1989 – Unfortunate Lives: Urban Stories, Uncertain Tales by Eric Khoo, the first Singapore graphic novel comprising of short stories, was published by Times Books International and launched at the Singapore Book Fair in September.
1990 – Mr Kiasu: Everything I Also Want, the first Mr Kiasu book by Johnny Lau, James Suresh and Lim Yu Cheng, was self-published by the authors and launched at the Singapore Book Fair. The first print run was 3000 and it was sold out within weeks.
The early 1990s was a golden period for Singapore comics, partly spurred by the success of Mr Kiasu. After its initial success, we have a new Mr Kiasu book every year till 1998. Mr Kiasu was a runaway hit. The books sold well, going into multiple printings. There was a radio show, spin-off magazine, a regular strip in The Sunday Times, a Kiasu Burger from McDonald’s, a CD and a musical.
The best year for Singapore comics in terms of output was 1992. That year, 3 very different comic books were released and they serve as interesting snapshots of what life was like back then. These 3 books give contrasting views of a time when pagers were in vogue and a handphone was the size of a water bottle. People hardly heard of the world wide web and if you have an email account, you must be working in Mindef.
1992 – chewing gum ban, nirvana visited Singapore, 19 dec by-election, the last by-election
THE SHENTON STREET GANG: THE CON MASTER
The Shenton Street Gang: The Con Master is by the father-daughter team of Lu Peng and Lu Shufen and it is published by Art Classics. It is actually a sequel to The Shenton Street Gang: Stock Humour by Loh Yum Peng and Lu Shufen, also published in 1992. Lu Shufen is the artist of both books and she had just graduated from National Junior College at that time.
One must remember those were boom times then. If you had bought your HDB flat in the 1980s, that was the time when you see the price of your flat going up and up. People were into stock and shares and if you were not invested, you are a fool. This is the raison d'etre for The Shenton Street Gang: The Con Master. To teach readers about the stock market and to make a killing in Shenton Way.
But the Shenton Street Gang were no heroes. They were out to con a businessman by creating a fake take-over of his company. So while we learned about bulls and bears and how we can make money from the stock market, we are expected not to behave like the Shenton Street Gang. But who has that kind of money to invest in stocks and shares unless you are the one doing the conning?
These are cautionary tales, highly moralistic and didactic. Typical of the early 1990s. Jack Neo’s Money No Money (1998) would be along the same vein. We are not quite sure if the book is celebrating capitalism or criticizing it.
Fast forward to 2012. 20 years later, nothing much has changed. Greed rules.
KEN’S SONG: LIFE AFTER NS
I reviewed Ken’s Song: Life After NS by Tan Wee Lian (Times Editions Pte Ltd) for BigO magazine back in 1992. Despite the crude art, I gave it a good review. I like it for its honesty and intensity. Of course, some critics will say that these are no ingredients for great art. Ken’s Song doesn’t pretend to be art. It’s meant to be cathartic for a particular group of Singaporeans who struggled to find their economic and moral footing in the early 1990s.
When times are good, who are the ones who are left behind? In Singapore then, it was the Chinese-educated students. In 1987, the last Chinese medium school converted to the English stream. Which means if we take Ken to have ROD from National Service in 1992, he would have done his A level examinations in 1989. That means he could very well be the last batch to have graduated from a Chinese medium secondary school in 1987.
For a Chinese ‘helicopter’ like Ken, doing only so-so for his A levels and not getting into the local university meant he has to come out to work immediately after NS. But without a degree, he can only find low paying jobs in a society obsessed with paper qualifications. Nanyang University closed down in 1980. Nanyang Technological Institute started in 1981 and only became a university in 1991. But it was a university for engineers and Ken did not want to be an engineer. He wants to be a graphic artist. He tries to find a job in an art agency but was humiliated by the boss.
Ken identifies himself with the older Chinese educated generation, admiring their dedication to their job and craft. But his JC sweetheart is materialistic and dumps him for some high rolling Shenton Way type. Ken is a loser. And the story ends.
One is tempted to psycho analyze the artist, Tan Wee Lian and grill him about his views about man-woman expectations (that the man must be bread winner and if you cannot provide for your woman, you are a loser) and ideas about masculinity (= NS buddies and charging up that hill; so life after NS = emasculated). There are also clichés about army boys visiting prostitutes.
Like the Mr Kiasu comics, some of the bad behaviour of Singaporeans portrayed here still rings true. People not wanting to move to the back of the bus, bratty kids in public, pushing and shoving in the MRT.
This book is the opposite of The Shenton Street Gang: The Con Master. It is almost anti-capitalist. Read this together with Yeng Pway Ngon’s A Man Like Me (1988), another novel about the plight of the Chinese-educated in Singapore.
Tan Wee Lian did other comic books like Love and Hamburger: Teen Life (1989), Wake Up Your Ideas!: The Recruits’ Handbook (1990) and Chin Cha-Lat! (1998).
Wee Tian Beng is one of Singapore’s more famous comic artists today. His popular series include The Adventures of Wisely, Return of the Condor Heroes (another adaptation of the Jin Yong swordfighting classic) and The Celestial Zone. The latter is even listed in the Advance Comics catalogue, although it’s been a while since I checked. Wee is also the founder of the TCZ Studio and The Comics Society of Singapore, which is more like a weekend school that teaches you how to draw comics. (Jerry Hinds and the Association of Comic Artists Singapore also do that at their Goodman Arts Centre studio)
But back in 1992, Wee was living with his parents in a 3-room HDB flat at Lower Delta, working out of the bedroom he shared with family members. Dream Allegory was his first breakthrough in comics storytelling. It compiles 2 comics he self-published earlier, Dream Allegory (1990) and Escapist Choice (1991). The originals were in Chinese and for this collection published by Asiapac Books, they were translated into English.
Wee was heavily influenced by Hong Kong’s Ma Wing Shing in the late 1980s, especially The Chinese Hero. In 1989, Ma left Jademan Dynasty to strike out in his own Tianxia comics. The first story from that was The Two Extremes, about a comic artist entering the world of his own creation.
Wee’s Dream Allegory takes its cue from that. The hero in Dream Allegory is an aspiring comic artist and it is an allegory (what else?) of the difficulties one face in Singapore in pursuing your dreams. Social realities were reflected in showing the stress of studying. Undergrads suicides and students fainting in the middle of Orchard Road from worries about being an academic failure.
Reading this again after 20 years, one realizes how stilted the art was. There has always been a lack of the kinetic in Wee’s art and that remains pretty such so today. Certain conventions of comics drawn by Singaporeans and set in Singapore are there all along – STB shots of Marina Bay, Raffles Place, The Oriental, Marina Mandarin, Tangs and Lower Delta block of flats were shown. (This goes all the way back to Pluto Man in the early 1980s) Still, Wee has influenced the newer set of comic artists here like Hu Jingxuan, who was a big fan. Also Dream Fantasy’s story of going to another fantasy world where you are a princess could be seen in JDC Amane’s VACC.
Some things don’t change.
Postscript: This escapist trend continues in Gwee Li Sui’s Myth of the Stone (East Asia Book Services), which was also self-published. Akin to The Hobbit, Thomas Convenant and Narnia, the hero in Myth of the Stone is a nobody in real life, but a big shot in this fantasy world created by Gwee, a English Literature major at the National University of Singapore. Life was way too stressful in Singapore even back in the early 1990s.