Singapore and her giant robots

SEPTEMBER 3 — What would Singapore be like if the Barisan Sosialis (a popular left leaning opposition party in the 60s) had taken power in 1963?

What would Singapore and Malaysia’s early leadership look like if they were depicted as folklore animals? Would Lee Kuan Yew be a sprightly deer or a wily cat?

Has the “development at all costs” philosophy adopted by our rulers proven to be the correct one?

All these questions and far more are raised, contemplated and, where possible, answered in the truly delightful graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew.

Though I’m using the term graphic novel, Liew’s book is far more than a grown-up comic book.

It is also (among other things) a meditation on politics, power, propaganda and even the meaning of life and success.

While doing all the above, the book is also brimming with stunning illustrations presenting the reader with the evolution of graphic arts and the comic book form over the past 50 years.

The novel is presented, largely, as a retrospective of the works of a fictional cartoonist Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye deftly intersperses the history of Singapore with the history of the comic medium. — Picture courtesy of Sonny Liew
Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye deftly intersperses the history of Singapore with the history of the comic medium. — Picture courtesy of Sonny Liew

Mr Chan, born to a family of modest means, chooses to devote his life to comic books and drawing instead of a conventional career.

The body of work Liew creates for his fictional narrator reflects this as they show us the thoughtful and sometimes naive perspective of a social loner and outsider.

Liew brings this gentle and likable character painstakingly to life. He shows us the character’s early scribbles and doodles and the world he inhabits.

There are portraits of Chan’s mother and other street scenes and sketches that bring the past so vividly to life.

We don’t just read about Singapore’s history, we see it and live it through Chan’s eyes. Only an extraordinary amount of research and talent on the part of Liew makes this possible (and I enjoyed the little details like the escalator leading out of Kinokuniya in an early panel)!

We see Chan’s first efforts at cartoons. Initially, he is influenced by post-war Japanese works; we see his first strip — Ah Huat’s Giant Robot — which places a boy, his dog and a giant Chinese-speaking robot in the midst of the Hock Lee bus riot. (The 1955 riots saw Singaporeans clash with colonial authorities.)

Later, we see the events of the Malayan Insurgency in a more 60s English comic book style and then we get Roachman, a Marvel Comics inspired take on pop culture and life at the bottom end of Singapore’s social hierarchy during the 70s.

As Chan’s work matures, we begin to see more science fiction with alternate realities and colonial authorities depicted as calculating aliens.

Finally, we see bluntly ironic political pieces likening Singapore to a company led by a man concerned only with profits and suppressing all criticism.

It is honestly difficult to keep track of all the narratives and allegories as we flit from panels that weave in Chan’s life as a struggling cartoonist... but everything is an allegory for Singapore. And Malaysia.

The book examines the early days of Singapore and Malaysia in an especially charming series entitled Bukit Chapalang based on the “Sang Kancil” stories from this region’s folklore.

It all does sound very complicated, which it is, but fortunately Liew’s absolute talent as an illustrator and artist ensure every page is beautiful and that resounding nostalgic beauty holds it all together.

Liew, who is in his 40s, recreates the life, visual styles and aesthetic of his older fictional character so convincingly that you can’t read this book without feeling Charlie Chan Chok Chye must have been a real person.

That level of verisimilitude and originality makes this really an outstanding creative work.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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