The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew completely fooled me.

The story begins with elderly Charlie Chan Hock Chye being interviewed by his biographer about the state of comics today. Let’s just say he’s not impressed. I instantly loved grouchy, wise Charlie, a retired cartoonist who spends hours reading in the comic book store and leaves purchasing nothing.

The story then flashes back through Charlie’s life, or more like life unfulfilled. Charlie, a cartoonist to the core, struggled to make a living with his art. Partnerships didn’t work, family problems got in the way, and he was never given the break he needed, even though the content in his comics was groundbreaking.

Starting around WWII, Charlie’s comics satirized and skewered the politics and politicians in Singapore. From British colonization to Japanese occupation to the failed union with Malaysia, Charlie drew it all, and multiple excerpts from his comics flood these pages. It was fabulous learning so much about Singapore through Charlie’s art. When I finished the book, I instantly searched Charlie’s name to find full compilations of his work, and that’s when I realized I was fooled.

There is no Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

That’s right, no cartoonist by that name ever existed. To showcase Singapore’s turbulent recent history, Sonny Liew created Charlie, an artist living through the time who drew what he was seeing and feeling.

So all those excerpts from Charlie’s work? Those were Liew’s, and I still have a hard time believing it. The artwork is so vastly different throughout this piece, from the work done by Charlie’s biographer, to Charlie’s artwork as a kid, and through the growth in Charlie’s work from satirizing with adorable animals to moving into realistic pieces showcasing murders and protests. I could see the growth in Charlie’s art, and even ran my finger across pages in awe at how he matured. It all rang so true.

I loved this book when I thought it was a biography, but I’m in awe of it now that I know it’s not. Sonny Liew has got genius written all over him and I can’t wait to follow his career; it will be a long one.

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