It’s not often that I’m fooled by a book. There was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which fooled the majority of readers, including Oprah, into believing it was an autobiographical (nonfiction) account of his life as an alcoholic and drug addict. That was over ten years ago, so I guess I let down my guard a little since then. Now, along comes Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock
Chye, a graphic novel that portrays comic artist Charlie Chan’s life’s work and uses it as a means to tell the history of Singapore. I poured over the 300+ page story, admiring Chan’s fortitude and dedication to his craft and his country. Each chapter begins with a drawing of Chan and his age in a certain year, until the book ends with him in 2014, at age 76, still working at his drawing desk. I went online, hoping to learn more about Chan. Instead, I found out he wasn’t real.
A book review published on National Public Radio’s (NPR) website broke the news to me. I was surprised, but pleasantly so. Instead of the disappointment I felt regarding Frey, I found myself admiring the genius and talent of Sonny Liew. The comics industry has done the same, with Liew’s book winning three of the six Eisner Awards (think of the Oscars, but for comics) it was nominated for. NPR succinctly describes the reason for such admiration, calling The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye “a heartfelt take on aging, art, and history.” Readers connect with a man (even if fictional), the broad spectrum of comic styles represented, and the struggles of a young country in turmoil.
Liew manages that reader connection in part by making the book look like an artist’s portfolio. There are sketches, oil paintings, black and white and full-color comics, and even childhood drawings, all attributed to Charlie Chan. NPR is on my side, calling the book “perfectly believable.” The New York Times, however, notes “what slowly becomes apparent is that Charlie Chan is fictional.” Looking back, I can see some truth in that. After all, as the Slate Book Review wrote, “Charlie Chan Hock Chye’s career maps curiously well onto the history of his own tiny, beset-on-all-sides island nation.” In my defense, I felt Chan was believable because his comics focused on current events in his country, so of course his work matched up well.
I probably should have caught on with all the different styles “Chan” was drawing in, but even those changes were written into the storyline. The more Chan read and experienced, the more his talent evolved. He tried to mimic popular comics in the hope of being published. As NPR explains it, Liew has Chan work “in styles that reference everything from Britain's "The Beano" and Japanese manga to Mad Magazine, "Pogo," "Spiderman," even Scrooge McDuck.” In this way, the history of comics is worked in alongside the history of Singapore.
From all accounts, it’s an accurate depiction of events in Singapore, centered around two real, historical figures, Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong. In one section, Liew creates the comic “Sinkapor Inks”, using a stationery supply company to represent the problems with Singapore’s government. “Bukit Chapalang” is another example given of one of Chan’s comics with political overtones. Liew’s honesty likely caused Singapore’s National Arts Council to withdraw a publishing grant. According to the NY Times, one official states the book “potentially undermines the authority and legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions.” But the Times also points out that Liew is still supported by his country, which is promising for the future of the people of Singapore.
Links to Online References