National Arts Council revokes $8,000 grant for new graphic novel, publisher prints stickers to cover up their logo

Here we go again.

By Belmont Lay | May 29, 2015

In typical Singaporean fashion, the National Arts Council (NAC) has revoked its paltry $8,000 publication grant for a newly-published graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by award-winning comics artist Sonny Liew.

It tells the story of a Singaporean artist who represents 60-odd years of local history through comics interspersed with biographical details.

The book’s publisher, Epigram Books, said $6,400 of the grant has been disbursed but will be returning the money. Stickers are being printed to cover up the arts council logo in the printed books. About 1,000 copies were printed and it retails for $34.90 in major bookstores.

The reason for the withdrawal? If only I knew then I would be able to write a more precise article about this issue.

However, according to the ever helpful The Straits Times on May 29, 2015, an explanation (of sorts) has been offered:

Mr Khor Kok Wah, senior director, literary arts sector, National Arts Council said in response to queries from Life: “We had to withdraw the grant when the book The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye came out because its sensitive content, depicted in visuals and text, did not meet our funding conditions. The Council will continue to support and work with Epigram, a leading publisher for Singapore literary works, on their other projects.”

Wow, that explains it.

However, for further clues as to why the grant had to be returned, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his political rival Lim Chin Siong appear in the 340-page book in cartoon form. Ooh, subversive.

The 1987 Operation Spectrum, when 16 people were detained allegedly over a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Government, is turned into a plot to replace all music in Singapore with the melodies of American singer Richard Marx. Haha?

Look past this superficial reading of the book, it is a multi-layered take on Singapore society, history, art, comics and social commentary plus biography all thrown into one tome.

From the review by Here Be Geeks:

Published by Epigram Books, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is based on the life of the titular, little-known Singaporean artist. The biography traces the life of Chan, from young comic-book-artist wannabe to the autumn years of his life. But it’s not just a simple tale – Chan’s life crosses through major parts of Singapore’s pre- and post-war history. In the book, Liew intersperses Chan’s comics with Liew’s own illustration of events, forming a narrative that is structured around Chan’s work.


But cut deeper and Charlie Chan layers start to bloom – and the trip isn’t quite what we were promised. Chan’s life mirrors myriad struggles within Singapore, from how Singaporeans view the arts, to the tale of – as Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) would put it – Singapore’s “Battle For Merger”. While some of these topics have been explored, whether in the history books or documentaries or dramatizations, the mastery here is in how it’s told, especially with the amount of work Liew clearly put both into researching and producing the graphic novel.

Looks like the struggle of being an artist is real and present.

This comic will sell well as a result. I guarantee it.


Related article:

Who said S’pore doesn’t have political cartoonists? Here, meet Morgan Chua.


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About Belmont Lay

Belmont can pronounce "tchotchke".

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