Sonny Liew’s “The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”

I loved it.

It is brilliant political satire of postwar Singapore, providing an intelligent critique – backed by extensive research, with the “Notes” section offering but a small glimpse of the work behind each panel – of the dominant narrative in the country. As a fan of comics, even though the intricacies of illustration do elude my untrained eye, the creative visuals add another dimension to these oft-revisionist commentaries. And this creativity is further showcased when critical episodes such as the Japanese Occupation and the Merger and Separation with Malaysia are presented through their own mini-comics or mini-series with dissimilar styles or metaphors within “The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”, through which Sonny Liew also highlights alternative interpretations.

Three strips in this regard stood out:

“Singapore Story”, in which local stand-up comedians Wang Sha and Ye Fong interview the Minister of Museums of the Pay-and-Pay Party. Through the special exhibition, the minister speaks of the various successes of Singapore (which should be familiar to many), and illustrations of the exhibitions are hilarious too.

“Sinkapor Inks: Stationery and Supplies”, in which a wholesale company is led by a “Mr. Hairily”. References are made to the press freedom laws in Singapore, as well as the supposed “Marxist Conspiracy” which led to Operation Spectrum in 1987. These pages are all accompanied by a small strip at the bottom of each, where Liew himself provides commentary and tries to shake a younger counterpart out of apathy.

The “Force 136” series, in which animal caricatures are used to produce an entertaining retelling of key stakeholders during the Japanese Occupation, the period thereafter, as well as the problems which came with the Merger.

Yet telling these stories through the forgotten Charlie Chan Hock Chye is both functional and emotive, in my opinion. Functional, because it allows Liew to frame the different episodes within their own arcs – each with distinctive characteristics – while preserving the chronological progression of the comic book. After all, it traces the unfortunate life story of the unknown Chan, a comic-book artist who never quite makes it, and in the process raises interesting socio-economic questions, like the difficulty of making it as an artist in Singapore and the pragmatic expectations imposed by parents upon their children. And in this sense it is emotive, because while the satirical bits make one roll with laughter, the tale of the resolute Chan is moving and heart-wrenching.

At the end of the book, overwhelmed by the many stories as well as sketches, posters, and portraits crafted by Chan, one is therefore compelled to think – in greater detail – about the events and themes Liew had alluded to, juxtaposing them against what one might have learnt or known about the moments of Singapore’s past. The Ministry of Education may have worked in recent years to review historical content taught to the young, and moreover discourse on the Internet has raised awareness of contesting narratives, though ultimately Liew’s tome reads like a challenge; a challenge to always maintain that critical disposition for the future, and to never shy away from uncertainty or thinking about what could have been.


This article was first published over at the blog of Mr Kwan Jin Yao on 1 January 2016. It is reproduced with permission.


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