Comics collective launch heritage-inspired works

Oh Yong Hwee (left) wrote Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts; James Tan (above) wrote and illustrated Final Resting Place; and Benjamin Chee (below) illustrated Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy.
Oh Yong Hwee (above) wrote Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts; James Tan wrote and illustrated Final Resting Place; and Benjamin Chee illustrated Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy.PHOTOS: COMICS OF SINGAPORE HISTORIES, TIMOTHY DAVID
Oh Yong Hwee (left) wrote Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts; James Tan (above) wrote and illustrated Final Resting Place; and Benjamin Chee (below) illustrated Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy.
Oh Yong Hwee wrote Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts; James Tan (above) wrote and illustrated Final Resting Place; and Benjamin Chee illustrated Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy.PHOTOS: COMICS OF SINGAPORE HISTORIES, TIMOTHY DAVID
Oh Yong Hwee (left) wrote Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts; James Tan (above) wrote and illustrated Final Resting Place; and Benjamin Chee (below) illustrated Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy.
Oh Yong Hwee wrote Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts; James Tan wrote and illustrated Final Resting Place; and Benjamin Chee (above) illustrated Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy.PHOTOS: COMICS OF SINGAPORE HISTORIES, TIMOTHY DAVID
Oh Yong Hwee (left) wrote Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts; James Tan (above) wrote and illustrated Final Resting Place; and Benjamin Chee (below) illustrated Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy.
PHOTOS: COMICS OF SINGAPORE HISTORIES, TIMOTHY DAVID
Oh Yong Hwee (left) wrote Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts; James Tan (above) wrote and illustrated Final Resting Place; and Benjamin Chee (below) illustrated Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy.
PHOTOS: COMICS OF SINGAPORE HISTORIES, TIMOTHY DAVID
Oh Yong Hwee (left) wrote Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts; James Tan (above) wrote and illustrated Final Resting Place; and Benjamin Chee (below) illustrated Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy.
PHOTOS: COMICS OF SINGAPORE HISTORIES, TIMOTHY DAVID

Local comics creators have come together to produce works that make history come alive for new audiences

Alien hawkers, one-eyed dragon assassins and graveyard humour are some of the elements that a new comics collective is using to drag Singapore history out of textbooks and into the imaginations of younger generations.

Comics of Singapore Histories (Cosh) Studios brings together 11 local comics creators to produce works that put new spins on old stories.

"History can be very distant for the young," says Cosh co-founder Lim Cheng Tju, a comics writer and historian. "Comics are a visual medium that appeals to the young and allows us to tell our past using a stimulating format."

Cosh, which is supported by the National Heritage Board's Heritage Project Grant, was conceptualised in 2015. It released its first three titles last month, each of which is about 64 pages, and will publish four more next year.

Creating comics is labour-intensive and the local market grows slowly as a result, says Lim, 45.

"We want diversity and we want volume. We thought if we pooled our resources together and published at once, there would be more of an impact."

Part of the first wave is Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy, set during the 1915 Sepoy Mutiny in Singapore, which depicts the early cracks in the crumbling British empire.

Written by Lim, it is illustrated by Benjamin Chee in a style reminiscent of anime Dragon Ball Z and Astro Boy. They took a year to complete it.

"Singapore comics tend to be typecast as serious," says Lim. "We wanted to lighten the tone and create a fun story where they literally fight from page one to the end."

In the book, a British agent, a Chinese assassin, Indian sepoys and a mysterious housekeeper exchange blows. Chee, 29, says there was so much action that he got cramps in his hand from drawing speed lines.

Another action-filled offering is Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts, which puts a science-fiction twist on Singapore's love of food.

In it, an alien from another galaxy is assigned to Old Airport Road Food Centre as a kitchen helper to Madam Lam, a renowned kway chap hawker.

He befriends other inhabitants of the food centre, from the charismatic roast duck seller to the tiny, mischievous kitchen god. But when his employer suddenly vanishes, he must step up to represent her at the annual Fifth Milestone kway chap competition.

Artist Koh Hong Teng and writer Oh Yong Hwee are sons of hawkers - Koh's parents sold Hokkien mee, while Oh's parents sold satay - and it pains them to see the lack of continuity in the trade.

They wanted to create an alternate universe in which the hawker trade is so significant that hawkers can even form political parties to champion their rights.

Koh, 48, also a Cosh co-founder, says: "Today, it is easier to set up a food blog than to take up the hawker trade. Good food is slowly disappearing in Singapore."

Unlike the other two books, James Tan's Final Resting Place is a quieter, poignant look at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

A young boy on a visit to his grandfather's grave annoys his parents so much that they abandon him there for a few hours to teach him a lesson. Lost and alone, he encounters an old caretaker who tells him stories about the cemetery.

Tan, 41, visited Bukit Brown some years ago on a drawing expedition and fell in love with it. "It's different from the typical Singapore you see - it's untamed, unkept, unmanicured."

His love letter to Bukit Brown is also critical of the Land Transport Authority's decision to raze parts of the cemetery to connect the MacRitchie Viaduct to Adam Road.

The titles that Cosh will release next year include Cheah Sinann's Terumbu, a 19th-century love story between a Riau pirate and the daughter of a penghulu, or traditional Malay headman; and Unstable Foundations by Joelyn Alexandra and Elvin Ching, in which a university student seeks the lost treasure of Japanese general Yamashita Tomoyuki.

Also on the table are more food-related tales: Don Low's Kungfu Dough, about a baker's daughter with hidden skills; and We'll Eat When We're Done by Dave Chua and Max Loh, set in a Singapore overrun by zombies, where a group of survivors search for ingredients to make chicken rice.

• Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy, Coalition Of The Savoury Spare Parts and Final Resting Place ($14.90 each) are available at Books Kinokuniya, BooksActually and City Book Room.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2017, with the headline 'Stripping the past for the younger generation'. Print Edition | Subscribe