PROFILE: “MR. KIASU” CREATOR JOHNNY LAU

Published on 20 September 2017

The popular “Mr. Kiasu” comic is returning after an 18-year hiatus. Its creator Johnny Lau shares its origin story, along with the big plans for “Mr. Kiasu” in the 21st century. 

By Melanie Lee

Even before self-publishing became trendy, 53-year-old Johnny Lau had already published a bestselling 8-book comic series on his own back in the ‘90s. He sold over 650,000 “Mr. Kiasu” books, with the first book “Everything Also I Want” being reprinted 17 times.

“It was a lot of hard work,” he recalls. “I was juggling the roles of creator, publisher and promoter.”

Mr. Kiasu was conceived in 1989 when Lau was serving National Service after studying architecture at the University of Southern California. His inspiration? “I was envious that Malaysia had Lat,” he says with a laugh. “I felt that even though Singapore is small, we needed to have a comic character that represented us.” Lau roped in his friends from the army, Lim Yu Cheng, Eric Chong and James Suresh, to work on the series together.

Lau had committed to work on “Mr. Kiasu” for 10 years and in 1999, he stopped the series at the peak of its popularity. He went on to run a technology company for 7 years doing character downloads for mobile phones with offices in Singapore, Tokyo and Chennai. After that, Lau went back to his architecture roots and served as the creative director of Gallery Hotel for another 7 years, designing their spaces and rooms. Later, he helped run a government incubation programme for companies from creative industries. At the same time, he was also teaching at SMU, NTU, LASALLE and NAFA.

“Every two months, my mother checks in with me: ‘What do I tell my friends you’re doing now?’ I may like to do many different things, but there is something bringing it all together: I like creating things that will change people’s perception and provide some sort of social commentary.”

A few months ago, when the managing director of Shogakukan Asia Bunsho Kajiya proposed bringing “Mr. Kiasu” back, Lau was hesitant. But he eventually warmed up to the idea with more persuasion from one of Japan’s most established publishers.

“All this while, I had been publishing on my own, so to let someone else publish, that would be a very different way of working. But Shogakukan’s established track record with comic and manga books helped a lot. Kajiya-san was also very convincing in showing me how ‘Mr. Kiasu’ could grow beyond Singapore and Malaysia. ‘Mr. Kiasu’ is essentially about human behavior and its stories and gags are relatable globally,” says Lau.

During that period, mm2 entertainment had also approached Lau to work on a “Mr. Kiasu” movie and ActionCity was working on collectible “Mr. Kiasu” figurines. As such, for the next few years, Lau has decided to focus on creating more “Mr. Kiasu” books, bringing the comic series to other media platforms such as movies and TV, and developing the merchandising.

The latest “Mr. Kiasu” book titled “Everything Also Like Real” was recently released during CharaExpo2017 and Lau was overwhelmed with the public response to this book.

“I met hundreds of people who were buying this book and telling me they were so happy and surprised to see ‘Mr. Kiasu’ is back. Most of them were readers who had grown up with the first series, and now they were telling their kids to buy my latest book. That really warmed my heart.”

“Mr. Kiasu: Everything Also Like Real” is sold for $13.80 at major bookstores in Singapore.

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