A nostalgic cry for a country that could have been: a review of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

A thoroughly convincing storytelling feat. I was unable to see through Sonny Liew’s trick from the very start of the book to the very end. It was only upon reading reviews that I learned of the secret to Chan Hock Chye’s life story. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was at once a political statement, a nostalgic cry for various lost pieces of a nation, and a begrudging acknowledgement of how far Singapore has come.

Besides the story, the art itself is something to behold. I’ve always been a fan of illustrations and graphic novels, so it was a treat to see both a development of artistic ability as we follow Chan Hock Chye’s growth as an artist, as well as the myriad of art styles with which he presents his stories. If they are available, I would love to hang prints from this book in my room. In particular, the last panel of “Days of August” was enough to make me put down the book and reflect for awhile.

I’ve heard mixed reviews of this book. Someone who’s opinion I highly regard commented that he found the story quite boring, so perhaps it’s not for everyone. Personally, I found myself far too immersed in the struggles of Chan Hock Chye and Singapore to feel bored. Our stories might have started 60 years apart, but Chan Hock Chye’s life challenges strangely reflected back on my own.

If I had any critiques for this book, it would be that certain art pieces and commentaries were a little on the nose. One might also say that the arguments presented are very similar to many discussions that Singaporeans have online. However, this book has been out for a few years, and I’m not familiar with how online discourse was like back then. So it might well be that this book was one of the progenitors for the more daring political ideas we see today. At the very least, I’m certain that it nudged the discourse along. Nevertheless, I was willing to forgive the lack of subtlety during Chan Hock Chye’s early years, and fortunately his taste and delivery became much more refined as he developed as an artist. Till the very end, some parallels between comics and real life were more direct and forceful than I would have liked. But as Chan Hock Chye might reply: “that’s how you tell stories.”

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