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Literary Heroes of Singapore

By Joie Goh

A cover of Singaporean Sonny Liew's comic pictured alongside an illustration of him by Seth Adams.
Sonny Liew/ Epigram Books
A cover of Singaporean Sonny Liew's comic pictured alongside an illustration of him by Seth Adams.

I attended the Singapore Toys Games and Comic Convention (STGCC) for the first time in 2014, and have every year since. While miniscule in comparison to the San Diego Comic-Con International, one of the biggest pop culture festivals in the world, STGCC serves as a meeting place for the local geek community, from artists and retailers to collectors and supporters.

My first year, I noticed a small queue lining up
before one of the booths at Artist Alley, a zone allot
ted to comic creators and toy sculptors among other 
artists. The booth displayed a vast collection of celeb
rity portraits and political caricatures, most
 notably that of Singapore’s founding father 
and former Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan
Yew. The man in the booth is Sonny Liew, a
 mild-mannered Malaysian-born Singaporean comic artist, who once contributed comic strips for The
 New Paper in the ’90s, and now draws for Marvel and DC Comics.

A year later, the queue was longer — the Rhode Island School of Design alum had just published “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” several months earlier, a graphic novel about a fictional Singaporean comic artist which provides an alternate narrative about the nation-state’s formative years. One day before its launch, the National Arts Council (NAC) had pulled its publishing grant, withdrawing S$8,000 in funding, over concerns that the work of fiction could potentially “undermine the authority or legitimacy” of the government. The move backfired and led to heightened public interest, and its initial print run of 1,000 copies sold out within weeks.

The following year, the line for Liew’s booth had snaked past and around his neighbours’. “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” had topped the New York Times Bestseller lists, and had just won the Singapore Literature Prize 2016 for English fiction. Local fans (including myself), clutching their copies of the book, clamoured for an autograph and prints of Liew’s now-famous caricatures.

Supporters grumbled about Liew’s supposed relegation to the humbler Artist Alley instead of the VIP zone reserved for celebrity guests, some ominously murmuring about “government conspiracies” and alleged political motivations behind STGCC’s decision not to promote the artist and his work.

The rumours turned out to be unfounded: This year, STGCC announced that Liew will be a featured guest, joining the likes of other notable figures in the comics industry such as American comic writers and artists Arthur Adams (Marvel’s “X-Men” series) and David Mack (Marvel’s “Daredevil” and Image Comics’s “Kabuki”) and Frank Cho (Marvel’s “Savage Wolverine”), as well as Japanese manga illustrator Takuya Fujima and anime animator Kanzaki Hiro. All in good time too, for the 43-year-old had just become the first Singaporean to win at the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. Dubbed the Eisners, it’s the most prestigious award in comics, akin to what the Oscars are to the film industry. And Liew bagged not just one, but three prizes: Best Writer/ Artist, Best Publication Design, and Best US Edition of International Material — Asia. Prior to winning, Liew is also the most-nominated artist this year with an additional three nominations.

It’s no mean feat for a project that initially began as a labour of love and eventually took close to three years to complete. The gorgeously illustrated book resembles typical artist biographies, complete with sketches, comic strips, excerpts and old photographs, composed to convincingly craft the tale of a septuagenarian cartoonist, the eponymous Charlie Chan Hock Chye. In detailing the evolution of Charlie’s art and the trajectory of his career, Liew cleverly weaves in an alternative re-telling of the history of Singapore, seen through the eyes of a bystander rather than a state-sanctioned historian.

To do so, Liew conducted primary and secondary research: For the former, he interviewed
his friends’ parents who lived through 
the era of nation building, as well as artists and publishers from the time period, and for the latter, a slew of books from across the spectrum of perspectives, from the “very traditional” C.M. Turnbull’s “A History of Modern Singapore” to the revisionist like the banned “No Man is an Island” by James Minchin and works by political dissident Francis Seow. For artistic references, Liew credits a lot to Google, as well as old photographs supplied by friends and family, and archival photography.

However, Liew’s motivation for working on the book is far more personal. “One of the main impulses was that I always wanted to write and draw my own comics, as opposed to drawing from someone else’s script, something I’ve been doing for quite a while in my career,” Liew says. “This book, to me, is sort of a ‘last shot’, a major undertaking that if it worked out, could give me more chances to do more of this sort of work. If not, then I would have to re-evaluate the situation.”

The gamble has since paid off. When we met over coffee, it was at a Mohamed Sultan Road café down the street from the performance space 72-13, where he had been working on a theatrical production commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). The piece, entitled “Becoming Graphic”, is a collaboration with award-winning playwright and thespian Edith Podesta, and is described by Liew as a “graphic novel for the stage, based on the themes of ageing and mortality, and told through the superhero genre”. It’s his first involvement in theatre since his school days.

Despite his meteoric successes, Liew is still the self-deprecating man I knew from three years ago. Initially prepared not to win anything, he did not come with any speeches and even showed up to the awards late. Describing the day itself as “surreal”, Liew adds humbly: “[Winning] was a good feeling, I guess, since the Eisners is something most cartoonists aspire to at some level.”

I also found this same humble attitude in another Singaporean writer, even though her recent literary success has afforded her a lot to brag about. Balli Kaur Jaswal’s latest novel, “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows”, had nabbed a six-figure book deal with HarperCollins, the result of an intense bidding war with several other houses. Not long after, director Ridley Scott bought the film rights to the critically acclaimed book.

HarperCollins/ Seth AdamsCover of Jaswal's latest novel alongside an illustration of her by Seth Adams.
Cover of Jaswal's latest novel alongside an illustration of her by Seth Adams.

Still, the 34-year-old remains down to earth. The financial boon has afforded the former English teacher to quit her job and focus solely on writing, a luxury coveted by many aspiring authors and deeply appreciated by Jaswal herself. “It’s a big adjustment,” she says. Currently working on the second of the two-book agreement she signed with HarperCollins, it’s Jaswal’s first experience writing under a publishing deadline.

“Erotic Stories” is Jaswal’s third published work. Her first, “Inheritance”, came out in 2013, followed by “Sugarbread” in 2016, the former winning the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014 (she was based in Melbourne at the time), and the latter, a finalist for the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize.

All these accomplishments, however, would never have happened if not for serendipity. “I’ve always loved to write, and it’s been a bit instinctive to me, but at the same time, it’s also seen as an imaginative pursuit. So I learned to hide it and not take it too seriously,” Jaswal explains. After her primary education in Singapore, she had gone on to study in international schools around the world under the International Baccalaureate programme. Her education focused on academic writing, dedicating her efforts towards essays and examinations instead. A chance creative writing task led to an impressed teacher sending the then-16-year-old a message of support and praise, and that re-lit her literary spark.

“It was the only encouragement I needed,” Jaswal says. “It was something I loved that I ket suppressing and it only took one person to open the door.”

In 2007, Jaswal became first Singaporean to win the £25,000 David T.K. Wong Fellowship scholarship for a writer-in-residence spot at the prestigious University of East Anglia, which counts Booker Prize-winning authors like Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Anne Enright amongst its illustrious alumni. According to Jaswal, it was that one-year residency in the UK that sowed the seeds for “Erotic Stories”, which she began working on in 2013.

“When I first moved to the UK, the only people I knew were family friends who lived in Southall, London,” she recalls, referencing the South Asian enclave where the novel is set in. “I was so intrigued by the place that was still in London, but so culturally removed. When I left, I wanted to go back. I knew I wanted to write about this place.”

“Then there’s all the memoirs of Punjabis who’d grown up there, and there was one in particular about honour killings in the UK,” Jaswal continues. “It was by someone whose family was planning to send her to India and marry her off. She escaped and set up a charity for victims of honour crimes. It was then I realised the nice happy immigrant community can be very supportive, (but) can also turn on you if you’re on the margins.” It’s this darkness, juxtaposed with bawdy humour, that Jaswal explores to great finesse in “Erotic Stories”, which tells of a British-born Punjabi millennial who finds employment teaching English to illiterate widows at a Sikh temple. The classes eventually devolve into a meeting group for women to share their sexual fantasies, the titular “erotic stories”, a topic that’s generally considered taboo in Indian culture, and written with gleeful detail by Jaswal.

Despite the taboo nature of its content, 
Jaswal has found surprising support from the 
Punjabi community. “Some have come from 
the more conservative people I know, so I
have to check my own biases,” Jaswal laughs. “Sometimes I get a message from one of the 
older men in the community and I go, ‘Uh oh, here
 we go.’ And it turns out he’s saying, ‘We’re very proud of you, keep flying the flag!’” One of “Erotic Stories” fans include Jaswal’s own mother. “Like any other author writing about sex, I was actually more apprehensive of my parents’ reaction,” she says. “But my mom really enjoyed it. In fact, I have to show you this WhatsApp message she sent me.”

Jaswal pulls out her smartphone, pointing out a message from her mother and holding back her convulsive laughter
. “Will be reading more. Got to go to the supermarket.” A string of phallic-shaped vegetable emojis follow, ostensibly referencing a scene in the novel where the widows had compared the male anatomy to vegetables. Jaswal guffaws: “Yeah, she’s definitely in on the joke.”

Jaswal resumes her humble air, as though compelled to not get ahead of herself after detailing her victories. “I do think that when you talk about these taboo issues, and you don’t have a very public platform and not being praised by the wider majority, then it’s easy to criticise,” she says. “If this was something I typed up and sent around without getting published, my family would’ve said, ‘You can’t write that!’ But it’s got all these endorsements and a movie deal, they can’t help but be proud. And it’s this pride that sort of supersedes the talk about certain taboo issues.”

Likewise, Liew is keeping his expectations for sustained success and a wider appreciation for local content low. “We can do better for sure,” he says. “We lack the infrastructure (for a bigger creative industry) here. Creators need to make good comics. Media needs to cover more titles and events. Publishers need to step up.

“Everybody needs to do their part.”