The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

It’s encouraging that works like this can find traction in Singapore, even if its popularity did rely somewhat on the Streisand Effect.

Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is an evocative and multilayered graphic novel that leverages on the medium to its fullest effect to deliver a package that is in part allegorical historical narrative, in part autobiography, and in part a visual archive of visceral images of Singapore, from past to present, seen through a comic artist’s unique perspective.

The titular Chan is fictional, if there was any doubt about that; but the way in which Liew presents him is as if he is a real part of Singapore’s history. Chan cuts a quirky figure; an irascible and opinionated narrator who rips the plastic off comics in bookstores to browse without buying them. Describing himself as “Singapore’s greatest living artist”, he initially fools you with his extravagant self-aggrandizement, but you soon learn that that particular epithet is nothing more than self-deprecation, an ironic reminder or the irrelevance of his craft in the face of modern Singapore.

Sonny Liew presents Chan’s life story as an chronicle of the man and his work, but Chan’s comics are inseparable from the historical milieu. Liew’s artistic range is demonstrated in the number and variety of styles in which Chan works; everything from light-hearted animal-kingdom parables to noirish superhero pulp to Tezuka-style space opera; but always commenting on and shaping the narratives of contemporary historical events. One Tezuka-inspired comic portrays the MCP as a giant robot that only speaks Mandarin; another, Bukit Chapalang, recounts the story of Singapore’s struggle for self-governance in the form of a bunch of forest animals trying to get the lions to allow them to hold a picnic. Over time Chan’s works increase in allegorical sophistication, and you can track his political passions as they mutate through the years, from the communists, to merger, and later on, to criticize the fledgling PAP government’s strictures on artistic expression, as well as some of its more hackneyed policies.

There is also an autobiographical element to this story, as Chan’s aspirations fizzle out in the midst of Singapore’s rise under the PAP. In one of his later comics, he imagines an alternative vision of Singapore in which the Barisan Socialis wins and Lim Chin Siong is the Prime Minister of Singapore, with Lee Kuan Yew in exile, and himself Singapore’s most well-known comic artist. But Chan admits that this grandiose vision is no more than just a mirage and a dream, and stark white reality must needs encroach; this melancholy acceptance of the outcomes of his long and obscure career as a forgotten comics artist provides a large part of the emotional pathos of this graphic novel, as our last scene is of Chan, a lonely and forgotten old man, doodling on his easel in his modest apartment, surrounded by simple accoutrements, in the midst of a modern, PAP-dominated Singapore.

The story is also a loose meditation on two men, Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong, and the alternative visions that they represented. There is somewhat of a romanticization of Lim Chin Siong, coupled with what can only be described as an unsalutary portrayal of Lee Kuan Yew, especially in the later years, where Chan depicts, in cuttingly satirical fashion, Lee’s efforts to silence dissenting voices in the artistic and media spheres as necessary to maintain our unity of purpose in the midst of existential vulnerability. Chan’s comics also offered wry observations on some of the PAP’s more controversial policies, such as the Graduate Mothers Scheme. To Chan, art could afford no synthetic boundaries set on it by the state.

The variety of art styles, the careful layering of narratives, the painstaking attention to historical accuracy, and the found-footage nature of much of the ersatz archival material – the portraits, sketches, posters from Chan’s oeuvre of people, places and ideas (especially the hand-made Ah Huat doll) – these are all disparate elements that come together, in breathtaking fashion, to make up the harmonious whole of this graphic novel, which assuredly will stand as one of the finest meditations on Singapore’s past and present that have yet been produced. It’s a wonderful, unified, historically sensitive work, its underlying message about our curtailed capacity for sincere dissension somewhat sharpened by the entire NAS fiasco that skyrocketed it to fame; but most of all, it is profoundly human and melancholy. It’s hard to unpack this work in a few hundred words, but suffice to say that The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye should be required reading for all Singaporeans interested in a brave, critical, and aesthetically accomplished look at Singapore, past and present.

I give this graphic novel: 4.5 out of 5 giant communist robots


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