singaporean cartoonist challenges history, takes the 'oscar'

July 25, 2017

words by: Bere Wangge

Sort of like the comic book version of the Oscars, Eisner Awards is all about honoring graphic artists and works published in the U.S. This year's awards, announced on July 21 in conjunction with San Diego Comic-Con, were a cause for well-deserved celebration for the Singaporean cartoonist Sonny Liew.

Snapping up awards across several categories, Liew became the first ever Singaporean to win at the prestigious event. His graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye snagged three awards, including: Best Writer/Artist, Best Publication Design, and Best US Edition of International Material (Asia). For a work once deemed too controversial, it was a beautiful step forward in recognition and justification.  

First published in Singapore in 2015, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye follows the life of a fictional Singaporean artist from the 1950s through the present. The graphic novel features real-life figures like Singapore's founding father, the late Lee Kuan Yew, and sensitive subjects such as the 1955 Hock Lee bus workers strike and riots. As a quietly bold alternative history to the Singaporean government's carefully curated creation story, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye has courted controversy wherever it goes. But it went on to win the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016 and attracted the attention of Pantheon Books, which published the graphic novel in the U.S.  

From an article about Liew in the New York Times:

“The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” tells the story of Singapore’s greatest cartoonist, who grew up after the war when the colonies of British Malaya and Singapore were agitating for independence. Charlie Chan documents that era of riots and protests in a series of vignettes, each one paying homage to some of the world’s comic book artists — and along the way challenging myths and rescuing from anonymity people written out of the official version.

What slowly becomes apparent is that Charlie Chan is fictional, maybe not even that famous, and the person “presenting” his work, Sonny Liew, is the real artist. But what isn’t fictional is the history that Mr. Liew presents — and the sensation that his book has caused. Since being published two years ago, Mr. Liew’s book has gone through multiple print runs and become central to a slow-burning national discussion over this country’s history, culture and values." 

Sure to continue to cement its place in history as one of the great works of social art, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye has been compared to Ulysses by NPR's John Powers. And Liew continues to quietly foment change and positive upheaval around his country's narratives.

If this all has you seriously intrigued (as it should), and curious about the speak-truth-to-power nature of graphic novels, find more about this history-making work at its official website, here.

All images c/o Sonny Liew.