Refractions on SG50
Sonny Liew's ambitious comic draws a parallel history of Singapore
By Alex Tham
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
It is past midnight, 12 September 2015. On any other day, most of Singapore would be asleep by now. Today, however, is different. Raucous uncles in coffeeshops order another round of Tiger to pass the time; families huddle in their living rooms staring at screens. Everyone is waiting. At last, a familiar face walks up to the podium. After he recites the opening mantra, the final tally is revealed. There is a stunned silence, a nationwide gasp before cries of delight are heard among supporters in blue. The Workers' Party has emerged victorious in the East! Marine Parade and East Coast have fallen….
Reality could not have been more different. Instead of losing more ground at the 2015 General Election, the People's Action Party won with an even stronger mandate. The result has left opposition supporters wondering what might have been had the people voted differently. Is there a point to such wishful thinking? The elections are over, one has to move on. But here is a question: is history a foregone conclusion, such that those who look back at what could have been can only reflect, like the narrator in Frost's poem, of paths not taken?
One of the paths that Sonny Liew takes us on The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye follows the life of the eponymous Singaporean pioneer. Charlie Chan Hock Chye was born in 1938 — as he states drily, it was a "year of nothing" in Singapore's history, but also the year Superman made his debut in the United States. Comics was Charlie's life. Growing up in a household of eight in a shophouse along Geylang, comics was not just a form of escapism, but also a way for Charlie to make sense of the changes in Singapore during the turbulent 1950s and 60s. He was sixteen years old when students from Chung Cheng High School and Chinese High School held a peaceful demonstration to protest against the British colonial government's new national service law. The violent manner in which the British broke up the demonstration, and the solidarity shown by the students made a deep impression on Charlie. To convey the heroic nature of their resistance, Charlie drew a comic about a giant robot who would only respond to commands in Mandarin. Discovered by students, the robot would go on to protect the demonstrators from the batons and bullets of the British officers.
Readers familiar with comics will recognise the giant robot as a homage to Japanese manga. Charlie is clearly a fan of the medium, declaring somewhat pretentiously when we first meet him that "in the beginning there was Tezuka." (Referring to, as Charlie expects the reader to know, the creator of Astroboy.) But manga is not the only visual influence we find in Charlie's art. Sonny Liew has interspersed his account of Charlie's life with exhibits of the latter's works across the years, showcasing Charlie's impressive stylistic repertoire. My personal favourite is his spin on Walt Kelly's classic Pogo, in which an imperious elephant (David Marshall), a languid lion (the British government), and a resourceful mouse (Lee Kuan Yew), among other anthropomorphic animals act out a satirical commentary on the politics of pre-independence Singapore.
Comics, for Charlie, were a serious art form and not just throwaway entertainment. He was not the only one who thought so. Charlie's start in comics owed much to the encouragement, and patronage, of fellow comics lover Bertrand, who had come across Charlie's work and approached him to form what was supposed to be Singapore's very own Stan Lee-Steve Ditko combo. Before long, Charlie and Bertrand began working together in a makeshift studio. Like a start-up in today's app economy, the atmosphere in the studio had a palpable sense of excitement and boundless possibility. Bertrand and Charlie strove to imbue their comics with the right mix of popular appeal and socio-political commentary. Their political inclinations back then were clearly leftist. Some of their ideas were brilliant — their take on the superhero comic, for example, had as its titular hero the Roachman, a nightsoil collector with the powers of a cockroach. He was someone who stood up for the underclass and whose strength came from a much despised, but hardy, insect!
Charlie and Bertrand would become good friends as they pursued their shared dream together. Unfortunately, their comics could not sell and the rejections kept coming in. Eventually, Charlie's path in time would branch off away from Bertrand's. After yet another rejection, Bertrand finally tells Charlie, "I can't do this anymore." In Sonny's book, we see Bertrand today — now a great-grandfather — telling Sonny how it was only after he had a family that he finally realised "what really matters". No longer a leftist, Bertrand admits he votes for the PAP because, in the end, "it's all about being practical."
Charlie was never practical. His path continued on its idealistic trajectory while Bertrand's took a pragmatic turn. Bertrand started his own business after leaving comics, but Charlie kept on at it, choosing instead to be a security guard so that he could have the time to draw comics. Today, Charlie lives in a rental flat in Eunos on his own, still drawing away. No one knows or remembers him.
Were Charlie's ideals worth the sacrifice? Many of us have, at one point or another, had to make the choice between our ideals and being practical. How different are we from Charlie? Should our decisions in life be guided by the fear of not wanting to look back with regret?
In a standard biography, the path that the protagonist's life takes follows a straight line. Sonny, however, presents Charlie's life as crisscrossing paths whose intersections are made more vivid by the visual juxtaposition of panels in comics. A life does not have to only follow one path; perhaps at any one moment, we have multiple selves existing in multiple worlds. In Charlie's last comic, we are shown an alternate Singapore in which the Barisan Sosialis leader Lim Chin Siong, instead of being detained without trial and then exiled, has become Singapore's longest serving prime minister. Charlie, instead of being down and out in old age, is a national treasure with his own museum. However, Charlie soon becomes aware that his world is an alternate reality. When the walls eventually come tumbling down, Charlie and Lim Chin Siong suddenly find themselves back in 1950s Singapore, at the fork in the road. What path will they take this time? Charlie knows the hardships that Lim would face if he goes on the political path — Lim would be jailed, suffer depression, attempt suicide, and eventually forced to renounce politics. Likewise, Charlie knows the hardships he would face if he continued down the path of drawing comics — "I'd be a fool to go down that road again." Charlie has glimpsed his other self in another world; foreknowledge of failed ambition, lost friends, and a solitary life should compel him to take the pragmatic path….
In the end, what Sonny Liew has given us in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is neither biography nor history. It is possibility. Even when we are armed with the knowledge of disappointments to follow, it might still be worth it to follow the hard path of staying true to our ideals.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 4 Oct 2015