Review: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew

What was life after all, but a constant battle between our hopes and harsh reality?

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a graphic novel that follows a forgotten Singaporean comic artist. Charlie Chan lived through pre-independence Singapore and the move of Singapore from the “fishing village” it was to to the metropolis it is. Chan used his comics to talk about the political climate of the time. However, he isn’t real (is he?). Chan is a character Liew created as a vessel to display Singapore’s history in a different way. Liew said he wanted to create an “inclusive and complex” narrative of the official history of Singapore with this book.

*Fun(?) fact: The Singapore National Arts Council revoked their funding of this book right before the launch, saying the novel “potentially undermines the authority of legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions.”

I visited Singapore back in January and absolutely loved it. So, finding a book about Singapore’s history in the form of a graphic novel (one of my favorite mediums)?? I was ecstatic.

Do we become so lost in the patterns and the rhythms in our everyday lives that we fool ourselves into believing they might somehow last forever?

There were many things I couldn’t really understand because of my non-existent knowledge of Singapore’s history. However, after reading, I want to learn more about the city-state’s history and come back to this novel in the future. Despite my confusion, Liew does a great job of adding footnotes and addendums for readers to have background information. I also researched a little while reading to aid my understanding through certain points.

This book doesn’t close the casual reader out. I picked this up because I was interested in learning about a Singapore comic artist and I got that. Alongside the backdrop of this intense political history is a story about a boy who loves to draw who grows up to be a man who wants to be the greatest comics artist in Singapore. However, he’s met with challenges and roadblocks on the way and feels his work isn’t seen for what it truly is. While Charlie Chan isn’t real, Sonny Liew definitely is. The story he creates for Charlie Chan and the way he uses multiple artistic mediums to guide the story he wants to tell is amazing. It’s experimental, but works so well, in my opinion.

I absolutely recommend this book. It’s a graphic novel, but I’m not gonna say it’s a quick read. There’s a lot to take in and absorb, but it’s absolutely worth it.


Rating: 4 out of 5.