Singapore is a small island nation where many Asian cultures converge, coalesce, and sometimes conflict, and it has taken many twists and turns to become what it is today. The Bicycle is an excellent snapshot of one moment in its complex cultural history, offering a glimpse of the events and shifts that Singapore has undergone in the past century.
Our story begins in the present day with the excavation of an old bicycle from a well—it may look ordinary, but of course, it has a weighty story to tell. Flashback to 1942: having recently taken control of Northern China, Japanese forces have arrived in Singapore and they are slowly invading by bicycle. The residents of the jungle towns through which they travel are scared and unprepared—no one knows what to expect. Orphan boy Lim Ah Cheng finds himself befriended by a kind, thoughtful Japanese soldier who is ambivalent about his nation’s mission and promises to teach Lim to ride a bike. Together, their friendship will teach them about goodness and darkness on both sides of the fight. The plot is fairly simple, but the point is powerful: although Japanese imperialism was destructive for Singapore, not every Japanese soldier was a devil and not every Singaporean street kid was an angel. This is a story about growing up quickly in light of the tragedies of war, but it also depicts a life made better by a soldier’s giving heart.
The book’s interesting illustration style felt very deliberate. The faces were at once expressive and flat, which I suspect to be the result of digital illustration techniques. The scenes felt staged in a movie-like way, almost as though they were set on a studio backlot, giving the whole thing the feeling of a war film. The images generally appear to be digitally rendered, and though Sinann makes it his own, it’s not quite my speed. While I prefer my comics a bit more raw and sketchy-looking, Sinann’s style is definitely expressive, exciting, and intentional.
“Intentional” is great descriptor for the artwork and plot of The Bicycle. There’s a lesson to be learned and readers will learn it well; it’s surprisingly emotional, if somewhat predictable. This would be an excellent addition to a middle or high-school unit on World War II in the Pacific theater, if only for its portrayal of the peculiarity that was the Japanese bicycle infantry. There is some violence and brief sexual scenarios involving comfort women, but nothing gratuitously graphic or sinister. Overall, The Bicycle‘s classic film feel serves to create an effective exploration of a theater of war that most will know little about, bringing a slice of Singapore’s history to the western world.
by Cheah Sinann
Epigram Books, 2014