History with a twist

History with a twist

How do you turn Chinese history into something even children would want to learn? You get popular illustrator Lee Kow Fong to put his spin on historical cartoons.

Lee, or Ah Guo, as he is known to those acquainted with his pastel-hued watercolour paintings, was commissioned by the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall to breathe fresh life into comics that are over a century old, for its latest exhibition, Between the Lines – The Chinese Cartoon Revolution.

The exhibition showcases close to 150 comics from the late-1800s to the early-1900s in China and Singapore. They highlight how Chinese cartoons were an important medium for connecting the Chinese diaspora, and a powerful means through which they expressed themselves and asserted political will to end imperial rule in China.

Lee’s five hand-painted original illustrations for the show are done in his signature style of child-like whimsy, and they feature his adorable cartoon characters. Among them is the well-loved penguin, Xiao P, which Lee says represents hope, optimism and a carefree childhood – a running theme in his illustrations, and one he credits to his “dreamy” Piscean tendencies.

He reinterprets, for example, a 1907 cartoon, Carving China Up, which depicts foreign imperial powers trying to carve up a melon symbolising China, as a picnic where his animal characters try, but fail, to cut and share a melon that looks like a globe.

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While his coloured cartoons are in stark contrast to the black-on-white aesthetic of the early 20th century comics in the show, Lee, who has a degree in Chinese Studies from the National University of Singapore, says the works share common ground in their inspirations.

His cartoon reinterpretations are based on the intention of the cartoonists of the original comics, as well as the political and social climate of the time. To these, he offers an evolved take, in his own style and using his cartoon characters.

Comics that Lee especially enjoyed working on feature scenes from a bygone era, of people socialising at the public water tap, and buying snacks from the kacang puteh man. Lee refers to these scenes as capturing the “lighter side of history” and offering an intimate glimpse into the culture and social lives of early Chinese settlers in Singapore.

Indeed, the ability of cartoons to convey both personal and global stories in a compelling and accessible manner, through simple drawings, has endeared them to the public across the ages. So, for this history lesson on the Chinese cartoon revolution, you won’t be needing a history textbook.

Details on Between the Lines – The Chinese Cartoon Revolution

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