When Liu Kang painted Life By the River in 1975, it had already been a little over 20 years since he discovered Bali’s charms and colours. He didn’t plan on starting an art movement but Bali made him an inadvertent advocate for painting local and owning the local visual narrative.
Liu Kang was a Chinese émigré who arrived in Malaya in the mid 1900s (then Singapore and Malaysia under the British) with no recourse to return to the Motherland because the Second World War had begun. The irony was that he had escaped China for Muar, in Malaysia, where his family had a business and home, due to the escalating Sino-Japanese war. The Liu family had thought that Malaya would be a safe haven, not realising that Japanese soldiers were hot on their trail. No, Liu Kang wasn’t a spy, he was a painter.
Fast forward some years and WWII ends. Liu Kang decides to remain in Malaya for personal reasons and to make Nanyang his home. To the mainland Chinese, anywhere south of China was known as Nanyang — the Southern Seas. Nanyang included Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Having lived in Nanyang for some time, I feel a sense of emptiness […] I also feel an unspeakable aridity, as though trudging thousand of miles in the desert, unable to find any dewdrops and greenery, or any villages.” Liu Kang, The Voice of the Motherland, 1937.Liu Kang, Essays on Art and Culture
As an artist, Liu Kang found Nanyang arid and devoid of aesthetics. He was dismayed at the lack of artistic education, and the lacklustre efforts at promoting art in Singapore by the colonial government. However, Liu Kang plodded on and formed an art collective where he gathered artists like himself for dialogues and discussions. In many essays written in Mandarin Chinese, later translated into English, he outlined his feelings and his thoughts on the art scene in Singapore. In these essays, it’s clear to see that being a pioneer is never easy, especially when one’s vision doesn’t align with the status quo.
Liu Kang was trained in Shanghai in Traditional Chinese landscapes and in Paris, where he learnt European-style paintings. In Paris, he was enthralled by Gauguin and Cézanne and other Impressionists. He really wanted to go to Tahiti like Gauguin who painted the landscape and locals there. But the war thwarted Liu Kang’s dreams. He had big dreams for himself and for art.
As some dreams have a way of coming true and manifesting themselves differently, Liu Kang found a new kind of hope when he travelled with 3 fellow émigré artists to the island of Bali in 1952. There, he found another way to paint that would revolutionise the art world in Nanyang. Fast forward more years: Liu Kang founds the art movement known as the Nanyang Style. Since then, generations of art viewers have been privy to a large body of work on display at the National Gallery Singapore, where Nanyang-styled art works can be viewed.
Movements begin and Movements end. But Movements start because communities or collectives of people want to find a way to manifest their desire or their hope for change. A Movement is a revolution, if you will.
There is a need for a Movement in Singapore to promote and elevate the literature that is being written and produced on the island-nation, or the Little Red Dot, it’s friendly moniker. I speak about KidLit in particular. I’ve mentioned many times before that Singapore’s KidLit production and market is still in its infancy. It’s young but not green as there have been some people writing for children since the late 1990s. There are also many self-published KidLit authors in Singapore or those whose work have been commissioned by various organisations. Organisations do use picturebooks to reach out to their target audiences and to raise awareness of causes and the work they do.
I believe some 12-15 years ago, the government of Singapore offered grants and awards or prizes to encourage people to write children’s books. This started a small movement of writers lured by the rewards to write for children. Many have become established children’s book authors and their books are selling well locally and some even internationally. However, these children’s books are not reaching the kind of international audiences that books produced in America and the United Kingdom are. Why?
A Movement takes concerted effort. It takes a village. In Singapore, the various governmental organisations who promote the arts work disparately and often competitively. The village is divided but the people are all striving for the same thing — to elevate their status. As one knows only to well: “divided we fall …”
Then, not everyone knows about the plans and policies (unless you’re an interested or curious party and go looking; many of the government’s plans are online anyway, and can be found) that the government is putting into action or wants to put into action; these plans are the guidelines that stakeholders are encouraged to take note of and follow. This just means that the stakeholders or the target audiences aren’t being reached, unless they take it upon themselves to look out for these plans and policies, and remain in the dark while attempting to do the job of elevating the state of the arts in Singapore. The result is that everyone’s trying to build a town hall in the village but the builders are lacking guidelines or instructions.
Recently, I came across the National Arts Council’s (NAC) ‘OUR SG ARTS PLAN 2018-2022’ for Literary Arts. Yes, I know, it’s 2020 and this plan was my new discovery! See what I mean about plans not reaching target audiences? In this plan, the arts council, essentially a governmental body, as all arts councils are, put forward solutions to encourage reading and steps to increase literacy on the island-nation, focusing on Singapore Literature as texts to develop empathy and develop a sense of the Singaporean identity. Note that it’s simply Singapore Literature with no specific mention of Singapore KidLit. And, it is also Literature that is Singapore-centric and Singapore-related.
The OUR SG ARTS PLAN begins this way “Literature is more than just words on a page. It captures our stories, experiences, aspirations, and cultures — in short, literature is an important expression of our Singaporean identity.” Then, it goes on to mention a large amount of money being injected into the “first Literary Arts Plan in 2020”, we’re talking SGD$24 million.
Stories and novels whose central characters are black, Native American, Italian-American, Jewish, Appalachian or members of some other specific cultural group. Ethnic fiction usually deals with a protagonist caught between two conflicting ways of life: mainstream American culture and his ethnic heritage.”Writer’s Digest University
As a children’s book author who simply writes and not write ethnically, I find this plan rather short-sighted. Its focus on only Singapore Literature is limiting since the Singapore KidLit scene is a fairly new one, with only a handful of authors writing specifically Singapore-centric and -related literature. If I were to be more specific, the Singapore KidLit scene is newer still compared to the generic Singapore Lit scene. (And, if I were to be brutally honest, not all Sing KidLit being produced is of good quality. There is such a desperate drive to produce Sing KidLit that publishers are taking in anyone who can write and then rewriting or revising their manuscripts just so that these are publishable.) Besides, debates about ethnic writing and writers are also very America-centric, where writing has become so politicised. While it’s good to heed and take note of what’s going on in the writing world at large, it’s not good to mimic a movement that has no semblance to the reality of what’s going on in Singapore. And, the irony is that most Singaporeans would buy and read KidLit which is America-centric or Euro-centric over Sing KidLit, which is Sing-centric and good for developing a love for the nation and self. Goes to show, doesn’t it?
Although the literary scene is now more vibrant, awareness and appreciation of Singapore literature is low — just one in 10 Singaporeans read Singapore literature. We need more quality literary arts experiences to interest Singaporeans who are not familiar with Singapore literature.”OUR SG ARTS PLAN 2018-2020
On the other, I do understand the NAC’s focus on local literature since the diet of books fed to local children seem to be Eurocentric or America-centric, these book markets being more mature and aggressive. Secondly, with so much western-centric media influence be it TV, social media, movies,and/or music, local anything in Singapore does get a poor following. Research undertaken by government agencies in Singapore also points to a pitiful 44% of the public reading (Singapore literacy rate is 97.05%), and these readers are not always reading fiction. Singapore’s obsession with reading falls into the tight brackets of self-help books (mostly to do with how to make more money and/or mental health since living in wealth-obsessed Singapore is very stressful) and nonfiction tomes about notable personalities. I guess like many reality-TV obsessed viewers, the average Singaporean loves the minutiae of important people’s lives. Yes, people do read but it’s not quite KidLit and fiction. Then, there is a section of the population who specifically seek moralistic books that teach their children good values instructionally. A lack of imagination stops many well-intentioned parents from seeing that all children’s books teach good things and more often than not are wells full of solid good values, even the funny ones. I’ve also been asked to write educational books that will help local children improve their English language learning. This indicates to me that fiction is not the main interest of result-oriented local parents who do want their kids to read but are often not discerning enough to know the difference between good writing and great literature, and that it is literature that develops the critical thinking often needed to ace in exams, not merely pass them. As I say this, it’s also fair to mention the many parents out there in the tropical forest of Singapore’s literary woods who take a profound interest in pointing their children to quality writing; I applaud these parents for their mindfulness in swimming upstream with the salmon.
So back to what I was saying about the SG ARTS PLAN being limiting. Where is there wiggle room in the plan for writers like me—a Singapore-based children’s book author, with books that aren’t always Singapore-centric or -related, who write fiction and am never didactic—to march in unison with the rest of the local (KidLit) writers? I ask this because the ARTS PLAN specifically states that “[w]e need to work hard at articulating a Singaporean identity and to enlarge common spaces for diverse communities.” All this, I understand, is to accommodate the many new Singaporeans who’ve taken citizenship but do not as yet identify Singaporean. It’s also to be inclusive, I understand, as Singapore is really a melting cauldron of cultures and ethnicities. And, here’s the irony: When I do submit a Singapore-centric and Singapore-related manuscript to local publishers, it gets rejected because it’s too Singapore-centric. [LOL emoji appropriate here] The frustration, folks! I digress. Back to the PLAN.
Then, the PLAN goes on to mention positioning SG as a global literary nation in the region and finding ways to collaborate with literary agencies and organisations in the Southeast Asian region. It’s an ambitious plan it must be said. But Singapore is not a nation of insipid planners. It’s a tiny nation with big dreams. And this plan highlights the nation’s dream of being great literary literally. But, I find yet another caveat.
If books are containers of stories that help children and adults develop empathy and find a sense of their places in the world, then it should be books that’s the focus rather than only Singapore books or literature. Yet, I do know that courtesy begins at home. So, in all this focus, it is also the Singaporeans themselves who should be reading and buying SingLit, and not only because the government says so. Where’s the home team support? The National Literary Reading & Writing Survey (2015) tells us that only “ […] just one in 10 Singaporeans read Singapore literature.” It’s not a want of trying on the government’s part, I should say. But Singaporeans need to be told what to do in order to do what they should be doing sponteneously. So, it’s time to cheer for the home team, folks — the G needs ya to and Sing KidLit creators need your support. The PLAN says so!
#BuySingLit is a local Movement that takes place in March annually. The government injects a.lot of money in the form of book vouchers and initiatives in terms of events to encourage local readers to buy SingLit. This spans all genres and age-related Singapore literature. However, year on end, the “take up” rate is less than 40% island-wide. Buy SingLit is still in its infancy and only in its third iteration as far as my sources tell me. I’ve taken part a couple of times and will take part again this year in a privately organised story concerto to entice young readers to read through music and play. In my experience, the S$10 vouchers with an expiry date hardly gets utilised. And, buyers ask if they can buy other books apart from “just” SingLit. Where is the courtesy, Singaporeans?
All said and criticised, the OUR SG ARTS PLAN is a positive move towards encouraging reading and literacy. But the work is not even half done yet. As with any plan, a lot of the work is in getting folks to “buy in”. As I write this, a quiet Movement is beginning to take root on this island-state. It’s a ground-up Movement as most movements are. The Movement took shape when a bunch of local writers or those of us who identify ourselves as such got together to discuss how we can make some noise about what we write about and what we’re planning to do to change the KidLit scene in Singapore. Like superheroes, the KidLit S.E.A. Community (KLSEAC) will be rescuing locally- and regionally-written stories and helping young readers in Singapore and the region to “own our narratives” and to appreciate all the good books produced locally, even those non Singapore-centric and -related ones. As courtesy begins at home, KLSEAC will start with Singapore produced KidLit. Books lovers stay tuned.
Like Liu Kang and the Nanyang style, KLSEAC will find a way to move the people with locally produced KidLit. Forging an identity is only one aspect of reading. The biggest aspect of reading is reading itself and when Singapore starts to produce better quality KidLit, discerning parents will flock to BuySingLit, to buy SG KidLit. It will take a village and a village is what we have. Watch this space, Singapore readers.