Sonny Liew becomes first Singaporean artist to win Eisner awards, but ministers aren’t acknowledging it

Photo: Coconuts media
Photo: Coconuts media

It was a triumphant night for Singapore and its creative arts scene when local author Sonny Liew bagged not one, but three Eisner awards on Saturday for his critically-acclaimed graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

If you weren’t aware, this is A Very Big Deal. The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards is the international comics industry’s equivalent of the Oscar Awards, presented yearly at San Diego Comic-Con. And it was alongside big names from Marvel, DC and more that our own Liew was honored, scoring the awards for Best Writer/Artist, Best US Edition of International Material and Best Publication Design.

It’s a monumental achievement for Singapore, of course, with Liew being the first Singaporean to ever win an Eisner award, much less three of ‘em. A feat comparable to Joseph Schooling’s Olympic gold, one might argue. But funnily enough, the powers that be remained silent about the new feather in Singapore’s cap.

It’s odd, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the controversy over The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. The very meta novel features a fictional local artist who recounts 60 years of history through his comics where politicians like Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong form a major part of the narrative — it’s an unflinching, at-times brutal look into bits of Singapore’s ugly past. It’s not hard to imagine why the National Arts Council revoked its grant over “sensitive content” involving the political critique and confrontational tones in Liew’s book just days before its release in 2015.

Despite the snub by the government, it went on to draw critical acclaim left and right, with the recent Eisner awards being the cream on top of all the accolades The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye has already amassed.

Congratulations came from many in the local art community, but none from the ruling People’s Action Party and its various ministers or Members of Parliament (MPs). Praises did arrive, but it was from opposition MPs Leon Perera and Pritam Singh of the Worker’s Party. Perera wrote that great art should always be supported “regardless of the political perspectives it expresses (unless criminality or disharmony is incited).”

Singaporeans First Secretary General Tan Jee Say — who ran in the 2011 presidential election — also pointed out how the artist came so far despite the lack of support from the government.

Nonetheless, it’s not as if Liew needs validation by the powers that snubbed him in his time of need. He’s doing splendidly, and his awards are borne out of his own talent and hard work, anyway.

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