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'Charlie Chan:' An Imaginary Cartoonist Draws A Very Real Homeland

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

by Sonny Liew

Hardcover, 320 pages |

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The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
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Sonny Liew

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The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye feels like Singapore between two covers. The pressure-cooker country — tiny and polyglot, globally competitive and politically repressive — seems to have been poured into this dense book. As if to make it an even more authentic representation of its homeland, Charlie Chan Hock Chye has met with governmental opposition: Singapore's National Arts Council withdrew a grant from author Sonny Liew because of the book's "sensitive content."

Liew seems to have been diligent in assembling all this work by a mid-to-late 20th-century artist. He presents artifacts ranging from shabbily printed comics pages held together with yellowed scotch tape to elegant pencil sketches of people and buildings in Charlie's old neighborhood. Charlie's attempts at portraiture and commercial illustration add intriguing facets. Most remarkable, though, is what happens in the comics across a 30-year period. Their style evolves — or, to put it more accurately, bounds ecstatically — from bold, rounded shapes clearly influenced by Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka, to perky animal characters owing a debt to Walt Kelly's Pogo, to stringy musculature and hysterical faces out of EC Comics. There are parodies of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland and an appearance by an obnoxious-looking, brightly colored person who, we learn in one of the many footnotes, is popular Singaporean comics character Mr. Kiasu.

And yet the most persistent feeling in this book is one of disappointment, in people and in Singapore itself. Charlie can't make any money from his work; "unpublished" is a constant refrain appended to his most innovative strips. The artist deplores the political failure of 1950s Communist leader Lim Chin Siong, who was jailed without trial for years and kicked out of the country. Charlie clearly believes that if circumstances had been different — if, perhaps, the Communists had managed to negotiate the political rapids more cleverly — Lim might not have been sent into exile as a flower seller and the oppressive People's Action Party, headed by Lee Kuan Yew, might not have cemented a six-decade reign. Liew, meanwhile, seems disappointed in his subject. At the end of the book Charlie is poor and unmarried, unable to scrape together the money for an operation for his sick father. His entire life has been sacrificed to a vocation that never rewarded him. Also, he's imaginary.

In fact, there is no Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Liew created him to be the cartoonist he feels Singapore needs. As Liew sees it, that person must be a versatile genius on a par with — though artistically more adaptable than — the Japanese and American greats. They should be someone who's lived through the most turbulent decades of Singaporean history, a creator who channels seditious political opinions into potent, exciting comics.

It's a tall order. So Liew decided to become that man.

His transformation is virtuosic. First, Liew had to make his book look like a real dossier of an artist's work. His results are perfectly believable. Mixed in with the full-page, full-color comics are unfinished pencil sketches and convincingly dog-eared mockups of Dragon, the magazine Charlie is supposed to have tried unsuccessfully to publish in the 1950s. Someone has even sewed and photographed a little stuffed doll of one of the early characters. The portraits — of friends, family, Charlie himself and, significantly, both Lim and Lee — display Liew's high-art chops.

It's his versatility, though, that's really dazzling. Also enjoyable is his ability to acerbically polemicize Singaporean history stretching back to World War II. As Liew tells it, Charlie was quite radical in his sympathies. Most of the comics provide a mordant take on the issues of the day, using perky children and animals to lambast government oppression. Charlie ostensibly drew a strip in the 1950s and 1960s, the Pogo-esque Bukit Chapalang, satirizing the politics of colonial independence and the short-lived union with Malaysia. Only the first half of the strips were published, according to Liew, but even those seem more controversial than the real-life government would have allowed.

Throughout, Liew advances a consistent critique of Singaporean politics. He's deeply dedicated to the insurrectionist legacy of Lim, suggesting the man occupies a kind of opposite pole from Lee. But the fact remains that one is merely an exiled Communist, while the other led Singapore for decades.

That fact brings a sadness — or rather, another layer of sadness — to the book. For all that it brims over with diverse, colorful creations, it's fundamentally about a lack: the absence of an artist who should exist, but was never allowed to. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye mourns all the creators who have never been permitted to thrive in Singapore. Liew's own existence seems to be evidence of a change, but only partly. The government withdrew its support from his book, but it didn't ban it outright. That's a kind of progress.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

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