Interview: Sir Fong aka Otto Fong

Hiya! Today I’m gonna be doing an interview with Otto Fong, the dude who is behind the wildly popular Sir Fong science series that has taken Singapore by storm.

When I first met him, he looked stern like a no-nonsense teacher. Having been a student who pretty much held her teachers in awe, his presence was commanding to say the least. But after getting to know him on Facebook & interacting with him at my Comics Xchange event last year, I found that he really is a very likeable guy with a great sense of humour. =D

Well, I hope you guys enjoy reading all about Otto Fong and his journey as an illustrator. If there is one thing I’ve learnt from him during this interview, it’s to treat your muse well. Don’t take it for granted!

Tell us something the public doesn’t know about Otto.

I find eating a waste of time. If I could, I’d rather pop a food pill than interrupt my drawing to go out for lunch.

How did you get started in illustration and why a Science series?

I was in China understudying a famous film director Zhang Jianya (his latest tv series, “Journey To The West”, is showing on tv this year). As early as 1996, Zhang wanted to make a live-action movie of the popular Monkey King mythology. Unfortunately, the investors ran out of money and the entire crew was suddenly in limbo.

As his assistant, I was illustrating storyboards for him and that reignited my childhood passion for drawing. I decided not to waste time waiting, and drew/inked my own comic story of the Monkey King. Surprisingly, a book editor from Beijing liked it and published my first comic book.

I returned to Singapore and became a science teacher. That re-ignited my passion for science and science fiction stories. I enjoyed using my comics to educate and entertain my students.

So when the opportunity arrived, I combined the love for drawing with my love of science, and created “Sir Fong’s Adventures In Science”. Book 1 did very well when launched at the first Singapore Toy Game and Comic Convention, so I kept growing the series by combining parts of the science syllabus with my characters.

It’s tough being a creative in Singapore. How did you navigate that path to your success today?

It is indeed difficult to be creative in Singapore. Singaporeans already have a formula for relative success and many prefer to follow the well-trodden paths. Being creative can even be seen as a threat to that formula by some. Fortunately, there is a minority of creative people who managed to be successful.

I actively sought out some of them in the fields of comics (such as Johnny Lau, the creator of “Mr Kiasu”) and science (such as Singapore Science Fellows Professor Lui Pao Chuen and Professor Leo Tan) for collaboration and advise. So, collaboration is important to me.

I think another key ingredient is to leverage on one’s own unique strengths. My passion and strengths lie in education, science and technology. As a teacher and an ex-student, I was keenly aware that our science education is flawed. We are strong in knowledge teaching and test scores, but not life-long thinkers and users of science.

Our textbooks drew heavily from the Western sciences and scientists, and we tend to neglect our own role models and stories in science. This is where my skills, knowledge and passion could be used in a unique way: to inspire a new generation of science-savvy young SE Asians. I believe it is a worthy cause and something that our society can benefit from. Young people, teachers and parents are excited and shared my vision – and supported my comic books both emotionally and rationally.

Adaptability is also important. I took 3 years to master digital art myself, as I find the medium has greater flexibility, ease of use and freedom. Vector drawings are very different from traditional drawing, almost like twisting wires sometimes, but it serves me well when printing and publishing became digital.

Technology is now a huge driving force in reading habits, and many bookstores are closing because of that. So I am creating Sir Fong ebooks on the iPad platform. But, since the books are committed to science education, my ebook of Book 1 contains science games that compliment and reinforce science concepts.

It must have been difficult getting your work out in the market initially, how did you grab your target audience or distributor’s attention?

After my book was published, I contacted my ex-colleagues and friends who are science teachers. I took every opportunity to speak at school assemblies. I spoke extensively to the press about my vision.

At first, sales were slow, and it took me some time to get used to speaking to hundreds. But I kept speaking, modifying my presentations and planned for the next book. A few bookstores gave Book 1 a chance – fortunately, the science syllabus never goes out of style, and my books enjoy a longer shelf life. After a couple of years, more schools hear of my books and more Singaporeans trust that my commitment is serious. I spoke with greater confidence and clarity. By Book 3, even Singapore Science Centre bookstore is carrying my books.

Have you considered going into other types of genre?

I have explored drawing other genres with one-off collaborations such as Liquid City Vol 1 and commercial tie-ins. My latest non-Sir Fong comic book was a collection of short stories based on the struggles of single-parent families.

The comic, titled “Balances”, was commisioned by HELP Family Service Centre in 2010. It took a year to produce, as I had to interview families, then script their stories into comic form. But again, it was meaningful for me if children of single-parent families can draw strength and inspiration from the comic book. Working on the comic also forced me to improve on my drawing skills, and you can see a leap in drawing style from Book 3 to 4.

I was also rather proud of another commission, an online comic strip called
“Star Child”. It was about a foetus whose mother was so kiasu, she sent a robot into her womb to tutor the foetus. Foetus’s other friends include his dad’s sperms, which are constantly dealing with the disappointment that the egg was already taken. It was unfortunate that the project did not last.

But each Sir Fong requires a creation period of six months and promotion of the rest of the year, so I have to be picky on other projects.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Another comic artist, Hup (Lee Hup Kheng of New Paper) advised that I draw from my life. So I looked at what got me excited as a kid: sci-fi and Doraemon are just two of my favorite areas and Sir Fong comics are strongly influenced by them.

Book 3 has a plot about a little girl Abby and her new pet dog. The story came out of my fear that, one day, instead of a bird flu or swine flu, there will be a dog flu pandemic. I cannot imagine hundreds and thousands of dog owners, including myself, having to give up our beloved pet for extermination. So I created Book 3 in 2010. Can you believe that in 2011, the first case of a mutated virus was found in a dog in Australia? That was 8 months after I’d completed Book 3!

What’s a piece of advice will you give to an illustrator who is just starting out?

A new illustrator will face a lot of negativity and indifference. Sometimes, one might blame himself/herself when the books do not fly off the bookstores’ shelves. Sometimes, a casual remark overheard somewhere can shatter the confidence.

See the pursuit of a career as the pursuit of the love of your life. Would you give up if he/she ignored you at first? Or would you find a different approach? It takes time for people to trust your work, to fall in love with your work. The only way to fail is to give up and stop trying. Don’t become an illustrator for the money – that’s like marrying someone you don’t love for his/her riches. Be committed that you will draw through thick or thin, for better or worse, riches and rags, health and sickness. Be so committed that you will part only in death. That’s the only way to live as an illustrator.

Don’t ever take your drawing muse for granted. Betray her/him, he/she can find another illustrator easily, but you would have lost the love of your life.


Otto will be holding court at Booth G29 at the STGCC this coming weekend so don’t forget to drop by and say hi! XD