Award-winning Singapore cartoonist challenges history
Award-winning Singapore cartoonist challenges history
With a cast of aliens and robots and a mish-mash of influences, Liew’s graphic novel “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” appears at first glance more of a paean to history’s greatest comic book artists than a subversive tome.
But the story — which retells Singapore’s story from the 1950s to the present through the eyes of a fictional cartoonist — questions the official narrative hammered into citizens of the tightly-controlled city-state from a young age.
A central character is a real-life figure, Lim Chin Siong, a popular left-wing trade union leader who was a rival to Singapore’s authoritarian founding father Lee Kuan Yew in the ‘60s, and who was jailed during Lee’s rule.
Lim plays little part in official histories of that tumultuous period when Singapore became independent from British rule, an era marked by protests and riots, but the book presents an alternative vision of the past in which the late politician becomes premier.
On the other hand, Lee — the central figure in Singapore’s official histories and revered by many for transforming the city-state into one of the world’s richest societies — is presented in an unflattering light, as a hard-line ruler who brooked no criticism.
“I was trying to present history the way it really is: full of richness and complexities,” Liew told AFP.
“I wanted to show that there are different versions of history. It’s less about which is the most true or accurate, but rather for the reader to come away with an understanding that they need to approach all historical texts with a critical eye,” the 42-year-old added.
In Singapore, where media is tightly controlled and government critics have been hit with financially ruinous lawsuits, the book initially caused alarm.
On the eve of its launch, government agency the National Arts Council (NAC) withdrew an Sg$8,000 ($5,900) grant given to Liew for the book — whose previous works did not touch on Singapore’s history — due to its “sensitive content.”
An official from the agency said the work “potentially undermines the authority of legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions.”
But the move backfired. The extra attention caused by withdrawing the grant helped turn the graphic novel into a hit, and it is now in its fifth print run and has been translated into four languages.
In July, Liew won three Eisner Awards, regarded as the Oscars of the comic industry, at Comic Con International in San Diego for the graphic novel, including one for Best Writer/Artist.
The arts council did issue a terse, congratulatory statement — but did not go so far as to mention the name of the book.
“With the NAC, they’ve told me explicitly that they had to draw a line between me as an artist, which they support, and my book, which they said they can’t get behind,” Liew said.
Highlighting his awkward position, Liew last week said he will be returning a NAC grant of Sg$19,000 for a new book he is working on in a bid to avoid “the comprises” involved in a relationship with the authorities.
Overall, the official reaction has been relatively muted.
Liew has been allowed to continue his work from his studio stuffed full of pop culture memorabilia — he also writes and illustrates for DC Comics — is still invited to government-funded talks, and gets the use of a subsidised workspace.
Some observers see in the mild response a further sign that authorities may be relaxing their tight control over society.
Authorities had already lifted long-standing bans on 240 books and magazines in 2015. However others believe they may be simply accepting reality — that it would be counterproductive to try to ban such a popular work.
Singapore has had the same ruling party, The People’s Action Party, since 1959, a few years before it became independent from Britain, while Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister for over three decades, and his son is the current premier.
Lee, who died in 2015, was undoubtedly one of the commanding figures of Asia’s post-war economic rise, but faced criticism for his iron-fisted rule, forcing several opposition politicians into bankruptcy or exile.
Liew is fully aware that he is treading on sensitive ground and said he had made sure to rigorously check all the facts in his work.
“I do realize this is Singapore so I’m very careful,” he said, with a knowing smile.
Seeing is disbelieving: Inside Dubai’s Museum of Illusions
- “We purposely trick the eye and the mind — you get to experience different visuals.” Mohammed Ali Al-Wahaibi
- Dubai’s newest entertainment offering has only been open for just over a week but is already earning a reputation as the city’s latest Instagram hotspot
DUBAI: Dubai’s newest entertainment offering has only been open for just over a week but is already earning a reputation as the city’s latest Instagram hotspot. This is hardly surprising, because otherwise the Museum of Illusions would not be living up to its name — it is, after all, dedicated to tricking the mind into seeing something that is not there.
But even if you are more “anti-influencer” than “die-hard Insta-storyteller,” that is okay – there is plenty for everyone to enjoy. Key exhibits to look out for include the Vortex Tunnel, the Ames room, the Head on a Platter and the Rotated Room.
Not for the nausea-inclined, the spinning Vortex Tunnel tricks you into thinking the walkway is rotating thanks to a clever setup, while the Ames Room, is a distorted space that makes it appear that you have grown into a giant or shrunk down to become a tiny person. The Head on a Platter is seemingly a favorite with kids, who think it is hilarious that their head can be served up for lunch.
The Rotated Room is one of the most photo-friendly attractions, offering an opportunity to get creative and show your friends and family that you are dancing on the ceiling, just like Lionel Richie did in the music video to his 1986 hit of that name, which was filmed using a similar set-up.
The Dubai venue is the ninth Museum of Illusion worldwide, the latest addition to a brand that launched three years ago in Zagreb, Croatia. Since then, the franchise has spread to a number of countries across Europe, and has been brought to the UAE, Oman and Malaysia by businessman Mohammed Ali Al-Wahaibi.
“I purchased the museum’s rights for the Middle East, and we have been setting up,” he said. “It’s a mix of entertainment and education, and it’s a unique experience that’s fun for the senses.
“We’re adding value to the endless options here (in Dubai). The museum examines the relationship between the eye and the mind. We purposely trick the eye and the mind – you get to experience different visuals.”
Suitable for everyone from the age of three and up, the UAE’s newest entertainment offering features a mix of attractions that are fun for adults and others that are more suitable for the little ones. One of the best things about the exhibits is that most of them are interactive. There are photos, puzzles, games and plenty of “magic” to discover – 80 illusions in total.
“You are part of the illusion, you’re not just a spectator,” explained Al-Wahaibi. “That makes it a lot of fun. We’ve been advising visitors that it takes an hour [to see everything] but they have been staying longer and really enjoying it.”
Located in Al Seef, one of the emirate’s newest developments, tucked behind Dubai Creek, the Dubai venue is the biggest Museum of Illusions to date, “which speaks to the high standards of the emirate,” Al-Wahaibi said. “We wanted to bring an offering that suited the high expectations of visitors. Each museum is designed based on its location, and we’re attracting both tourists and local residents.”
If you want to experience the museum’s fun exhibits but will not be in Dubai any time soon, you will soon get the chance, as the next venue to open will be in Riyadh.
“The Kingdom is a big country and so we wanted it to be one of the first to launch,” Al-Wahaibi said. “The museum is very family oriented and fits well.”
The Museum of Illusions in Dubai is open every day from 10 a.m. Tickets cost $22 for adults and $16 for children. Visit museumofillusions.ae for more details.