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Lianhe Zaobao’s 100th anniversary cartoon exhibition and the role of comics in Asia in 2023

On 20 May 2023, I attended the opening of the main Chinese newspaper in Singapore, the Lianhe Zaobao‘s 100th anniversary cartoon exhibition at One Punggol, a newly-opened community space in Singapore. 10 Zaobao cartoonists were featured, although only one of their cartoons each was showcased at the exhibition. The audience was supposed to scan the QR code to see more of their cartoons. These QR codes were also displayed on tables of selected hawker centers in Singapore for the patrons to enjoy their meal and read the cartoons on their phones at the same time. Most of the cartoons featured on the website are humorous takes on life in Singapore.

This was a very different experience from the Zaobao 90th anniversary cartoon exhibition held at the Singapore National Library 10 years ago. I was involved in that exhibition as a consultant. I had written a Masters thesis on the history of Chinese cartoons in Singapore from 1907 to 1980 with the Department of History at the National University of Singapore in the early 2000s. The exhibition made use of my research materials and I also gave a talk as part of the exhibition programs.

That particular exhibition was more historical in nature, featuring cartoons from 1923 to 2013 to show the changes in Singapore society for the past 90 years. This current exhibition is intentionally different and refreshing in using a different way to showcase local cartoons on new platforms and using technology. One need not visit a static exhibition but could still view the cartoon exhibition when they chance upon it at our local hawker centers, a staple activity in our daily lives in Singapore.

But this got me thinking – after 100 years, are cartoons now merely a source of entertainment to be read while eating our meals? Or can they provide more food for thought in thinking about social issues and international affairs? I was asked by a reporter at the exhibition what I would like to see more of in Zaobao – my answer was: given the current political and economic instability overseas, reading humorous cartoons can help us to relax. But I would also like to see more coverage of international current affairs as it is important for our young to know about supply chain issues and other volatile events that will affect us. And these can be in the form of words, pictures and cartoons. This would be a return to the tradition of newspaper cartoonists as commentators and journalists.

This was also the focus of a keynote address I gave on comics in Asia recently at a comics exhibition opening in Penang. Angin Berlabuh was an exhibition organized by an NGO in Malaysia who wanted to showcase social issues using the documentary comics of Taiwan and Malaysia artists. So far, there are few Anglophone books written on non-Japanese Asian comics (see Asian Comics by John Lent published in 2015 and Mangasia by Paul Gravett published in 2017) which cover 16 to 18 countries / territories, centering on the regions of East Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. But, in reality, depending on which websites you checked, Asia is much larger than that. It is the largest continent in the world with 4.7 billion people, about 60% of the world’s population. There are almost 50 countries if we include Western, Central and North Asia. We can even include Russia if we are generous and be more encompassing in how we view the world.

With all these diversities, how do we even talk about Asian comics and its role in today’s world in 2023? It is precisely because of current global conflicts, which have resulted in globalization receding and nations putting up barriers and emphasizing on boundaries, that we should look for commonalities, connections, convergences and leading to collaborations. Diplomacy plays a big part in this, but culture and in this case, comics and cartoons can help people to see the possibilities in the sharing and movement of ideas and the creation of networks. Not to over-generalize issues nor to ignore local factors, histories and identities, but in this time of flux and conflict, something like comics can cut across borders and for us to identify the things that can still unite us. The role of comics is to lend perspectives and provide common grounds for dialogue.

For example, one of the themes I noticed in some of the Asian comics I have read in the last 15 years is the concern for the environment and climate change. In the story, Flooded House, Flying House by Shari Chankhamma (Thailand), which was published in Liquid City Vol. 2 (Image Comics, 2010), the divide between the rich and poor has reached new heights – the rich live in the sky while the poor lives on the sea (the world is flooded because of environmental disaster) and have mutated to have fins on their hands. It is a dystopia that touches on the environmental and economic threats we face today – a theme that any readers in the world can identify with.

Another powerful theme is social justice. Priya’s Shakti (2014) written by Ram Devineni and Vikas K. Menon and drawn by Dan Goldman has the look and feel of your traditional comics about Indian mythology. But it was inspired by the tragic events of the gang rape and murder of a female student on a private bus in Delhi in December 2012. The success of the comic, online and in print, has led to sequels such as a comic story about acid attacks on women.

Only by focusing on the bigger picture (or cartoon) about issues that concern all of us that hopefully we see beyond conflicting national interests which seem to dominate our narrative these days. It is intentional of me to include Russia as part of Asia earlier in my article. If we only see them as the bad guys (and Russia is not monolithic and some opposed the war), there would be no room for resolution and dialogue. Call me an idealist, but you are talking to someone who grew up reading comics and cartoons all his life and never stopped. In the Chinese dialect, Hokkien, it’s called jiak beh tua (never grow up). But I believe that is the role of comics in Asia or anywhere – to help us see the world more clearly and perhaps innocently as well.

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