The comic strip artist.


If you think my story is interesting, sure,” says Fred Serra when he’s approached for an interview.


His reply is casual, like his attire. He’s wearing a faded pair of denim jeans and a black t-shirt with the name of his venue, Ruby Soho, emblazoned across it.


“I don’t see Ruby as a bar,” he says, “it’s an extension of me.” Photos and posters from movies and television series cover the walls. His place is named after a song by a favourite band, 1990s American punk rock outfit, Rancid.


“It’s more for me and my toys. I change it all the time to show what I like and who I am. I hope people like it.”


Now 48, Fred is a father and happily married to a Vietnamese woman whom he met 16 years ago when he was first sent to Vietnam for a brief time by a French animation company. His job was to oversee the quality of animation production at their studio here.


“I was in my early thirties and I loved the energy of this country,” he says.


Fred has also lived and worked in China and South Korea, supervising animation projects for television and feature movies, in an industry where much of the creative work is done in America or Europe, and then shipped to Asia for final production.


“Vietnam isn’t really the best place for animators, though, because we don’t have a lot of studios here,” explains Fred.


Building an Industry


Although the 3D animation industry is growing rapidly in Vietnam, 90% of the animation work done here is 2D. It’s the type of animation that has given Fred a name in the industry the world over. His work in producing Oggy and The Cockroaches, a popular animated cartoon television series, has won him many fans, some tracking him down to meet him, something he attributes to his very proud daughter.


“Sometimes adults come in here looking for me and say: ‘You’re the creator of Oggy and The Cockroaches! I heard this from my child.’ And I say, ‘Um, no, I’m just the designer.’ But sometimes Olivier Jean-Marie, the creator of Oggy and The Cockroaches, drops by to see me. He’s a very creative person, he never stops. He’s 55 years old with the energy of a 25-year-old.”


Fred’s experience in Vietnam has made him the foremost animator for studios in Europe and America to approach for projects. To have one of the biggest names in animation like Olivier Jean-Marie coming to hang out with him is quite an endorsement. Although he stopped working almost 12 months ago for Armada TMT, the largest animation studio in Vietnam, Fred is still very much involved in the industry and is working on a project to establish his own arts school. He’s hoping his venture will improve the quality of graduates entering the animation industry in Vietnam — he estimates there are 5,000 people working in Saigon alone.


“And that’s just in the animation industry. If you include the design industry as a whole, it could be somewhere between 20,000 to 30,000 people just in Saigon,” he says.


While the arts industry is growing fast in Vietnam, there aren’t currently any schools solely for animation which means that when young designers finish art school here, studios needs to spend 12 months training them, which Fred says is costly.


“During my 13 years in the industry here, we were looking for designers all the time, and we could never really find what we were looking for,” he explains. “All of the studios have the same problem, so I think a good art school is necessary here.”


A World of Images


For the time being, Fred has no plans to move back to France.


“I love this country. I think it’s my place,” he says, peering back through his trademark thick seeing glasses. “If I went back to France, I wouldn’t have this kind of freedom to be creative.”


At times, people ask Fred to sell some of his collection to them, but nothing is for sale.


“If I find out someone really likes something and they come here all the time, I give it to them.”


When he does give an item to a lucky customer, or when he decides that Ruby needs a makeover, the space is filled with photos or posters from his stockpile at home.


“I have thousands and thousands of images lying around my house,” he says. “I love every kind of image. It’s not just animation and fun, it’s about music, photography and cinema, so my inspiration comes from everywhere, especially cinema and comic books. I try to find them online, anywhere, it’s just a question of finding the right ones.”


It’s clear that Fred still has unfinished business to tend to, even after all these years. At an age when perhaps most people might be thinking about slowing down a little, it seems he’s only just getting going.


“I’ve created a lot of characters for companies in my life, but not for me yet,” he says. “I have a superhero in mind, a girl, but I want her to represent the essence of this country, someone that has a combination of the traditional, historical, and the energy of now. She has to be someone that would make the Vietnamese proud.

Photo by Bao Zoan


To read the other articles in this series, click on the following links:


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Matt Cowan

Managing Editor of Word Vietnam. Destined to be a dairy farmer until he accepted a spur of the moment job offer in Japan in 1998. After making it big in Japan, he now finds himself wrangling stories in Vietnam instead of cows in Australia. Matt has been living in Saigon since 2010.

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