The Art (and problems) of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

By May 4, 2017Current

TL;DR – Shame on NAC. 

A Malaysian-born, Singapore-based comic artist is making the news in the world of comics. Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye topped the nominations of this year’s Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards (usually shortened as the Eisner Award) is often referred to as the comics industry’s equivalent of the Oscar Awards.

Sonny’s work garnered nominations in six categories:

  • Best Graphic Album–New
  • Best U.S. Edition of International Material–Asia
  • Best Writer/Artist
  • Best Coloring
  • Best Lettering
  • Best Publication Design

Surely such a critically acclaimed work of art would have received rousing support from the Singapore government right?


Funding from NAC was revoked

The National Arts Council (NAC) originally gave Sonny a publishing grant for the work. But two years ago, on the eve of the work’s Singapore launch, NAC announced that it had withdrawn the grant. The ostensible reason given was because the comic had “sensitive content”.

NAC’s senior director of the literary arts sector Khor Kok Wah said,

“We had to withdraw the grant when the book The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye came out because its sensitive content, depicted in visuals and text, did not meet our funding conditions.”

Other than that rather cryptic statement, NAC declined to elaborate on the reasons behind the decision to revoke the grant. But the application guidelines, which state that NAC reserves the right to withdraw funding for reasons such as “illegal or negligent acts that occur during any point of the funded project, which will adversely affect the reputation of the National Arts Council, any government bodies, public institutions, national leaders or (the applicant’s) organisation”.

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Huh? Why?

Perhaps NAC thought that The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye adversely affects the reputation of our national leaders. Why would it think so? Maybe because the comic reimagines a prosperous and peaceful Singapore led by a charismatic working-class hero Lim Chin Siong, while Lee Kuan Yew, also a character in the comic, lives in exile and ignominy in Cambodia.

Excerpt from The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

Another possible reason could be because how it depicted Operation Spectrum. Operation Spectrum was the incident where 16 people were detained allegedly over a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Government. In the comic, it turned out to be a plot to replace all music in Singapore with the melodies of American singer Richard Marx.

Wow. Such subversive work surely will shake the foundations of a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Singapore to its core. Singaporeans will not know what is truly history and what is fiction if they read this comic! It has brought much disrepute to our national leaders! How can NAC support such work?!

Award nominations show how unartistic NAC is…?

Isn’t NAC supposed to be support art development in Singapore? Shouldn’t it have an sharp eye for what is artistic? The fact that it decided to withdraw funding from something that got so many nominations for a prestigious award shows that NAC doesn’t quite know what art is.

Comic has won accolades from international publications last year too!

In fact, even before these six very impression nominations, last year alone was already a good run for Sonny Liew’s book.

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It was the only graphic novel to make it onto the The Economist magazine’s Books of Year 2016. The Washington Post newspaper, as well as trade publication Publishers Weekly and radio network National Public Radio (NPR), also named it as one of the best graphic novels in 2016.

On homeground, the comic was also the first local graphic novel to win the Singapore Literature Prize last year.

Surely we can tell fact from fiction?

And… come on. Surely Singaporeans are mature enough to differentiate between what’s fiction and what’s fact. In fact, toward the end, Sonny appears in the comics to urge an audience surrogate to read the appendix. The appendix provides detailed historical background information of the various parts of the comic’s story.

It’s almost like Sonny telling the reader: “Don’t just take one man’s word for thing, read as much as you can to form your own opinion.” So what is so terrible about The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye that made it unsuitable for funding? The only explanation is that there was nothing wrong with the comic.

The fault lies entirely with NAC.


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Joey Wee

Author Joey Wee

I am nice, most of the time!

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