The aftermath of Charlie Chan

(This post by Monica Lim first appeared on her blog on 27 June 2015. It is reproduced with permission.)

So a few weeks ago, this graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew, made headlines when its NAC grant was revoked due to its politically sensitive content.

Since then, the book has been selling like hot cakes. Its first two print runs totaling 2,500 copies have sold out as fast as McDonald's Hello Kitty toys and it's into its third print run. It has become the best-selling fiction title in local bookstores, knocking the dubious 50 Shades of Grey off its top spot.

I'm glad the book has sold well. I haven't read it but I flipped through the sample and I thought the drawings were vibrant and gorgeous. Reviews of it have almost been unanimously gushing.

However, I'm writing this post because I feel that NAC has been unfairly villainised in this whole episode. Many people have lashed out at NAC, mocking them for their myopia that has now created a mini local sensation. For some, it was yet another reason to jump on the government-bashing bandwagon, which has become so fashionable.

First, I have to say that I don't like how NAC pulled the grant. I mean, if they didn't feel the book was suitable in the first place, they shouldn't have offered the grant. When you offer a grant, the publisher takes into those numbers when working out its bottomline. In case you didn't know, publishers' profit margins are already razor-thin to begin with and they often lose money on books they don't sell. So when NAC pulled the rug from under their feet, that's not nice. I don't know the background - I'm guessing what happened is after LKY's death, the whole country just became more sensitive about political issues and NAC decided to take the more conservative route.

But what many people don't seem to understand is that a grant is like a gift. It is not an entitlement. Publishers are commercial entities, so NAC is not obliged to support them. A grant for a book is simply a show of financial support. Up to now, NAC has been very generous in offering grants for many local titles, so much so that some in the industry think publishers might have come to expect grants as a matter of fact. But in reality, not every book is entitled to or receives a grant. (Incidentally, the grant goes to the publisher, not the author, so it doesn't benefit or hurt Sonny Liew in any way.)

And then there's the ridiculous conjecture that NAC pulled the grant because they didn't want people to read the book, so this is a slap in the face for them. This is so illogical it boggles the mind. Since when does anyone read a book just because it has a grant from NAC?? Look, if NAC really didn't want the book to reach the public, they would have banned it. THE BOOK HAS NOT BEEN BANNED. You can still buy it (if you can get your hands on it!) It just hasn't been funded by NAC. That is all.

If I could use an analogy: You want go to a university to study a controversial course. The organisation that had previously offered you a scholarship decided the course was not in line with what they believe. So they pull the scholarship. But you are still free to study the course. The organisation is not stopping you from doing so. It's just that you won't get funding for it. (In fact, the scholarship doesn't affect you because the funding for your university studies was never coming from you anyway).

You may have noticed that the publisher of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is Epigram Books, who also happens to be my publisher of The Good, the Bad and the PSLE and the Danger Dan series (which have received NAC grants). I spoke to some people in Epigram Books about this and even though they didn't like that the grant was pulled, they too, thought NAC got a raw deal out of this episode.

I've met NAC staff on several occasions and worked with them on a few projects. They have been very accommodating and helpful, and I know it's not just to me. Many artists, writers, people in the industry, Epigram Books and even Sonny himself acknowledge that NAC has been very supportive. And no, I'm not saying it to be politically correct or because I "have to", for some ludicrous reason. I'm saying it because it's true.

So back to the grants. Do I feel that NAC should have given the grant for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye on artistic merit alone? My personal opinion - yes. However, like any organisation, NAC has a right to decide how to dispense their money and I thought it was a shame that they have gained a reputation as dark as Darth Vader for this one decision, effectively cancelling out all the support they have given to books and authors in the past.

Perhaps we should look on the more positive side: as a result of this issue, the sales of the book has more than made up for the loss of the grant for Epigram Books. More people are reading this great graphic novel due to the publicity. Sonny Liew earns more royalties. And the grant that NAC had revoked can now go towards another book. Sounds like a win-win-win-win to me.



Writing is my profession and my passion. I run a professional writing outfit, where I do all my corporate writing. Blogging takes care of the miscellaneous excess thoughts. I'm a mother of two completely polar opposite children. Maybe God figures the challenge would do me good. Or perhaps He just likes to have a good laugh. Whatever it is, I'm enjoying the roller coaster ride.


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