Hawkers, aliens, zombies: Comic books put a twist on Singapore’s history

Hawkers, aliens, zombies: Comic books put a twist on Singapore’s history

New collective Comics Of Singapore Histories Studios are putting an unusual spin on local heritage and history with a series of comic books, such as an action-packed take on the Sepoy Mutiny of 1915, and a poignant tale set in Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Comics of Singapore Histories (book covers)
New collective Comics Of Singapore Histories Studios will be launching its first three books at the Singapore Writers Festival: Final Resting Place, Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy, and Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts. (Photo: COSH Studios)

SINGAPORE: What do kway chap and aliens have to do with the founding of a political party in Singapore during the 1980s?

In a new fictional comic book titled Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts (COTSSP), readers are transported to an alternate Singapore. There, aliens, talking Chinese gods, and hawkers converge at the Old Airport Road Food Centre, where there’s a contest to make the best kway chap in town and plans to found the first Hawkers Party.

“The whole idea behind it was to see what would happen if Singapore was so crazy over hawkers that even the politicians were hawkers,” said writer Oh Yong Hwee, who created the book together with artist Koh Hong Teng.

Comics Of Singapore Histories (Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts)
From Oh Yong Hwee and Koh Hong Teng's Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts. (Photo: Oh Yong Hwee, Koh Hong Teng)

The fantastical COTSSP is one of several comic books published by Comics Of Singapore Histories (COSH) Studios, a brand-new collective that is putting its own unusual spin on local heritage and history.

It will be launched, together with two more titles, at the Singapore Writers Festival on Sun (Nov 11).

The others books are: Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy, an anime-style action romp by Lim Cheng Tju and Benjamin Chee, which takes place during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1915; and Final Resting Place, a poignant story by James Tan about a boy getting lost at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

The release of these books comes at the heels of Singapore artist Sonny Liew’s Eisner success with The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which has arguably created a renewed interest in Singapore’s history.

And with their own new series, the people behind COSH Studios are also hoping to attract more readers to find out about other similar stories.

“They’re not history books but hopefully after reading them, people can get interested to read more about history after,” said Lim, an educator and author with a long involvement in the local comics scene.

Comics Of Singapore Histories (Kungfu Dough, We'll Eat When We're Done)
Don Low's Kungfu Dough (left), and Dave Chua and Maximilian Loh's We'll Eat When We're Done will be among the four titles released in 2018. (Photo: COSH Studios)

The collective began after Lim and Koh got together a couple of years ago to discuss the need to build up more buzz in the comics scene.

“Epigram had released a series of books, then Sonny’s came out a bit later, then it sort of died down. We felt that if we all came together and try to release (a series), we could create more of an impact,” he said.

All COSH Studios titles are published with funding from the National Heritage Board (NHB), and next year, the group will be releasing four more titles.

These include Don Low’s Kungfu Dough, which is set in the 1960s; Cheah Sinnan’s Terumbu, mid-19th century love story between a pirate from the Riau Islands and a daughter of a penghulu; Joelyn Alexandra and Elvin Ching’s Unstable Foundations takes on Yamashita’s Gold; and Dave Chua and Maximilian Loh’s We’ll Eat When We’re Done, which features the unlikely combination of chicken rice and zombies.

Pointing out the variety of styles and approaches in all seven titles, Lim said: “Right now, the attention in Singapore is really on more serious types of comics, but we’re interested in having even more genres to show that they aren’t just serious or autobiographical but can also be fun and entertaining.”

Comics Of Singapore Histories (Final Resting Place)
Sample pages from James Tan's Final Resting Place. (Photo: James Tan)

He added that most history-themed comics in Singapore, including recent titles on founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and war hero Lieutenant Adnan bin Saidi, tend to be more straightforward retellings.

“They’re like classic pop songs, while ours are like punk versions. We’re basically rewriting the rules,” Lim said.

In Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy, for instance, the Sepoy Mutiny is portrayed through pages peppered with massive fight scenes between Chinese, British and Indian characters with superhuman powers.

But behind all the action, Lim said he wanted to highlight an incident that had been relegated to a footnote in Singapore’s history textbooks.

Comics Of Singapore Histories (Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy)
From Lim Cheng Tju and Benjamin Chee's Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy. (Photo: Lim Cheng Tju, Benjamin Chee)

“In Singapore, World War II is more significant and the Sepoy Mutiny is only one paragraph. But nowadays, many scholars are actually re-looking at this event and saying it was the beginning of the end of the (British) empire,” he said.

But making sure the facts are correct hasn’t stopped the comic books’ creators from enjoying themselves.  

“We simply use heritage as a starting point in our stories, then we let our imagination run wild,” said Tan, who added that NHB had been pretty open about some of their wild ideas.

“Like for (We’ll Eat When We’re Done), they didn’t go and say, hey, how can you put chicken rice and zombies together? They’re being pretty open in how we explore the themes.”

Comics Of Singapore Histories (Terembu, Unstable Foundations)
Cheah Sinnan's Terumbu (left) and Joelyn Alexandra and Elvin Ching's Unstable Foundations will be among the four titles released in 2018. (Photo: COSH Studios)

As for future books, the collective plans to play things by ear, and see how their first batch of books do before deciding on whether to create more.

Each title has a print run of 2,000 copies and will be sold for S$14.90.

They’re also hoping that the recent success of Liew’s alternative history opus will have a positive effect on the rest of the scene.

“Definitely he has had an impact and effect, particularly on the market. Hopefully, people will pay more attention to Singapore comics,” said Lim.

Tan added: “Publishers would say, who’s interested in Singapore stories? But the appeal of Charlie Chan just shows that if a story is good, it will do well – something local but has a universal appeal.”

And this could very well include comic books that mash up history and heritage, zombies and aliens, and chicken rice and kway chap. 

Source: CNA/mm