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

Artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye believed he was “always destined to become Singapore’s greatest comics artist.” And he finally has — even if he isn’t real. 

Chan’s life and work is the focus of what is easily one of the greatest books of the year: “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” presented by Sonny Liew. Renowned comics artist Liew not only tells the heartbreaking yet inspirational story of this fictional comics artist, but he uses the narrative as a platform to discuss a larger, though equally heartbreaking and inspiring story: that of the history of Singapore. This multilayered, beautifully executed work is like no history book you’ve ever seen. It will leave you speechless.

The book opens when Chan is young. Born in 1938 to provisional shop owners, Chan is inspired by the comics coming out of other countries and at 16 creates Au Huat’s Giant Robot about a young boy and his dog who discover a massive robot who only responds to Chinese commands. By juxtaposing Chan’s boyhood sketches, finished projects, and autobiographical pieces, the history of Singapore comes to life, and readers who have no background in Singapore will suddenly find themselves swept up in its story. The result is a marvelous opening section that sets the tone and pace for the rest of the work.

And what a work it is. Chan continues to explore other comic mediums and creates a number of other strips and projects throughout his lifetime — though with little publication success. Chan’s story, then, becomes a reflection on the changes in Singapore society: one by one his former friends and colleagues opt for lives that are safer and more conventional. But Chan believes in the importance of telling the true Singapore story and continues to draw despite the challenges.

It’s a remarkable, heartfelt, educational work, encompassing events such as the Hock Lee Bus Incident; Operation Coldstone, which resulted in the arrest of Lim Chin Siong; and the fatal race riots of July 21, 1964, among many more.

But the real marvel in all this is Sonny Liew. Remember, there is no archive of Chan’s work — Liew has created every piece that is included in this book, from Chan’s “Singapore Story,” an irreverent spin on Singapore’s history done in the style of Mad magazine, to “The Roachman,” a superhero who “confronts real-world social issues in his adventures,” drawn with a style that combines pulp and superhero comics.

As if a narrative history of Singapore wasn’t enough, Liew’s brilliance as an artist makes it possible for “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” to also be a thorough homage to this history of comic art.

While Charlie Chan Hock Chye may be Singapore’s greatest comics artist, Sonny Liew is on his way to becoming the greatest in the world.