SINGAPORE – Before the comic powerhouses of Marvel and DC Comics came along, people in early Singapore were introduced to the world of cartoons and comics of a completely different genre – cartoons that were a reflection of daily life, and in many instances, used to depict current affairs and served as a voice for the everyday man. From November 3 2018 until July 7 2019, the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall (SYSNMH) will spotlight this lesser-known genre of cartoons that emerged in China and Singapore between the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century in its latest special exhibition.
Officials and Rice Barrels (1911)
This cartoon ingeniously merges the image of a Qing official with a rice barrel to help its readers draw the connection between “rice barrels” (fantong, 饭 桶, a derogatory term meaning “good-for-nothing” in Chinese) and incompetent officials in the late Qing period.
As Seen on the Streets (1936)
This cartoon, drawn by Yang Jing Mei, depicts a communal scene with people of different races bathing, washing laundry and collecting water from a public water pipe. It captures the cartoonist’s observations about living in a multi-ethnic and multicultural Singapore in the 1930s. As Seen on the Streets (1936) Originally published in the “Wen Man Gie” supplement of Nanyang Siang Pau on 18 October 1936. Copyright undetermined – untraced author, image courtesy of National University of Singapore Libraries
Between the Lines – The Chinese Cartoon Revolution
Organised in collaboration with the Memorial Museum of 1911 Revolution in Guangzhou, China, and supported by various local organisations and partners, Between the Lines – The Chinese Cartoon Revolution showcases close to 150 cartoons and related artefacts published from the late 19th century till the early 20th century, both in Singapore and China. This period is significant to the heritage of the Singaporean Chinese community as it was a delicate period of identity-making – it was a time when the early Chinese settlers made their way to Singapore to build their homes here; and also marked a tumultuous political period in China, then regarded as a homeland which they were still deeply connected to. Facing these uncertainties, Chinese cartoons became a medium through which they were updated about the events in China and later became a means through which they expressed themselves.
The early Chinese cartoonists used witty and satirical sketches to convey the aspirations of the Chinese community in China amidst a changing political landscape leading up to the revolution, and these cartoons soon travelled to the Chinese diaspora in Singapore where it became a popular platform to reflect on local concerns and issues.
Mr Alvin Ting, General Manager of SYSNMH, says: “Cartoons are often viewed as a casual form of story-telling, however this exhibition casts a spotlight on the late 19th century, deemed as the ‘Golden Age’ of Chinese cartoons, and examines the symbolic role they played in documenting key events and sentiments. We hope that these cartoons will provide visitors with a different, and hopefully a more light-hearted way, to learn more about the social and political history of the Chinese community in Singapore.”
Chinese Cartoons Through the Years
The exhibition is divided into four sections, which trace the evolution of the role of cartoons chronologically across the late 19th to early 20th centuries. They are:
• Born in Crisis – This section traces the emergence of the first Chinese cartoon in China, and how it was used as a tool to raise awareness of the threat posed by the foreign powers such as Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Japan and Germany, following China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War during the late 19th century;
• Revolutionary Lines and Strokes – This section highlights the first use of Chinese cartoons by the revolutionaries such as Pan Da Wei, He Jian Shi and Qian Bing He, as a propaganda tool in efforts to establish a new republic;
• Sparking a cartoon revolution – This section traces the emergence of Chinese cartoons in Singapore, in response to the revolutionary movement against the Qing government in China in the early 20th century;
• The Golden Age – This section shows the shift in focus of Chinese cartoons in Singapore, to focus more on local issues and concerns.
The Victory of 1939 (1939), Sin Chew Jit Poh © Singapore Press Holdings Limited.
One exhibition highlight is The Victory of 1939, by one of Singapore’s earliest practising artists, Tchang Ju Chi. Depicting a Japanese invader being bayoneted by a Chinese soldier who is standing on a pile of coins labelled “The Overseas Chinese” or “华侨”, the cartoon underscores the important role played by the Singapore Chinese community in financially supporting China’s war effort against Japan.
The Dragon Lantern Procession (1909). Illustration by local illustrator Ah Guo
Reproduced with permission of the Memorial Museum of 1911 Revolution
Illustration by Lianhe Zaobao Student Correspondents’ Club
Illustration by local illustrator Ah Guo
To make the exhibition more relevant to visitors, students from the Lianhe Zaobao Student Correspondents’ Club and well-known Singapore illustrator Lee Kow Fong, known to many as Ah Guo, have been invited to provide a contemporary take on the exhibition’s narrative and its offerings. The students, for example, have adapted the cartoons to critique modern realities and draw parallels to their own lives. For instance, they chose to adapt The Dragon Lantern Procession, which served to criticise the various foreign powers for asserting their influence on the Qing officials. They used this as a parody for the life of hard-pressed students today, who often have to juggle the varying demands and expectations of concerned family members.
Ah Guo added his own personal touch to selected historical cartoons and brought them to life with iconic characters from his work, such as the penguin and hedgehog. These reinterpreted works are featured alongside the black-and-white historical cartoons, and provide a good juxtaposition of the past against the present.
Visitors can also look forward to an interactive drawing station where they can try their hand at drawing the iconic Niubizi cartoon character, courtesy of the Huang Yao Foundation. The character was created by renowned artist and scholar Huang Yao in the 1930s, and was known throughout China, Malaya and Singapore as a vehicle for his creator’s satirical portrayals of social and political issues. Between the Lines also brings together local artists such as cartoonists from COSH Studios, and various local and international experts, who will share their insights on the role of cartoons in Singapore’s history, and the legacy left behind by pioneering cartoonists.