bored as a cockroach? how about some killer art

***Update – 3rd February 2012: I happened to spy Nguyễn Thành Phong in a cafe recently in Hanoi, and took the opportunity to introduce myself. He is a friendly guy, and we had a very interesting chat about his work on a modified version of his cartoon book of slang, which he is hoping to re-publish soon, probably under a different title. He also mentioned another related project he is working on, so look out for more from him soon. In the meantime, here is a picture of him with his sketchbook (and the remains of lunch) that he was kind enough to agree for me to take!

Nguyen Thanh Phong with sketchbook in a Hanoi cafe


Hanoi-based illustrator Nguyễn Thành Phong (a.k.a. Thanh Fong, b.1986) has been getting a lot of attention lately for his comic art and other works.

A recurring theme in discussions about both animation as well as comics and illustrated novels in Vietnam focuses on the long-term effort to nurture local talent and develop Vietnamese products that come up to the level of popular imported works, particularly those originating from Japan. Some writers question why Vietnamese young people prefer foreign images and storylines, and worry about the impact of this on the culture and values of the next generation. Others emphasize the creativity, sophistication and production values of Japanese anime and manga as well as big-budget Western products, which (they say) Vietnam can scarcely hope to match for a long time to come. Nguyễn Thành Phong’s work certainly suggests that a new level of savvy is emerging in Vietnam. But not without some controversy along the way.

The first item on the that caught my eye was a news story about his strip Người hóa hổ (“The man who turned into a tiger”) winning an award at the 5th Asian Youth Animation & Comics Contest 2011 organized in Guizhou, China in late August.

It turns out that his work has been published outside Vietnam during the past year or so, including in Volume 2 of Liquid City, an anthology of comics from South-East Asia and beyond. He contributed a piece based on his trip to Korea to participate in the Bucheon International Comics Festival (BICOF).

He has also been published in various forms in Vietnam, the most recent of these being his quixotic and irreverent collection Sát thủ đầu mưng mủ. (The title translates as something like “Killer with a head full of suppurating sores”.)

Jacket art of Nguyen Thanh Phong's Sat thu dau mung mu

Published through a joint venture between Nhã Nam company and the Fine Arts Publishing House (NXB Mỹ Thuật), this collection had an initial run of 5,000 copies (as well as a limited edition of 50 numbered copies on special paper, and an e-book for iPhone). It includes around 120 separate drawings, each accompanied by a short text drawn from common informal Vietnamese idioms and slang, including alternate versions of established sayings with one or more words altered. They are often expressed as short rhymes or doggerel and many of them are quite funny and catchy in Vietnamese language.

One series of drawings in the collection illustrates a set of humorous rhyming similes, drawing on contemporary teen-speak that compares different emotions to various animals. For example “chán như con gián” (“as bored as a cockroach”, which incidentally is also the name of a Vietnamese hip hop tune), “bực như con mực” (“as frustrated as a squid”), “ngốc như con ốc” (“as stupid as a snail”), and so on.

The title is taken from one of the works in the collection, and apparently references a familiar saying which refers to a smart and successful person that cannot be cheated by others. However, the saying has been tweaked, creating a funny sounding rhyme and radically altering the meaning.

There doesn’t really seem to be anything overtly political here, although certainly some frames speak to current preoccupations and social issues in Viet Nam. A couple of images poke fun at the common scene of mothers, grandmothers and helpers chasing spoilt young children around with a bowl of food while the children keep playing. One of the more heavy-handed illustrations shows a happy young Vietnamese person wearing the familiar Vietnam flag-themed red t-shirt emblazoned with a gold star, under the slogan “TOI YÊU VIỆT NAM … đồng”, tweaking the common patriotic “I love Viet Nam” slogan to “I love money”: the person has a gold chain and a handful of banknotes. And he does address topics that normally receive a more respectful treatment, such as the picture of two soldiers playing soccer with an (accidentally) armed hand-grenade. There are also visual and text references to gambling, domestic violence, homosexuality and masturbation. Some of the images are unabashedly gritty, and the cover includes a warning “not to read the book while eating or drinking”.

Ultimately, the rough style and content of Sát thủ đầu mưng mủ have proved to be too much for local sensibilities. Despite a lot of positive comments (and belly laughs) after its September 2011 release, concerns about its potentially negative influence on young people and its “abuse of slang” have led to an increasingly heated discussion and ultimately to distribution of the book being suspended in early November.

There does seem to be some talk of an international release, although the idiomatic nature of the book would pretty much seem to defy translation. Nguyễn Thành Phong’s blog does not yet say anything about the withdrawal of his collection. But the most recent entry does have a very sweet lament about people scanning and uploading the book without his permission, noting that he depends on his talent to survive. The quite charming accompanying illustration shows a young bookseller (looking suspiciously like the artist himself) selling his wares on the pavement, while a couple rave about a “hot” book he is selling and then walk off with it without paying.

~ by hanoi ink on November 8, 2011.

8 Responses to “bored as a cockroach? how about some killer art”

  1. I like it!

  2. another great post from Hanoi Ink – Phong is smashing it out the park x

  3. I was first exposed to Phong in Liquid City (it was great just to see a Vietnamese artist in there at all!). I didn’t find the work there particularly amazing, but I feel he has demonstrated his strengths with this book. Perhaps it was the topic at hand or the fact that the Liquid City piece was in English, but I feel the book has a much stronger and dynamic voice.

    Of course as a parent I particularly sympathized with that image of the grandmother chasing the child with a bowl of chao (a maneuver I have expressly forbidden).

  4. Hi Dave, i am going to have a talk and exhibition (Sat thu’s pictures) in L’espace , at 6pm March 29th. Feel free to drop by if you have freetime. It ‘ll be my pleasure. nice day!

  5. […] isn’t the defining feature of her fiction. Her purported literary crimes are closer to the ones Hanoi Ink explains led to the recent distribution suspension of illustrator Thành Phong’s Sát Thủ Đaù Mưng […]

  6. […] isn’t the defining feature of her fiction. Her purported literary crimes are closer to the ones Hanoi Ink explains led to the recent distribution suspension of illustrator Thành Phong’s Sát Thủ Đaù Mưng […]

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