Monday, September 19, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices:
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

by Sonny Liew. Pantheon Books, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-101-87069-3. Click here to purchase.

A day before The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye’s publication, the National Arts Council of Singapore rescinded a $6000 publishing grant it had originally given to graphic novelist (and Singapore resident) Sonny Liew. The Council’s reasoning: “The retelling of Singapore’s history in the work potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines.” We book lovers tend to get our knickers in a twist when any hint of censorship wafts our way, and so it was that I indignantly picked up Charlie Chan Hock Chye based entirely on the surrounding controversy, with little to no background knowledge of Singapore or the cartoonist himself.

One of Chan Hock Chye’s cartoons with
a cartoon-version Sonny Liew’s
commentary along the bottom
Years before Charlie Chan Hock Chye was to become “Singapore’s greatest comics artist,” he was just a boy helping out at his parents’ provision shop in Singapore. During breaks at the store he would draw; eventually one of Chan Hock Chye’s comics was circulated in a literacy magazine. This was during a time of revolution in Singapore – there were uprisings, protests, and a general sense of unrest. Chan Hock Chye’s work grew ever more political in its scope – in a way he (and his comics) grew up along with the country of Singapore. And though Chan Hock Chye’s story and work certainly show his great affection for Singapore, taken as a whole this is a warts-and-all look. (I’d bet the National Arts Council of Singapore would consider this a great bit of understatement.)

Speaking of Singapore and its history, I think it would be safe to say that we Americans tend to know a decent amount about our own country’s history and maybe that of a few other countries (mostly those whose story is intertwined with ours through wars, such as England, Vietnam, and Germany). But I am guessing that not many Americans know much about Singapore’s tumultuous history. Like so many other nations, colonialism and racism played a huge part in Singapore’s story. So while many readers will see similarities to many other countries’ histories, this book will most certainly be an eye-opening work for most readers nonetheless.

It is next to impossible to review Liew’s latest without mention of a pretty huge spoiler, so look away if you want to go into this book clean. (Highlight the next paragraph if you prefer to live life on the edge.)

Charlie Chan Hock Chye wasn’t a real person. His life – including his cartoon career – is Liew’s creation. That Chan Hock Chye’s story (and his comics!) feels so authentic is a testament to Sonny Liew’s amazing storytelling. But though the character of Chan Hock Chye were created by Liew, the story is steeped in Singapore’s history (just check out those extensive end notes).

Liew’s storytelling is so nuanced, so sure-handed. Frequently shifting perspectives give the reader an insider’s view to history in the making. The phrase “epic” is arguable overused to describe things of all sorts, but that is really the best word for Charlie Chan Hock Chye; John Lewis’s March trilogy (written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell) is a good comparison, but this is a single volume where March is separated into three. Graphic novel fans, history buffs, lovers of creative presentation and compelling true stories – this is for all of you.

Reviewed by Sam Bloom


Unknown said...

Thanks for the nonfiction reviews, Sam, both here and in LITTLE WHITE DUCK (which is a memoir, just like MARCH, BOOK 3). Any chance you'll throw some love to HOW TO BUILD A MUSEUM before the month is over? Tonya Bolden is not only one of our best nonfiction writers, she's virtually the only African American writer of nonfiction in the past decade.

Sam Bloom said...

Jonathan, yes; you know me and my affinity for nonfiction, so as we were deciding what books to feature naturally I gravitated towards graphic nonfiction. As for the book you asked for? Stay tuned... ;-)