New York Comic Con: Dim Sum Warriors iPad Comic Gives a Taste of Chinese Culture

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Courtesy of Yumcha Studios

The sold-out New York Comic Con, which claims to be the largest pop culture event on the East Coast, starts today at New York City’s Javits Center and runs through October 14. Attendees will include Kevin Bacon, Carrie Fisher, Ben Folds Five, and kung-fu fighting dim sum foods.

Yumcha Studios, based in Flushing, Queens, one of the city’s largest Chinese neighborhoods, will be showing off its iPad-only comic series Dim Sum Warriors, which aims to give Chinese language learners of all ages a taste of Chinese culture — and help Chinese speakers practice their English. Husband-and-wife co-creators and Singapore natives Yen Yen Woo and Colin Goh claim their iPad series is the first “interactive bilingual comic app.” They will also be dishing out preview copies of the graphic novel of the series, due out in November 2012.

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Screenshot / Courtesy of Yumcha Studios

The story takes place in Dim Sum City, the capital city of Xiaochi (Mandarin for “snacks”), a fictional empire guarded by Dim Sum Warriors. “The mere mention of their names causes enemies to quiver like tofu!” the comic’s first book exclaims. Crown Prince Roastpork “Porky” Bao, a “steamed bun filled with roast pork,” is the main character and son of Emperor Redbean Bao and Empress Custard Bao and apparent heir to the throne. But he does not know if ruling the empire is really his calling, so he keeps running away from home to avoid the responsibility.

The comic’s villain, Colonel Quickynoodle, who co-creator Goh describes as part “Robert Downey, Jr., Steve Jobs and the evil part of instant ramen,” challenges the empire’s four main dim sum warrior schools to compete for the enrollment of the prince: Fried Kung Academy (the Gossip Girl of Dim Sum Warrior schools), the Boiled Kung Temple (warrior monks), the Baked Kung Sisterhood (a martial arts sorority) and the School of Steam Kung (run by a Master Phoenix Claw, i.e. dim sum chicken feet). But the prince also stumbles upon a plot by the Colonel to usurp the kingdom. It will be up to him and two other dumplings to save the day.

“Think of it as Harry Potter meets a Chinese takeout menu,” said Goh, “Vice President of Steamy Affairs” at Yumcha Studios. More seriously, he thinks many kids will be able to relate to Prince Porky Bao’s struggle to find himself. “He’s emblematic of a kid who has grown up in a very privileged time. That’s a universal theme for many American kids and many kids growing up in China now,” he explained. “They have all this privilege, yet they feel like their lives are strangely empty. I hope the storyline will help kids think through what that means and what their place is in the wider community.”

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The comic can be read in either English or Chinese.  Woo, who is both “Chief Executive Dumpling” of Yumcha Studios and an education professor at Long Island University-C.W. Post, recommends Chinese language learners read the story in English first, then press the dialogue bubbles to hear the audio voice-over in Chinese and see the characters. The illustrations, created by Soo Lee, were influenced by Superman, Spider-Man, and the French Asterix, as well as Asian comics like Old Master Q and manga.

“I learned Japanese through reading manga,” said Goh. “I sat there with three different dictionaries. Why was I willing to learn a language and sit there with three different dictionaries just to read a comic? It’s because I was interested in the story. If you just give kids a textbook, I think most of them would just roll their eyes and go to sleep.”

Courtesy of Yumcha Studios

Goh thinks reading the comic on the iPad is the next best thing to immersion. Woo hopes that the students will find reading the iPad series a less “painful” way of learning the language: “When I was learning Chinese, I felt like a lot of it was based on memorization. I wasn’t exposed to many fun texts to read.  With the iPad, we could add interactive functions that we couldn’t add with print.”

The graphic novel, however, is just in English — the creators are still figuring out how to neatly weave both languages into the story.

Then why make a print version of the comic at all? “Well, not everybody has an iPad,” Woo said. “We thought we could reach a wider audience with the book.”

The comic is not Goh and Woo’s first foray into entertainment. Goh, a Columbia Law School grad, drew cartoons for Singaporean newspapers for 20 years.  He and Woo wrote and directed Singapore Dreaming (2006), an independent film that won a few awards at international film festivals. But they are best known for their website, which parodies “slinglish,” Singaporean slang and the bastardization of English and Chinese that young Singaporeans use. (“Talking cock” is Singaporean slang for talking about silly things.)  In fact, TIME featured the site in 2002.

The satirical humor carries over in Dim Sum Warriors, with punning chapter titles like “You win some, you dim sum” and parodies of steroids like “InnerStrength,” a health elixir and energy drink that makes the warriors in Colonel Quickynoodle’s Fried Kung Academy look like body builders. The name Quickynoodle itself is a comment on instant ramen and genetically engineered foods.

Of course, the husband-and-wife team hopes to teach Chinese language learners about dim sum, a traditional Chinese ritual. Goh and Woo eat dim sum every week; it is a family affair in their household, as it is for many Chinese families. It is also fun to learn about a new language and culture through its food.

“Chinese culture isn’t the fortune cookie,” Woo said.

The Dim Sum Warriors app is free to download at the iTunes app store. The first two issues of the comic are free, and other issues are available for in-app purchase.

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