By Corrie Tan
(1,300 words, eight-minute read)
We’ve all met the gaze of this pair of narrow, red-pupilled eyes – whether with a torchlight under the bedcovers, or in school, snuck into class beneath a desk. The predatory stare on the cover of Russell Lee’s True Singapore Ghost Stories still follows us from the shelves of bookstores in Singapore – a series that’s given most Singaporeans a frisson of delicious fear with its tales of pontianak stalking their human prey, or the dog tags of fallen World War II soldiers clinking in the night.
This month, literary non-profit Sing Lit Station and graphic design firm Sarah and Schooling have raised True Singapore Ghost Stories from the dead – so to speak – together with fifteen other Singaporean literary texts that are out of print in some way. Their exhibition, Out of Print, gives sixteen classic Singaporean books a contemporary makeover with redesigned and reinterpreted covers that breathe new life into the texts while respecting the designers, authors and publishers that have made the books so iconic. In the case of the horror bestseller, whose reprints and subeditions continue to creep into bookstores’ top ten lists, the creative team has paid tribute to the specific 1989 edition (The Almost Complete Collection of True Singapore Ghost Stories), which is now out of print.
The exhibition opened on 27 February and runs till 19 March 2018 at The Arts House’s Gallery I, and is also part of the upcoming Textures literary weekend from 9 to 11 March.
The sixteen selected literary works were published between the 1960s and 1990s. The exhibition’s curator, poet and critic Daryl Lim Wei Jie, says that while the selection “is not intended to be in any way an ‘objective’ list of the most historically significant or meritorious books in Singapore’s literary history”, his curation was guided by several considerations. These included: historical significance (such as The Second Tongue, an important anthology of Singaporean poetry; or Peculiar Chris, a particularly visible and significant gay novel), literary merit (A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals, for instance, was the first collection of critically acclaimed poet Wong May), and the text’s role in popular culture and consciousness (e.g. True Singapore Ghost Stories).
Lim particularly enjoyed “seeing titles which are not considered ‘literary’ (e.g. the late Bonny Hicks’ Excuse Me, Are You a Model?) alongside more critically acclaimed titles.” He adds: “It’s a good reminder that popular culture and literary culture exist side-by-side, and that in a small publishing and literary circle like Singapore’s, many publishers and writers do both.”
The exhibition will display these new covers alongside small copies of the original covers pasted on the gallery walls. Visitors familiar with Singaporean theatre might recognise Stella Kon’s famous Peranakan monodrama, Emily of Emerald Hill, whose 1989 edition featuring an Emerald Hill mansion on the cover is no longer in print. The non-fiction work The Price of Peace: True Accounts of the Japanese Occupation spawned the popular Channel 8 Mandarin drama of the same name, which ran for 32 episodes in 1997.
Sarah Tang and Alison Schooling, the two-woman team behind Sarah and Schooling who art-directed Out of Print, say that their approach to redesigning these book covers blended homage and reinvention. Each text demanded different considerations. Tang says: “There were a few things we had to be sensitive about. For The Price of Peace, for example, we didn’t want something that was flamboyant for the sake of being flamboyant, or just because it’s trendy. That doesn’t respect what happened in that time. And for True Singapore Ghost Stories, we thought it was pretty iconic that the eyes were there. So we thought, let’s keep the eyes there and remove everything else.”
The same went for poet Edwin Thumboo’s seminal collection Ulysses by the Merlion. Schooling says: “We kept the same colour tone for the cover and having the merlion there. It’s an iconic book on its own, and we didn’t want to strip that away.”
Ulysses by the Merlion proved tricky for the design duo, because the only copy they could find of this specific, out-of-print edition was from the National Library, and a library sticker obscured most of the original merlion. “We couldn’t really figure out which merlion was on the cover, so we just ended up drawing our own,” says Tang. This reinterpreted cover was designed by Benson Chong, the co-founder of design practice SWELL. Sarah and Schooling also invited graphic artist Sherwan Rozan and SWELL co-founder Darrick Ma to illustrate the covers for A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals and Claire Tham’s Fascist Rock respectively.
Sarah and Schooling, which was founded in 2013, is actively involved in designing books and publications in Singapore for publishers such as Math Paper Press, NUS Press, Marshall Cavendish, Epigram Books and Monsoon Books. Daryl Qilin Yam, Station Control at Sing Lit Station and one of the exhibition’s producers, says: “Usually they do have to pander to a publisher’s budget. While that’s naturally ingrained in their practice, we as producers at Sing Lit Station would also like Sarah and Schooling to really take full control and do what they think they can, provided the budget that we give them. They can really go and do what they want.”
As a result, there were a number of printmaking and design techniques involved in creating the exhibition covers, including foil stamping, page edge gilding, and debossing. The letterpress, digital print and other printing effects were done by The Gentlemen’s Press, and risograph printing by Knuckles & Notch.
Sarah and Schooling often have to navigate the demands of the publisher, the author and the bookseller when creating book covers for clients. “Publishers often complain that when the book covers are dark and dreary, they disappear on the shelves. They want something bright. But sometimes we wonder, how are we going to design something bright when the story is not a bright story?” says Tang. “It’s very, very messy. Sometimes it takes fifteen drafts and no one is happy! Sometimes we hit the nail on the head, and the first draft we send, everyone’s happy.”
One challenging redesign was the cover of Catherine Lim’s short story collection, Little Ironies. One of the stories features a suicide, which ordinarily would have been more aligned with “dark and dreary” than “something bright”. Tang says: “The new cover is supposed to look a little bit ironic. It looks happy and cheerful, but it’s actually really morbid.” She points to the figure of a girl falling on the new cover, against sunset hues of pink, orange and purple that echo the original.
Both Tang and Schooling say a sound knowledge of each text is crucial. Tang says: “We don’t want to do a book cover that’s just the synopsis of the book. We need to read the book, we need to know the tone of voice of the author, what he or she is trying to get the reader to feel, before we can even do the cover.”
Sing Lit Station and Sarah and Schooling hope to counter the shadow of literary amnesia in Singapore with this exhibition, even if not all of the books are easily available to the reader. Schooling says: “I guess the beauty of this exhibition is also the mystery behind what these books are about. Hopefully, at some point, there might be a publisher who wants to reproduce these books, if there’s a demand for it.”
As a writer himself, curator Lim says: “Being out of print is something that anyone who writes should expect. We can’t expect to be in the public consciousness all the time, and often publicity and advertising is as important as literary merit. But there is hope for everyone, because many texts are often rediscovered by enthusiasts.”
Out of Print runs from 27 February to 19 March 2018 at Gallery I, The Arts House, from 10am to 10pm daily. There will be several free exhibition tours. Sarah and Schooling will lead a tour on 9 March (8pm) as part of the Singapore Design Week 2018. There will be tours led by Sing Lit Station on March 10 (2pm and 4pm) and March 11 (2pm and 4pm). Register for the tours here.
Textures – A Weekend With Words runs from 9 to 11 March at The Arts House.
This post is sponsored by The Arts House Ltd. for TEXTURES – A Weekend With Words.