New chapter for wildlife company's former chief

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 12, 2013

FROM McDonald's and the Hello Kitty craze to running one of the finest zoos in the world, Ms Fanny Lai's career has taken yet another twist - cartoonist.

"I just follow my heart and live life," says the 57-year-old, who refuses to be pigeonholed. "You don't have to compartmentalise who you have to be."

Her first graphic novel - Nini In Changi Village - hit the stores this month. It consists of 12 stories about growing up in Changi Village in the 1950s, based on Ms Lai's personal experiences.

She had no formal training in cartooning and was mentored by Mr Johnny Lau, creator of the Mr Kiasu comics. She had always been interested in art, but was dissuaded by her parents to pursue it as an education as they said she would "starve to death".

So she got her degree in business management from King's College in London and went on to become McDonald's Singapore director of marketing and communications for 12 years.

Her team was behind the Hello Kitty mania in 2000, which reportedly led to fights as people tried to get their hands on the limited edition soft toys. The marketing campaign was so successful that she had to sneak into her King Albert Park office through the back door to escape the media.

"At its peak, there were more than 250,000 people queueing (before the outlets opened)," she recalls. In June this year, the mayhem was repeated with a new set of Hello Kitty collectibles.

"I'm surprised that people are still doing that," she says.

Then Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) came calling in 2004.

But Ms Lai did not let her passion for art fade. She would take classes in her spare time, and even doodle the faces of colleagues at work.

"When I was in boring meetings, people would be taking notes and I would be drawing their faces," she laughs.

She resigned as group chief executive of WRS in 2011 as she felt she had "contributed enough".

Retiring from the corporate world by 55 to pursue cartooning and her other interests was something the mother of two says she had always planned to do.

"Both Bjorn and I thought that it was time to pursue our hobbies," she says. She now spends half her time travelling the world with her husband, retired business manager and wildlife photographer Bjorn Olesen, 63.

"We didn't want to work until we drop dead."

Their travels brought them in search of a critically endangered spider in a five-storey high limestone cave in Perak, Malaysia. An upcoming six-week trip to Brazil will see them living in the wild to explore conservation issues there.

Back home, she teaches lesser known groups on how to market themselves better and raise support for their cause.

"There are some non-governmental organisations which are very good in scientific research and fieldwork... but nobody else knows what they're doing," she said.

Her passion for conservation also explains her graphic novel, which allows her to "conserve" her own memories.

One story in the novel was about four newborn kittens she discovered in a cupboard when she was six. When she returned from school later that day, they had disappeared. Her mother had drowned them because there were too many stray cats in the house.

The incident had a lasting impact on her. Ms Lai says: "This could be one of the reasons why I felt animals needed a voice."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 12, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to