From cockroaches to a spiritually-powered Vietnamese heroine, peer into the eclectic world of animator Fred Serra
Animation artist Fred Serra’s apartment and studio space is currently going through a very last minute and unannounced renovation by the landlord, so our scheduled interview moved locations to his bar—now design studio space—Ruby Soho. As I was walking towards the Ruby Soho bar in an ethnic Korean enclave known as Phu My Hung located in District 7, one couldn’t but hear the echoes of the 90s punk rock band Rancid’s song of the same name bellowing in the ears. The raspy guttural croons about love lost and then the chorus line crescendoing with the lines, “Destination Unknown! Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby Soho!”It paints a presumption in one’s mind about who Fred Serra might be and why a French cartoon illustrator works, resides, and operates a business establishment in Saigon.
Ruby Soho is located on a small thoroughfare in District 7, a part of a nondescript stripmall similar to the ones you would find ubiquitous in the suburbs of the States. You would think it would be easy to spot, but the exterior is surprisingly low key that you might walk right past it. The door is open but with a chair strategically placed in the entrance to serve as notice that the place isn’t open for business yet. As you walk in you are immediately immersed in Fred Serra’s world. The stark red painted walls are adorned with iconic images from music, cinema and comic books. You will find photos or illustrations of Kurt Cobain; alongside his idols, The Ramones, Michael Caine from The Ipcress File, O-Ren Ishii from Kill Bill Vol. 1, and Tarantino’s Japanese cinematic source of inspiration for the O-Ren character, Lady Snowblood—among countless other images. It goes even further with a projection screen showing movies ranging from Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars to the cult car classic, Vanishing Point.
You soon realize that it’s not just a bar or lounge but a gallery space—a purveyor of cool. It’s hipster without the condescending sense of irony. Esoteric, but with a fair amount of mainstream references to be approachable. It does however feel that it can easily spiral into Brooklyn hipsterdom by one self-loathing mustached imbiber ordering a Lone Star Beer but the meer fact that it isn’t in Bushwick or Austin, TX but in a family residential area of Saigon saves it from a plight of being tragically hip. Soon any of those thoughts in the back of one’s mind fades as one meets Fred.
Best known as an animation illustrator, but he studied architecture in school. With that education he began illustrating backgrounds for cartoons, which led him towards the path that he’s been enjoying for over 25 years. He offers a drink. It’s high noon and hot, so an ice cold Tiger beer was in order. The typical questions that every expat asks and is asked are dealt with quickly: “Where are you from? When did you arrive? What brought you here?”
Fred moved to Vietnam 15 years ago. He was sent here by the production company he was working for to oversee the production of Oggy and the Cockroaches, a popular French cartoon series from the turn of the century, of which he was the head illustrator. He states he is from Marseilles with a tinge of reluctance. After I replied that I spent some time in the quaint artist village of Aix-en-Provence, which is 30 kms north of Marseilles, his demeanor changed, and with a bit of exuberance admitted that he’s actually from Aix and not Marseilles, explaining that the amount of times and effort giving French geography lessons in Saigon has long passed its expiration date.
So this segued to the question, how is the experience for an expat artist living in Ho Chi Minh City compare to a place like Aix-en-Provence, the birthplace of Paul Cézanne and the final home for American songstress Nina Simone. “Ho Chi Minh City is a huge city but at the same time the art community is like a village. If you stay here for a long time you meet most of the art community,” he replies. “Vietnamese art community is really dynamic, friendly, and really open. It’s part of the big change in Vietnam in recent years. I remember when I first arrived in Vietnam, the art community was really small.”
Fred goes on to explain, “When I worked at my company’s production studio 15 years ago, it was located in the National Art University of Vietnam, and so I could see the work from the students, and it was really ‘classical’— which is, of course, important—but now there’s new modern work being produced. If I want to characterize the art from then I would say that majority of the time they would just draw portraits of Ho Chi Minh, but now you can see some very good dynamic artists. One local artist I really appreciate is Phong Ronin. He’s a comic artist based in Hanoi… really interesting stories.”
Protector of the Nation
When asked about how Asia and Vietnam has affected his work, one doesn’t have to look any further than to his logo that he uses for his personal social media channels. It’s a red sun like that on the Japanese flag with three Asian looking characters. The top one is wearing a Vietnamese conical hat, the middle and bottom ones looking like two different versions of ninjas.
“[My] Personal logo is very Asian. I’ve lived in Asia for a long time. I don’t consider Vietnam my country because it’s not mine, but I love this country and I love Asian culture and Asian people—from China, from Korea, from Vietnam,” says Fred. “The logo is a caricature but it’s far from traditional (Asian). It’s in reference to the Three Wise Monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil). I don’t think it’s satirical and I don’t think it’s offensive. I did it because I love Asia. I didn’t want to make a French logo. I wanted to make an Asian logo.”
This brought him to talk about his personal side project that he just begun and is extremely proud of. He has created a modern Vietnamese heroine named Nu Anh Hung, which loosely means “protector of the nation.” She won’t have super powers, but instead will have spiritual powers—speaking with her deceased grandmother who fought in the American War. The grandmother will be her spiritual protector, giving her guidance and a heightened sense of awareness.
“I need to always have a personal project. I need to create something all the time. I see this as a natural representation of strong women in Vietnam and will be a good role model for my daughter (who’s happens to be half Vietnamese),” says Fred. “You can say that Wonder Woman is an inspiration, but it’s something completely different, since she will not have any superpowers and not have nationalistic themes.”
Professionally, he is currently working on illustrating the main characters of a large budget feature length 3D animation film based on a cult classic Sci-Fi horror film franchise, which he is not at liberty to disclose since it is still in pre-production. He was able to share the final sketches off the record. He is contemplating exploring animation for the gaming industry as well because there are a fair amount of gaming studios based in Vietnam.
It’s a far departure from the work he became famous for, Oggy and the Cockroaches. When asked about this departure he explains that animators have to be diverse in their style. The newer work draws inspiration from some of the illustrators he admires: Jim Lee, Korean American comic book artist, and the legendary Japanese artist Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of Akira.
This brought the topic back to Fred’s creations and what inspires it. “Everything can be an influence for me. I use Ruby Soho as a place where I play. I change the images all the time. It’s a mix of classical things and artists and underground work. I like to surprise people sometimes. It’s not to show people who I am, but more for myself and what I like. I consider this place like my bedroom growing up as a teenager.”
One starts to experience the work and not simply view it or consume it. The lines are blurred or vanish between different cultures—what is Asian or what is Western, what is considered commercial art and what is considered fine art, what is considered original or drawn from influences—and when drawn from influences can become something completely different. As The Ramones begot Kurt Cobain, Lady Snowblood begot O-Ren, The Specials begot Rancid—this is how Fred Serra came to be an artist—a Vietnamese artist from France (Aix-en-Provence to be exact).
Portrait by Vy Lam
Illustrations by Fred Serra