“The retelling of Singapore’s history in the work potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines.” This guideline was what led the National Arts Council (NAC) of Singapore to withdraw a grant issued to support the publication of Sonny Liew’s newest graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye a couple of weeks ago.
In spite of this financial blow, though, Epigram Books — the Asian publisher of the book — went ahead with the releasing the book, and within one short week all 1,000 copies printed have sold out. “For most graphic novels, we print about 1,000 on average and these take two years to sell out,” founder of Epigram Books, Edmund Wee said.
The book is scheduled to go back to press with a print run of 2,000 copies. Although it will take all 3,000 copies sold in order for Epigram Books to break even financially, the almost instant sellout is demonstration of the support that book has from Singapore citizens. The history might be considered sensitive by the Singapore government and NAC, but it is a history that people have lived and want put down on paper.
With the withdrawal of the NAC grant, Liew expressed initial disappointment by the decision but has remained optimistic nonetheless and thankful for the support that the council has offered for his other works. In a recent Facebook post, though, he raised the questions that have become central to the controversy surrounding his book — questions that will need to be addressed to determine the future state of free speech and expression in Singapore:
What remains are questions over the role of a national arts organisation, the role of public money, who decides how and why they’re spent. Should the NAC be more focused on artistic considerations and be less bound by political constraints? What is the criteria for deciding if a work crosses unacceptable boundaries?
These are wider, longer term concerns, though perhaps there’s never a better time than the present to consider them, and I’d be glad if The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye plays some small role in all of it.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!