‘I am worried that my work will put someone in jail': Interview with Zunzi, iconic Hong Kong cartoonist

Image by Leung Man-Hei/inmediahk.net.

The Chinese version of this interview was conducted by Leung Ho Yee and was published on inmediahk.net on May 29, 2023. The following English version is published on Global Voices under a content-sharing agreement.

Zunzi held his umbrella in the rain and stood by the waterfront of Victoria Harbour. The scene was similar to his comic character, Councilor Mr What, bidding farewell to the readers in his last comic published on Ming Pao, a renowned local Chinese newspaper. I repeatedly apologized that he had to take the photos in the rain, but Zunzi said, “A rainy and misty Victoria Harbour is a proper portrait of current Hong Kong.”

Councilor Mr What is the most long-lived comic character among all fictional political figures that Zunzi has created. He appeared in the local newspapers for 40 years until the recent ban. Zunzi took the disappearance of the red-nose Councilor Mr What calmly. “Losing the newspaper’s column is not such a big deal compared to losing two years of freedom.” 

After the National Security Law was enacted in 2020, many political dissidents were jailed. The most well-known is the 47 pro-democracy activists case, which is now on trial. Most of them have been denied bail and have spent two years in prison.

Zuni emphasised that he still had other work to accomplish, like compiling a book on Hong Kong comic history:

All histories, whether it's street photography or any other special topics, are pathways for us to understand our place and construct our identity. These are the things that we have to cherish.

I asked Zunzi how he managed to draw political comics for 40 years. He pondered and said: 

Well … I guess I just want to express my opinion. A sense of responsibility to submit the manuscript before the deadline as much as possible … Of course, it is also because this job is meaningful, not just to earn a salary, but to help you understand society and the world. You get a lot of things out of it. Not many jobs have such opportunities.

A satirical cartoon on the crackdown of 2019 pro-democracy protests. The then Chief Executive Carrie Lam liked to emphasise her role as a mother. Zunzi/Apple Daily. Public domain.

From a young age, Zunzi's world has been one of comics and politics. Born in Hong Kong in 1955, when there were no TV stations, both adults and children loved to read comics, and Zunzi read a variety of comics from local, Western and Japanese cartoonists.

Zunzi grew up in a family of eight living in public housing. His parents, who came to Hong Kong from mainland China, were not well educated, but they knew the importance of education and sent him to an elite local high school. 

Inspired by his art teacher, Zunzi later enrolled in the Chinese University of Hong Kong art department. His university years were near the end of the Cultural Revolution, and there were a lot of political discussions on campus:

There were a lot of debates about the future of China. While the teachers would not discuss these in the classrooms, students debated among themselves and enrolled in all sorts of activities. It was an eye-opening experience for me.

Zunzi’s political awakening took place when he was even younger. His family lived in a district where the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions was across the street. He was exposed to the Maoist personality cult and political culture. Of course, Zunzi was too young to make sense of all these at that time. But as he grew up, he was more aware of the impact of art on society. Hence, in addition to learning art techniques at the CUHK, he joined the New Asia College Student Council. He was in charge of creating wall posters and illustrations and watching others debate on political issues around the clock.

His first job after graduation was teaching, but he quit after one year as he could not find time and inspiration from the routine work. Later he went to teach night school and joined Ming Pao in 1981.

It was a time when Hong Kong's cultural scene suddenly boomed: the city’s Arts Center was opened, a new Cantonese movie genre emerged in the local cinema, and vanguard cultural and political magazines were sold in the kiosks. Zunzi was invited to write and draw comics for some publications on Hong Kong's social issues. At that time, people were most concerned about the future of Hong Kong.

A few months later, Zunzi started a comic column in Ming Pao. In 1983, he invented Councilor Mr What, who is a pro-establishment figure. He said: “This is how satire works. You have to find something to laugh at.” He did not anticipate that the fictional character would survive for 40 years. 

Councilor Mr What. Image via inmediahk.net

During his peak, he had a dozen regular columns in local newspapers and magazines. Sometimes he had to draw from morning till midnight to meet the deadlines. He found heavy news topics most difficult, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Crackdowns: “It was very hard to draw it out when watching all the scenes in the televisions … At the same time, you know that you have to draw it right or address the problem.”

He later published a book of his 1989 drawings, “Black Material” (黑材料), but it has been taken off the shelves of public libraries. The collections were not funny comics but rather serious discussions of the Tiananmen incident.  

Zunzi's comics address many social and political issues and have inevitably drawn attention. Once, after a magazine changed ownership, the new decision-maker “chatted” with him and asked him to avoid political topics. Zunzi refused and said, “Let’s say bye-bye.” On another occasion, he deleted the words “Xi Da Da,” a nickname for the Chinese President Xi Jinping, meaning “Xi the Great,”  from one of his comics at the editor's request. He said that he did not want to bring trouble to the magazine. After the incident, the editor asked him to avoid political comics; he also gave up the column. But living in contemporary Hong Kong, it is hard to say that the most courageous creators could avoid self-censorship. 

Before the implementation of the National Security Law, Zunzi was careful about religious and racial topics. But, for political topics, he seldom self-censored, “You could criticise and make fun of the Queen, Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong, etc. before the NSL was enacted.”

Zunzi's political satire on 1989 Tiananmen Crackdowns, published in 1989. Public domain.

However, free expression has shrunk after the NSL was enacted in 2020. In the past eight months, Zunzi has been repeatedly “pinned down” by different government departments accusing him of “inciting public discontent with the government,” “defaming the police force,” “making biased, misleading and false claims,” and more. Each time, editors from Ming Pao communicated with him, and Zunzi admitted to feeling the pressure: “I am worried that my work would end up with someone in jail.” 

Last year, the online news site Stand News’s editors were arrested for conspiring to publish seditious materials. The court is yet to hand down the ruling. 

On May 11, Ming Pao added an “editor's note” next to two of Zunzi's columns, announcing that the columns would come to an end. Zunzi still did not reveal the details. He said, “It’s not a proper time for me to talk about this yet.” He took the end of his 40-year column lightly:

The fact that I could not draw (on Ming Pao) also delivers a message. If I were stopped because I didn’t draw well, then I would be sad… At the current time, we need to step back, or you can’t do what you want to do. If everyone is in jail, who can take up the pen to write?… Whether it is novels, poetry, singing, working on magazines, or being a journalist, many things need to be done in order to maintain an atmosphere for us to carry on together.

Zunzi planned to compile a book about Hong Kong comic history. He started the project a couple of years ago, “There will be a lot of pictures, stories and historical background.”

I asked, “But your books can't be found in public libraries anymore …” Zunzi laughed and said, “It won’t bother me. The book does not even need my name on it. Or I can use another name. It’s the content that matters.”

Zunzi believes that keeping a record of the past is the duty of those who love Hong Kong,

If each of us takes up bits of this duty and combines our work together, we will see a more complete picture. For those who say they love Hong Kong, exactly what do they love about Hong Kong? Hong Kong is not defined by its recent years, but what had happened before to become like this? … In addition to local coffee, waffles, what else do you like? I think we need to make records of the past. All cultural workers are working on this in all other countries.

He is also considering whether to put his past comics online so that everyone can see them: “But I have to think of the best way to do it.”

“Then, what do you like about Hong Kong?” I asked. He said, “Only a few people here are laughable; the majority are lovely. Humans are lovely; if I were a Tanzanian, I would love Tanzanians.”

In his eyes, comics are interesting, and he wants to dig into its history; Hong Kong is also interesting, and he has never considered leaving the city, “When there is still so much for you to see in front of you, you won’t leave.”

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