Comic book takes alternative path to accurate history

July 1, 2016

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
Presented by Sonny Liew.
Pantheon Books, New York.
322 pages, 2015.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is the account of the life of a Singaporean comic book artist who started drawing at the age of 16.

From that point, his work depicts his life story in parallel to that of the history of Singapore. In reality, Chan Hock Chye is a fictional creation of Malaysian born comic artist Sonny Liew who has worked on comics such as the New York Times bestseller The Shadow Hero.

In The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, Liew uses a fictional character to blur the lines between fact and make believe. He uses various artistic genres to tell the story of Singapore's history, which has often been suppressed by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). The PAP has governed the island city state in an authoritarian manner since 1959.

Unlike the mainstream “social studies” textbooks, which are dry, boring and presented through heavily biased lenses, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye presents an alternative but factual narrative of Singapore's development in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

The book starts off with Chan at Kinokuniya books in present day Singapore, looking for comic books in the same way he used to do it in street libraries. It then moves into a chronological linear narrative with elements of alternative comic pieces interspersed within it.

While political censorship was high during the depicted period, Chan bypasses this by presenting his opinions in the way he knows how to best — via comics. In doing so, and by using various creative elements, Chan simplifies the issues and concerns of the day so the readers are able to understand otherwise complex issues. These include the mistrust of British and Japanese colonial powers, the Malaysian government, and even those in the PAP.

In the different stories over Chan's lifetime, two things become apparent. First you can see the different influences in his varying use of Japanese mecha robot manga, American pulp fiction and superhero comics and Malay Folktales.

Second, you can see the way Chan has been able to give an alternative view of Singapore's history since World War II to the present day. Chan also asks the critical question of whether the price that Singapore paid for the material and economic success is worth it.

With such an authoritarian one-party rule, political repression and censorship, the loss of ideals such as the sense of community spirit in the Kampongs (Malay villages) was inevitable as they were demolished and replaced by modern high rise apartments. This was the case especially from 1965 onwards when Singapore was kicked out of the Malaysian federation.

Apart from describing such political developments, this book is also about the author's personal journey and passion for comics at a time when such interests were often undervalued, as it was perceived as being impractical for earning a living.

Real life events are intertwined with Chan's life, for example when he partnered with his friend Bertrand Wong to go into the comic business. As the story progresses, Chan goes into further detail about how their story unfolds, and includes the many difficulties associated with breaking into the industry.

You can see Chan's talents in the various sketches he did of famous figures such as actors Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Hong Kong actress Yu Ming, and Singaporean political figures such as Lee Kuan Yew and left-wing leader Lim Chin Siong.

You also get the sense of nostalgia and sadness when Chan tells the story of the man with his mobile cinema on wheels. His arrival would generate excitement among children in the neighbourhood, as the kids would pay a small fee to watch reels with popular cartoons and movies such as Donald Duck and Tarzan.

Sadly, with the advent of television in the 1960s, the mobile cinema on wheels went into decline, until one day he was no longer there.

Given the highly censored nature of Singapore's politics, it is unsurprising that many of his works had not been published until recently. Not only were potential government crackdowns a threat to any artist who dabbled in the realm of political satire, the underlying fear that even selling or reading such accounts could land one in jail can only have deterred potential publishers.

This is perfectly symbolised by comics such as Sinkapor Inks-Stationary and Ink Supplies Inc. This satirises various aspects of Singapore's authoritarian state and policies, such as the “speak Mandarin” campaign of the 1980s.

The cut-out doll of opposition politician Joshua Benjamin Jayaratnam, dressed only in his underwear due to the countless times he had been sued by the PAP for libel was especially hilarious.

In the lead up to the celebration last year of Singapore's 50th anniversary of independence, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye ran into trouble with the Singaporean authorities. This led to the Singapore National Arts Councils withdrawing a previously promised grant to help with its publication, as it had been deemed to be undermining the “authority and legitimacy” of the government.

However, this act of censorship only generated more interest. It meant that on its initial print run, the first 1000 copies were all sold out by May last year.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is more than an alternative account of Singapore's political history and more than just an account of a creative dreamer and political satirist's struggle to gain acceptance.

The artistic styles, use of native Singaporean slang and many integrations of real-life elements that existed in the latter half of the 20th century would enable Singaporeans Gen Y and older to take a trip down memory lane — and bask in the nostalgia of Singapore's developmental days prior to becoming the modern-day thriving metropolis.

It is often said that only the victors write history. However Sonny Liew, through the publication of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, has given voice to those shut out of official versions of history, such as the “Singapore Story”, and cast a more critical eye on Singapore's past.

It is for that reason it is well worth reading for anyone interested in a finding an alternative history of Singapore.

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