Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, The

An ambitious fictional biography of a comics artist from Singapore, which tracks the history of comics alongside the political history of the county

Charlie Chan Hock Chye talks about his early influences in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew

This book is a phenomenal achievement. Tracking the history of comics and the politics of Singapore through the art of fictitious artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye, it’s a dense and complex mix. Chan Hock Chye’s story begins just before the start of the Second World War, skipping through the Japanese occupation and focusing on the city state’s formulation and growth, going back in history to its importance to the British as a trading post, through to its independence and subsequent meteoric economic growth.

This history is all illustrated and documented by Sonny Liew, drawing as if he were Chan Hock Chye. The biography runs parallel to the historical information, much of which is presented by means of Chan Hock Chye’s own opinionated comics, commenting on Singapore’s political situation through thinly disguised stories, usually emulating the style of Japanese, American and British comics of the time.

Charlie Chan Hock Chye playing games as a child in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew

However, while the book is a creative tour de force, it didn’t capture my heart. Clever, ingenious and expertly crafted it may be, but it’s a little too dry for my tastes, and page after page of opinion about a political situation on the other side of the world, that’s deemed to be a success story rather than a humanitarian disaster, struggled to capture my attention.

Liew has created something as weighty and important as it is beautifully crafted, but I just couldn’t get engaged with it.

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