Sonny Liew’s The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye: The review

Writer/artist Sonny Liew’s long-awaited graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, is finally here after an almost three-year wait: It was first announced at the Singapore Toy, Game and Comic Convention in 2012. After multiple delays and the coming in at 320  pages – much longer than expected – the book was officially launched on Free Comic Book Day in Kuala Lumpur, and has also reached our shores … but the question remains: Has it been worth the wait?

(Image: Epigram Books)
(Image: Epigram Books)

Published by Epigram Books, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is based on the life of the titular, little-known Singaporean artist. The biography traces the life of Chan, from young comic-book-artist wannabe to the autumn years of his life. But it’s not just a simple tale – Chan’s life crosses through major parts of Singapore’s pre- and post-war history. In the book, Liew intersperses Chan’s comics with Liew’s own illustration of events, forming a narrative that is structured around Chan’s work.

And what a joy it is to read – at a purely surface level, Liew’s exploration of comic book history with a Singaporean spin is a joy to behold. From Chan’s take on Tezuka comics (think Miller/Darrow’s Big Guy told by way of Astro Boy) to a riff on Mad Magazine, Chan’s tale traverses through eras of comics history. Liew’s compilation of Chan’s work over the years is lovingly and deftly done, and watching Chan’s art style evolve as the decades wear on is a story in itself, the changes reflecting Chan’s psyche. While the experience is surely heightened for long-time comic fans with some knowledge of comics history, the cultural touch-stones are familiar enough for anyone with passing knowledge of pop-culture – each result being Chan’s heart laid bare on the page with each pen stroke.

But cut  deeper and Charlie Chan layers start to bloom – and the trip isn’t quite what we were promised. Chan’s life mirrors myriad struggles within Singapore, from how Singaporeans view the arts, to the tale of – as Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) would put it – Singapore’s “Battle For Merger”. While some of these topics have been explored, whether in the history books or documentaries or dramatizations, the mastery here is in how it’s told, especially with the amount of work Liew clearly put both into researching and producing the graphic novel.

And Liew doesn’t shy back from the topic of LKY. The books starts with mirroring pages of the lives of  Lee Kuan Yew and then trade union leader Lim Chin Siong, showing that The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is more than just a biography of an artist, it is moreso the study of Singapore’s own history. Liew’s opening salvo – the first two pages of the book – is clear, that history is never just black and white, especially if it’s the victor writing it.

A page from Ah Huat's Robot Vol 1, based on the National Service riots of 1954. (Image: Epigram Books)
A page from Ah Huat’s Robot Vol 1, based on the National Service riots of 1954. (Image: Epigram Books)

And while the wait for the book has been most excruciating, the actual release of Charlie Chan couldn’t have been timed any better, what with this year being Singapore’s 50th and also the year which LKY passed. Mr Lee’s death brought all kinds of responses, largely romantic and full of gratitude, but the book makes clear that Chan saw LKY – more often than not – as draconian and like a dictator, with some of it stemming from the detention and later self-exile of Lim Chin Siong, who Chan admired as a sort of folk hero. Liew also doesn’t shy away from including other “taboo” topics such as Operation Spectrum – where Singaporeans were arrested and detained without for having Marxist links.

But Chan isn’t purely against LKY – even portraying him as the heroic mousedeer Sang Kanchil (who, let’s not forget, could be a little too cocky) – and what we have is a measured take at Singapore’s past.

A portrait of an artist as a young man. (Image: Sonny Liew / Epigram Books)
A portrait of an artist as a young man. (Image: Sonny Liew / Epigram Books)

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is lengthy, but there’s still a feeling that the latter parts of the book are a little more rushed, or just less nuanced, especially when it comes to the “Sinkapor Inks” story, which moves beyond thinly-veiled to just being a hammer directly on the nose. While one can see this as due to Chan’s frustration with the “Singapore story”, the book itself doesn’t have as much to say about the post-LKY years. It’s an odd omission – I wanted to see Chan’s take on more contemporary topics – but I guess you could ask the other question – now that Singapore is in the actual post-LKY years, does Singapore have anything new to say?

It’s also during the later chapters that even Liew himself steps into the story, telling an audience surrogate to read the appendix, as if he were railing against an apathetic audience. It’s an interesting, almost comedic choice – and definitely helps to balance Chan’s view of the events. “Don’t just take one man’s word for things,” Liew seems to say. “Read as much as you can to form your own opinion.”

Modern day Charlie Chan. Quite the rebel, no? (Image: Sonny Liew / Epigram Books)
Modern day Charlie Chan. Quite the rebel, no? (Image: Sonny Liew / Epigram Books)

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is an amazingly crafted book, and you can almost feel as if Sonny has shed blood on it. It’s excruciatingly detailed – there’s an appendix that’s worth reading – that one can’t help but understand why it took so long to reach our hands. Some early reviews have gone as far as to name this Sonny’s magnum opus, and it’s hard to disagree – this is essential reading not just for Sonny Liew fans, but also for fans of comic book history, and those interested in Singapore’s past. And yet, while having to juggle all these hats, the book never gets bogged down.

But even if you’re none of the above – the book is still worth picking up, especially if you’re in it just for a good story, and a touch of nostalgia about Singapore’s past. The exploration of Chan’s youth, whether it’s through drawings or comic strips, is told with such longing for a Singapore that is set to be gone forever, as the march of progress relentlessly continues.

The name “Charlie Chan” isn’t, and has never been, a household name. But with this book, Sonny Liew has done more than enough to make sure it’s remembered for time to come – not just locally, but internationally as well (with the book set for worldwide release with Pantheon Books). It’s hard to say if Chan would have been famous today if such a person came into prominence now, or if Singaporeans cared more about local comics  – after all, Chan seemed to never be able to snap out of aping other comics, never truly having his own voice. But it’s in this book that Sonny Liew’s voice speaks the loudest – Charlie Chan, in all its layers, might be the most challenging and complex work by Liew yet.

After all, whether or not Charlie Chan existed isn’t so important, but what matters is that we have The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

(Image: Sonny Liew / Epigram Books)
(Image: Sonny Liew / Epigram Books)

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is now available at Epigram Books for S$34.90. Order soon for an autographed copy! Sonny Liew’s official book launch will be held May 30, Kinokuniya Ngee Ann City, 2pm.

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