Bitch on Heat

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Arthur Tam talks to author Richard Tunbridge and illustrator James Ng on their Hong Kong-based graphic novel, Bitch on Heat

The bitch is in heat and someone is about to get screwed. Richard Tunbridge’s (pen name Richard Tong, pictured above smoking) new graphic noir novel, Bitch on Heat – the first instalment of a three-part series – depicts the glorious days of Hong Kong’s nitty-gritty past with coarse language, proactive encounters, overt cynicism, a troubled hero and dangerous femme fatales. The story is an homage to 40s and 50s noir tradition, and aims to show how sinfully fun our city can be, while weaving in real accounts of Hong Kong’s history into the narrative.

The story is set in 1987 Hong Kong and follows protagonist Jack So, a recent widower and advertising agent with a past coloured by misadventures and miscreants. His attempt to live a simple, uncomplicated family life is disrupted by a sexually energised and manipulative woman named Micki Wong, who drags So back into the shadows of Hong Kong’s seedy underbelly as they go on a search for an ancient Chinese relic. It’s a revved-up, action-packed tale filled with complicated relationships and multi-faceted characters ‘solving problems the old-fashioned way’, says Tunbridge. “You don’t need superpowers or super intelligence, just cunning, wit and guile. Just something really human, with a little bit of magic and fun in it.”

The 46-year-old Australian author moved to Hong Kong 24 years ago after graduating from the West Australia Academy of Performing Arts (where the alumni include Hugh Jackman). Like So, Tunbridge has worked extensively in media and advertising, and is now the executive creative director at the O Group advertising agency. However, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. He admits: “I’m terrified of women. That’s why they’re all dangerous [in the story]. It’s nice to live vicariously through a day in Jack So’s life.”

Tunbridge has always had a voracious appetite for reading, especially when it comes to noir and pulp novels, and a penchant for classic noir films like Farewell,
My Lovely
and The Big Sleep. After success with his first two novels, The Durian Effect and Me and My Potato, Tunbridge thought it was time to return to a style he loved best – one that Hong Kong has rarely been exposed to. “It amazed me that no-one ever did a noir treatment of HK,” says Tunbridge. “There’s a book called Hong Kong Noir, but no-one had done that 1950s Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy type of noir.”

During the writing process, Tunbridge decided it would be appropriate to add a visual element to his series, which is why he has commissioned 28-year-old steampunk illustrator James Ng (pictured in the centre) who draws narrated images based on real locations of Hong Kong. Ng, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the School of Visual Arts in New York has now amassed quite a resume and following in the world of animation. He explains, “[My speciality] is to make something unbelievable, believable. It’s obvious when something isn’t supposed to work because it’s too fantastical, but if you base it on something that makes sense, it’s easier to convince the audience.”

Right now the duo are working on follow-ups to Bitch on HeatSayonara Bitch and Happy Birthday Bitch – which are set in 1988 and 1989, respectively. Ng tells us that his illustrations are going to evolve throughout the series, and Tunbridge reassures that there is going to be more city mayhem and explosive violence on top of deeper metaphors, allegories and cultural subtexts. Of course, So is also going to get even more screwed – and not in a good way. Ain’t that a bitch.

Bitch on Heat is published by O Group. Graphic novel is $288, paperback is $88. For more on Tunbridge and art by Ng, check out tunbridgetong.com and jamesngart.com.
 

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