The Chinese term “manhua” (漫画) is commonly used in Hong Kong to mean “cartoon” or “comics”. Manhua, in Hong Kong today, also refers to “lianhuantu” (連环图) a Chinese term that means picture books featuring a sequence of Chinese line art accompanied by prose, telling stories about traditional characters. These stories have typically been of the martial arts and kung fu genres.
In East Asian society, manhua constitutes one of the most popular reading materials in Hong Kong, with estimated annual retail sales of approximately HKD 17.3 million (~S$3 million)
In the 1990s alone, Hong Kong manhua is one of the most important forms of popular culture in the world. The manhua of Hong Kong shares culture, values and identity of the region with its readers. However, discussion of manhua in Hong Kong is often limited to criticism focused on controversial elements such as its extensive use of foul language and the pervasiveness of sexual and violent content.
In the early 1970s, kung fu fever, fuelled by Bruce Lee’s film, provided an outlet for the masses to escape from their unpleasant daily life. The popularity and success of the Bruce Lee phenomenon moved kung fu and martial arts into the mainstream and made them the staple of the Hong Kong manhua scene in the 1970s and 1980s.
Among the most successful artists in the 1960s to made the transition towards the successful new fighting genre inspired by Bruce Lee was Tony Wong (黃玉郎)，who produced his biggest hit “little rascal“ (小流氓).The story emphasised justice and triumph over evil, but achieved through violence. This manhua thus echoed Bruce Lee’s movie, which also presented its protagonist as the defender of the right who used violent means to attain justice. This series become instantly popular upon its publication in 1970, and attracted many imitators. Among the many imitators of “little rascal“, ”Bruce Lee” (李小龙) created by Kwong Namlun (上官小宝) in 1971 was very popular and enduring. The success of Tony Wong and Kwong allowed them to dominate the Hong Kong manhua market, and also allowed them to maintain a fairly consistent story line and technique over many years.
A breakthrough in drawing style was eventually created by Ma Wing-Shing with “the Chinese hero” (中華英雄）in 1982. The Chinese hero was an instant success in Hong Kong, creating a rags-to-riches story for Ma. His success changed the perception of the people in Hong Kong, who had previously not considered creation of manhua art as a real profession. His work was representational in style and meticulously detailed, and thus could more easily be seen as of artistic merit.
Triad stories were subsequently introduced in Hong Kong manhua such as “teddy boy” (古惑仔) in 1992. The new stories glorified traids and the use of violence in a way that had not been seen before, with realistic settings and scenarios that seemed to be based on real Hong Kong issues. Under an improved law governing the distribution of indecent publications, sales of some of these new triad genre manhua were restricted to readers 18 years of age and above, and carried a sealed wrapper with a “not-for-minors” warning message attached.
The evolution of Hong Kong manhua does not stop here, but continues to diversify away from the main kung fu genre. Young manhua artists continue to experiment with new art techniques and story lines almost entirely outside the kung fu genre.