Comic/Graphic novel review, from Tokyo, about Singapore – Sonny Liew’s “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” (Epigram Books, 2015; Pantheon Books, 2016) created a stir with news of a S$8,000 grant being withdrawn on the day before the book’s Singapore launch in May 2015. Despite some reviews online suggesting some reasons, it was still quite a shocking turn of events.
Having earmarked it since then, I finally got my hands on a copy directly from the local publisher online almost two years on.
Sparingly bonded, each time I reread it, I flip each page with utmost care, each turn creaking on the spine, threatening to pull the book apart. The stories inked into the pages though come through vibrantly.
Charlie Chan is a comics artist who lived through the post-war history of this island nation, which was famously propelled from third world to first in half a century, maybe less. In the course of that time, the world saw the rise of Lee Kwan Yew, known widely as the nation’s founding father, and left behind some other people and forces that inevitably helped shape the path of its young history.
The author blends his visibly apparent illustrations among Charlie’s and other historical snippets, positioning Charlie and the facts closer to the past, while assuming a modern day tone himself to explain things to present day readers. Charlie’s repertoire across several comic genres in a single book is also refreshingly entertaining.
Well, this multi-layering is all the master storyteller’s work, a work of fact-based fiction that clinched six nominations and won three Eisner awards. Coupled with the withdrawn grant, the attention drew more reviews on the story and artwork, yet I felt many missed the bit that I enjoyed most – reading a work that touched very close to home.
I particularly liked how Malaysia or Malaya played a part almost throughout the book’s narrative, especially Sang Kancil, the clever mouse deer. That is simply due to cultural, geography and political ties – Singapore is just across the 1-km Causeway, and became independent in 1965 just two years after merging to form Malaysia. It is even more natural considering the fact that the author himself was born in Malaysia, and moved across the straits at 5.
As a child, I remember classmates who commuted daily across the Causeway. They were always at school before me, and would sometimes talk among themselves about who came in earliest that day. They had a much better command of the Chinese language than I did then, and probably do still.
This somehow ties in with the way Charlie attempts to highlight, at numerous points, the fluctuating fortunes of the Chinese-educated population, tying in historical movements and incidents like the student riots and the Communist threat. Having studied at a Chinese school left me wondering why that part of history, learned mostly by ear, was scarcely mentioned in class. Perhaps I simply wasn’t paying enough attention, perhaps blinded by all that glitter in the race for survival through affluence. (Rereading that last sentence revealed the many fallacies of my juvenile thoughts.)
Littered with factual episodes to present different takes on history, including an alternative reality where the late Lim Chin Siong becomes Singapore’s Prime Minister, this 320-page graphic novel weaves fact with fiction to create a series of engaging fact-based anecdotes.
Having etched its place in Singapore’s art history at a time when the nation is gradually opening up to artistic pursuit, the book will undoubtedly also have sown the seeds for a deeper look into the nation’s, and the region’s, historical narrative.
It has certainly reminded me of the possibilities fiction offers in shining a light on the many untold stories lying under the surface of historical fact.
Title: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
Author: Sonny Liew
Publisher: Epigram Books, 2015; Pantheon Books, 2016
(available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook)
Winner of 2017 Eisner Awards for Best Writer/Artist, Best US Edition of International Material—Asia, and Best Publication Design
Other accolades listed on publisher websites.