Rob Cham: a Chinoy Comic Artist Drawing His Own Story

an illustration from Rob Cham’s first graphic novel, Light


Launching the #1CH1NOY campaign, CHiNOY TV unveils a new season that aims to spotlight modern Chinoys, currently airing on CNN Philippines. Among these personalities who represent a modern take on Chinoy cultural values is Rob Cham, an “illustrator, comic book creator, art director, and friend.”

“Who the f*+k is Rob Cham?” 

A quick Google search on Rob Cham will yield the above sentence. A simple line, yet very telling of his laid back personality and place in life. As an artist in a continuous cycle of self-discovery, one can imagine him asking this question to himself while dreaming up new ideas for comics.

Rob Cham is an award-winning artist who received a National Book Award for his debut graphic novel Light. The following year, he was given the National Children’s Book Award for his follow-up work Lost. Currently, his works are being adapted into films by Rocketship Studios! 

In this exclusive interview with CHiNOY TV, Rob shares details about his life as an artist–an unconventional choice for a person of Chinese-Filipino heritage. He also tackles several topics such  as the Philippine comic industry and dating as a Chinoy. 


Early Beginnings

Rob Cham’s self-portrait

Born and raised in Baguio, Rob feels the way many Chinoys do about themselves: a straddling of mixed identities and cultures that one eventually becomes accustomed to, yet never truly leaves.  “I’m a third generation Filipino Chinese but yeah. I’m unfamiliar – like I’m not Filipino enough to be Pinoy and I’m not Chinese enough to be Chinese. So I’m somewhere in the middle.” 

When asked about the phrase Chinese by blood and Filipino by heart, he shares that “I feel like it’s very true that I’m Chinese by blood, but I know nothing about the culture. I’m Filipino by circumstance, that I was born and raised here. So I am very alien from what Chinese culture is like to be honest. Baguio has a very small Chinese population.”

Knowing little about Chinese culture, he says “My grandparents died when I was very little and they are the ones who were from China. So I really have zero idea about much of the culture other than, I like the food, I cannot speak the language and Filipino Chinese are their own kind of thing?“

Despite being part of both worlds and not fitting squarely into either, Rob Cham has used art to draw his own path and leave his own unique mark on the Philippine comic industry. 


On Careers And Defying Stereotypes

The cover art of Lost, Rob Cham’s second graphic novel

Rob grew up reading comics and storybooks as well as watching cartoons. As young as he was, he figured that art was what he wanted to do as a career. He started drawing as a kid, and would be “the art kid in class they would send to school drawing contests.” He adds that he was very happy to leave school and just draw for the day.

“So I was happy about that. And I wanted to keep doing that but where I started out was just because someone handed me a piece of paper and then I like drawing so, I was reading comics and also liked watching cartoons so, yeah. That’s how I started where I just wanted to make my own cartoons and my own comics, and my own storybooks.” 

When asked about his unconventional career path, Rob said “The usual response is ‘do your parents know?’ There’s that underlying thing about disapproval or they wouldn’t approve of that career choice and that’s, I think that’s part of just how people see Filipino Chinese that we are, like one focused on a goal, single minded business, business, business, money, money, money. And to be fair, that is true, partially.” 

“Being Filipino Chinese, I definitely see that with my friends who kinda have to suffer under that so I’m grateful I didn’t have to deal with it.”

His parents were supportive of his choices. Defying the stereotype of most Asian parents, they encouraged him to get tutored and even get mentoring under artists in Baguio like Norman Tan. Through art classes, he learned how to do several forms of art such as oil painting.”

Surprising his parents, he voluntarily chose to take Management in college out of practicality (which many artistic Chinoys will find relatable.) 

There has long been a stigma in the Chinoy community surrounding careers in the arts. However, because of changemakers like himself and other Chinoy comic artists like Budjette Tan (the creator of Trese) and Elbert Or, some Chinoys today are free to go to art school as proven by the Chinoys in the DLSU St. Benilde School of Design and Arts. 

“Well, I just wanted to make comics. I didn’t know it could be a career. I think even if you are from a Filipino family, if you tell them you want to be an artist they are kinda afraid of it? Because yeah, there’s such a misconception that you can’t make money in art.” 

There are many times in a Chinoy’s life where they have to choose between practicality and one’s dreams.


On Racism’

Rob Cham promoting his second graphic novel, Lost

For Chinoys, the struggle is not just internal. There are external problems too. 

“There are racists in the comments towards the Chinese and Chinoy community in general. You know, like a lot of how when you browse Facebook, sometimes you come across a friend who shares a meme that says ‘ching chong’ – stuff like that.” 

“I mean there’s a lot of anti-China sentiment right now for good reason. But they’re attacking the race, and not the country or the people who are actually responsible for the bullsh*t.” He says, referring to people’s tendency to blame the whole race instead of just the people. For example, the Chinese-Filipino community is distinct from mainland Chinese people.

When asked if he has ever faced racism as a Chinoy in the comic industry, he shakes his head. “It hasn’t really come up I guess. Like, it’s a small community that is still growing. So I mean there could be racists there or people who don’t like Chinese but I haven’t really felt anything from it.”

However, he has experienced people making assumptions about him due to his race. Laughing, he shares, “When people  learn you’re Chinese, they assume you’re rich for some reason. I am not. My family is not. We do not own businesses.” 

While racism does not affect him in the comic industry, it used to be a daily reality in school. Growing up as a minority in a country comes with its struggles. As the only Chinese kid in his class, Rob would be made fun of for his small eyes. It would cause fights on the playground. 

“That’s why it feels like I can’t say I’m Pinoy, because they don’t see me as part of their country. Even now when I go around, I get weird looks in 7-11.”

Every Chinoy can relate to his experience of always getting asked “Do you know how to speak Tagalog?” and the feeling of not exactly belonging.

As a Chinese-Filipino artist, Rob channels some of this unique perspective into his work. About his books Light and Lost, he shares that it’s about “finding yourself in a place that you are not sure you should be at. Or you’re lost in a world that doesn’t feel like it’s welcoming to you.” He admits, “Yeah. That’s the hidden message of the comics. It carries over themes subconsciously I suppose. Uhm it wasn’t intended but it always felt that way where it was like I’m lost in this weird fantastical place. And, I don’t know where my home is.”


The Dating Scene

When he arrived in Manila, Rob says that he felt his share of “culture shock” because of the customs and traditions of the Filipino-Chinese community here.

Having grown up in the province, he says that “I was outside of that so I did not understand any of it. So for me, to be expected to be like them when I don’t know who they are, that was very confusing for me.”

Eventually, he learned about the looming presence of the Great Wall in Chinese-Filipino life. “There was always that question of like will your parents be okay with this? Do you have a Great Wall? And I hear stories about that where my Chinoy friends do have that Great Wall and it sucks. Because they like people who they like. I think it’s that where there’s all that old Chinese conservativeness that exists.”

When asked if he has dated other Chinoys, Rob admits that “Funnily enough, I have not really dated a lot of Chinese girls. They scare me. Yeah, I know it’s a racist thing. They’re kinda prim and proper, conservative – that kind of deal, right? Okay I’ve dated one Chinese girl but also hmm, half-Chinese?”

However, race and culture as well as social circles have affected his dating life. “I haven’t dated a lot of Chinese not because I don’t want to. It’s because they don’t show up in the same social circles that I do. Like I could see them in Bumble or Tinder but most of the time that I had success with dating has been in social settings.”

While expressing that he would date another Chinoy, he says that he cannot find a lot of Chinoys in art circles (such as in comics, gigs, or music venues). 

With a touch of humor and painful reality, he adds “I don’t know where they all are. So that’s why I haven’t really gotten to date around that much with Chinoys.”

He concludes that he would be more focused on the person than their race. Some fine wisdom for people who are looking for romance!

When asked about his current plans, he said “I’m currently working on my third graphic novel and doing art things.” Don’t forget to check out Rob Cham’s website for updates on his work!

CHiNOY TV Presents: Chinese by Blood, Filipino by Heart #1CH1NOY will air on CNN on August 8th, 8PM. Stay tuned on CHiNOY TV’s and CNN Philippines’ Facebook pages for further updates.


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