I want to know what the Lees think of 'Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye': Sonny Liew

Sonny Liew
PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore

[UPDATED 6:10pm 18 July 2017: This article has been amended to reflect Sonny Liew’s clarification and additional details of his upcoming projects]

More than two years after the debut of his internationally-acclaimed graphic novel “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”, an ambitious work that includes the late Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong as key characters, Singaporean comic artist Sonny Liew is still curious about the Lee family’s thoughts.

“I have no idea whether they’ve read it, what they think about it. That’s the missing part of the dialogue,” said Liew when asked if he had gotten any feedback about the book from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, eldest son of the late Lee, or his family.

“What does the PAP, members of parliament think about it? Do they disagree with what I’m writing? If they disagree, what do they disagree about? I’d love to hear what they have to say,” Liew said.

When this reporter jokingly suggested that he invite PM Lee to his studio, the 42-year-old replied with a laugh, “I’m sure he will show up!”

Speaking to Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore in his studio at the Goodman Arts Centre in June, Liew is on the cusp of achieving what no Singaporean has managed in the almost 30-year history of the prestigious Eisner Awards.

For his work on “Charlie Chan”, Liew is nominated in six categories in this year’s Eisners, the comics industry’s equivalent of the Oscars.

He has the most nominations of any creator in 2017, including Best Writer/Artist, Best Graphic Album (New) and Best Publication Design. The results will be announced on the morning of 22 July (Singapore time) at the San Diego Comic Convention.

“I remember at my first Comic Con, I saw the awards there and I asked myself, how can I ever win one of these? It seemed so impossible at that point,” recalled Liew wistfully. “I had hoped for one, or two nominations maybe, but to get six was totally unexpected.”

The ‘sensitive content’ of Charlie Chan

Things did not look so upbeat back in May 2015, when the National Arts Council (NAC) withdrew an $8,000 publishing grant from Liew’s publisher Epigram Books for the book’s “sensitive content”, just one day before “Charlie Chan” was due to officially launch.

It costs Epigram Books an average of $20,000 to $25,000 to publish a book, while its graphic novels typically sell about a thousand copies each.

“The thing that struck me most was that I was told that once you flout those guidelines, those criteria that they have about not destabilising the government or state, that artistic merit no longer mattered in their evaluation.”

“And to me, that felt strange. For an arts council to be coming out to say that it doesn’t matter what your merit is… that to me felt strange,” said Liew, who is thoughtful and soft spoken throughout the interview.

But the resulting publicity turned out to be a godsend for “Charlie Chan”. The following day at the book’s launch, Liew had “quite a shock” at the size of the crowd that turned up at Books Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City. More than 100 people were in attendance, as compared to the 30-50 that usually come to a book launch at Kinokuniya.

The book has gone on to sell an estimated 14,000 copies in Singapore alone. “Charlie Chan” has also garnered favourable reviews in major publications such as The New York Times, The Economist and The Washington Post. National Public Radio critic John Powers even called it “a startlingly brilliant tour de force…dizzyingly meta and deeply heartfelt”.

The ‘schizo’ approach of the NAC

Liew took a long pause when asked if he felt vindicated by the success of “Charlie Chan”. While there is no bitterness in his tone, there is more than a hint of frustration.

“The main feeling that I have towards the NAC and the authorities now is that I wish there was still more conversation about the book,” said Liew.

“They have adopted a sort of schizo approach where they say they can support me as an artist, but not the book in itself. So they have this strange divide. At last year’s Singapore Writers’ Festival, they can say, okay we have a panel with Sonny Liew, but try not to mention ‘The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye’ even though that’s what it’s really about.”

Nevertheless, the NAC remains supportive of his work. Liew’s studio is subsidised by the government agency, and the NAC has also given him a creation grant for his next work. He said, “I think for them, as long as I’m not writing about Singapore or Singapore history or politics per se, they are okay with it.”

Liew has various projects lined up. He will be drawing in front of a ‘live’ audience at the Singapore International Festival of Arts and is discussing projects with DC Comics, Boom Studios and IDW Publishing. He is also doing research for another tome that will deal with weighty issues such as capitalism and neo-liberalism.

For now, there is still the small matter of the Eisners. If he does end up winning in at least one category, is Liew afraid that he will have peaked in his career?

“I think that’s a fear everybody has in their career, that this is the high point and it can only go downhill from here… All you can do is work on the next book and try to make it interesting.”

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