There are so many apps that at times I feel like a hamster trapped in a disco ball. Running in circles chasing all the sparklies. Luckily I sometimes get multiple recommendations to check out an app that is too cool to miss. Which leads me to Dim Sum Warriors, a comic book app for your iPad.
Here’s how it works. You download the app to your iPad and start reading, the first comic comes with it for free, and after that there is a small fee per comic. As you are reading through the comic, you can tap on the speech bubbles to hear the voice over. Then, if you want to hear it in Chinese, you simply tap and hold to see the translation, and you tap the translation box to hear the Chinese as well as see it.
Dim Sum Warriors is an outstanding application of digital technology, as an artform and a teaching tool. As many in the comic industry are looking at the future warily, apps like this are a leader in their field. Great artwork, fun storylines, everything you would want from a traditional comic book, as well as things only a digital format could bring you, including voice overs and translations. Even better, they are a small family start up, so a lot of care is put into the project, which is apparent in the minute details such as the subtle flow of animation and the ease of moving from one language to another in the playbacks without any lag.
Yen Yen Woo, one of the creators of Dim Sum Warriors and an Associate Professor of Education at Long Island University was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about how she and her husband Colin Goh created the fabulous fighting food, as well as about the comic book industry and using apps to teach.
You mention on your website that the birth of your daughter inspired you to start Dim Sum Warriors. What I am curious about is when was the moment you decided that drawing humanized superhero food characters was the way to go?
Yen Yen Woo (YYW): When my husband and I learned that I was pregnant, we decided to write something for our as-yet unborn Singaporean-Chinese-American-by-way-of-Flushing, Queens child. We felt it needed to reflect her completely mixed cultural heritage as well as bits of each of us.
Incorporating food was obvious, because we Singaporeans are obsessive foodies. We greet each other by asking whether we’ve eaten, and when we sit down for a meal, we invariably discuss the next one. We’re also very competitive – we’re always trying to trump each other with our knowledge of where the best Hainanese Chicken Rice or Fried Kway Teow can be located.
Going for dim sum is a weekend ritual for many Chinese families worldwide, including ourselves. And having the best dim sum in New York right here in Flushing, Queens really helps. To my daughter, comfort food is a cha shao bao (barbecue roast pork bun), not mac and cheese.
As for kung fu, both my husband and I grew up loving Hong Kong martial arts flicks. Finally, my husband has been a professional cartoonist for over 20 years, so mashing all these things together seemed appropriate.
What has the overall reception been like? Have you seen the stigma that sometimes greets comic books change?
YYW: Yes, comics have had a bad rep as merely kids’ stuff on the one hand, or completely inappropriate for kids on the other.
But over the past 20 years or so, comics are being recognized as a serious medium for artistic expression. This is partly because those who loved comics as kids have grown up and are unrepentant about what thrilled them as kids, and some of them are also now expanding the boundaries of the medium. There are now some comics which can hold their own as serious literature, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. There are also many wonderful, complex comics from Europe and Japan, where comics have never acquired the same kind of stigma as they have in the US.
Ironically, in the US, there are now fewer and fewer comics that are suitable for children, as the majority of comics publishers seem to be catering to the tastes of adolescent males in particular. There’s a real gap in the market for intelligent, well-told comics for all ages and genders, such as Jeff Smith’s Bone, for instance.
Have many schools picked up on the app? Is that a goal?
YYW: We finished the app only in April, but already, several schools in different countries have expressed interest in playing with the app. We are also currently working on an educational edition which will be distributed through major educational distributors.
As a professor of education, I am very keen to explore the educational possibilities of the medium. I do think that in this age when ideas and expressions take multiple forms, and where we need to assess critically the different the media we consume, comics can actually be a very helpful training ground. And very simply, kids enjoy reading and making comics!
It seems like your app could really start kids younger in learning language. What are your thoughts on the age that most American students start to learn a language?
YYW: This is a question that I’ve been thinking a lot about, especially because of my daughter’s bicultural heritage. I grew up in a multilingual environment. In the schools that I have attended, bilingualism is a given. It is not debated. In many countries around the world, such as in Finland, students learn three, if not four, languages starting from a young age. Many Singaporeans like myself speak English, Mandarin, bits of several Chinese dialects, and even some Malay.
There are so many benefits to bilingualism, such as how it enhances cognitive development in young children and also leads to better preservation of cognitive functions in old age. Not only that, it’s useful and also lots of fun.
I also think that knowing more than one language helps kids become more flexible, as they live with the experience of using multiple ways to communicate. Failures in communication then get interpreted not so much as “you are stupid” but as, “I need to find the right language to communicate with you”. This orientation is so important for individual children and for society at large.
And lastly, do you have any really funny experiences with all the conventions and stuff you have been going to? Something that stands out in your mind as a really cool experience dealing with what you are doing with your program?
YYW: I’m always amused by how, whenever we try out the app with kids, someone will invariably say, “This is making me hungry” or “Will you have (fill in your favorite snack here) as a character? Because I love to eat them.”
I’m also astounded that we’re getting downloads from all over the world, including places like the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Palau, which I thought was a made-up country when I first heard of it! (It’s a small Micronesian republic.)
I’m also thrilled by the great responses we’ve been getting from people whose work we respect. A high point was witnessing Chris Claremont, the legendary writer who’s probably most responsible for the popularity of The X-Men, check out Dim Sum Warriors and exclaim, “This is sodding brilliant!”
They’re all little signs that we’re on the right track – very important morale boosters for small startups like us.