The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

This book was in the press quite a bit last year. Was it poetic justice that the NAC did the best thing for Sonny Liew when it withdrew an SG50 grant from the book because of ‘sensitive content’? Once that hit the news, copies were snapped up so quickly that the book quickly went into a second reprint.

In any case, I found the book a good read, as a stellar graphic novel, even before considering the subject material.  Sonny Liew is clearly a master of his craft, and the story grips you so much from start to finish. As many have found, the protagonist is so true to life, that it’s almost hard to believe that this is not an actual autobiographical work, or Charlie Chan Hock Chye’s ‘true life story’.

As an artist, Sonny Liew has credentials that even kiasu Singaporean parents would nod approvingly at. (Don’t want Ah Boy to be a graphic novelist? Look at Sonny’s resume of elite schools!) Born in Seremban, Malaysia, Liew attended school at Victoria School and Victoria Junior College in Singapore. He went on to read philosophy at Clare College in Cambridge University, UK and thereafter studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2001.

His mastery of the genre is clear through every page of the book.


In a nutshell, I thought the content was deliberately provocative but worth a read, nonetheless. It is best read with good foreknowledge of Singapore’s history. I particularly enjoyed the book as a student of literature and history, especially its presentation in a form that is both accessible and such a work of art.

On a more specific note, I thought the introduction of ‘hegemonese’ as representing the English language was slightly ironic, in the 1957-era chapters. The comic was written from the perspective of a native Chinese speaker, but as the book is written in English, Hegemonese was coined to refer to ‘English’.  What does it say about Singapore today, that a book written about a ‘Chinese’ uprising, has to be written in English for the vast majority of Singaporeans to understand it?

Does it mean that we have been so thoroughly colonised that we are now most comfortable with the language of a foreign hegemon? Or have we claimed ‘Hegemonse’ as our own, happily turning it into the lingua franca that unites a people across races? Some food for thought, perhaps.

Anyway, I am glad that Sonny wrote this book. Those with a good grasp of history, gleaned from a variety of sources (whether officially sanctioned ones or otherwise), will be able to make up their own minds, and discern postulations from historical fact. As historians can tell you, there can be many interpretations to an event, both then and now, and it is inevitable that our innate predispositions and biases shape our view.

Overall, I’d say that this book, and Sonny himself, are national treasures. I feel that this work is an important addition to the canon of Singaporean literature. I do not take every rendering within as gospel truth, but its very existence is valuable, in getting Singaporeans to think through the past, to conjure some measure of emotional resonance with our history.


  2 comments for “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

  1. Carol
    February 16, 2016 at 9:35 am

    Hi Lyn, thanks for sharing. Now I must really land my hands on a copy of this book!

    • February 16, 2016 at 6:01 pm

      Most welcome! A good read for all Singaporeans.

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