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Former Sony/BMG label executive Troy Chin on drawing comics for a living and his hopes for the arts in Singapore

Former Sony/BMG label executive Troy Chin on drawing comics for a living and his hopes for the arts in Singapore

“People assume you leave because you can't stand the country, but that's a naive way to look at things.”

There’s no doubt many people have packed up and left Singapore for the world, but Troy Chin is one person who's returned, having truly seen what's out there. And what's more – he came back, and is probably busy at home in an apartment, with his full-time job translating stories into illustrations for a niche audience.

But out of all the different projects he’s pursued with his mighty pen, The Resident Tourist has been the most enduringly beloved by Singaporeans and beyond. A uniquely autobiographical undertaking, the series began in 2011, and has just reached its seventh entry. 

The collection of issues so far. Part 7 was officially launched and released on December 18th in 2015.

The series, which chronicles the fearless pursuit of one individual, who abandoned a high-flying and reputable career in the US music industry to find work in a completely different field, within a seemingly inhospitable work environment like Singapore’s, has resonated with thousands of readers both locally and overseas. 

Troy is not someone who simply dares. He's someone who found his place in achieving a tangible, workable success, in the form of written and illustrated works that pull readers in. He engages them in his wayward story, instead of treating them like spectators to a ludicrous tragedy. The Resident Tourist isn’t just the story of Troy Chin; it’s an intriguing and relatable tale of a Singaporean finding his place in the country, something which a lot of us struggle with. 

But it wasn’t always this way. 

STRUGGLING WITH AMBITION

“There was no big goal ahead when I started,” Chin shrugged, speaking to Bandwagon. “My storytelling has definitely changed from Part 1 to 6. Miraculously, the random shit I was planning to retell became a book. It was actually more of a joke.” But while The Resident Tourist is littered with situational wisecracks — many of them colloquial, but inviting enough for an international crowd — it has become something larger than the joke he assumed it would be. 

Originally an online comic strip, word soon spread and readership grew, quickly latching onto the topics he explored — from his observations of Singapore’s continuing modernization to his relationship with old childhood friends. By Part 2, he finally saw that he could map out a story around his life, a story that would run longer than expected. And this also meant he would be in Singapore for a while, a decision that followed more than a decade of dogged professionalism in the other side of the world.


“That one year's worth of writing was meant to capture that period of my return to Singapore, and to show a glimpse of the country. But it's been eight years, and I'm still continuing the story.”

— Troy Chin, who has been based in Singapore since his return in 2007.


Back in New York, he clinched a job at the now-defunct Sony BMG, and he was exposed to the expansive and tumultuous American music industry — learning the inner workings of the company and investing in relationships that he maintained throughout, until his departure in 2007. “I did internships at these smaller labels over the summer, so I had an inkling of what was going on,” remembered Chin. “So when I went into Sony, I could hit the ground running and I made sure that rotated myself within the different facets.”

With an analytical mind and the persistence of a bloodhound, he consciously took note of his surroundings as he tackled royalties, and then accounting, until he was able to reach the management level. “I would sit in meetings and see how they would handle deals, so I was in it with the A&R guys. I was with the business side, but I would be there at recording sessions too.”

Rather than an undying curiosity, all of this benefited a young Troy when he moved up in the company. “When I became a manager, it was easier to get things done because I knew who to call. I built my relationship all the way from the bottom.” He was proud of the tight relationship he had with the label’s accounting department, which allowed him to cut cheques faster than usual.

His secret? “Pineapple tarts. I’d go buy some for them whenever I returned home for Chinese new year, so they've gotten to know me very well,” laughs Chin, who maintained this practice so he was able to gain leverage with artists when it came down to the hard and fast business. It helped when he had to present a client like Barry Manilow with a cheque overnight, which he then used to get a special favour from him later on.

Troy's reputation within Sony BMG grew quickly. “I became ‘that’ guy,” he remembered. He was able to head his own department, where he implemented a work ethic that discouraged overtime working hours. “I didn't believe in face time; things needed to get done during office time, not at home. I believed in running a tight ship.”

It’s hard to argue with that, and his tenacity did ruffle feathers within management. “If I wanted something, I'd hound you for it until I got it. If I needed a report or forecast for an album, I'd tell them I need it at 3 p.m. and I would literally be at their door at 3.” Troy enjoyed his job immensely, and to put it simply: he knew how to get shit done

So why leave? “I had been at the label for almost 10 years,” Chin admits. “I had been away from home for a long time. Also in the music industry, at that point in time in 2006-2007 – it was already getting kind of shitty, which most people know by now.” Bringing to mind a pre-smartphone era, he remembered the desperate attempts by music labels to sell 15-second snippets of songs as ringtones. “They really thought it was the future: selling ringtones. $0.99 for a ringtone. What the f*ck, man?!” 


“I have this recurring fear that one day I'd wake up in the morning, and I'd have no idea what to draw on the next page and be blank. It terrifies the hell out of me. So that keeps me on my toes, to keep making notes and be active with ideas.”


Ringtones aside, Troy began to have serious disagreements with the label’s overall direction after the merger of Sony and BMG. Coupled with significant progress during therapy, which made him rethink his ambitions, he decided to leave the label and return to Singapore for a one-year sabbatical. “That one year's worth of writing was meant to capture that period of my return to Singapore, and to show a glimpse of the country. But it's been eight years, and I'm still continuing the story.” Sony BMG folded just over a year later. 

His music industry-themed graphic novel Bricks in the Wall notwithstanding, his experiences in New York and subsequent residence in Singapore have been the inspiration and driving force of his material. He’s been revisiting his past experiences while meditating on the present, especially his arduous tenure in National Service. “I’ve dedicated four of my books to my army life for a reason, because no one in Singapore really wants to tell it as it is.” 

He illustrates beyond the regimentation, examining the straining interpersonal relationships between soldiers and the arbitrariness of the establishment, and how that bleeds into society. “There's so much bullshit happening in the army, that we take that bullshit up and become the Singaporeans that we are because we end up thinking that way. Everything is done in that certain lacklustre way — everything sucks, everyone only cares for him or herself, and it really stinks.”

And that’s when misunderstanding ferments, as Troy counters time and time again that his illustrations aren’t just complaints put to paper. Nuance is put to the test, but he’s still unafraid to shine an ugly light on a subject. “I said what I had to say in the books. The gist of it is that, bad things happen because people allow it to happen."

"The same shit still happens today, just in a different form. Nothing has changed." And yet, Chin is not looking to support the abolishment of NS through his writing, but the opposite. “I poke holes at it only because I want to see it become better, to be a professional place where Singaporean men go and don't feel like they're wasting two years.”

 

FINDING HIS AUDIENCE

The clear-eyed honesty that Troy invariably writes with, especially through the lens of the cartoon, has complicated the promotion of his books. "It's been tough trying to get people in the local media to care about The Resident Tourist because when they look at the book, they're looking for any agenda-driven angles — like if it's juicy, or if it might get banned," he lamented. "Why does it always have to be about sensationalism?”

But in the age of the Internet, that’s not much of a deterrence for the illustrator, who’s since garnered himself a dedicated following, even more so after finding a publisher willing to put out his works. “As of now, this is my full-time job, this is what I do,” stated Chin. “I definitely couldn't say this four years ago. Back then, I was really bleeding cash doing this. There weren't any publishers who wanted to pick up comic books.”

Even so, he still manages a majority of the distribution and promotion of his works through his website DrearyWeary, along with the help of independent bookstore BooksActually. "My old self-published stuff is still distributed by myself, so I'd carry that shit on public transport. That’s the life, man."

It has taken years for Troy to make his career a self-sustaining one, partly due to the genuine support by the Singaporeans able to evaluate content against the obligation of ‘supporting local’. “The fans who’ve come on board; you can tell that they care about this story, not just for the sake of the whole 'support local' shit. When I wrote this story, this isn't just mine; it's yours too. You're part of this journey.” 

He knows he needs to keep going, because this has become his livelihood, and the only way is forward. “I want to do the next book and trump this one,” says Chin. “When there are people interviewing me about my current work, I do feel embarrassed talking about it because I see a lot of mistakes in it and I know my better stuff has yet to come, so that keeps me going.”

Despite the resolute attitude and competency Troy clearly exhibited as a label executive early on, doubt still creeps in, and he taps on that fear to forge ahead. “I have this recurring fear that one day I'd wake up in the morning, and I'd have no idea what to draw on the next page and be blank. It terrifies the hell out of me. So that keeps me on my toes, to keep making notes and be active with ideas.”

 

THE NEXT STEP

Troy’s ongoing success was built over years of toiling in his room, battling with that fear. He spent and – still spends – years investing in his craft, no matter the circumstances.

And with the recent success of the Singaporean music scene, he hopes to see a similar tenacity in order for it to progress. Of course, Troy recognizes bigger and more tangible issues that need to be resolved. Drawing from his experience in the music industry, he bluntly identifies the problem that holds the music scene back: an infrastructure. 

“Musicians need to have management, to help them grow, to spur them to write new material. That's something that is lacking here, and it can't be helped, because how do we make money off of this? The artists themselves already don't make enough, how do you expect managers to earn as well? It’s crazy. They just have to find someone who's just as invested in their art and who's doing it full-time.”


"People think passion is some magic formula or energy, like creativity. But it only lasts for a moment. What you need to sustain it after that is something else: the desire to feel that this is the only thing that you can do."


He likens it to his current situation without an agent, forcing him to do a lot of the legwork in an industry where Singaporean comics, let alone Singaporean novels, aren’t a top draw. “These managers can't depend on me, they'll have to find five other writers putting out as much stuff as me to actually earn some money off of this. It's really a catch-22 situation.” 

He explains further, “More people need to step up for different acts. Everyone's not gonna go to the next level without a foundation in place, because unless you're so fucking dedicated to go out there and promote yourself, most musicians won't be able to break through that threshold.”

He proposes the idea of a full-time manager who’s dedicated to a handful of acts, and thus requires these acts to have a consistent output and remain active for the manager to keep going. He claims that there was a similar problem in New York with many small-time indie labels: Not enough of them were doing it full-time, and many bands broke up after three years of doing the same gigs, riding on just one EP or album. If they made it that far, that is. 

It is also a crucial decision, in this post-SG50 landscape. “It has to be the next step. We have to see this as an urgent thing. We cannot allow this to fail, because if this so-called 'golden age' goes down, it'll take us another 10 years to build it back up.”

But in the face of any creative drought, he looks up to two bands that have taught him important lessons for his work: Sonic Youth and Radiohead. The former, “because they would put something out right now and they’ll do their best to make sure it's out there.” As for Radiohead, they taught him that "just because you're good at something, it doesn't mean you can't try other shit. It's such a simple concept right? But with that in mind, it allowed me to do what I do today, when I try writing different books.” 

Troy has become an exemplification of the true nature of being an artist entering his prime; a testament to how all the years of practice and emphasis on craft has led him to this point. Even then, he doesn’t believe in the idea of running solely on talent and passion – two traits he dismisses as the main prerequisite for a full-time creative job. "People think passion is some magic formula or energy, like creativity. But it only lasts for a moment. What you need to sustain it after that is something else: the desire to feel that this is the only thing that you can do."

"That is not passion; it's a total change in attitude and mindset. 'Why am I doing what I do?' Because this is the only thing I can do and I can't see myself do anything else.” 

Troy further elaborates on the idea of sustainability. “If you really want to work in a creative field, there’s no off switch when you're doing this full-time. Arts is a full-time endeavour. Even if I'm about to go to sleep, or when I'm cycling or running, I'm always thinking of ideas.”

ENTERING A BIGGER PLAYING FIELD

And the prospect of grants, he admits, can be a limiting factor in the pursuit of a full-time career in the arts. “The mentality behind applying for grants can be very wrong because it can halt motivation, as the money comes from elsewhere. With or without those grants, you're already supposed to be doing what you’re doing. This is just a helping hand. But again, we can't get around that because it's become engrained in our culture.”

He suggests an ideal, but controversial, scenario, where fewer grants are approved every year, but with higher amounts of money with each grant. “We lack competition in this country. We shouldn't be led to believe that what we do is good enough. There's a sense of entitlement among people here that I feel is what's holding good work back or any work at all, for that matter. Local doesn't matter anymore. There's no excuse. You should go against the best. And if you're not toe-to-toe with the best, well then – why aren't you? It's a joke to feel that way. And if you're not good enough: get better.”

Unlike the 60s and the 90s, Troy argues that we’ve caught up with the world in technology, so everything else limiting us can be overcome. And that comes with proper planning and motivation. "Are there good acts and artists in Singapore? Of course there are, but to me, they're few and far in-between. But some guy who starts playing music just for ‘fun’? I don't think so."

Troy doesn't mince his words: if you're not putting your life out on the line for your art, you shouldn't be getting any financial assistance. "That should die. It's like those SMCs who have no business plan, they don't understand what PNL [profit & loss] is, and they have no idea how to deal with numbers.”

These ideas that Troy elucidates, and isn’t afraid to talk about, are possible steps the music and arts scenes can take to in order to place the right amount of pressure on our artists to produce work born out of necessity, and less out of entitlement. But as always, these suggestions would need major cooperation and a shared ideal to make happen, at least between the people and the establishment.

Whether that could happen remains to be seen, but as he exemplifies in both his colourful personal candour and expressive black-and-white illustrations, a conversation is always necessary, and he hopes to continue it as long as he can. “Anybody in my position could choose the typical Jack Neo way; it's so tempting to do, because there’s a lot of money in that. But we should just keep doing what we do, and do it really well."

"They'll see the output. It doesn't matter what we go through – people will see the end result. It’ll be worth it."


Troy Chin's The Resident Tourist is now available from BooksActually's webstore and at Books Kinokuniya. You can follow his DrearyWeary website and Facebook page for more updates.

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