Stranger In His Backyard
Troy Chin's ongoing struggle to stay sane
By Malcolm Tay
The Resident Tourist
What is it about The Resident Tourist that has struck a deep chord with fans?
Perhaps it's the modest yet engaging artwork: sparing with loud effects but never stingy with details. It could be the honest views of Singapore, which hit surprisingly close to home. Or maybe its perspective of life on the island just feels more convincing and compelling than what most other local works in the past five years have offered.
While the adventures in Tourist are unique to the experiences of its creator and protagonist Troy Chin, who returned to Singapore in 2007 after toiling in the music business in New York for almost a decade, anyone who has ever felt like a stranger in his own backyard would find much to savour in this autobiographical series of comic books.
Chin released the first two parts on his website before comic lover Adrian Teo financed a limited print run for them in 2008. In the following years, though earning little from being a full-time artist, Chin went on to self-publish the next three volumes. Part of the joy and fun of reading Tourist involves tagging along on this ride.
Indeed, Tourist isn't just a fish-out-of-water tale about a smartass bumping against the tide. As the narrative shifts back and forth between the present, the author's childhood and teens, and his time in New York, it gradually unfolds a more complex picture of who Chin is, what pushed him to leave the island for the United States and, despite having had a successful career there, why he came back.
Five tomes and thousands of panels later, the reasons for his return have grown a little clearer but float out of grasp, like the bespectacled young girl who pops up in his dreams. It's up to readers, then, to stick around long enough to find out, as he continues on what civil servants would love to term a learning journey.
Where Chin truly shines is in capturing his memories of growing up in the '80s, and in accenting daily scenes and encounters with droll commentary. Remember when a primary-school teacher could still whack a pupil's palm with a ruler? He does, rendering with precision the sting and shame of such a punishment. An altercation in the fourth book inspires a character to muse: "I don't think a lot of Singaporeans can differentiate between an acquaintance and a friend."
Yet, Chin remains frank about his talents as a comics artist. In the preface to the reprint of part one, he openly concedes the flaws in the first manuscript. A peeved acquaintance in the fourth volume accuses him of ripping off manga artist Kiyohiko Azuma; in part five, he calls his daily online strip Loti 'a poor man's Azumanga', referring to Azuma's school-comedy series Azumanga Daioh, from which Loti's four-panel format, sunny outlook and adorable cast of round-eyed students could have been derived.
That Chin – who received the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award for literary arts in 2011 – can draw a comic strip as cheeky and upbeat as Loti alongside Tourist, though, suggests his growing affection for a country that he barely recognises but is getting to know better. The fifth book ends on a melancholy note and could well serve as the series' conclusion. Let's hope it isn't so.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 1 Jan 2012