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Keeping Kiasu Alive

By Joie Goh

 
 

When architecture graduate-turned-comic artist Johnny Lau debuted the character of Mr Kiasu in his first book “Mr Kiasu: Everything Also I Want” in 1990, he created a cultural phenomenon. With his iconic flat-top haircut and large, round spectacles, Mr Kiasu became a household name over the next decade. Eleven more Mr Kiasu books followed after. In 1993, McDonald’s launched the Kiasu Burger, an elongated chicken sandwich with extra mayonnaise liberally seasoned with curry spices — a culinary classic still fondly remembered by ’90s kids today. Two years after Lau retired the comic series in 1999, Mediacorp aired a live-action television series based on the character.

Today, Lau’s face is more lined, and his hair, which fell past his shoulders, is now a wiry, chin-length shag. But when he speaks, he is still the wry and canny cartoonist who created the country’s first commercial comic hit that spearheaded the national identity of the ’90s with a single unforgettable character. When pressed for a reason, his impish reply was: “I’m celebrating Mr Kiasu’s 30th anniversary three years ahead, because I’m ‘kiasu’.”

As a child reading the Mr Kiasu series, I remembered the character as an everyday hero who used clever tricks to hack the system in order to get the most bang for his buck, and occasionally sought to emulate his behaviour. Mr Kiasu was always the first in line at every queue, the diner with the biggest plate at the buffet table, the shopper with the best bargains. Based on the Hokkien term “kiasu”, which describes a greedy, selfish attitude (and literally translates to “afraid to lose”), readers old and young identified with his approach to life back then. For the cocky and confident twenty-something was ’90s Singapore personified: brash, competitive and extremely financially motivated.

Then, something changed when the new millennium began. The “kiasu” mentality gradually became less subscribed to, even mildly scorned. After the “Mr Kiasu” television series ended its two-season run, “kiasu” began to lose its shine. And at his 2001 National Day Rally speech, then-Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong expressed his concern that Singaporeans had become “too ‘kiasu’” due to their inability to keep pace with the country’s material progress, and urged citizens to be “humble, courteous, and gracious in (their) behaviour”, sounding its death knell.

Today, while some vestiges of “kiasu” still exist, notably in the form of the controversial Kiasu Parents forum, an internet messaging board for those who subscribe to the Amy Chua style of Tiger Mother parenting in order to push their children towards academic excellence, the country has largely moved on from that mentality. Early millennials, raised in the uber-competitive environment of the 1990s, have grown up to reject the constant pressure for perfection and success, while late millennials, born after “kiasu-ism” had loosened its hold on society, are now paving the way towards minimalism and embracing mindfulness and meaningful interactions.

And yet, it is in this very climate of “anti-kiasuism” that Lau has decided to bring Mr Kiasu back from retirement after 18 years with his latest release, “Mr Kiasu: Everything Also Like Real”. It was a decision he did not make lightly; it took several years and the urging of three powerful industry figures before Lau finally agreed to make his comeback late last year. The first, noted in his book’s foreword, was Kajiya Bunsho, the managing director of manga publishing behemoth Shogakukan’s Southeast Asian office, whom Lau was initially trying to pitch a different project to.

The second, and most persistent, was the CEO of film production company mm2 Entertainment Melvin Ang. Lau recalls Ang, a huge fan of the Mr Kiasu series, constantly approaching him to greenlight a Mr Kiasu live-action movie and coming up with increasingly ludicrous pitches. “At one point, (Ang) suggested ‘Mr Kiasu versus Liang Po Po’!” Lau says, laughing uproariously. Liang Po Po, another iconic ’90s television character, was a stuttering but well-meaning grandmother played (in drag) by comedian Jack Neo.

“Every time Ang came to me, I would turn him down. I kept dismissing it until the fifth time, when these guys came,” Lau says, picking up a pair of sculpted figurines: one, a grinning Mr Kiasu, and the other, his pet Jack Russell terrier Ah Kow, one leg lifted as if ready to pee. These guys, however, refer to ActionCity, a local pop culture and geek toy store, who approached Lau during a meeting and out of the blue, unveiled a sculpture of Mr Kiasu by one of their artists and persuaded Lau to consider a collaboration.

 

The combined efforts of all three parties eventually swayed Lau, resulting in the launch of “Everything Also Like Real” in September this year, published by Shogakukan Asia for the first time. There’s also a film in the pipeline. Like all the previous Mr Kiasu books, “Everything Also Like Real” is separated into three sections: the first, a series of short four- to six-panel one-page gags; the second, which is similar to the first but linked by an overall storyline; and the third, a longer, sequential narrative.

However, unlike the earlier incarnations of Mr Kiasu, this Mr Kiasu is older, and the plot, darker. The formerly self-assured young man is now in his late thirties, just recently made redun- dant at his job, and is woefully out-of-place in 21st century Singa- pore. His attempts at hacking the system are now perceived as obnoxious, and in navigating the world of smart technology, start-ups and co-sharing workspaces, exposes the character’s unworldliness and inconsideration.

“In the ’90s, Mr Kiasu represented how Singapore was starting to become more confident on the world stage,” Lau explains. “But now, although we are quite developed, we are a little bit, I feel, a little bit tired. Occasionally we question ourselves, ‘Even though we’ve achieved all this, are we alright?’ We’re always a bit paranoid about that. In a way, Mr Kiasu is how we feel about ourselves.”

“(With) all these upgrades, what I want to do is to pose a question: are we better?” he adds. “Technology is supposed to help us to be better society, but are we? I’m not sure about that. We seem to be more anxious, and getting more and more reliant on technology.” He pauses to glance over at his smartphone, which is connected to a portable charger. “Like me, worrying about my phone battery!”

The darker tone is most evident in the book’s third chapter, “The Rvengers”. According to Lau, the third chapters have always been slightly darker, but this one is “especially dark”. In a bizarre twist, Mr Kiasu and his constant girlfriend Ai Swee are whisked into a “Shark Tank”-meets-“The Voice” reality TV game show, and are introduced to a host of colourful characters and caricatures. With thinly veiled references to the City Harvest Church financial misappropriation scandal, certain politicians and the issue of wildlife invading the human spaces as a response to expanding urbanisation encroaching into their territories, the surreal plot is a manifesto for more compassion and ends with a reaffirmation of the “kiasu” attitude — one that not only brought Singapore to its cur- rent glory, but also Lau’s creation to cultural consciousness.

“I see Mr Kiasu as a character with a certain longevity,” Lau says. “I’m starting this again to create a platform for potential new artists and storytellers to come in and use him as a vehicle to tell new stories.” Referencing Spider-Man and Iron Man, which have been drawn by“thousands of artists”, Lau seeks to immortalise Mr Kiasu as the quintessential Singaporean comic hero by also kickstarting a programme to look for a new generation of comic creators alongside the relaunch of the series.

“If Singaporeans like this character, then he should belong to everyone,” he explains. “He’s not something I want to own.”