The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

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.

Browse titles by subject matter
Subscribe to the Mekong Review
Travelfish.org are big fans of the Mekong Review. If you’d like to read intelligent and thoughtful material about the region, please consider subscribing. We do.

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interviews and his own created characters’ conversations, with Charlie’s convincingly aged-looking published and mostly unpublished works.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.

Buy online: Amazon | Book Depository | Barnes & Noble |



108 results found

Burma (Myanmar)

Burmese Days
Burmese Days

By George Orwell

Finding George Orwell
Finding George Orwell

By Emma Larkin

Miss Burma
Miss Burma

By Charmaine Craig

The Glass Palace
The Glass Palace

By Amitav Ghosh

The Trouser People
The Trouser People

By Andrew Marshall

Cambodia

Dogs at the Perimeter
Dogs at the Perimeter

By Madeleine Thien

Holiday in Cambodia
Holiday in Cambodia

By Laura Jean McKay

Hun Sen’s Cambodia
Hun Sen’s Cambodia

By Sebastian Strangio

Hunters in the Dark
Hunters in the Dark

By Lawrence Osborne

King Norodom's Head
King Norodom's Head

By Steven W. Boswell

River of Time
River of Time

By Jon Swain

The Gate
The Gate

By Francoise Bizot

Indonesia

A House in Bali
A House in Bali

By Colin McPhee

Beauty is a Wound
Beauty is a Wound

By Eka Kurniawan

Black Water
Black Water

By Louise Doughty

Home
Home

By Leila S. Chudori

In the Time of Madness
In the Time of Madness

By Richard Lloyd Parry

Indonesia Etc.
Indonesia Etc.

By Elizabeth Pisani

On the Java Ridge
On the Java Ridge

By Jock Serong

Ring of Fire
Ring of Fire

By Lawrence Blair

The Malay Archipelago
The Malay Archipelago

By Alfred Russel Wallace

The Rainbow Troops
The Rainbow Troops

By Andrea Hirata

The Year of Living Dangerously
The Year of Living Dangerously

By Christopher J. Koch

This Earth of Mankind
This Earth of Mankind

By Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Under the Volcano
Under the Volcano

By Cameron Forbes

Laos

Malaysia

Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians

By Kevin Kwan

From Third World to First
From Third World to First

By Lee Kuan Yew

If I Could Tell You
If I Could Tell You

By Jing-Jing Lee

In Transit: An Anthology
In Transit: An Anthology

By Zhang Ruihe and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Sarong Party Girls
Sarong Party Girls

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Singapore Noir
Singapore Noir

By Cheryl Lu-Tien Tan

State of Emergency
State of Emergency

By Jeremy Tiang

Sugarbread
Sugarbread

By Balli Kaur Jaswal

The Tower
The Tower

By Isa Kamari (translated by Alfian Sa'at)

Thailand

A Tiger in Eden
A Tiger in Eden

By Chris Flynn

Bangkok Found
Bangkok Found

By Alex Kerr

Hothouse Flower
Hothouse Flower

By Lucinda Riley

Jasmine Nights
Jasmine Nights

By S.P. Somtow

Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind
Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind

By Carol Hollinger

Many Lives
Many Lives

By M.R Kukrit Pramoj

Sightseeing
Sightseeing

By Rattawut Lapcharoensap

Thai Street Food
Thai Street Food

By David Thompson

The Beach
The Beach

By Alex Garland

The Drinking Food of Thailand
The Drinking Food of Thailand

By Andy Ricker with JJ Goode

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Narrow Road to the Deep North

By Richard Flanagan

The Sad Part Was
The Sad Part Was

By Prabda Yoon

The Windup Girl
The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture
Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture

By Philip Cornwel-Smith

Vietnam

Bright Shining Lie
Bright Shining Lie

By Neil Sheehan

Destination Saigon
Destination Saigon

By Walter Mason

Dragon Apparent
Dragon Apparent

By Norman Lewis

Fishing for Tigers
Fishing for Tigers

By Emily Maguire

The Lover
The Lover

By Marguerite Duras

The Quiet American
The Quiet American

By Graham Greene

The Refugees
The Refugees

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sorrow of War
The Sorrow of War

By Bao Ninh

The Sympathizer
The Sympathizer

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried

By Tim O’Brien

When the War Was Over
When the War Was Over

By Elizabeth Becker

General