I grew up in Johor Bahru on a bird farm. My dad wasn’t really fond of getting me toys or other forms of entertainment so when I wanted to go out and play, it was in the dirt and if I wanted a toy, I had to make it myself.
Before my dad went into the bird business, he was a goldsmith. So we had all the machinery and copper rods and nails and hammers and all that stuff. So when I was young I was used to crafting already. Flattening a copper rod, as boring as it sounds, is super entertaining for a kid.
Every day at about 8 o’clock, I knew that my dad and his workers would be sitting down to watch TV. I would constantly bug them for a drawing. This one guy drew me an Ultraman and I just latched on to him, like “draw me an Ultraman every night”. He drew that for the longest time and then suddenly he just got tired of it so I was left to draw for myself.
My first career choice was to become a doctor and then a scientist and my third choice would be an artist.
My dad’s just one of those guys that never went through school but picked up things on the way. My dad shows me a lot character and charisma but my mom shows me how many things a person can be good at. But I never saw it that way growing up. I just saw her as the busy lady that panicked all the time.
My first career choice was to become a doctor and then a scientist and my third choice would be an artist. That was based on what I thought my parents would be most happy with. But what I would be most happy with would be art. I knew that I loved drawing.
How I became what I am? It’s really a result of education. It’s what I couldn’t become that lead me to becoming what I am right now.
I was called into the teacher’s office and they told me that they were going to tell me what I subjects I should take because they didn’t know whether I would excel in other stuff. They gave me Art. At that time it was considered one of the “worst” subjects to study. That was what I was given and that was what I rode with.
The advantage I had over the “A” class students; coming from a “C” or “D” class was that I knew that if I failed, it wasn’t the end of the world. All this while they followed a path that said “if you do well, you get “A”, everyone thinks you’re the best”. But when it comes to life decisions, there’s no more teacher telling them that they got an “A” for this. There are no more grades to tell them whether they’re doing right or wrong.
I had the privilege to go through that whole it’s-OK-to-fail-phase. If I did poorly, the worst case scenario was my dad wouldn’t talk to me. Which is fine because he talked about life all the time. Sometimes you just don’t want him to talk.
If I ever have a kid, part of me wants him to go through the exact same shit just to see how he can handle it. He’s not going to get it easy in the States or whatever. The causeway better be rebuilt so he can walk through it.
But even if he ever goes through the same education system that I went through, I think I would be a lot less harsh on him. I don’t know if being lenient on the kid or being easy on him if he fails is the good way to go. But I definitely want him to have more play time.
My [artistic] influences were mainly from Japan, from the States, from Europe and of course Lat. So when you mix all of that, it’s a strange concoction. My first book was written for the American public. I wrote it because the cups went viral and someone asked me where I was from because my style was kind of unique. I said “Malaysia” and they asked where in China is Malaysia?
The first thing that comes to mind when I try to tell someone about Malaysia is how I experienced it growing up so I decided to write a story about how it was like being a kid here.
I didn’t plan for it to be a whole book but every time I come back home, I talk to my parents and I use that phrase “when I was a kid” a lot. And as I grow older, I use it even more.
I said I was from Malaysia and they asked where in China is Malaysia?
I read somewhere that nostalgia is actually [considered] a disease. I don’t know if it’s true. You can probably Wiki it. It’s not a very good thing because it makes everything very hard to let go of. Like, I do have hoarding tendencies. The only reason I don’t pick up things and say this piece of tissue or paper on the floor means something is because I no longer have a place to put it. I’ve been travelling with a suitcase for the past two years.
Sometimes people come up to me and talk about how I shouldn’t be so open. In the past when I had a much smaller audience I did very little self-censorship. But now that the audience has grown I kind of have to watch what I say. It’s kind of crazy how the world works. They’re attracted to me because I’m honest but at the same time, being too honest is bad?
A lot of people, they are motivated by different things. I am motivated by just wanting to tell someone that they are wrong about me. It’s very dreadful. I think it’s because I watch too many Hong Kong movies where you kill my master and now I’m going to freaking kill you. It’s revenge driven. I need to write that down – revenge driven. I so much want to stop this interview and just write because the idea is so strong right now. What was the question again?
When I worked in animation, I always wanted to help the country realise that art is very, very important. And people don’t see that. People always put art as the last go-to subject after you fail everything.
People think that art is not crucial. But if you were going to build a house, you don’t want to hire an engineer first. The first guy you hire is probably the architect. And even the architect wouldn’t start drawing a floor plan, he’s going to ask someone to visualise how the house would look like.
People always put art as the last go-to subject after you fail everything.
If you put art at the very bottom that means the good artist knows that they are not going to be appreciated so they would leave the country to make better money, which is what I did. The ones left behind are the guys that don’t have the opportunity to go or the subpar artists.
I think that until the country realises that art is important, the whole Wawasan 2020 thing is a long way off.
I can’t wait for someone to come along and change things. That’s why I feel like I should do it myself. And that leads me to why I write these books. My motivation is that after I write these and I gain a big enough following, people can see my messages through my blog.
If I ever could match Lat and then be able to assert my authority and say “There, this is what we need to do”, then I would have reached my ultimate goal.
Cheeming Boey is an animator, illustrator and author. Starting out as an animator on the Diablo video games, he drew attention for his illustrations on styrofoam cups and went on to write a comic memoir, When I Was A Kid (2011). The follow-up book, When I Was A Kid 2, was published this year. He blogs at www.iamboey.com.
Interview and photos by Adeline Chua. Cover image by Cheeming Boey.