Softly, Sayang


“You promised you would give me one sihir miracle whenever I wanted one. This is what I want.”

Sharon Bong

Leong Yi Zhen

Sounds are audio cues that we subconsciously attach memories and emotions to. What happens if we remove certain sounds from our life?

A girl bursts into Makcik Bunyi’s idyllic convenience store one late afternoon, demanding Makcik to magically remove her ability to hear her mom’s voice. While taken aback, Makcik is bound by a prior promise to fulfil the girl’s desire. Yet this does not stop Makcik from hatching her own plans.

Read on as Makcik takes the girl down memory lane, conjuring past memories of the girl with her mother, be it good or bad, ultimately showing that all parents care for their own children.

An Interview with Sharon Bong and Leong Yi Zhen

Tell us about your venture into creative storytelling and illustrating!

SHARON: I think we’ve both always been drawn to creative work – even when I was a kid I’ve always loved writing weird stories, for school essays and writing competitions and stuff like that. Funnily enough, both of us also started working with Chinese stories before we transitioned to English ones later in life. I remember vividly churning out this 7000-word Chinese short story to submit to a local anthology when I was, like, 12, and thinking it was the best dang thing I’d ever written. (It didn’t get featured, because I was twelve, but I still have the Word file and read through it fondly sometimes.) But yeah, writing stories has always been an important part of my life!

ZHEN: I don’t think there ever was a time when art wasn’t in my life. My first birthday present was an easel from IKEA, probably a child-hazard but still. So it’s quite difficult to pinpoint when and why exactly I started. I just draw because it’s fun! What I can tell you is that my first comic was a “Little Red Riding Hood” comedy retelling when I was around 10.

We understand that you both are currently college students. How has it been so far juggling passion and studies?

SHARON: The amount of emails we’ve started with “sorry for the late reply!” is honestly… I don’t want to keep count at this point. Time management is SUCH AN ISSUE. I do think both of us are lucky in that we both get to do university courses in our specific passions because I’m doing media and journalism while Zhen does advertising design, even if it’s a bit to the left of making stories!

ZHEN: Yeah, juggling both things isn’t something decent time and energy management can’t handle. I think both of us have done our best with what we had so far, but we do wish we could have responded in a more timely manner regarding emails and due dates.

How did the both of you become acquainted? Simultaneously, how has it been collaborating on “Softly, Sayang”? Any funny moments that you would like to share with us?

SHARON: We were both online friends! We met on an anime graphics forum and became friends from there – it was all very early 2010s internet. I lived in Kuching, but after we had known each other for a while I flew over to KL for Comic Fiesta (the biggest annual animanga convention in Malaysia), and she was the first online friend that I met in real life. Now I’m studying in Petaling Jaya so we get to meet up more often. Zhen made this wonderful illustration of a poem I had written when both of us were teenagers, and I think that was the first time I realised that we could work together to tell stories like this. Comics was the next obvious step since we both loved manga!

ZHEN: :-) Oh the memories… For “Softly, Sayang” specifically, we just met once over bubble tea buns and coffee to brainstorm how to tackle the brief and did everything else online. It was a natural process seeing how we’ve started off as online friends. There’s nothing funnier than how we seemed to foresee the situation of 2020.

Why did you decide to pitch your story to SOUND: A Comics Anthology?

ZHEN: We developed our story specifically for SOUND, it wasn’t something we had in the works prior. Actually, when we first saw the submissions call for SOUND, we didn’t immediately go: “Yes! we need to do this NOW!” because I’ve never made a full-fledged comic before, and Sharon had never scripted for a comic before as well. But eventually, we caved in because 1) we’ve always wanted to collaborate on a project and 2) even if our story didn’t get in, we could still work on it as a personal project!

SHARON: I think I was also personally interested in SOUND specifically because I saw that Charis was a guest editor! At the time of submission, I was also working with Charis on a comic at New Naratif, and I have always been a fan of her work and editorial vision.

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How did you both end up creating “Softly, Sayang”?

SHARON: In our brainstorming session, we first began with ideas of how we could portray sound visually in a comic, which led to a list of sounds we found distinctly Malaysian (the ‘selamat pagi cikgu’s’, the squeak of sneakers on a badminton court, the ambience of school canteens), which led to an idea about a sound vendor, who could magically collect and bottle these sounds up for future use. Then came a story about this sound vendor meeting a little girl with an unusual request – and from there on we found the rest of the story.

It ended up becoming a lot more family-oriented than I had originally anticipated, but I think this also fits because both Zhen and I have always been very interested in exploring our own identities as Malaysian young adults through stories!

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What inspired “Softly Sayang”? Were there any particular hurdles in the process?

SHARON: I think for the story, personally, a lot of it was from my own coming-of-age experience as a teen/young adult – my family is made up of teachers, so there was always a heavy emphasis on academics, which led to a lot of butting heads when I was a kid (especially since I was a science stream kid mostly interested in the humanities).

Ever since I moved away for college though, it was a lot easier to see that my parents genuinely wanted the best for me and pushing me to get those straight A’s in SPM was really the only way they knew how to express it. Affection and love can be so fraught in Asian families sometimes, because a lot of us don’t really know how to communicate that we care about each other! I just think this specific kind of parent-child dynamic is really fascinating and also one of the most heartwarming character arcs that I always see myself in!

ZHEN: It was our first time creating a comic from scratch. I’d say that it brought the typical challenges of starting something for the first time. DE has helped a lot in their comic-creating kit, so thank you for that! In terms of illustrating, I mean, a blank page is always intimidating! It was an interesting challenge to composite the panels on a page, making sure to translate the essence of the story’s writing.

SHARON: Yeah, and comic writing is also such a different process from writing conventional prose stories too, because I had to think about how things would work visually on a page, how the panels would flow, and how to vary up composition so it’s not just a bunch of talking heads throughout the entire story. Zhen is a much more visually-adept thinker than me, so it was a blessing to have her be able to puzzle out some of the more detailed bits of bringing the art to life.

Where did the idea of using magic come from, and how did you come up with the character of Makcik?

SHARON: I really wanted to write a story about magic in Malaysia, because I rarely get to see these kinds of fantastical stories set in a place I already know and love. I think there’s also something inherently magical in the idea of an aunty who owns an important local store that knows everything about the neighbourhood and gives just, like, the best advice. That’s what we wanted to do for Makcik’s character! I hope we eventually get to make more stories about her store and her magic because I just love the idea of this world.

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Are there any interesting notes about the characters or their designs that you wish to highlight?

ZHEN: For Yin’s uniform, we wanted to use an alternate design where the sleeves were a little puffier than they are in real life, just as a marker that this reality is a little different from ours! Additionally, this isn’t mentioned at all in the comic but just a fun fact, Yin’s star hair clip was given by her mom during her 10th birthday to celebrate reaching a two-digit age.

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Anything that you particularly enjoyed while working on this comic?

SHARON: For me I think it was the whole catharsis of exploring a very personal childhood experience through a fictional story – there’s an argument between Yin and her mother in the car in our comic that’s lifted almost beat-for-beat from arguments I had with my own mother as well. My realisation that my parents loved me differently came a lot later in my life than Yin’s did, but I’m glad I got to give her a very warm resolution in the comic.

ZHEN: Maybe an unconventional answer, but I really liked the brainstorming part! Sharon has an amazing mind to bounce ideas off, exploring different ways we could tackle the SOUND brief felt like an adventure. Continuing off that, probably the character designs. While common to the Malaysian eye, you don’t really see characters in published stories that look like Yin or Makcik – wearing the pinafore uniform or a batik sarong, just normal everyday people doing magical things.

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Who was the audience that you both had in mind, and what was your message to them?

SHARON: For me, I honestly think it was my younger self! I read a lot of young adult/middle-grade fiction, and I think I can count on one hand the books that I found myself relating to when it came to fictional parent/child dynamics. I wanted to write something for the kids that have parents who can sometimes be frustrating, but who also love their kids all the same.

ZHEN: I agree with Sharon that I had my younger self in mind too. Though, I wish I had the chance to “talk back” or have a discussion during past parent/child disagreements like Yin did! I guess from there it also extends to parents who make caring choices for their child, but not considering the feelings of the child, and the parents’ perception and understanding of these choices. In a way, this comic for me was to explore a space I wasn’t able to have when I was younger.

SHARON: To all the young Malaysian kids out there struggling with parents who don’t necessarily understand their passions, you are seen, and you aren’t alone! I get that even though our parents try their best, sometimes it’s really hard for them to communicate that they care about us because our world is so different from the one they grew up in. Your struggles and frustrations are very valid. But I also hope you will be able to find sweetness and warmth here too, in your parents’ cooking, and their worrying over you, and their incessant nagging. I hope you’ll be able to find the love that’s right here where you are.

Do you think it is important for different artists and illustrators to collaborate? Do you both plan to work together again?

ZHEN: Yeah! I think collaborating between creatives that have similar visions allows a project to be influenced by different perspectives and experiences, which in turn can create a more cohesive and interesting story. And of course, it’ll be an honour to work with Sharon again!

SHARON: I definitely agree with Zhen here! Some stories really benefit from having several creative visions baked into them – since we all bring such different life experiences to the creator’s table. Art isn’t created in a vacuum, after all, and neither are stories. Zhen and I are such good friends even outside of creating together, so I’m sure we will be thinking up other projects to work on after this.

What will you both be exploring together next?

SHARON: We’re both very interested in exploring more stories set in Malaysia or Southeast Asian-inspired settings! Right now in our drafts, there’s this story about a girl detective/journalist that we may be interested in exploring...

ZHEN: No promises, but things are getting there :-)

What avenues are there for young storytellers and illustrators to put their art out there and have more people appreciate their efforts? Is there anything that you would like to see improved in the local arts scene?

SHARON: Other people have said this more eloquently than me, but there really is a lack of systemic support for the arts, especially in Malaysia. At this point in time, I think indie initiatives and publishing efforts like Difference Engine, and on the more journalistic side of the industry, New Naratif – which make concentrated efforts to publish work that highlights Southeast Asian creators and stories – are really the way forward for the industry currently. I also agree with Zhen that learning how to use social media as a creator is paramount right now; most of my own audience I built from just being present on platforms like Twitter and learning how to both curate and present my work.

ZHEN: Social media truly is a good way to present your work. But due to its increasing competitiveness, you do have to put yourself out there through interactions or consistent content, if not frequency then topic or voice. If you’re from Malaysia, CAFKL is good too, the audience they draw in are interested in and passionate about comics. So if you have a chance to visit or even booth, I’d recommend it! (not affiliated or sponsored, just my experience boothing.) It would be nice to have more comics or zine-based events. Also, probably government support or grants but that’s a faaaaaar away dream, even proper recognition seems like a stretch.

Simultaneously, do you think it is important to create comics inspired by or set in Southeast Asia?

SHARON: HA, yeah! When I first started writing stories in English, I didn’t know how to write a Malaysian protagonist because all I had read up until that point were stories set in America by white authors, with mostly white characters. I had to learn how to write my own stories in order to be able to tell them.

I’m a huge advocate for Southeast Asian stories told by people who were born and have lived and breathed here, specifically. There truly are no words for the feeling of reading a story that you see yourself in – your personal experiences and struggles and triumphs reflected here, on the page, from a storyteller who’s gone through the exact same things as you. Proper, thoughtful representation is so important. My ultimate hope when I’m telling stories set in Malaysia is that they’ll maybe get to the hands of some small Malaysian kid growing up now, and reassure them that their stories have value too.

ZHEN: Of course it is important. A lot of the learning during my coming-of-age period was through stories and comics set in Asia (Japanese manga or Chinese 漫画) because it was the closest setting that I could relate to. But through that, some of my own Malaysian identity is lost or replaced by those represented in the stories I’ve read, and it took some time to relearn Malaysian culture, even through “Softly, Sayang” as well. To be fair, I’m still navigating my identity as a Malaysian. It’d be good to have stories that people can relate to, and highlight the existing lives we have here. Well, in the end, we are people with stories different from those in the global majority. If we don’t tell them, who will?

Sharon Bong is a full-time media student and freelance graphic designer based in Malaysia. Bornean-born and Chinese, her many loves include diverse fantasy novels, the smell of coffee in the morning, and warm colour palettes. She would also like you to know that the rumbling from the back of the shelf is just her ever-growing pile of unread books, not a ghost, thank you very much. You can find her on Twitter @shuurens.

Yi Zhen is an advertising and graphic design student by day, and a hobbyist illustrator by night (or whenever the stars align). Based in multicultural Malaysia, her deep love for food comes naturally, even if her cooking skills don't! Her other interests include anime, manga, as well as beautifully executed art books. When she's tired of working on her assignments, you can probably find her dancing to 2012 pop songs when everyone else is asleep. You can find her on Instagram @shirotenzhen.