June 28, 2017

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sonny liew

by Bertha Henson

I can see why the G pulled its funding for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. The 320–page comic book makes for uncomfortable reading. But it is such a magnificent piece of work, with so many layers of content, interlocking storylines and comic styles, that the discomfort creeps up on you s-l-o-w-l-y. I recommend that you buy it once it’s available – and read it twice over.

In fact, I would like to thank the National Arts Council for bringing the book into the public eye, although I don’t think that was quite its aim for a book which it says “potentially undermines the authority of legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions’’.

Phew! What a charge! Is it warranted?

If so, doesn’t the book border on sedition and deserve to be banned? Yet it was not banned. Either the censors realise that a ban would backfire, or they are still trying to grapple with how to deal with artistic work, especially of the satirical kind. Easy enough to bar Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore with Love from public screening here because the G – and anyone else – can hear from the mouth of Singapore “exiles’’ their version of history. The G can give a point-by-point rebuttal, which it did, and use that to justify its action.

But how do you deal with someone like Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a figment of artist Sonny Liew’s imagination?

Frankly, I was lulled into thinking the G was making much ado about nothing when I got into the first few pages. Okay, the book starts spectacularly with a page each for the two political rivals, Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong.

Then it moves into Charlie, product of pre-war Singapore, trying to live his dream of being a comic book artist, despite his very practical parents advising him to get a job which can “tan chiak’’. (Note: You have to be terribly Singaporean – and even a little on the older side – to understand the work because of its smattering of dialects and references to past events. It is THAT clever.)

I mean, how dangerous can Charlie be?

That’s the magic of Sonny Liew. There are two story lines threading through the comic book: a record of Charlie’s attempt to have his comics published through the years, and the comics that he supposedly drew, which took inspiration from the political events of the day. Thrown in the mix is the idealism infusing Charlie who ends up as a sad old man who clings on to the tools of his trade.

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Not since the days of Hello Chok Tong, Goodbye Kuan Yew have I seen our late Prime Minister and the various political figures depicted in so many ways.

There is Lee Kuan Yew depicted as

a young, handsome lawyer with the gift of the gab

Lee Kuan Yew depicted as a young, handsome lawyer.

as Sang Kancil, the clever mouse deer

Lee Kuan Yew depicted as Sang Kancil, the clever mouse deer.

as chief of the Planetary Achievement Party fighting to kick the Hegemons out of Lunar City.

Lee Kuan Yew depicted as chief of the Planetary Achievement Party.

as the owner of Sinkapor Ink, a stationary and office supplies company.

Lee Kuan Yew depicted as the owner of Sinkapor Ink.

as a fierce looking Prime Minister (oil on canvas, dated 1970) who is actually pictured on the book’s cover introducing the artist.

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Lee Kuan Yew depicted as a fierce looking Prime Minister.

And even, gulp (!) as Orang Minyak although it isn’t explicitly stated.

Lee Kuan Yew depicted as Orang Minyak although it isn’t explicitly stated.

The depictions of Lim Chin Siong are rather more complimentary. At all ages, he is unfailingly handsome. (Charlie even depicted him as crime-fighter Roachman, a nightsoil carrier who got his superpowers after he was bitten by a cockroach a la Spiderman) And in a brilliant twist, Liew/Charlie had Lim thrown into an alternative future where he became Prime Minister, beating LKY to the top job.

A depiction of Lim Chin Siong.

But Liew’s presentation of history, whether as Charlie’s “real-life’’ experience or the characters he draws in his comic book, is the part that makes readers think, if they get the point – or maybe no point? – in the first place. It’s sometimes tough differentiating fact from fiction, even though there are very interesting notes giving historical background at the back of the book.

For example, I didn’t realise that Singaporeans voted for merger with Malaysia in 1963 simply because all three choices available in the referendum were for merger, just in different ways. And that Singapore was booted out of Malaysia because, among other things, the PAP reneged on its promise not to contest the elections in Malaysia. (In Charlie’s depiction, they want to compete in a band competition in the hinterland and make it to the top of the Billboard charts.)

While Liew/Chan is quite careful in the way they depict the Singapore history of the ’60s, he becomes more explicit when the book progresses into the later years. “The Singapore Story’’, for example, features Wong Sha and Ye Fong, popular live comedians of Singapore’s past, conducting an interview with the Minister of Museums of the PAY-AND-PAY party on an exhibition about the Singapore Story. I reproduce a couple of pages here:

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A sample of the depiction of Singapore history.
Charlie Chan-7
A sample of the depiction of Singapore history.

Wah. So brave, I thought when I read it.

The notes about this at the back of the book are even braver: The “Singapore Story’’ depicted here represents the official PAP narrative of Singapore’s history. The satirical take anticipates the launch of the National Education programme in 1997, a major push by the PAP to “engender a share sense of nationhood’’ in youths and students by instilling core values in newer generations that had not gone through the nation’s early struggles, with the aim to “ensure [Singapore’s] continued success and well-being.’’

Charlie Chan-8
Mr Goh Tok Chong explains why the company should continue to buy a certain brand of white board markers.

As a media person, I was most interested to see how Liew/Charlie deals with the media management and controls. This section is the most explicit, with cartoon panels lining the bottom of the pages in case the reader doesn’t get the point of how Sinkapor Ink is run. The company is handed over to Mr Goh Tok Chong who explains why the company should continue to buy a certain brand of white board markers, namely, OB markers. Harrrhharrrrhaaaa!

I guess one big value of the comic book is that it highlights lesser known facts about our history and, along with it, new ways to think about our past. It’s satire, much like so many political plays that are performed these days. But does this book have the potential to undermine the authority of the G?

We all know how upset the G gets at what it sees as attempts to “revise’’ history. What is information and what is mis-information? Do we have all the facts, or just some of them, some of the time? Whose version of the facts? In time, all will be out and there’s no preventing a thinking person from seeing history through a lens that is not officially sanctioned. Some pages sting, of course, but I would hope that at age 50, we have moved from the thin-skinned era of boh tuah, boh suay to an acceptance that in order for a mature society to take root, art must be allowed to push the boundaries of discussion.

I think it’s a brilliant book.

Not just because the cartoons are so wonderfully executed, but because it makes people think.

*The book has been reprinted and copies are available at major bookstores, online at epigrambooks.sg and the Celebrate Singapore Books popup store at Isetan Orchard at Wisma Atria until June 30.

 

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