Tuesday August 7, 2012
Not your usual bio from Cheeming Boey
By ROUWEN LIN
‘Hope dies last and I am full of it’ says this artist/author who persevered through four hard years to realise a lifelong dream of writing an unusual, entertaining book about his childhood.
IF there is one thing that he does every day, come rain or shine, it is updating his blog, iamboey.com. We are not talking about random photos of food, self-portraits or pet iguanas. No, Cheeming Boey offers a story from his day, lovingly rendered by hand, and presented in quirky comicbook style with stick figures. He has diligently stuck with it for six years and counting.
“I hate reading lengthy stuff, especially blogs by others. The last thing I wanted to do was to offer another one like the millions of blogs out there. My blog wasn’t supposed to impact anyone in any way, hence my handle ‘boy obsolete’.
“I initially wrote so that 10 years down the road, while I am at the airport waiting for another delayed flight, I can have something to read,” he says in an e-mail interview ahead of his upcoming visit to Malaysia to promote his book, When I Was A Kid. The Johor Baru-born Boey now lives in the United States, in Oakland, California, where he works as a “bicycle designer/engineer”.
As it turns out, his blog hits skyrocketed when his drawings on polystyrene coffee cups caught the attention of the public. In fact, it caught our eye all the way over here in Malaysia and we interviewed him back in 2010 (Cups full of art, Arts, StarMag, Feb 21).
“Since then, people have told me that they love the blog, and that they sometimes live vicariously through it. Two years after I started the blog, I thought, if people love this stuff, they will probably enjoy my childhood stories, since they are much more robust,” he says.
That was how Boey started on his book about his childhood: “Of surviving school, parents and siblings, about imaginary heroes, the lies adults like to tell, and the dangerous mix of boredom and curiosity; the things we swore as kid never to let our parents know.”
Although When I Was A Kid was not written with a specific age group in mind, Boey, 34, thinks that people his age, and those a generation before him, will appreciate it best.
Boey hopes that in reading the book, readers will be transported back into their childhood. “That’s how you can kind of relate to my stories. Each story is supposed to remind you of different things you did with your parents, be it in Asia or America. And if you don’t relate to it, then the book will serve as a refreshing view on how I survived as a kid,” he says.
Against all odds
Raised in Johor Baru, Boey left for San Francisco, California, in the United States, when he was 17 years old to go to art school, because his art education in Singapore – where he was schooled – was “not taking me anywhere”.
“Back then, we didn’t have as robust an art education as we have now. When I came to the United States, art was less of a ‘joke’, and the education I received here was excellent. Many people in the United States took art because they were passionate about it. It wasn’t a case of them having O-Level results so terrible that you can only do art, which was what happened in my case. It actually worked for me because I love art, so in a sense you can say that I failed a lot to get to where I am,” he says.
Boey went on to become an artist and animator (he worked on renowned video games like Diablo 2, Diablo Expansion, Diablo 3 and World Of Warcraft), and is currently involved in bicycle designing.
“I draw a lot. I love badminton, table tennis, playing computer games. I used to play six hours of games each day as an animator. When I made the blog and coffee cups a priority, all my time was taken up with marketing myself online, writing to galleries, driving my cups to galleries, packing them up for shipping – and occasionally making time to go on random Internet dates, which were always a disaster, but they make excellent blog material,” he says.
Everything in When I Was A Kid was written specifically for the book, and Boey refers to it as a prequel to his blog, iamboey.com. “It is for people who want to know what I was like before I was the Boey in my day-to-day blog,” he says.
Like his blog, the stories in the book, although drawn in comicbook-like style, have no frames and no speech bubbles. Boey draws freehand on paper with pen, and if he makes a mistake while drawing or writing, he leaves the crossouts in, so that it doesn’t lose the personal touch of a journal.
“My writing style is unapologetic and honest. Everyone who has kept a journal knows that what he or she writes in it is often the most honest truth. It’s often not easy to swallow. There are times when I write something and wonder if I should have written it,” he says, adding that his biggest influence was Malaysian cartoonist Lat.
“I’ve loved his works ever since I was a kid, but no one has influenced me as much as my parents and uncle from Thailand. It was through them that I learned about what it means to work hard. It is also through them and their lack of faith in me that really pushed me on,” he says.
Since this is an e-mail interview, I find it hard to imagine whether that unexpected last sentence was written tongue-in-cheek, with a grin or a grimace. A clue might lie in the fact that Boey seems to thrive on scepticism; don’t believe in him and he works harder to prove you wrong.
Throughout the development phase of his book, for instance, Boey told everyone that he was writing it; however, scepticism was the order of the day.
“I don’t think anyone really took me seriously until it actually became a book, even though I sent some of the stories to family and friends when I was still working on the book, and they told me they loved it,” he says.
Producing the book certainly wasn’t a walk in the park. Deciding to self-publish, Boey shot a video in an attempt to raise funds, and was overjoyed when, within a week, he had almost obtained his target of US$7,800 (RM24,500). However, when he realised that two major contributions, comprising more than half the funds, came from his mum and uncle, he told them to withdraw their funds.
“Looking back, it was rude of me to do so, but it affected me a lot psychologically that without their help, I was going to tank. I hate giving up and I push myself a lot. If it didn’t work out, I would either fund it myself or put it all on my blog. It’s four years of work already down,” he says.
Eventually, he achieved his target. But multiple edits later, the light at the end of the tunnel still seemed very faint. The format was a major consideration – and a major headache. If he kept it in the original format, the book would be relatively more expensive to produce and sell. A more compact format, although more practical cost-wise, would mean more work on his part.
“The biggest challenge was putting the book together. Since all entries could be read on their own, the book didn’t really have an intro, climax and end. I had to do a lot of shuffling to make sure the book had a good flow to it, and I had to rearrange the panels to fit a book format that wouldn’t cost everyone an arm and a leg,” Boey says.
And even when everything was done – or so he thought – and he took it to distributors in Malaysia and Singapore, they informed him that books don’t sell well now, especially books by local authors.
“That was very discouraging. It was also discouraging to know that you could sell a blank notebook for 20 dollars, but it is much harder to sell one with stories for the same price. Had I known, I would have just made notebooks with a litter of kittens on the cover!” he says.
When I Was A Kid, released in Malaysia in May, has been on the local authors bestsellers list for several weeks.
And, apparently, Boey’s mother was so excited about his book coming out here that she paid a bookstore a visit before the book was set to be released, marched up to the young woman at the counter and told her that they should display the book at the front of the store so everyone could see it. Lest they disregard her request, she also told them that she would return the next day to check if they had heeded her instructions!
“My favourite part of the book is the cover. I wanted it to be playful, and I wanted it to depict the relationship I had with my mum, as well as how unruly I was as a kid, hence the fantastic scribble of colour,” Boey says of the splash of bright yellow on the two stick figures on the cover.
“The hardest part to write,” he adds, “was how I would one day lose my parents. It’s something I don’t think anyone can prepare themselves enough for.”
Boey’s first published book took about four years to complete.
“I have written other books that I didn’t publish because after growing out of that phase where I was obsessed with a particular something, I would feel that it didn’t live up to my expectations any more. I was very close to not putting out this book too, because after four years, I really wondered whether it was still any good. But I have friends I check with often, and they told me it is good, so I went ahead and did it,” he says.
Looking back on his childhood and his self-publishing journey, Boey comments that it all feels a little strange, but he is glad that he documented it.
“If there’s anything I learned from it, it is to follow your gut feeling, make a notebook the next time, and, if you want something, just do it. The biggest reason why some people ‘can’t’ is because somewhere along the way, they gave up mentally. Hope dies last and I am full of it,” he says.
“To most people, the book is about a kid growing up in Asia. To me, it is about realising a lifelong dream about writing a book,” he concludes.
> When I Was A Kid is available at major bookstores nationwide in Malaysia and Singapore.
Make a date
GET up close and personal with author/artist Cheeming Boey at these locations where he will be making an appearance:
Saturday, Aug 11 (2pm-3pm): MPH Bookstores, 1 Utama Shopping Centre, Bandar Utama, Selangor.
Saturday, Aug 18 (6pm-6.45pm): Popular’s BookFest@Malaysia 2012, KL Convention Centre.
Tuesday, Aug 21 (5pm-5.45pm): Popular’s BookFest@Malaysia 2012, KL Convention Centre.
Sunday, Aug 26 (3pm-4pm): Kinokuniya Bookstores, KLCC.
Saturday, Sept 8 (3pm-4 pm): Borders bookstores, The Curve, Mutiara Damansara, Selangor.
Sunday, Sept 9 (2pm-3pm): Popular Bookstores, Ikano Power Centre, Mutiara Damansara, Selangor.
Saturday, Sept 15 (3pm-4pm): MPH Bookstores, Johor Baru City Square, Johor.