The Many Layers of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

This is the book I’ve been waiting for.

If you had to choose, will you read a story about an individual's hopes and dreams, a daring commentary on Singapore politics, or a collection of comics through the ages?

Well, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is all of that and more. Who says comics can’t be multi-faceted?

A book about Charlie’s life?

At first glance, it is an autobiography of a hidden gem — an unknown comic artist from Singapore, who has been drawing since the 1930s.

Having lived through most of Singapore’s major events, his experiences and views of the political tumult and uncertainty of the period show in his comics, which are heavily featured in the book.

For me, a Singaporean who is familiar with the highlights of its past, it is delightful to see how Charlie strove to incorporate the major events of Singapore in his works, laid out with helpful explanations by Sonny Liew, the autobiographer.

And don’t get me wrong, the comics are funny and fantastical and nothing at all like reading a textbook on history — a robot marches into the hock lee bus riots, the local superhero Roachman deals with the Bukit Ho Swee fire, and the elections of 1955 is held in a futuristic science fiction setting with aliens.

Now tell me you don’t want to read that.

The book also highlights his struggles as a comic artist through all 57 years of single-minded pursuit to improve his craft — this is a man who has dedicated his life to creating meaningful comics, no matter the cost.

**warning: major spoilers below**

Many aspiring writers and artist can identify with his life— He disappoints his family, makes difficult decisions to take up a menial job to pursue his art in his free time, drifts apart from the woman he loves, and is unrecognized for the rest of his life (till now).

It gives a good picture of what it means to live out your entire life for your art, and raises questions for all the artists out there — are you willing to sacrifice it all for the sake of creating your best work?

Charlie saw his friends build stable families and jobs, live contented lives with enough tucked away on a rainy day, be respectable members of society — while he spent his whole life alone in a room pouring his heart and soul into every unpublished comic.

The book ends on a bittersweet note, the story of a creator who spent his life drawing — and for what? As he says in his own words —

Just a feeling of wanting to draw, to tell stories.

A true voice in the wilderness.

A book that rewrites Singapore History?

But midway through the book, you get the sense that Charlie’s story is just a setup for a brutal commentary on Singapore’s political leaders and history.

No fiction could be stranger, or more exciting, than the truth

Seeing Singapore’s gleaming history go down the drain in comics is definitely something new — the little footnotes that our history books gloss over are brought into prominence here.

In Bukit Chapalang, one of Charlie’s comics, Mr. Lee Kwan Yew is portrayed as a cunning mousedeer trickster who rewrites the legal terms to sway the referendum votes in favour of merger with a Hinterland led by an orangutan — the anthropomorphic representation of Malaya’s Tunku.

In another comic, Mr. Lee is a totalitarian boss of a stationery company, Sinkapor Inks, who imprisons his employees without fair trial for speaking up against him, among other things.

This is the fiction we needed as children studying Singapore History at school, but never saw. Not only would the comics have been an entertaining and easy read, it would have given us a fresh perspective on our leaders and food for thought — something that has been avoided in public discourse for too long.

In the official account of the Singapore Story that we learn growing up, this never happens. In fact, criticism towards the government have always led to real life problems and litigations for the “troublemakers”, who protest against the measures Mr. Lee has taken to bring Singapore to prosperity.

Hence, the book has become a political hot potato leading to the withdrawal of its government grant, and ironically validating Charlie Chan’s sentiment that

only by severing all links with the public sphere and patronage…would he be able to achieve true freedom of expression.

One particular relationship keeps popping up across all of Charlie Chan’s comics, the story of the close partnership and eventual falling out between the communist leader Mr. Lim Chin Siong, and the first prime minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. Each time, the story is told a little differently, and gets progressively cynical as the years go by.

It is not difficult to see why Charlie Chan is obsessed with this theme, as the partnership between Mr Lee and the idealistic Mr Chin mirrors his partnership with the comic writer Bertrand Wong, ending with Wong’s decision to break up their comics team and choose practical work over their shared comic dreams, eventually finding a job in order be financially secure to marry and raise a family.

In Charlie Chan’s most heartbreaking comic, Mr. Lee Kwan Yew loses the elections and Mr. Lim Chin Siong becomes the first prime minister of a modern Singapore. Charlie Chan himself appears in this comic, as a successful and popular comic artist. This is a place where people who chase their dreams over practical concerns find success — that is, until the appearance of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s ghost.

In one blow, both Mr Chin and Charlie are doomed to a life of obscurity failure, by a portal Mr Lee Kwan Yew’s ghost conjures up to return that alternate universe into the present reality. Practicality trumps all.

After seeing the past through Charlie Chan’s eyes, Singapore History will never be the same again.

A commentary on comic history?

As if that is not enough, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye also reads like an anthology of comics styles through the ages — a retrospective collection of the Western and Japanese comic influences on other comic work.

The writing and art styles from the comic grand masters of fantasy, science fiction, and political cartoons such as Tezuka, Mad Magazine, and the old Marvel comics, are visible into Charlie’s work.

On the other hand, Sonny’s footnotes in comic form draw from a separate set of influences — autobiographical comics and non-fiction comics such as those by Scott McCloud and Art Spiegelman.

As the comics by the two artists sometimes sit side by side on the same page, its fascinating to see the interplay between them.

I’ll leave it to other reviews to go in depth on its rich comic influences, but suffice to say, you’re getting more than 10 types of different comic stories and styles by two comic artists for the price of one.

Or is it?

Bonus: The Inception moment

“Does Charlie Chan exist? Why have we never heard of him before?” Someone asked during the Kinokuniya book launch.

While a video of Charlie Chan and his workspace exists, many people have doubts about whether he is a real person.

Is it possible that a comic artist like him exists in Singapore?

Also, as someone who has followed Sonny Liew’s work for many years, its suspicious that Charlie’s comics, sketches, and oil paintings look very much like Sonny’s drawing style.

Personally, I believe Charlie is simply a character who Sonny Liew uses to explore his ideas towards Singapore’s past and the perils of choosing to be a comic artist.

However, I have known enough struggling comic artists in Singapore to know that Charlie Chan’s life is not entirely fiction.

To me, Charlie Chan Hock Chye lives.

He lives as a warning to all other aspiring artists of the necessary sacrifices one has to make for their art, and he lives as an ideal of uncompromising dedication to creating good work.

And he is a true inspiration to us all.

The Final Layer

What happens when you find out that Charlie Chan is not real?

You start to see how Sonny Liew has painstakingly designed Charlie Chan’s life into the events of Singapore’s history, so that he is perfectly positioned to see and tell and live through Singapore’s ruthless march of progress.

The consequence of a young nation striving to prove its worth under the leadership of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, is the necessity of its artists and dissonant voices being stifled, stamped out and reduced to failures.

Now that Singapore is known for being a sterile, materialistic and unhappy society, this book is truly a fitting gift for Singapore’s 50th Jubilee. Charlie Chan shows what Singapore’s comic artists could have achieved, had there been greater freedom of speech in the past.

Sonny not only manages to address various political issues through Charlie’s comics, but also do it through a stunning display of comic styles through the ages, proving that the comic genre is not only a valid form to deal with serious issues and eminently able to critique political events.

Nevertheless, no review, however long, can do full justice to the book. Pick up a copy yourself, and prepare to have your mind blown.

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