In the last week of December 2012, two cartoonists of different generation met in a small studio at Kampong Eunos. 2010 Young Artist Award recipient, Sonny Liew, finally met Koeh Sia Yong, an artist/cartoonist active in the 1960s and 1970s. Their stories paralleled the story of cartooning in Singapore and the history of the island nation.
Singapore has a rich history of cartooning that stretches back to the 1900s. Political cartoons have appeared in the newspapers to reflect the latest headlines and social issues. It played a vital role in the anti-Japanese movement in the late 1930s and also in the anti-colonial movement of the 1950s and political parties’ struggles in the 1960s.
However, with Singapore gaining independence in 1965, the mass media, including cartoons, were expected to play a nation-building role. It was to build consensus and strengthen the social fabric of the country.
It is appropriate to say that Koeh’s fate of drawing cartoons of other countries coincide with the start of comic book era in Singapore. Before the 1980s, artists wanting to draw cartoons or comics could only do so by submitting their works to the newspapers or magazines. In the early years of independence, Singapore society was not so affluent yet as to support a specialized comics magazine. It was only in the 1980s when the Singapore economy had stabilized and the standard of living was higher that artists could dream of readers wanting to buy local comics.
In 1983, Roger Wong quit his job as senior manager of a departmental store to draw and publish Pluto Man, the first superhero comic book in Singapore. It only lasted for two issues. Captain V fared better. Sponsored by the Singapore Police Force in 1986, it lasted for three issues with stories written by Siva Choy, a pioneer pop singer in Singapore.
Real success, both critical and commercial, only came about in the late 1980s when Times Publishing International published Unfortunate Lives by Eric Khoo (now a famous film director) and a group of young of entrepreneurs decided to make fun of themselves and other Singaporeans with a character called Mr Kiasu.
The nine short stories in Unfortunate Lives are bleak, drawn from the headlines of the day. Victims of Society retells the Adrian Lim murders of the early 1980s. (a famous murder case in Singapore) Prisoners of the Night is a romanticized view of how young girls end up as prostitutes. The tension between art and commerce is played out in Lost Romantics, and in the best stories of the collection, The Canvas Environment and Memories of Youth.
Khoo did not draw many comics after this. He went on to become a famous filmmaker in Singapore, with works like Mee Pok Man and Be With Me winning international acclaim. But many of the stories he told in his films and the characters he created on screen had their origins in the hard luck tales of Unfortunate Lives.
Unfortunate Lives would prove to be the exception to the norm that is Mr Kiasu, the Singapore comic book of the 1990s. It is the opposite of the depressing stories of Unfortunate Lives. Kiasu is Hokkien (a Chinese dialect from Southern China) for to be "afraid of losing". Being kiasu often leads to Singaporeans behaving ungraciously, such as rushing into the trains without waiting for other passengers to come out. It is a kind of behavior Singaporeans are not proud.
One year after Khoo’s Unfortunate Lives premiered at the Singapore Book Fair in 1989, Johnny Lau, James Suresh and Lim Yu Cheng released the first Mr Kiasu book, Everything I Also Want, at the same event to great success. The first print was 3000 and the book was sold out within weeks.
Up to 1998, a new Mr Kiasu book was released almost every year like clockwork. But sales were dropping as many Singaporeans felt that this was an ugly trait that should not be celebrated. In 1998, the eighth and final book of the Mr Kiasu series, Everything Also Act Blur, was released. Mr Kiasu remained as Singapore’s most successful comic character and is well remembered today. The books are still in print and selling. After the series ended, a Mr Kiasu television serial was aired on national TV.
Around the time when Mr Kiasu was at the height of its popularity in the mid 1990s, a young Malaysian born comic artist studying in Singapore, Sonny Liew, started his cartooning career drawing a satirical strip, Frankie and Poo, for a tabloid paper in Singapore. The link between the creators of Mr Kiasu and Liew is that they show the commercial viability of doing comics in Singapore, especially the current success of Liew, who makes a more than decent living by drawing for DC and Marvel Comics.
Liew is a 38 year old Malaysian from Seremban who converted to become a Singaporean in 2012. He received the Young Artist Award from the Singapore government in 2010, the first comic book artist to do so, signaling an acceptance of the art form in Singapore. Liew started out drawing a daily strip, Frankie and Poo, for The New Paper before going overseas for his studies (he did not have to do national service in Singapore as he was still a Malaysian then). After returning to Singapore to work for a few years, he went to USA to study art and managed to break into the mainstream comics market after attending the San Diego Comic Con to hawk his portfolio. He drew the Marvel Comics’ adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (2011) and also for Vertigo, My Faith in Frankie (2004) and for Minx, Re-Gifters (2007).
Technically, Liew does not make his living from drawing comics for the Singapore market. He makes his money drawing for American comics companies (such as SLG, Image and First Second) and also from his paintings. He does his part to build a comics community here – he was a founding member of the Association of Comic Artists (Singapore) (ACAS) and put together the Liquid City volumes, an anthology of Southeast Asian comics, for Image Comics. (I co-edited volume two together with Sonny in 2010) And most recently, he was involved with Epigram Books’ line of local graphic novels. (these five books were partially funded by the Media Development Authority of Singapore) His contribution to this new line of books is The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (2013).
Two cartoonists from different generations meeting for the first time. And there are more similarities than you know.
Postscript: this is just a brief sketch of the history of comics and cartoons in Singapore. There are many other artists and events that shaped the development of cartooning in Singapore. Comics received a boost from the government in the form of the Media Development Authority grant for first-time writers and illustrators of comics and graphic novels announced in 2006. Eight graphic novels published by Chuang Yi Publishing were launched in 2009 under this funding scheme. In 2012, the Singapore Memory Project, a national initiative to capture memories of Singaporeans, uses comics for this purpose as well.
Since 2010, I have been co-organizing the 24 Hour Comics Day in Singapore, to encourage young artists to create their own stories by providing them with a deadline and platform. This has since become a signature event in the Singapore comics scene, with an exhibition of past works held at the National Library branches in 2013.
Lim, Cheng Tju. 2010. “Lest We Forget: The Importance of History in Singapore and Malaysia Comics Studies.” In Jaqueline Berndt ed. Comics Worlds and the World of Comics: Towards Scholarship on a Global Scale (Global Manga Studies, Vol 1). Kyoto: Kyoto Seika University International Manga Research Center. 187 – 199.
Interview with Sonny Liew
Review of Gone Case
(from Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia Issue 13, March 2013)