“Uniquely Singaporean” Comics:
The Quest for Identity

Part 3b – Fantasies and anxieties: Contemporary wuxia as cultural diaspora

Apart from the predominantly English-language driven superhero genre, comics from East Asia such as Japanese Manga, Chinese Lian Huan Hua, Hong Kong manhua and Korean Manhwa forms another significant influence on Singaporean comics. In the 1990s to 2000s, manga began to gain peak popularity.1 The establishment of Chuang Yi publishing as a distributor of Chinese-translated manga, as well as the growth of retail chains such as Comics Connection and Kinokuniya carrying translated titles from Taiwanese and Hong Kong publishers made manga easily accessible to Chinese readers. Meanwhile, Hong Kong comics such as Lao Fu Zi, Little Rascal and various martial arts fantasy titles by Ma Wing-Shing remain a staple since the 70s. 

Asiapac Books, established in 1983, is one of the leading publishers of original educational comic books that focus on Asian culture.2 In 1994, Asiapac approached local artist Wee Tian Beng to turn a best-selling Hong Kong science fiction novel by Ni Kuang, The Adventures of Wisely, into a manga series. In 1996, Asiapac obtained the rights to adapt the epic Hong Kong wuxia novel The Return of the Condor Heroes (Fig. 1), and hired Wee again to illustrate the 18-volume series. Wee became the first Singaporean artist to break into the Asian manga market, and in 1999, he began working on his original series, The Celestial Zone (TCZ) which became the longest comic series in Singapore.3 In contrast to superhero comics and manga, Wee’s works are stylistically original, containing strong wuxia elements which appeals to not only the Chinese community, but also East Asian markets in general.

Figure 1. Various Languages of The Return Of Condor Heros & The Adventures of Wisely. Image from TCZ studio.

Every culture has their own heroic figures in legends and popular narratives. The wuxia (martial heroes) fantasy is a type of heroes which came from a rich literary tradition deeply rooted in Chinese history and culture. Mostly set in ancient China, a wuxia novel makes references to history, politics, arts and poetry which requires quite a bit of prior knowledge and at least a decent command of Chinese language in order to fully grasp its aesthetics and ideologies: The martial arts component often relates to the act of “cultivation”, where one surpasses physical and the spiritual boundaries via specialised training to attain superpowers. Adhering to Taoist beliefs, the purpose of cultivation is for self improvement: The superpowers are usually drawn from nature and trained from a young age, rather than granted by a higher entity or a freak accident as per Western superhero convention. The heroic component, on the other hand, arose from a response against the corruption of the legal system and constant threat of foreign invasion, both abundant throughout Chinese history and remains relevant to Chinese communities. A typical wuxia novel, film or comic book often romanticise and aestheticise fight scenes, while keeping character relationships relatively straightforward between good and evil.

Each of the TCZ series features a different cast of characters, timeline and locale from the TCZ multiverse, but revolves around martial arts battles and power struggles between super powered individuals or organisations. The original TCZ series I (1999–2003) and II (2003–06) is set in Ancient China and the story centres on the adventure of Xing Ling, a teen bandit with a strong sense of justice. Its successor, The Celestial Zone 21 (TCZ21, 2006–09) is set in modern day Singapore with an entirely new cast led by a Mainland Chinese sojourner named Lavender. The Celestial Zone X (2009–12) and X2 (2012–18) is a sequel to TCZ I & II and reintroduces popular characters from the original TCZ series crossing over to a new “western magical realm”. Notably, all TCZ series contain powerful, appealing and inspirational female lead characters, combining elements of beauty, intelligence, strengths and morality (Fig. 2). 

Figure 2. All three series feature strong female protagonists. Xing Ling (TCZ), Lavender (TCZ21), Lamina (TCZX) each possess a different type of superpower: Eastern spiritual power, ESP, and Magic respectively.

In alignment with the wuxia tradition, all TCZ series assign large amounts of spatial and temporal significance to martial arts choreography, using prolonged sequences of decompressed action-to-action panels to convey the aesthetics of acrobatic moves (Fig. 3). While the first series published in black and white by Asiapac adopt a manga aesthetic with 144 pages per volume, drawn in black and white with traditional medium of pen, ink and screen tones, subsequent publications since the second series have embraced full colour digital productions, released bi-monthly as a 60-page A5-sized book, resembling the styles of Hong Kong wuxia manhua by Ma Wing-Shing (Fig. 4). The fight scenes can last for almost an entire volume, sometimes straddling two volumes. Dialogues are kept to a minimum during battle scenes in order to maintain the flow of reading.

Figure 3. The Celestial Zone I published by Asia pac adopts japanese manga aesthetic and formatting. Each volume is 144 pages long and exquisitely rendered with ink and screen tone.

Figure 4. Full coloured pages in The Celestial Zone X (2006-09) resembles coloured Hong Kong wuxia manhua. Each issue is 60 pages long and released bi-monthly. This fight scene is very long, starting on page 6 and ending at page 35.

Figure 5. Opening pages of TCZ I volume 2 with quotes from Lao Tzu. The amalgamation of Manga aesthetics and Chinese Taoist philosophy is visually original.

Wuxia and Taoist elements remain a popular troupe and visual inspiration for many East Asian artists and audiences. In diaspora communities the adoption and adaptation of traditional cultural elements parallels a constant quest of shaping one’s identity as immigrants. In TCZ series, the transition from ancient chinese settings to contemporary Singapore and then a crossover to a fantasy “western” realm somewhat echos this attempt to reiterate one’s cultural roots while adapting to the increasingly globalised and homogenised cultural environment.  

So far, we have examined the superhero and the wuxia, who represent the polar extremes of the West v.s. East, Modern v.s. Tradition spectrum. The segregation of English and Chinese book markets largely determined the reading preferences and later stylistic choices made by readers and artists. While both superhero and wuxia fantasies differ in terms of narrative structure, pacing, aesthetics and language, they similarly adopt the symbol of the hyper-powered vigilante who fights against injustice to empower the marginalised. Both the superhero and wuxia genre construct identities not through explicit social commentaries but by projecting desires, struggles, hopes and growths as symbolic battles of heroes against obstacles, performing as agents to construct alternative identities and philosophies against mainstream tendencies.  

Part C of this chapter will look into how Manga and Webtoon influenced a different generation of artists and readers who seek a different kind of identity liberation.

References:

1 Wai-ming Ng, ‘Japanese Animation in Singapore: A Historical and Comparative Study’. Animation, 9.1 (2001), 47–60 (p. 6)

2 ‘About Us’, Asiapac website, 2020 <https://asiapacbooks.com/pages/about-us> [accessed 19 July 2020].

3 ‘Wee Tian Beng Profile’, TCZ Studio <http://tczstudio.com/profiles/wee-tian-beng/> [accessed 19 July 2020].

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