By Howard Lee
As with all works of art, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew can be interpreted differently by any reader. For me, the single most enduring and endearing part about the graphic novel was the two parallel narratives that Liew has woven into a single compelling read.
Interestingly, neither of these tracks could possibly be construed as any deliberate attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Singapore government, as the National Arts Council seems to be suggesting was the reason for pulling out its grant for the book.
The first narrative was the life of Charlie Chan, a struggling comic artist trying to make ends meet in a country that, in its lightning-induced race towards economic survival or progress, had no space for the creative industry.
This narrative speaks to many of us who struggle to find our way in making a living while living out our passion. Singapore in its early post-independence years was a harsh environment, golden as it might have been. Artists, creators, inventors, tinkerers, craftsmen, or even those who just wanted to live a simple life, all had to give way to the cruel path of economic pragmatism, when productivity exalted a high price on our way of life.
In fact, even Charlie himself had to part ways with his writer Bertrand Wong, when the latter, starting on the same path of idealism, eventually made a decision to get married and presumably sought a life with a stable income, rather than struggle to make ends meet doing what he loved.
The parting of Charlie and Bertrand was possibly the most poignant part of Liew’s book. Liew might have attempted to point out the gravity of the separation, in forlorn single frames that stood out among the splash of action and colours that typified much of the book.
In many ways, it symbolised a critical turn in Charlie’s career and life. He was no longer limited by the need to draw for an audience, for the sake of commercial viability – a role which Bertrand tasked himself with – and could hence freely express himself with more daring and creativity in his drawings thereafter. However, the duo’s parting also marked a certain solitude that Charlie carried on with, as he retreated more into his own world of fantasy.
The first narrative, hence, was social satire, a statement about Singapore’s quest for economical survival and, as Bertrand put it, the “practical” things in life that drives out the desire within us to be ourselves, jettison our ideals adopt the machinery of progress. This should resonate with more than a few of us – perhaps more poignantly for those who have lived through the early years of independence, but also those among us trying to meld ideals with income, in an environment that still has very little space for the alternative.
The second narrative was the work of Charlie Chan, as seen through the eyes of someone who had lived through Singapore’s days of independence and stellar-speed development. Here, Liew excelled in his story telling by weaving together a wide variety of drawing styles that made believable the idea that we were looking at an artist who has developed his craft over more than 50 years.
Into this work was weaved Charlie’s perspective, and this is clearly a political one. Charlie’s drawings charted a path through colonial rule, the Japanese occupation, and most vividly the struggle between the People’s Action Party and the Barisan Socialis.
At times, we see Charlie’s longing for a different political climate, which was the most telling in how Ah Huat’s giant robot helped the student unionists and his final story about an alternative history where Lim Chin Siong was the Prime Minister.
And of course, no self-respecting journalist would be able to get away without have a good frown or chuckle at Charlie’s depiction of Sinkapor Inks, a parody on the state and methods of media censorship in Singapore, with the big boss Mr Hairily leading the tirade against the company’s newsletter and salesmen from other stationary shops.
The second narrative, hence, was political satire. Liew had pointed a spotlight on the issues that plague our society, during our early history and as it continues today.
Does The Art of Charlie Chan “potentially undermine the legitimacy of the Singapore government”? If you believe that the subject of much of Liew’s drawings – the ruling People’s Action Party – is the government and the government is the PAP, then definitely yes. But the truth is that it is not, and no self-respecting public agency will think that way.
Indeed, Liew often depicted the executioners of political instruction as part of the necessary, at times methodical to a fault. The need to follow procedure, coupled by the need to adhere to the pressures of survival, real or otherwise, drove much of what Charlie saw as the inevitable.
In that light, it is necessary to read The Art of Charlie Chan as a certain coming-of-age of political discourse in Singapore, where we can for one, embrace diversity of abilities – that we should really have the space for Charlie as the greatest comic artist in Singapore – and for another, accept differences of opinions for a common good – that ultimately, we do not know if Singapore without PAP might have done worse or even better.
We are 50 years young, and this is our story. Charlie’s life is very much ours, and there is no reason why we should not read and live it as we should.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is available for sale on Epigram’s webstore.