Singapore Comics Special: Ten Sticks and One Rice Review
Oh Yong Hwee and Koh Hong Teng
If Miel’s Scenegapore charted the history and development of Singapore, Oh Yong Hwee and Koh Hong Teng’s Ten Sticks and One Rice is a social commentary of the country in the 1970′s and an exploration of one of the features (as Oh Yong Hwee explained in his director’s commentary) that has in many ways come to define the country and its people: hawker stalls. Ostensibly though, it is about parent/children relationships and the generational divide bought on by social change and progression.
It’s rare in comics that you get a protagonist in their 60′s but in Neo Hock Seng, a man who has at various stages in his life been an illegal bookie, a member of the Triads, a street hawker, this potted history is used to show us the man and his motivations as we watch him operate and interact in the present. His tired eyes and saggy cheeked, jowly visage reflecting the sweat and heat of the grill he manned for so many years. The death of Hock Seng’s friend finds him arranging the funeral, and determined to honour and respect the dead man in the correct manner, Hock Seng begins to bring people together in an elaborate, traditional send off the likes of which are now less frequently seen.
He calls his four adult sons to inform them of the funeral, expecting them to attend and help out at the wake, but their reactions are dismissive and indifferent. In between these preparations we are given flashbacks to Hock Seng’s youth and the roots of his friendship with Boon Shan. We see how as a young boy adopted by a hard and violent father, he joined the Triads as a means of identity and survival. The reader gets to see how the hardships and lack of choices in his upbringing have led him down the roads he traversed, and can thus understand and empathise with him. Meanwhile, his children view him as an unfeeling, tough and difficult man and cannot fathom why their mother has stuck by him all these years; apparently oblivious of the social context and time in which their parents were raised and some of the things they had to do simply in order to survive: the triads meant food and money- a life of some sort. His wife, having been there for the whole journey can appreciate the difficulties and the knotty decisions made.
The disconnect between generations is highlighted in the slowly fading values and traditions of an ageing generation- Oh Yong Hwee wisely doesn’t romanticize these or present the old way as better, but appeals for an understanding: a social and cultural awareness, and a respect for the people and sacrifices that were made that led to the Singapore of today. This is mirrored in the realtionship Hock Seng has with his children, who fail to see that the quality of life they currently enjoy, the relative ease in which they live, has in no small part, been afforded to them through their father’s sacrifices and hard work. Ironically, Hock Seng’s children, for whom he has laboured so that they do not have an upbringing like his, instead painstakingly building a decent future, are the very ones who appreciate his efforts the least, viewing him as archaic and staid.
Ten Sticks and One Rice is neither a rose-tinted look at Singapore’s past, nor an indictment of its future, purporting a larger and widely applicable message of tolerance and understanding. Like its protagonist, it is an unsentimental essay on community, respect and the importance of social and cultural awareness, but it is not without heart.