Taiwan: Commercial bloggers cash in

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Hu Jia-wei started posting cartoons about her office life to her blog in 2004 because work was "too boring."

Six years later, the 29-year-old, better known by her cartoon alter-ego "Wanwan," is a brand name, complete with an agent and rabid fan following in Taiwan and throughout east Asia. Her blog gets more than 100,000 visitors a day, and she's sold more than a million copies of her cartoon books in six Asian countries. She's also licensed her images for scores of TV commercials, products and promotions.

Her story shows how a few savvy Taiwan bloggers have parlayed their online popularity into business opportunities and fame.

Besides Wanwan, other notable examples include "Nu Wang" (The Queen), who launched best-selling books on the popularity of her girl-power, Sex-in-the-City-style blog.

But in comics-crazy Taiwan, cute cartoon blogs hold a special appeal. Several regularly appear in the top ten blog rankings. The "Caterpillar" blog features simple cartoons like Wanwan's, and Mark Lee's "I'm Mark" blog, which mines Dilbert-like territory of absurd office dynamics and has also inspired a book.

But Wanwan holds the cartoon blog throne. Her blog has been in the top five or so for at least a few years, and often tops the charts. Wanwan and her agent were cagey about her earnings, but one Taiwan media estimate puts her net worth as high as $3.25 million.

Why is she so popular? Jerry Hsu, marketing and sales director at BloggerAds in Taipei, said her success is due in part to clever promotional tactics.

A convenience store chain passed out stickers with her cartoons, and many of Taiwan's eight million users of the MSN Messenger instant messaging service downloaded and used her cute, funny "emoticons," said Hsu. "These were simple cartoons to show 'boredom', 'annoyance', 'happiness' — everyone started using them," he said. "They were distributed for free, and allowed many people to get to know her."

Now, Wanwan has helped launch a trend of cartoon bloggers, many of whom also offer free emoticons and have turned their sites into at least a part-time business.

In an interview with GlobalPost in a private room at a Taipei coffee-shop, the poised, well-spoken Hu said she drew cartoons about everyday experiences that people could easily connect with — starting with her parody of soul-crushing office life.

"Everyone who works in an office has had these experiences," said Hu. "And when it comes to work and day-to-day life, these things happen in every country."

Watch "Wanwan" in action here:

Shortly after graduating from college in design, Hu went to work at a computer game design firm, joining the ranks of Taiwan's shangbanzu — or "office tribe." She created a blog and started posting cartoons and instant-message "emoticons" inspired by life in Taipei's white-collar trenches.

Her cute style and depiction of that life — complete with goofy bosses, inane elevator conversation and broken-down air conditioners — soon struck a nerve.

"At first, just some friends and relatives saw it, but it got more and more popular," said Hu. "I never thought it would get so big.

A typical cartoon shows Wanwan dying to tell her clueless boss he's got food stuck in his teeth, but finally daring not to.

Soon a Taipei publisher, Revolution Star, had taken note of her popularity, and in 2005 it released her first, best-selling cartoon book, "Can we not go to work?" (Ke bu keyi bu yao shang ban?)

That same year, the company she worked for went belly-up, and she became a full-time blogger, cartoonist and author, often sleeping in as long as she likes.

Six other books have followed, on themes like school ("Can we not go to school?) travel ("Can we go on vacation every day?") and raising pets. More recently, she's focused on her family life, chronicling her older brother and mother's travails (her older sister and father are off-limits because they're "more serious" and don't like being the subject of her cartoons, said Hu.)

She's published in China (where unauthorized editions of her cartoon books are also available, she said), South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, and she says her readers span elementary-school age to recent college graduates.

Now, thousands follow her on Facebook, Plurk, (Taiwan's Twitter clone) and a mainland China Twitter clone. When she appears at conventions or book signings, huge crowds show up to meet her. Her agent helps her review frequent promotional and licensing requests.

She's already cooperated with cellphone firm Taiwan Dageda, the Family Mart convenience stores in Shanghai, and the popular bakery chain 85 degrees C. Alcohol or cigarette ads are out. "Many of my fans are kids, so we can't accept that," says Hu. Her blog has had some 240 million visits since it launched in 2004.

It's heady stuff for a young woman who, as a girl, would sneak comics back home to read, stuffing them under her clothes so her mom wouldn't find them. "My dream was to be a cartoonist, but I always thought it was just a dream," said Hu. "I've been very lucky."

As a kid, she devoured Japanese comics on the sly, especially those starring the blue robot cat from the future, Doraemon (called "Xiao Ding-dang" in Chinese). Her mother disapproved. A typical Taiwanese parent, she wanted Hu to spend all her time studying so she could be a doctor or teacher one day, rather than wasting time on frivolities such as comics.

Now her mother takes credit for her success, likes to boast about her daughter to strangers, and urges Hu to write about her in her cartoons, said Hu with a laugh. Hu is even collaborating with her mother on a new book.

She learning drawing techniques in school, but when it came to drawing Wan Wan, she reverted to a doodle-like style, making rapid sketches and sloppy Chinese characters with a Wacom pen tablet that she touches up in Photoshop. She says she can finish a typical frame in ten minutes. "If you want to draw everyday life, the simplest style is the best," she said.

She gave an impromptu demonstration of her sketching style at the coffee-shop, rapidly sketching a cartoon in thick, black lines.

What's next for Wanwan?

She's now targeting the Japan market ("Japan doesn't often accept foreign books, so it's very difficult," says Hu.) And she's mulling an English-language edition, possibly even a U.S. edition. "I'm very interested in the American market," she said.