No More Monkey Business
Troy Chin gets serious, and seriously back on form
By Colin Low Yu Cong
The Resident Tourist Part 7
The previous instalment of Troy Chin's The Resident Tourist saw his graphic novel series mired in a rut. The loss of not one, but two major characters by the end of Part 5 threatened to derail the plot arcs of the autobiographical series up to that point, leaving his pictorial persona Troy in emotional disarray throughout Part 6, unsure of how (or whether) to continue. Two newly introduced characters, Troy's reservist mate Sarge and his barfly friend Angel, came off as halfway-successful attempts to fill the vacuum left by the dearly departed Mint and Kampong Boy. Moreover, Part 6 focused a little too generically on National Service. The army remains an alien experience to most Singaporeans, even to those of us who had to live through it, and we didn't need a resident tourist to render it alien for us. If anything, Troy's experiences in that regard were all too familiar.
The newly released Part 7 retains NS, Sarge and Angel, and yet it banishes any qualms about them we might have harboured from Part 6. In Part 7, NS gains a much-needed specificity as the book advances from the well-trodden confines of Basic Military Training to the far less chartered territory of Troy's experiences as an armoured vehicle driver. Meanwhile, both Sarge and Angel blossom into characters in their own right. Sarge no longer remains a substitute mouthpiece for Kampong Boy's wishy-washy ambitions and anti-"average Singaporean" sentiments. Likewise, Angel no longer appears as a boilerplate ah lian love interest to replace Mint. Instead, both of them nudge Troy in promising new directions, encouraging him to get over his passivity and self-doubt – not just in his comics work, but also in the ongoing life experiences that form the fodder for that work.
In Part 7, those life experiences coalesce around the motif of prostitution – the book's cover image is of the notorious Orchard Towers. Visits to and conversations about those infamous four floors see Troy offer up some fair and rational perspectives on sex work. Elsewhere, however, this motif hinges uncomfortably on male anxieties about transgender seductresses, including an allusion to an infamously transphobic scene from the movie The Crying Game. To be fair, Troy is also implicated in those anxieties by the narrative, which prompts us to ask not only how willing he has become to compromise his own sense of identity, but also how much he sees himself in the prostitute seducing him. After all, a Troy who dons lipstick, long hair and a night slip is perhaps not a cry too far from the Troy we find in Part 7's first few pages, visiting the President as a recipient of a National Arts Council award, trussed up in a suit that we know he probably hates.
Or do we? Part 7 takes the bold step of turning our attention back to Troy himself, forcing us to ask just how much we know about our emblematic Resident Tourist. This self-examination comes not a moment too soon: this is a series that inspired poet Joshua Ip, in Sonnets from the Singlish, to ask how an autobiography could be so self-protective that its main character should obscure his eyes constantly behind a pair of opaque glasses. Part 7 ends with Troy pulling off two spectacular reversals of our expectations, in ways that align with but also disrupt our understanding of the protagonist we have come to know over six previous books. These reversals show a Troy eager to play a retributive game of social hierarchy, which forces us to ponder how much of this vindictiveness has been part of him all along, and how much is a capitulation he must make as an artist (or as anyone, really) who hopes to continue residing on these shores.
The same reversals also offer up such a coincidental sequence of events – and one that isn't exactly unflattering to Troy – that we must ask, more than at any other point in the series, just how truthful Chin is in replicating the events of his life within his pages. To his credit, Chin pre-empts our scepticism by having Troy address those concerns in a writing workshop. But on the other hand, perhaps an utmost fidelity to the facts isn't what we come to The Resident Tourist for – or it shouldn't be. Last year brought us Sonny Liew's The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a colossal work of self-disguising autobiography; at once fiction and non-fiction, it did not present us with a portrait of a life-as-lived, but made us confront our conflicted history and existence as individuals and a nation. It would not surprise me to learn that Chin's The Resident Tourist is a work in the same vein.
Regardless of Chin's destination, it's clear he's back on track after a brief one-book blip. Part 7 returns us to a top-notch demonstration of Chin's witty treatment of local peculiarities, his deft plucking of resonances between his recent and not-so-recent pasts, and his sharp cherry-picking of symbolic encounters that help weave everything together. To invoke one such symbol in Part 7, Troy is clearly no longer interested in monkeying around, even as he continues to toy with his rejuvenated craft. He teases us with the prospect of a Troy from the not-so-recent past whom we haven't truly met, and of another character from the recent past who may come back to haunt him. I for one can't wait.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 1 Jan 2016
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