Genre-busting Sonny Liew’s graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is not only one of the most beautiful books we’ve both seen and read on Singapore, but it easily counts as one of our top Southeast Asian reads published in recent years.
On one level, the clever and highly entertaining book tells the poignant biography of 1938-born, political comic artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye. On another, it’s the tale of Singapore’s foundation after years of British colonial rule, Japanese occupation, federation with Malaysia and then control by the protest-quashing People’s Action Party (PAP) of Lee Kuan Yew. It’s the story of a humble life deeply entwined with the story of Singapore; it’s artist-illustrator Liew’s love letter to his adopted country, but it also rues what Singaporeans have lost, and how they have struggled, as their city-state has transformed from a backwater into the global financial powerhouse it is today. And there’s an interesting little catch: Charlie is fictional.
Multiple award-winning, New York Times best-selling The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is stunningly drawn by Liew; one NPR reviewer writes that it “is probably the greatest work of art ever produced in Singapore”, and we wouldn’t argue with him.
Liew intersperses his own biography of Charlie, created through interviews and his own created characters’ conversations, with Charlie’s convincingly aged-looking published and mostly unpublished works. While Charlie refuses to stop being critical of the government, so fails to find the success he once wanted, Liew on the other hand has managed to be at once subversive and successful. The political territory he traverses in the book remains so sensitive that Singapore’s National Arts Council withdrew their grant to him for the 2015-published book. (That article also notes that Malaysian-born Liew became a Singaporean citizen to rebut any PAP claim that critiques of Singapore shouldn’t be offered by anyone without a stake in the country.)
We sadly admit that we are not well read when it comes to the comic greats and their history, so we know only that we missed Liew’s references to famed comic artists through reading other, smarter reviewers mentioning this. Comic fans should note that The New York Times, for instance, writes: ‘A page from a 1957 story about a World War II massacre of Chinese civilians filters the look of Harvey Kurtzman’s “Two-Fisted Tales” through Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”; an early-’60s satirical newspaper strip, “Bukit Chapalang,” takes its artistic and linguistic cues from Walt Kelly’s “Pogo”; a 1988 political thriller, “Days of August,” is a riff on Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.” ’
While we weren’t able to put the art into comic-history perspective globally, we can say that we were completely engrossed by Liew’s masterful drawings and sketches of Singapore (as were our kids, aged 9 and 10), along with the imaginative stories they conveyed. In particular, we loved Charlie’s superhero Roachman, who conveyed stories told in Singapore’s 1960s newspapers, such as Street of the Dead, “a collection of short stories set in Sago Lane, infamous then for its ‘Death Houses’—funeral homes that doubled as hospices for the elderly to spend their final days”. Liew repeatedly finds ingenious ways to convey, or reinterpret, and critique Singapore’s history.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a must-read for anyone with even a slight interest in Singapore and its history and people. Liew has created a breathtakingly ambitious book and, we reckon, achieved everything he set out to do. You couldn’t read a more intriguing book ahead of a visit to the city-state, nor could you pick up a more gorgeous souvenir to adorn your bookshelves after a trip.
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