Mr Kiasu is back – and still in style
By Uma Venkatraman
The creator of Mr Kiasu, Johnny Lau, insists he’s nothing like the iconic comic character. But the more he talks about his artistic journey, the more he admits he’s actually kiasu – and proud of it.
After graduating from University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1987, the self-taught artist decided to follow his passion.
Johnny drew comic strips in different styles and sent them to three Chinese and two English newspapers under different pseudonyms. He says, with a wry smile: “This was a bit kiasu.”
His kiasuism paid off. The comic strips he submitted were accepted by four newspapers, boosting his confidence to pursue a career in art.
And there’s nothing wrong with being kiasu, he says of the typical Singaporean trait defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a person “having a grasping or selfish attitude arising from a fear of missing out on something” – or FOMO in Internet speak.
"Being kiasu is like adding a turbo engine to a car – you get where you want to go but a little faster."
- Johnny Lau, creator of Mr Kiasu
“It can also mean that you always have a goal, and execute it. Singaporeans do things by the book, but very efficiently,” says Johnny, who brought Mr Kiasu to life in 1990.
His first Mr Kiasu book sold 3,000 copies and the comic series sparked a craze.
It was also the first time Mr Kiasu was turned into a cartoon character, appearing in television advertisements for the burger and figurines.
The campaign opened doors to ad agencies, corporates and government sponsorships. “We became a household name.” Mr Kiasu became so popular that Johnny even found himself being introduced more often as Mr Kiasu than by his own name.
Despite all the success, he put Mr Kiasu on ice in 2000. And after an 18-year break, Johnny brings Mr Kiasu back. It is still relevant, he says, as today’s generation embodies the FOMO attitude.
When launched in May 1993, the Kiasu Burger and its four collectible figurines became McDonald’s bestsellers. More than 1 million Kiasu Burgers were sold within two months of its launch.
But a lot had changed during those 18 years. So in the new books, Mr Kiasu struggles to adapt to technology and understand the new environment.
In the bicentennial comic Mr Kiasu In Singapore History, which was launched on 15 June 2019, Johnny collaborated with eight others artists to experiment with the titular character. There are six chapters in the comic in which Mr Kiasu travels back in time.
There is also a movie in the works and “if everything goes well, we will start shooting the Web series soon”, says Johnny. He wants to go regional and collaborate with artists from neighbouring countries to create companions – complete with their own quirks and traits – for Mr Kiasu.
The comic character has come a long way as has Singapore, their progress fuelled by kiasuism. “Being kiasu is like adding a turbo engine to a car – you get where you want to go but a little faster.”