Review: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye presented by Sonny Liew (Epigram Books)

Reviewer: Miss Cai

I love my country and am truly proud to be Singaporean. But to be completely honest, what I know of Singapore came primarily through school textbooks and “official” documentaries/ plays… with a little sprinkling of WW2 stories from my 93-year-old Teochew grandmother who was a feisty teenager during the Japanese occupation.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye presented by Sonny Liew is like a book on anti-gravity… It’s really hard to put down! Mucho kudos to Edmund Wee and his team at local publishing agency, Epigram Books, for believing in such an amazing project. They make some truly amazing books and are very passionate about what they do!

On the eve of the book launch last year, I was having coffee with Wee in town and sharing what I know of social media, when the former journalist got the phone call. Unfazed about the situation, Wee was a cool cat about the whole thing and never complained about the government’s move of retracting support, which inconveniently led to his small team having to individually slap white stickers on every single copy of the book, to mask away that logo and one liner about NAC’s support, which had been printed in the acknowledgements page, before the eventual bestseller hit local bookstores.

NAC had initially toyed with the idea of completely banning Liew’s book, like some media (local and international) had talked about last year. Flipping through the vibrant pages of Liew’s award-winning graphic novel, I can understand why NAC was so nervous about it. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is an unapologetic political cartoon, portraying our beloved LKY in a light different from what the government/ ruling political party has carefully built over PAP’s decades in power and the book also touches on communism.

Coming from a viewpoint of an artist and published author, this is my opinion: There is no right or wrong in art. Liew is an artist and a good artist at that; one who provokes thought and emotion. There is nothing obscene in the book, only stories that challenge what history has taken as fact. A different perspective of the Singapore story, so to speak. But The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is much more than just a “political toon”… it’s also a love story, one about dreams and ambition, family and expectations, wanting simple things in a materialistic age, and growing old (and alone) in a fast-paced society that is ever changing.

Much creativity and drama comes to play; fictional characters meeting real ones, respected politicians who we know are suddenly depicted as dramatic superheroes, and there are even moments when the fourth wall is broken. The storytelling process is meaningful and skilfully done, while the artwork is a clever display of Liew’s (who has worked with Marvel and Vertigo Comics) obvious drawing talent.

Appreciation for comic pop culture aside, there were moments in the book that made me pause to reflect and deeply appreciate how much had gone into making Singapore the incredible success story it is today. Strategies and sacrifices were indeed necessary for “the greater good”.

Liew presents a candid sci-fi possibility of history as we know it had taken a different path. That particular route of “what it could have been” is exactly what makes authorities uncomfortable about Liew’s 344-page graphic novel, which has become an international hit… rendering NAC’s decision to withdraw its $8,000 book grant because of its potential to “undermine the authority and legitimacy” of the local government 🙁

Last year, I created #SG50books50days, a passion project where I personally placed 50 local reads in different parts of Singapore over 50 days, finders keepers. The whole idea was really to create a fun environment for Singaporeans to get their noses out of their phone/ iPad screens and start falling in love with books all over again. I wished this book was one of them!

 

Liew’s masterpiece is an amazing page turner and I really enjoyed the journey it gave me. It’s always a special kind of happiness when you get so invested in a book, which sucks you into another world where you honestly care about its endearing characters.

Trust me… at the end of the book, you’d want to knock on the door of Uncle Charlie’s humble HDB flat and treat him to a nice lunch of Katong laksa and Kopi-O (black as the devil) ….or maybe milo, or iced water on a warm day.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye comes highly recommended. If you haven’t got your copy yet, it’s available direct from its original publisher Epigram Books or good local bookstores like PopularTimes and  Kinokuniya

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