Reading The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew that Yan bought me from the Epigram Christmas sale. Its a thick tome- a comic no doubt, but it has been a while and perhaps a rare occasion this year for me to dig my nails deep into a book and devour the pages so swiftly. But my first impression was one of writing-it-off, the style of the graphics just didn’t draw me in. It was unconscious, and unwarranted since it was not too long ago that I was looking for a graphic novel to get into.
One of the biggest reasons why I love it so far is the the way it connects me to the past, and while set in Singapore, a place I am wholly familiar with, the past that’s featured is a foreign, strange New World. A scene featuring a choice movie outing to the popular Rex Cinema was curious, I mean it is Rex, Rex that is at the edge of Selegie, Rex screening sub-culture Hindi and Tamil films, with a smell of sugar popcorn so strong, mixed up with the deep fried smells of Old Chang Kee. Rex that I too had subconsciously written off, because it’s style just doesn’t appeal to me.
Another scene evokes Hokien Street -spelt with a single ‘k’- was it spelt that way in the past? What did the street mean to people, back when it was Hokien-Street-with-a-single-k? The scene depicted the buzz from the street food stalls at 1:30am. Traces of food to be found: Mee goreng, kopi-O. It stirs my heart and rouses a kind of longing – if I was born of that time, would I know supper stands at 1:30am?
Beyond this nolstalgia it evokes in me, the comic is really about the contested history of Singapore. I had not known, and still don’t, but Yan said that the book ran into controversy because it couldn’t obtain funding from the National Arts Council and was entirely crowd funded, and then its first print sold out. So far into the book, the Chinese school protests, the Hock Lee bus riots, Japanese Occupation, the Communists, the founding father and his adversaries, have all made their presence. I couldn’t help but feel admiration for both comic artists (Sonny Liew and Charlie Chan) and the penchant for revolutionary, patriotic storytelling they share. Comics that are sourced like a thesis, researched heavily. It is no wonder that dictators and autocrats often went after the artistically-inclined. For all it takes are a few of them, to light up the imaginations of an indifferent common folk.
I don’t need to read to the end of this comic to recommend it. I love it. I’ll be sad the day I finish thumbing through this. Hopefully not tomorrow.