July 28, 2017
Singaporean artist wins three Eisner Awards, and… cue tantrum from local government
by Alex Primiani
While some fans had the pleasure (or power?) of spotting actress Lupita Nyong’o, disguised as the pink Power Ranger, crawling around the convention halls of this year’s Comic-Con (so chill), arguably no one had a better time than controversial Singaporean comic artist Sonny Liew. Liew won three Eisner Awards for his The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, an alternative history of Singapore’s formative years, told through the fictional life of a comic artist, Charlie Chan. Liew was honored in three separate categories: Best Writer/Artist, Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia, and Best Publication Design.
In an interview with Nick Kazden at Bleeding Cool, Liew clarifies his intentions with the book. Hoping to illustrate a more comprehensive look at recent Singaporean history, he says: “I call it more inclusive than alternative because I think it’s not about overturning the current narrative, it’s about kind of making a richer and more complex version of it.”
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was first published in 2015 by the Singapore-based Epigram Books, and the next year by Pantheon in the US. Among the characters it depicts is Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, a key player in the country’s struggle to end British colonial rule in the mid-twentieth century, and then head of state for more than thirty years. Another central figure is Lim Chin Siong, a union leader who, with Lee, co-founded of the People’s Action Party in 1954.
Certain aspects of Singapore’s political history—like Lim’s eventual imprisonment by Lee—have been cause for concern within the country’s notoriously repressive government. Back in 2015, Liew was awarded an $8,000 grant by Singapore’s National Arts Council, though the funds were pulled just before publication due to the art’s “breaching funding guidelines.” What those guidelines entail was anyones guess… until Khor Kok Wah, the senior director of the NAC’s literary arts sector, enlightened the public: “The retelling of Singapore’s history in the graphic novel potentially undermines the authority of legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions and thus breaches our funding guidelines, which are published online and are well known in the arts community.” How, in the age of worldwide, instantaneous communication, this is still a thing is also anyone’s guess.
It is encouraging to see efforts at highlighting translated and international comics, particularly here in the End Times, but Singapore’s NAC is, once again, proving to be far from enthusiastic. Upon hearing the news, the Council sent out a note of congratulations to Liew (conveniently omitting the name of his work). Journalist Reena Devi of the Singaporean news daily Today called the note “terse”:
In a Facebook post on Monday, the NAC congratulated Liew for winning three Eisner Awards at the annual Comic Convention International (Comic-Con) in San Diego on Saturday. Without mentioning Liew’s work, the NAC said: “We are pleased that a Singaporean has been accorded international recognition for artistic merit. We look forward to seeing Sonny’s new works, including his upcoming first venture on stage at the NAC-commissioned Singapore International Festival of Arts.”
Devi’s article includes thoughts from some of Liew’s fellow Singaporean artists, who offer varying insight into the current state of arts and politics in the country.
Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.