Saying Out Loud is a new recurring column by Chong Lingying — a book publisher, editor, and writer — where she shares her unfiltered views on work, creativity, and the conversations happening around her in Singapore.
She manages Asiapac Books, an independent publishing house specializing in illustrated and comic books on Asian culture, history, philosophy, folktales, and life skills.
In her inaugural piece, Lingying talks about the misfortune 2020 brought upon to Singapore’s creative scenes and how it affected her own workplace.
It was going to be a great year. The best ever!
Asiapac Books had an exciting publication plan for 2020: a graphic novel retelling of Elizabeth Choy’s World War II story, a Southeast Asian superhero saga, an illustrated book on the goddess Mazu, and more. A fan-backed collector’s edition of Return of the Condor Heroes was on the way.
As is the norm in book publishing, we had scheduled the new releases a year in advance, not including the years of development that each creation required.
Beyond our own publications, my team and I were starting work on Comix.sg, a new platform for Singapore comics. I had scheduled trips overseas to promote the new titles at book fairs and comic conventions. There was so much to do and so much to talk about!
And it was the last year of my twenties! I wanted to fall in love, write my first novel, publish a volume of poems, and do a painting show.
What happened? Everything was postponed, or cancelled, or downsized.
Comic artwork by Wee Tian Beng from the upcoming collector’s edition boxset of Return of the Condor Heroes. Buy it here.
The hardest thing was losing all expectations of perfection. You might think that with a great idea and great plan you’re at least somewhat likely to succeed. But none of that matters when you can’t see what’s coming. All you can really do is execute, fail, learn, and move on. Don’t forget to lubricate the painful process with copious glasses of wine, sake, beer or whatever you have in the fridge.
Bookstores were closed at one point, which was downright terrifying. If it could be done online, we did it online. We had already cancelled all new book projects. Then we let go of the warehouse and downsized our office.
Even during the Christmas season, I could see that the industry was still hurting. Bookstores are dependent on tourist dollars and lose out to international players online. I don’t think any of them are on the way back to recovery yet. Publishers have been running on the bare minimum, knowing that the little demand we have now could disappear overnight.
The small Asiapac Books team knuckled down to get through the first few months with Zoom calls, live-streaming, Facebook ads, and all that jazz.
My colleagues and I didn’t talk much about it, but as we sat one metre apart from each other there was a shared realism about the state of the company, the industry, and the economy. The company simply couldn’t take care of us. We’d have to find our own way out of the hole.
At the end of the office move, the company had one full-time employee left: me.
The messy remains after Asiapac Books’ move from their former warehouse and office.
I wish that I could say something good. I wish that I could reflect some positivity back on the smiling faces, wholesome thoughts, and balanced ruminations in my friends’ social media updates. They’re comforting, inspiring, even if a little grating on the nerves.
Wasn’t it a hellishly painful year? Wasn’t it exhausting? Reaching and grabbing non-stop for months, asking for help, frantically filling up forms? How quickly one realizes that there’s no end to it. It’s not a matter of managing risk when the uncertainty is this extreme. There’ll never be enough client work to pay the bills.
Government grants and subsidies, even loans — for most of the time, it’s less than what we asked for and with strings attached. What can we do? There aren’t many choices if you want to survive.
So, to be honest, I’m struggling. My publishing house is struggling. The book industry is struggling. The whole creative and arts scene in Singapore is struggling.
Things have been scary, but soon they’ll be just plain bad. All of the help we have had over the past few months has shown us one thing: it’s still not enough.
So what do I have for you today? A moment of catharsis, if anything.
2020, what the fuck was that?
Let’s forget about 2020 and everything else that came before it. It’s up to us to support and keep each other alive. If you’re still here, it’s because you chose to survive. Find your energy and confidence and hang on tight. Nobody will give you the power to go on. You’ll have to make it for yourself.
For 2021 and beyond, there are no rules in the game, only what you can get out of it.