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“Teaching the Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”
 
Angelia Poon

 
One of the most rewarding Literature lessons I have taught in the last two years has centered around Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. I have assigned the book for undergraduate and Masters-level classes as part of thirteen-week courses with a curricular focus on asking questions about the nature of literariness, literary thinking and ‘Literature’ as a discipline. In this sense, the selection of Liew’s work is perhaps particularly apt given its controversial production history: the graphic novel had its grant from the National Arts Council withdrawn only for Liew and publisher Epigram to see sales soar through the roof. Since its publication, the book has garnered much international acclaim while also bagging the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016. Clearly, prescribing this graphic novel to be discussed among undergraduate and Masters students in small seminar-style settings presupposes that the text is literary. Certainly my students were expected to bring their close and critical reading skills to bear upon the text, subjecting it to the same scrutiny and analysis that one would accord more conventional literary works even if comics are traditionally understood as a popular cultural form. Students were asked to consider The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye in terms of how the text intervened in their understanding of Singapore history and literature. They had to articulate the alternative perpectives it offered and investigate the stylistic and narrative strategies used to bring about not only these perspectives but critical self-examination as well. In terms of the classroom dynamics, it was important for me that students engage in dialogue, discussion, and debate with one another: they had to be willing to listen to others, be brave enough to express doubt and ambivalence, as well as be comfortable enough to justify their own views.

Regardless of their political and ideological stripes, my students embraced the graphic novel enthusiastically. Despite not having a profound and extensive knowledge of comics, all found much in the diverse, allusive and multi-layered work to critically analyze and enjoy. Undergraduate students’ historical knowledge about Singapore also tended to vary. While some were encountering specific historical and highly-charged events like the closure of the Singapore Herald newspaper, Operation Spectrum and the Graduate Mother controversy for the first time in this text, most could nevertheless deduce the underlying political, philosophical, and cultural issues at stake in these incidents. Exposition and running commentary in the form of the bespectacled character of Sonny Liew seeking to educate an indifferent and ignorant kid-interlocutor no doubt helped at some points. By and large, students were also able to infer the larger, overarching questions about Singapore’s political climate, national identity and multiculturalism which the text seemed invested in asking. In contrast to the events and struggles that seemed to have receded into the dusty annals of the past for undergraduate students especially, other historical decisions like Singapore’s bilingual policy and the Speak Mandarin campaign were well known and instantly understood because they continued to structure students’ everyday lives in the education system. To me, it was particularly interesting how students responded to the story of Charlie Chan as “presented” by Sonny Liew–ostensibly the unknown story of “Singapore’s greatest comics artist” (3)–on such an emotional level. That they appreciated the humor and wit in many of the comic strips, each with its distinctive visual style, was hardly surprising. The Bukit Chapalang and Singkapor Inks comics, for example, raised lots of chuckles. Yet, students were also often struck and moved by the poignancy of certain textual moments. In particular, they seemed to feel especially keenly the pathos caused by loss, missed opportunity, and the sense of perpetually wondering what might have been.  The parting of ways between the young Charlie Chan and his friend, Bertrand Wong, when it became clear that drawing and selling comics was a lost economic cause, struck many students as mundanely yet heartwrenchingly embodying the tragedy of throwing in the towel for practical reasons. This idea resonated strongly with many given the way pragmatism has been enshrined as a national value and normalized in Singapore society. One student exclaimed that the story of the two boys “broke [her] heart,” an effect quietly enhanced, she argued, by the visual rendering of a bespectacled Charlie whose glasses remain opaque throughout the scene (172, 181) when Bertrand tells his friend, “Listen, Charlie…I can’t do this anymore” (171). Charlie’s one-word response, “Hey” (181), uttered almost distractedly, belies his sense of lonely disappointment signaling the end of youthful idealism and mutual interest. In the novel’s narrative present, the elderly Bertrand also appears, interviewed by Sonny Liew who invites him to reminisce about his early partnership with Charlie producing comics. Here, he is portly, avuncular, prosperous-looking, and clad in a floral shirt, seemingly the outfit of choice among ageing conformists.

In juxtaposition with the Charlie Chan and Bertrand story is the historical narrative of Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong, former allies turned political foes. Given the emergence over the last twenty years at least of counter-narratives qualifying official PAP-dominated accounts of national history, not all students came to the text unfamiliar with Lim Chin Siong’s story. Students felt however that the historical struggle was presented quite subtly and with some ambivalence rather than in stark black and white terms.[1] Many pointed to the portraits of Lee Kuan Yew, especially to Chan’s last one of Lee as an old man entitled “Time and Tide”, as evidence that he was not completely vilified. While Lee in middle age and at the height of his political power was portrayed as a more sinister figure, the older Lee appeared more vulnerable and fragile.  Seizing upon the contrast between both men and their historical struggle, the text also teases and challenges the reader with alternative realities. The comic “Days of August” elicited much discussion not only about the variable course of history but about the possibilities of genre and form as well.  In contrast to the conventional ways of thinking promoted by traditional historiography, the comics form with a strong and long tradition in sci-fi and speculative fiction could invite readers to contemplate mind-bending possibilities such as a world where Lim Chin Siong, and not Lee Kuan Yew, was the political victor, and where characters could travel back in time to possibly alter the course of history. That both Charlie and Lim would lead their lives all over again even when presented with the opportunity to tread a different path simply reinforces the impression of them as principled subjects willing to sacrifice self for what they believe to be the greater good.

In self-reflexive ways, my students were also eager to engage with the metafictionality of this graphic novel. The interesting questions raised by the text about the nature of historiography and how history gets told were debated at length. We discussed, for example, the axiom about history always being written by the winners and considered those silenced and omitted from traditional and textbook accounts of history.  But students also moved beyond such binary thinking about winners and losers to consider the nature of historiography itself and the processes by which history is constantly made, unmade and re-made. It was clear to them how those who shape the past through stories and narrative can never themselves ever stand outside the stream of history.[2]

Besides confirming the reader’s historicity, Liew’s text also invites questions about historical consciousness, a point seen most clearly perhaps in the chapter about Charlie growing up alongside the changes in a rapidly developing and urbanizing Singapore following political independence from British colonial authority. That such development and material progress should be tinged with a sense of loss and regret is not a new sentiment. The price the modern nation has paid for development is a theme that has traditionally animated much Singapore writing. Yet the image Liew offers about the well-known activity of ‘joining the dots’ to convey this point is a simple yet novel and inspired move.

Liew plays on readers’ familiarity with such a childhood exercise by presenting a drawing of Singaporeans’ experience of early cinema, a box of moving images loaded on a bicycle where audiences could view different cartoons or movies for a fee.  In just four frames starting with a picture of the old uncle and his “portable cinema” (208), we see the initial image dissolving and disappearing until finally there are only numbered dots left. The sequence captures succinctly the past vanishing before our very eyes. As things of the past fade, not only does memory diminish but perhaps more worryingly, so does historical consciousness itself. With the vanishing of more and more aspects of the physical past, Liew reminds us through this somber yet subtle symbolic image how we lose the co-ordinates and tangible points of reference that provide shape to our thoughts and imagination about our identity and history. We are cast adrift and left literally unable to join the dots.

Ultimately, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye forces us to confront the role of the artist in our society. Indeed the story of an under-appreciated artist in a land where poetry was once declared a luxury its people cannot afford seemed to many students utterly compelling and plausible. So good is Liew as a biographer and documentarian at presenting, for example, photographs of artefacts like the Ah Huat doll that Charlie’s first love, Lily, had given him (259), that many students readily believed in Chan’s existence. The photographic image of the Ah Huat doll easily became a teachable moment in class about the nature of evidence and knowledge. It was hard to resist its resonance for today since the need to teach students to be critical, thinking and discerning readers of text appears a more urgent task than ever before as we face the deleterious effects of fake news and navigate the era of post-truth. At the same time, the fact that students were duped into thinking that Charlie Chan existed is significant for perhaps reflecting their deep yearning for precisely such an unsung hero, someone whose existence could serve as proof that Singapore’s post-independence political climate had not been so overwhelmingly suffocating for the arts. Wishful thinking, no doubt, but it certainly shows the extent to which the romantic notion of the poet or artist laboring for his craft, unacknowledged and unknown, remains powerfully attractive. Little wonder then that students were drawn to the ending of the book with its understated depiction of the ordinary actions and processes involved in creating extraordinary works of art. After three hundred pages of what in effect amounts to a celebratory showcase of Liew’s powerful story-telling and artistic mastery, the reader is presented with a nine-frame panel of art instruments and the image of the quiet “chik” of paint brush against ink bottle signaling the start of creative expression.

Great art, fueled by passion, begins nevertheless with the simplest of equipment and the most quotidian of routines. In the end, my students, I am happy to report, found much to cheer about in the quiet yet unequivocal validation of the artist and his art as encapsulated in the book’s parting image of “Charlie Chan Hock Chye, aged 76, 2014”.

 

Angelia Poon teaches and does research on Singapore and postcolonial literatures at the National Institute of Singapore, NTU. Her students are all would-be Literature teachers. Her most recent work focuses on elitism, meritocracy and the figure of the government scholar in Singapore literature

 

References:

Holden, Philip. “Is it manipulative? Sure. But that’s how you tell stories”: The graphic novel, metahistory and the artists in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Journal of Postcolonial Writing. 52.4 (2016): 510-523.

Liew, Sonny. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Singapore: Epigram Books, 2015.

Lim, Cheng Tju. “Review: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.” https://kyotoreview.org/review-essays/art-of-charlie-chan-hock-chye/ Accessed 15 May 2017.

 

Notes

[1] According to Lim Cheng Tju, Liew had expressed the wish that his book “would change people’s views of Lim Chin Siong.” See https://kyotoreview.org/review-essays/art-of-charlie-chan-hock-chye/

 

[2] See also Holden, 520-522.


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