Graphic novel about Singapore history, “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” recognised internationally

“The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye,” graphic novel by Sonny Liew, was published in Singapore last year by Epigram Books, has achieved recognition from various international publication throughout the year.

The graphic novel is a retelling of Singapore’s journey to nationhood with certain elements of satire or alternative expression to address controversial aspects of its history.

The book uses different forms of comic illustration to depict the life of a Singaporean artist which spans across 60-odd years of Singapore history. The first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong, co-founder of People’s Action Party and former Secretary General of now-defunct Barisan Sosialis are depicted side by side within the book.

Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chai

On 17 November, The Washington Post declared the novel as one of the Best Graphic Novels 2016, along with nine other novels, including Cousin Joseph, Ghosts, and Hot Dog Taste Test.

The newspaper said that the fictional title character, a cartoonist himself, is a deft framing device for viewing Singapore’s culture and history through many crisp prisms. “Liew keeps us fully awake to his intellectual ambition and political potency by unveiling a parade of shifting visual aesthetics — with nods to such comics legends as Winsor McCay.”

On 10 December 2016, The Economist magazine announced the novel as one of its Books of the Year 2016, along with some other non-fiction titles, such as Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism, CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping and seven other titles.

The magazine said that the novel is a brilliantly inventive graphic novel, which took several years to complete, weighs up the costs and benefits of life in the small, authoritarian, model city-state that Lee Kwan Yew founded half a century ago.

Publisher Weekly had announced the book as The Best Comic Book in 2016.

The company said that an early candidate for the various best-of lists for 2016, this superlative achievement from Liew (The Shadow Hero) tells the story not only of Singaporean artist and comics creator Charlie Chan Hock Chye, but of Singapore itself.

It wrote that it hardly matters that the titular character is an invention of Liew’s, because his story is so real that some early reviewers assumed Liew’s protagonist had to be a real person.

“Chye’s story, from his youthful beginnings and early career as an artist to his later reminiscences, is fascinating in itself, but Liew’s inclusion of fabricated newspaper clippings, old sketches, and mixed media works—and even an occasional photo collage purporting to show us first-hand evidence of Charlie’s life—is riveting,” it wrote.

It added, “As Chye’s life is revealed, so is the history of Singapore, a tumultuous sweep that is mirrored in the history of cartooning. Make no mistake: this multilayered book is a masterpiece,”.

A radio network, National Public Radio (NPR)’s Book Concierge, named the novel as one of 309 books to read in 2016.

The novel has also won the Singapore Literature Prize and has climbed to the top of bestsellers lists for Amazon and The New York Times earlier this year.

Mr Hairily runs Sinkapor Inks with an iron fist, with or without knuckle dusters (image - The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye)
Mr Hairily runs Sinkapor Inks with an iron fist, with or without knuckle dusters (image – The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye)


The Malaysia-born Singaporean cartoonist earlier noted that the book took about 2 years to complete – the research and bulk of the writing and drawing took about 18 months, followed by another 6 months or so of editing and polishing

But despite its much-acclaimed success, the publication had its approved $8,000 publication grant withdrew by National Arts Council (NAC) under the reason of “sensitive content” depicted in the 324-page comic book.

Liew had earlier wrote in a post about the withdrawal:

“My initial issue with the withdrawal was the impact on the publisher, given the sudden unexpected finanical shortfall in their plans, especially since we’d submitted a representative manuscript during the grant application and had no reason to think that there would be an issue with the final book.

But maybe that’s fallen away a little, thanks to what I’ve learnt is something called the Streisand Effect, and I think the publisher will be ok in the long run, if not already.

What remains are questions over the role of a national arts organization, the role of public money, who decides how and why they’re spent. Should the NAC be more focused on artistic considerations and be less bound by political constraints? What is the criteria for deciding if a work crosses unacceptable boundaries? Why shouldn’t good art be commerically self-sustainable anyway?

These are wider, longer term concerns, though perhaps there’s never a better time than the present to consider them, and I’d be glad if the Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye plays some small role in all of it.”

The book is now in its seventh print run in Singapore. It was published in the United States by Pantheon Books. It is due for release next year in France by Urban Comics, in Italy by BAO Publishing and in Spain by Dibbuks.

For just US$7.50 a month, sign up as a subscriber on Patreon (and enjoy ads-free experience on our site) to support our mission to transform TOC into an alternative mainstream press in Singapore.
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Trending posts