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Grant withdrawn, but Sonny Liew comic sells out and goes for reprint

The Straits Times/4 June 2015/By Akshita Nanda

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew is published by Epigram Books and sold about 300 copies at Books Kinokuniya alone on Saturday.

The graphic novel, which tells the story of a Singapore artist who represents 60-odd years of local history through his satirical comics, was awarded a publishing grant of $8,000 from the arts council. This grant was revoked when the book reached stores last month. The publisher has to return the $6,400 disbursed and has printed stickers to cover the arts council’s logo in the 1,000 copies printed for sale.

All 1,000 copies sold out last week, after news broke in The Straits Times about the grant being withdrawn.

Epigram Books’ founder Edmund Wee says he appealed last week against the arts council’s decision, but the appeal was rejected this week. He is printing up to 2,000 copies more of the graphic novel to meet demand and says he would need to sell 3,000 copies to break even after the withdrawal of the grant.

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is the fastest selling and most successful graphic novel of the half-dozen Epigram Books has published.

“For most graphic novels, we print about 1,000 on average and these take two years to sell out,” Mr Wee says, citing titles such as the award-winning Ten Sticks And One Rice by Oh Yong Hwee and Koh Hong Teng, which won a rare bronze medal last year at the 7th International Manga Awards in Japan.

In response to earlier queries from Life!, the arts council said the graphic novel’s “sensitive content, depicted in visuals and text, did not meet our funding conditions”. Mr Khor Kok Wah, the council’s senior director, literary arts sector, added to this yesterday, saying: “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. The council’s funding guidelines are published online and well known among the arts community.”

He added: “Applications are assessed on their artistic merit, but it is clear any proposed content should not infringe funding guidelines. A grant withdrawal happens very infrequently and we always make extra efforts to explain to affected parties.”

In 2011, a collection of plays by Chong Tze Chien published by Epigram Books also had its funding by the council revoked – but before its publication. The book included Charged, a controversial drama about race relations and national service.

Both artist and publisher say a representative manuscript of The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was sent to the arts council when applying for funding.

In the first chapter, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his political rival Lim Chin Siong face off in cartoon form. Later in the book, the 1987 Operation Spectrum, in which 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.

The comic has scored a publishing deal with American publisher Pantheon for an international edition next year.

Malaysia-born Liew, who became a Singapore citizen while working on The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, told Life! he was initially disappointed about the grant being withdrawn because it would make it harder for the publisher to break even. He added that he did not think his comic subverted the state and “the criteria for deciding are a bigger issue worth looking at”.

Expanding on this in a Facebook post, he thanked the arts council for its support of his other projects but added: “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.”

 

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