Hello there everyone—today we have the privilege of chatting with Mr James Suresh, corporate trainer by day and comic book writer by night. You’d probably be familiar with one of his characters he worked on—Mr Kiasu, Suresh has since come up with another comic book about Singapore, called On a Street in Singapore (published in 2010), so read on to find out a little more about the man and his book.
Stephanie Pee (SP): Hi Suresh! Why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself and the book.
James Suresh (JS): I am currently running my own corporate training company (Training Plus Int’l Pte Ltd). Even though I left the Kiasu Company back in 1996, I have continued to pursue my love of comics and writing humour by working with other artists … In 2003 I published a book entitled When I Was In Uniform, which is a comic account of my days as an NSF as well as a regular in the SAF. It was illustrated by Syed (who illustrated this book as well). In early 2011, I launched On A Street In Singapore, a comic view of Singapore targeted at tourists and visitors. However this book has proven to be popular with Singaporeans as well (it won the Sunday Times Best Seller and the Reader’s Choice Awards!). I love visiting old places in Singapore like the botanic gardens, Changi Village, Queenstown, where I grew up and Tiong Bahru which brings back some fond memories.
SP: How did you come to write and publish this book? What was the inspiration behind it?
JS: The book idea came to me when I was shopping for souvenirs for a trip overseas and noticed that there weren’t many interesting souvenirs to pick up in Singapore… I felt that there should be a souvenir that helps the tourist capture the essence of Singapore, [something] humourous so that it [would] bring out the uniqueness of our culture, our peculiar habits, our food, leisure activities.
I was also inspired by [comic artist] Lat in Malaysia… I have always felt that Singapore is a funny place with peculiar people who tend to take themselves too seriously. When I did the Mr Kiasu series with Johnny and Yu Cheng we were also looking at the funny side of the kiasu syndrome that is pervasive in Singapore. However On A Street In Singapore is targeted at visitors and tourists who tend to visit Orchard Road and Sentosa and leave with the impression that they have seen Singapore.
SP: How is writing for the graphic/comic medium different from, say, writing a book? What difficulties did you encounter?
JS: I have always worked with the comic medium… The challenge is to ensure that the illustrator is able to capture your visual ideas as accurately as possible; sometimes it is good to let the illustrator interpret your ideas and include his own creativity. However often I have a clear idea of the comic action, the facial expressions, the background details including buildings, etc which I will try to write or explain to the illustrator and give further input after he has done the first draft.
SP: You used to write for Mr Kiasu and now you’ve written On a Street in Singapore—what about Singapore (and Singaporeans) inspires you?
JS: What inspires me about Singaporeans is our peculiar habits like ‘choping’ tables at hawker centres or queuing overnight to get children into ‘good’ schools or the long queues at 4D outlets on weekends. Our obsession with eating and talking about food. I noticed that there are Malay hawkers selling halal versions of Chinese dishes like Chicken Rice and even Carrot cake. I witnessed an Indian wedding reception where the Indian guests were yelling ‘Yum Seng’ when they raised their glasses to toast the newly weds. I see a Chinese restaurant selling Fish Head Curry and I think to myself, this is truly a fusion of culture, I try to bring out the humour so that people can learn to laugh at themselves and see the funny side of life in Singapore. I love the ethnic and cultural diversity of Singapore and how we have learnt to appreciate and celebrate the differences. I love the ethnic costumes that I see being worn during festive occasions.
SP: What do you hope readers will gain from reading the book?
JS: I hope that Singaporeans will learn to appreciate our history, heritage and what makes us unique. I like the fact that in an HDB void deck we can see the rituals of a Chinese funeral and observe the practices that are slowly disappearing. We can see the creativity of the Malay community in transforming a void deck into a beautiful wedding hall where their family, relatives and friends from various ethnic backgrounds can meet and celebrate together. I hope that tourists and visitors will learn that Singapore is more than Orchard Road or Sentosa and that they will spend more time to get to know the real Singapore as experienced in the kopi tiams, void decks, neighbourhood shops and streets where Singaporeans live, play and interact.
“I try to bring out the humour so that people can learn to laugh at themselves and see the funny side of life in Singapore. I love the ethnic and cultural diversity of Singapore and how we have learnt to appreciate and celebrate the differences.”
SP: What is your favourite part or section of the book?
JS: I don’t have a particular chapter that I like. love all parts of the book as I feel that each has a special message, the first chapter is important to remind us of where we came from. The second chapter is also special as it lists and describes places of interest that every Singgaporean should be familiar with so they can bring their families and visitors to appreciate. Chapter 3 and 4 touch on the local scene including a description of the heartlands and the food in Singapore. Chapter 5 takes a look at peculiar habits which is the result of our culture and environment. The last chapter teachers the visitor how to use Singlish expressions so that they can assimilate with Singaporeans. Singlish, although officially frowned upon, is want makes us unique, I believe we should speak good English when conversing in school or in business and writing but when we are in the company of family and friends, we use Singlish to better express ourselves. There is no English equivalent for ‘Shiok’.
SP: Do you have any other works in the pipeline?
JS: I am presently working on an illustrated book documenting life in Singapore in the 60s. I know there have been similar books written but I believe that the comic illustrations will set this book apart from the others. I will describe the simple pleasures of a childhood without computers, cable TV, cell phones, Facebook etc. I have many vivid memories of Singapore in the 60s and I hope to share them with readers so they can learn to treasure our past and appreciate the present. I will be working with Syed on this book and we hope to get it written, illustrated and published before the end of 2013. I have started researching and visiting the library and the national archives to collect data for my book. I don’t have a title yet but I hope to come up with one soon.
Images (illustrated by Syed Ismail) are used with permission from James Suresh.
If you’re looking for a gift for a visitor to Singapore or want a few laughs, why not check out On a Street in Singapore, available in book stores now. If you would like to share your memories with us, go here. You can also check us out on Facebook or follow us on Twitter!
Singapore Memory Project