The best book I read this year was a graphic novel by Sonny Liew called the Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, an epic story through Singapore’s modern history narrated by the title’s fictional cartoonist.
I had first heard about this book online a few years ago, as it had stirred up a bit of controversy, after being awarded a National Arts Council grant by the Singapore government, which was then retracted, after it was realized that some of the story was critical of the ruling government’s history.
But all of this was good for publisher Epigram, helping to raise the graphic novel’s status overseas — a difficult thing for a small country like Singapore — and it was covered positively in the United States by major news outlets like the Economist, New York Times and NPR.
I bought a few copies of the book while in Singapore last year — and though I read a few chapters, it then sat on my shelf for a while, as I had reached the section of Sook Ching, a terrible massacre in Singapore during WW2, and I decided that I wanted to hold off a little bit.
However, there was a point this year when I felt ready to read it, and I powered through it over a couple of nights. A ‘graphic novel’ doesn’t sound like something that would require this kind of dedicated reading — but I would say that in some ways, it is the opposite of a normal book: the art and the style of framing the story, which shifts from one era to the next, almost requires a greater level of attention to absorb it properly.
The story itself follows Charlie through his life, starting out as a kid in the 1940s — Singapore still part of ‘Malaya’ under British rule — drawing cartoons with aspirations to become a serious comics artist. He becomes friends with Bertrand, another kid who loves comics, but who is a bit more socially outgoing than Charlie, and acts almost as his manager and agent, as they produce comics together.
Mainly, the team’s early efforts are derivative of popular comics from overseas, like the Giant Robot comics coming out of Japan in the 1950s, and then Eagle comic from Britain, featuring hero Dan Dare and the alien Mekon race. The boys adapt these comic styles to tell their own tales of what is going on around them, like the Japanese occupation of WW2; race relations and the political struggle against British rule during the 1950s; the birth of independence and separation from Malaysia in the 1960s.
However, the story also follows their own personal frustrations, rejection by publishers, poor sales and cancellations; particularly that of Charlie Chan, who is unable to really breakthrough and gain any kind of commercial success, or even artistic appreciation, and the impact it has on his personal life: that heavy toll of ‘following your dream’.
I found this story incredibly moving, a major goal for any form of storyteller. But it is also a great imaginative and technical achievement, considering that author Sonny Liew did not live through these earlier times (he was born in the 70s), but has managed to recreate them, and in turn, create a narrative of Singapore’s modern history, a difficult thing for anyone to do, graphic novelist and historian alike; and I would say that this book deserves all of the critical attention it has received, a point of pride for Singapore.
Personally, I was also amazed and excited when Charlie and his friend are hanging out as teenagers, and they are talking about the comics they love, and they pull out EC Comics titles like Weird Science, saying how Wally Wood is their favourite artist. This book is just exciting at so many levels, and will appeal to lots of different people, and that’s the mark, I think, of a great work.
You can find a sample of it here courtesy of Epigram Books.