A graphic novel biography of an outspoken Singapore cartoonist became mired in controversy recently when the Singapore government withdrew a grant for its publication. Despite the setback, Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye still triumphed at its launch party at Books Kinokuniya in Singapore last month, selling 300 copies, with a second printing ordered.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye follows the career of the titular artist (who is fictional), whose work mirrors Singapore’s history while satirizing some aspects of daily life. The Singaporean government’s National Arts Council (NAC) originally planned to help Epigram Books publish it with an $8,000 grant, but later decided the graphic novel violates a content agreement forbidding “sensitive content” that “undermines the authority or legitimacy” of the government.
To put the Singaporean government’s objections in context, Liew says his book “questions elements of what has been called the Singapore Story—the official version of history as told by the People's Action Party (PAP). An example would be the idea that the PAP had dragged Singapore from being a sleepy fishing village into the modern world, when in truth there was already a rather developed city center under British rule. That's not to demean the amazing things the PAP have achieved here, but there is a gap between the stories they want to tell about Singapore and the more complex reality of what happened.”
Liew, who is Malaysian-born and has a philosophy degree from the University of Cambridge, became a citizen of Singapore while working on the book. He puts the story in the context of Singapore’s development as a democracy in the 1950s, when Chan's career began.
“The sense of inherent superiority of the British had made colonialism seem like a natural thing, but the Japanese conquests during the war had stripped away that illusion, and Singapore was one of many countries seeking independence,” Liew explained of this time in history. Today, he said, Singapore is “a rather unique nation-state that had been variously seen as a shining example of an incredibly well-planned, rational country, or as an authoritarian state with a thin democratic veneer. Or maybe a little of both, something the government here has itself branded ‘Asian democracy.’”
In March 2016, Pantheon Books will publish the American edition of the 320-page book, which follows Chan's imagined 50-year career, somewhat in the manner of Seth's It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken, which follows the life of another imagined cartoonist. Liew is already well known in the US thanks to his collaboration with Gene Luen Yang, The Shadow Hero, and DC Comics’ new Dr. Fate series, written by Paul Levitz. The Chye book has already garnered praise from prominent American comic book creators including Yang and Mike Carey, and Pantheon is planning national media coverage for the release.
“I've always been interested in the possibilities of the medium,” Liew continued, “and I hope readers with similar interests will find something new in the book. Along the way they'll learn about Singapore too, this very peculiar, particular nation that was never supposed to exist”
So far it’s working, at least in Singapore. Kinokuniya has gone on to sell all 500 copies it had ordered, and Epigram Books has announced a second printing, putting 3,000 copies in print.
Correction: An earlier version of this story did not make it clear that Chan is a fictional character created by Liew.