Cartoon collection tells tragedy with dark humour

WORDS have been written, photos have left their mark, but cartoons have seldom told the story of the Tiananmen tragedy.

A quarter of a century on, Singaporean cartoonist Morgan Chua, formerly of the Far Eastern Economic Review, has re-released a collection of cartoons on the Tiananmen crackdown.

Entitled simply Tiananmen, the 102-page book published by Epigram Books recounts the incident, highlights the protagonists and reminds readers to never forget the events leading up to or on June 4, 1989.

"Throughout these pages, my brush weeps in sorrow for what happened in Tiananmen Square," Mr Chua wrote in the preface.

His despair is illustrated through single-panel cartoons, each one offering a graphic attack on the bloody crackdown. Most of these black-and-white creations showcase a dark humour, which at once draws a smile and chills the spine.

In Menu: Tiananmen Duck for instance, the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping is drawn as a chef, with an apron which says "Zhongnanhai No. 1 Restaurant". He is roasting a duck labelled "students", a parody of capital Beijing's most famous dish - the Peking duck.

Deng, who died in 1997, ordered the military crackdown on demonstrators and civilians who were protesting against corruption, the income gap and authoritarianism.

The book also recounts the episodes of the incident through cartoons, a boon to those who lack the patience for text. One cartoon, for example, shows a smiling former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev putting his arm around a frowning Deng and saying, "Thanks for the memory". In the background are protesting students with a banner which criticises Chinese leaders and hails "Glasnost" - Mr Gorbachev's famous open-door reform policy.

The Soviet leader's visit to China, after 30 years of broken diplomatic ties, came amid the protests, and this coincidence accounts for the intense global media coverage of the Tiananmen incident.

Mr Chua, 65, does not hide his disgust with the crackdown. He places the blame on Deng, who he says betrayed him, the Chinese people and also the international community who trusted him to take China out of the chaos of Mao Zedong's rule.

Deng's "government used the military to suppress its own innocent, unarmed people with firepower, brutality and insanity", Mr Chua wrote in the book.

He added: "Not for the first time, a government was turning the guns on its people. Has the world learnt nothing from history?"

Through his cartoons, he hopes to remedy such amnesia. While the book lacks the balance and comprehensiveness of other accounts of the incident, its refreshing presentation is a useful entry point for those seeking to know more about June 4, 1989.

shpeh@sph.com.sg

The writer is this newspaper's former China bureau chief and author of When The Party Ends: China's Leaps And Stumbles After The Beijing Olympics