continually lampooned, derided, and occasionally labeled “authoritarian.” Ah To turns this caustic commentary into humor by elevating it into the realm of the absurd, by exaggerating and allegorizing actual events, and by employing a cast of colorful, talking animals.
On the surface, Ah To’s comics, which are one to two pages apiece, are simple slapstick. First, there are the eye-catching and bold colors, rendered digitally and with precision. Then there’s the author’s obvious love of Cantonese, shining through in the wordplays between slang, profanity, and deliberately-terrible transliterations. On top of all that, Ah To cleverly packages political figures and cultural stereotypes into cute and boisterous little animals, who are also the main characters in his stories.
Beneath the surface of slapstick humor, however, lies a wealth of pointed and poignant stories. Sometimes a cathartic moment is created at the end of a comic, in a silent climax. At other times, the entire comic is a silent one, with uncharacteristically-sparse dialogue. Ironically, the cartoon characters and settings work well here – perhaps because they mirror an already-absurd political reality, or perhaps because the contrast is that much more surprising. Either way, it is in these quiet, sombre moments, between the cussing and the color, that Ah To’s stories resonate with me the most.
Editor’s note: This article originally referred to the work as Fuck It! Suck It Up! (translated by Tricia Ling) because the book did not have an English name at the time of initial publication.
Chinese title: 鵰娜猩！頂硬上！
English title: Diu La Sing! Suck It Up!
Release date: 2016
Languages: Traditional Chinese & Cantonese
Authors: Ah To