Comic artist Sonny Liew tackles Singapore history in 'The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye'

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
Singaporean writer/artist Sonny Liew. Photo credit by Adam Tun-Aung.

To local comics fans, Sonny Liew is probably Singapore's most high profile comic creator. A man who has done work for both Marvel and DC Comics, Liew has garnered the praise of renowned creators such as Gail Simone and Mike Carey. 

He's also been nominated for an Eisner Award, the comics industry's equivalent of the Oscars. 

And come next month, Liew's collaboration with comics legend Paul Levitz on the lesser-known DC Comics character Dr Fate kicks off. The Malaysia-born Singaporean says their take on the character will be akin to the early days of Spider-Man  "a young teenager gaining powers and learning to deal with the consequences."

But first, next Saturday, Liew will launch the much-anticipated The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a 320-page tome that is three years in the making, and breathtaking in its ambition and scope. 

Ostensibly the biography of a Singapore comic artist who came of age in the country's formative years, it turns into a meditation on Singapore's history, socio-political issues, comic art history, censorship and more. 

Singaporean politicians Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong are a prominent part of the meta-narrative, while Liew also cameos intermittently as a narrator-cum-questioner. Not to mention fictional characters such as Roachman, Orang Minyak and Ah Huat's Giant Robot. 

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a new graphic novel by Singaporean creator Sonny Liew. Picture courtesy of Epigram Books. 

So why the unconventional approach? "The initial idea was to do it in a conventional art book form  essays accompanied by samples of Chan's work," says Liew.

"But  I realized that I'd never read  any of the art books I owned myself in a linear way from start to finish. They were essentially coffee table books that you dipped into. So I had to try to find ways to alter the form, so that readers would be compelled to follow the narrative  from start to finish," he explains.

Given that many of the events mentioned in the book – the Hock Lee bus riots, Lee Kuan Yew's role in the independence struggle, Lim Chin Siong's imprisonment – have been well covered by historians, was Liew afraid of repetition?  

He notes, "When I first started doing research, I was surprised by how much I didn't know about Lim Chin Siong. I think unless you lived through that era, or had a special interest in local history, you'd probably only have a vague notion of the part he played, and younger readers might have no idea who he was at all."

The book's release has also turned out to be uncannily timely, coming just two months after Mr Lee's passing. Could The Art of Charlie Chan turn out to be the start of the post-LKY conversation? Liew demurs at the suggestion. 

"I wouldn’t go so far as saying it’s the start. His legacy has always been debated, even though during the period of intense grieving after his passing, the focus was understandly on his many accomplishments. 

But maybe telling the story through comics allows the questions to be approached differently. Hopefully, it can reach a wider audience, and engage them in a new way. The medium may not always be the message, but it does affect the way a reader reacts to the subject or content."


Pages from the graphic novel by Sonny Liew. Picture couresy of Epigram Books. 

Another key theme in the book: The repression of press freedoms, and freedom of expression. What does Liew think of the fact that he can pen such a work – and with the support of the National Arts Council, no less?

Liew says, "There's more room for alternative voices these days, but I think there is still a general sense of unease about what you can say and do. A lot of people have asked me if I'd get in trouble for doing this book. But maybe it also ensured that  I worked extra hard with my editor to make sure that everything was backed up by evidence and research."

"So it’s fair to say that there have been changes, but government control has hardly disappeared. The mainstream media is still generally pro-establishment, and you while do get more alternative voices online, there have been moves towards a greater policing of the internet too," he notes.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye will be officially launched on Sat, May 30 at 2pm at Books Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City. It's now available for $37.34.