Sketching those Little Moments

loading Azmi at the narrow entrance of his studio.

Through his cheeky protagonist Joe G, cartoonist Azmi Hussin draws everyday life in Penang.

Azmi Hussin’s studio is easy to miss: sandwiched between a money changer and a shop offering video and photography services on Lebuh Chulia, one has to squeeze sideways to enter the narrow doorway. The studio is tiny but with neat storage, furnished with a portable street easel – the very first one he has been using since he started drawing professionally – and desks. A few of Azmi’s own pieces hang from the wall; caricatures of Penang icons like Loganathan Arumugam of The Alleycats and P. Ramlee grin from behind the photo frames.

This is where he gets his work done. Azmi draws using pen and paper – something of a novelty in the age of tablets and graphic design software. But that is just Azmi’s signature – a harking back to the good old days.

Like his inspiration Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid, better known as Lat, Azmi depicts the carefree days of being a child in Malaysia, with page after page of boyish adventures – scenes from simpler times, visits to grandparents’ houses, riverside fishing and makeshift games with the neighbourhood kids.

The angle is slightly different though: Azmi’s main character is a plucky young Indian- Muslim boy – his story is autobiographical after all. Picked up by local publisher Clarity Publishing after many failed pitches, Azmi’s comic book series started off with Tanjong Life, followed by The Little Mamak; he is now triumphantly at his third book, Lost in Bagan.

The latest offering juxtaposes Azmi’s hometown, the old Butterworth, with the new Butterworth, taking the reader on a trip to the theatre for a Rajnikanth film, a tale of Uncle Appu the onion seller, and even an outdoor toilet experience. The book also mentions Azmi’s father’s early death and living in the slums, but the tone remains sunny: Azmi takes joy in the little moments.

A Bumpy Start

Wanting to further his studies in graphic design, the young Azmi worked part-time at a kopitiam as he pursued a course at the now-defunct Entrepreneurs Development Institute in Permatang Pauh. Unfortunately, things did not work out financially and he had to drop out. Through his nephew’s recommendation, Azmi went on to work at a DHL warehouse, feeling more secure with a job that came with an employees’ provident fund.

Azmi showing off his son's artwork.

Marrying into a family of business owners, Azmi then tried his hand at operating a mee goreng stall at the very same kopitiam he used to work at as a student. It was a one-man-show: Azmi took orders, cooked, packed and collected money from his customers. When he had a spare moment, he would sketch passers-by. Being an avid reader of Gila-Gila and Ujang comics since young, Azmi would draw cartoons for fun, and caricature drawing remained a hobby well into adulthood.

“Maybe my cooking wasn’t that great,” Azmi laughs when he tells of his failed mee goreng venture. He and his wife soon decided to move to the island for better work opportunities, where Azmi started work as a concrete technician during the day and a Rela member during his free time.

It was not smooth sailing and Azmi even had a stint as a mechanic as well, earning a meagre RM900 a month. With a growing family, his financial issues spiralled; soon he was “totally broke” and even had to borrow money from his mother. At the same time, his motorbike was stolen and he hit an all-time low. Sitting at Fort Cornwallis one day, he watched as tour buses deposited group after group of tourists there. He then had the idea of live sketching to earn some money.

Living off His Talent

Azmi remembers it clearly: it was the end of 2013 when he got his very first customer, a Frenchman on a holiday. He struggled to sketch him – fumbling, erasing and redrawing his lines. At the end of the ordeal, Azmi nervously handed the man his drawing, and was surprised that the man not only gave him RM10 for it, but also included some words of encouragement. “That RM10 felt like RM10mil,” Azmi says, overwhelmed. He managed to earn more than RM200 that day just by drawing caricatures of tourists at Fort Cornwallis.

Azmi says that being an artist has been the best job he has ever had. He also has more time to spend with his two sons and daughter, aged nine, seven and three respectively. “I don’t want to regret not spending enough time with them,” he says.

Today, Azmi does not do much live sketching; he has had to clear out of tourist-heavy places such as Fort Cornwallis and Lebuh Armenian. Instead, he is focussing on his next book and commissioned artwork for now. He would also like to be able to afford a better studio – somewhere more visible to the public where he can possibly sell some merchandise.

The ongoing effort, however, is to “improve his stroke” and develop his own style – a struggle that he constantly deals with as he tries to move out of Lat’s colossal shadow. Lat himself, who was present at Azmi’s first book launch as honoured guest and main inspiration, offered similar advice. Azmi is very much aware of this: he points out that although the drawing techniques are “not alike”, both he and Lat draw “black and white Malaysian-style cartoons” that are very “nostalgic”.

Penang remains the site for his formative growth, as his supporters wait eagerly to see what he comes up with.

Adeline Chua is a writer and educator. She has trained her keen eye on local curiosities, documenting cultures in word and image as they form, converge or disintegrate. Find more of her work at adelinechua.contently.com.



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