Wednesday, June 3, 2015

At Kinokuniya: So How Notorious Are "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye"and Its Writer-Artist Sonny Liew?

Red Dot Diva loves it whenever her favourite book store Kinokuniya, holds a comic-related Meet the Author session. The book store has always been very supportive of overseas and local creators as well as artists of graphic novels. 

Last Saturday (30 May), the main store at Ngee Ann City, hosted the official book launch of Eisner-nominated artist Sonny Liew's latest graphic novel, "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye", published by local company Epigram Books.

"The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is written (or rather written and drawn) as a biography of sorts. It documents the life of "the greatest Singapore artist of all time", Charlie Chan, from the age of 10 when he discovered his love for Osamu Tezuka's mangas, in addition to an account of his own life's journey as a Red Dot Island native and a struggling comic artist. Strung alongside Charlie's personal narrative are the historical and political aspects of Red Dot Island and her own unique stories.

Red Dot Diva remembers gathering a few preview booklets released by Epigram when she attended STGCC 2012 a few years ago. Amongst the booklets was one of "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye". Already then, the preview had sparked a fair bit of interest amongst local geeks and geek bloggers, but alas, the book took a very long time in the making.

"The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye" was originally funded by National Arts Council (NAC) for a sum of SGD 8,000. However, this was withdrawn a day before the book's official launch, in a move that Red Dot Diva hardly considered as fair. The de-funding was reported in the local newspapers and social media, including some overseas blogs, with NAC stating that the book contained "sensitive content". (What this "sensitive content" consists of had not been specified by NAC at that time, although Sonny Liew and locals can definitely hazard a good guess what these points were.) NAC later clarified their reasons for their action (see TODAY's original article in this link) and said that the book carried themes which “undermines the authority or legitimacy” of the Government, and hence the funding guidelines.

In their decision to withdraw the funding, NAC had renewed questions on whether funding for homegrown creative efforts should be made more separate from political inclinations in order for the arts scene to grow and thrive. As expected, what do Red Dot Islanders do when the gahmen marks something as "not approved"? Buy the book of course!

Judging by the number (about 100 or more) and faces of the people crowding the Kinokuniya book launch, many were there simply because they had read of the "scandalous" news relating to NAC, Epigram and Sonny Liew.

Just look at the crowd!

Of course, the familiar faces of the local geek + writers' community were present at the launch, all eager to give Sonny their support. After all, he's one of their own and very well-admired for his unique creative style. :) Edmund Wee of Epigram was also present, rocking a salmon pink pair of bermudas, like only he could. (Big thanks to the always gracious geek acquaintance David Goei, who gave up his seat at the front so that Red Dot Diva could take photos of the proceedings up close. *MWAH.*)

The moderator of the session, Alvin (@direcow) of Here Be Geeks, started off by apologizing to the crowd that Charlie Chan could not make it to the session, and those who want autographs would have to settle for Sonny's instead. Heh heh.

Baby-faced Sonny (whose demeanor hardly seemed the sort to stir up such a media storm) then gave a quick round of heartfelt acknowledgements before Alvin went straight to the heart of the matter concerning the withdrawal of NAC's funding.

Alvin: Do you have any feelings about the whole thing?
Sonny: General feeling.. for me, it's disappointment. The publishers are the one bearing the brunt of the financial loss because they were the ones who applied for the grant and now they have to give it back. For me, I'm disappointed that NAC hasn't been able to support the book. Right now, we don't even know what they thought about the book. When the funds was withdrawn, I asked them what they thought about it, and they said they could not even discuss it because they book had already crossed the boundaries.

Alvin: We'll leave it at that at the moment. This book came out at the right time... or the wrong time, depending on how you look at it. It's the SG50 year and during the process of doing the book, was it difficult to decide on what themes you wanted to include in the book?
Sonny: With any book that you do, there are parts of the book that are intuitive. There are some parts that you know you definitely want to do and these flow very easily. At the same time, there are parts, or certain sections, which are much more tricky, like trying to bridge one part to the other and to get certain narratives working. That's the hard part. For those sections, I had to sit down and keep on thinking about what kind of solutions I can come up with. I'll try to go for a run and to clear my mind and what can be done to solve the narrative issues. I think there are areas which I think could be improved but I'm happy with about 80% of the book.

Alvin: How long ago were the story lines planned?
Sonny: I first had the idea to tell a story about Singapore's history tied together with the topic about comics in Singapore about 5 to 6 years ago. I think we had a meeting with a bunch of comic creators about this, but one of the issues we face in Singapore is that, with local content, we are not quite sure that we'll be able to find a market for it, to get the book published and to get people to buy it. So, for a long time, the idea was kept in the back burner. It was not until Epigram approached me and a few comic book artists to come up with local comics that I thought this could be the right time to try out the idea.

Alvin: In your opinion, is it difficult to get financial support in the form of grants in Singapore?
Sonny: Being an artist in Singapore, you are often reliant on NAC or MDA to support your works and your career. I guess at some point, you do worry about how much you can push the boundaries, as to whether or not, by pushing the boundaries, you would end up being one of those who get blacklisted and who can no longer count on NAC support. But you just have to do what you believe in and see what it leads you.

Alvin: There are different art styles in the book. There's a Mad Magazine spoof, for one frame, even Mr Kiasu was there. What helped you tie all these different stories together?
Sonny: The challenge was to make it accessible to the reader. Therefore, the challenge was to introduce the different styles to the reader's consciousness, and not to have them get confused by the different shifts in narrative styles and format.

Alvin: Are there parts that you want to change in the book?
Sonny: There is one particular section that I think had a lot of knots in it. I tried to undo the knots again and again but they are still there.

Alvin: Are you going to tell us which part this is?
Sonny: Maybe you can tell which part you found most hard to get through and we'll see if we are on the same page. I'm really really willing to listen to feedback. If anyone is on Facebook, Twitter or email has thoughts of the book, do let me know. I definitely want to get more feedback about the story.

A photo posted by Red Dot Diva (@reddotdiva) on

Questions were also opened to the floor, and someone from the audience spoke up. "When I was reading the book, what struck me how much depth of knowledge of history there was in the book. There were a lot of nuances, which you then use to play on to craft the story around. How much background reading did you do to come up with the historical narrative?"

Sonny: I did as much reading as I could. I bought all the books on Singapore history that I could find. I also interviewed historians to make sure my understanding was correct. There are a lot of things that are hard to get a grip on in Singapore's history. There are a lot of interpretations of it which you have to work through. I did a lot of research, and so did my editor. It does touch a lot of sensitive issues, I acknowledge that. NAC is not wrong in saying that. I tried to make sure that whatever's in the book is a balanced and fair analysis of what happened.   

Alvin: Is it difficult to do that?
Sonny: It is difficult because you have "the Singapore story", which is PAP's mainstream view about the history of Singapore, and then you have the left-wing of what really happened. It is probably that the truth is in between the two. Neither side has the full story. Something in between is most probably the more accurate. Maybe I'm wrong but that's my general sense and that's what I was trying to get across in the book. There is a more inclusive history that we could have. Neither left-wing nor right wing, neither conservative nor liberal.

Alvin: Did the editor flag about topics that shouldn't be talked about?
Sonny: I think it was more of a publisher's concern. Edmund was concerned that there could be some parts that were touchy, so we toned it down just a little bit. And Zheng Xi (sp??) here, he helped us look through the book to ensure there was no libel involved. (The audience laughed.) He is a lawyer so he helped us identified points where we were making dangerous comments that we could be sued for. So I think on that front we are quite safe, unless........... (more laughter from the audience)

And then.. dun dun dun..... someone from the audience raised the matter about forbidden boundaries.

Meanwhile, a guy sitting who was behind Red Dot Diva had been rather fidgety since the beginning of the Q&A session. He was a little irate that the session had not discussed about the main man of the hour. "Can you tell us about Charlie Chan Hock Chye? How did you hear about him and tell us more about him since you've written the whole book about him." There was some knowing laughter from the people who had read the book or got the drift. Hopefully, this dude gets the idea of who Mr Charlie Chan soon, or maybe would have read the book review on Straits Times by now.

Sonny: This is a tricky question. And our marketing approach is to not talk about it. (Loud laughter from the crowd.) Because I want the reader to find out who he is and what he means.  

At this point, Alvin gallantly attempted to re-direct the question to a comic artist related question, which Sonny answered but he also decided to address the person's question more fully.

Sonny: The first thing you need to do is to read the book first and then email me to tell me what you think of the story.

Alvin: In the book, there are parts that we see Charlie Chan's longing for the past. Do you think nostalgia plays a big part in how Singapore sees itself?
Sonny: For myself, yes. Personally, one of the reason why I choose to be in Singapore is because I spent a lot of years growing up here in Singapore. I feel attached to the country, to my family, to my friends and the place. Whenever I see something being torn down, I feel pain. When I hear of an old building that is going to be torn down, I wish they could preserve it somehow. Like, when I hear that they are going to destroy the Sungei Thieves' Market, I feel sad about that. I know nostalgia is something that you can't really measure. It's a longing for the past that you don't really need and Singapore has always has to move forward to progress. I think we can still do better in preserving the past. I think as citizens of Singapore and for anyone living here, you want to feel attached to the country. Physical buildings and places are very strong ways to connect to your country and if you do not preserve them or preserve them in a way that is accessible to people, then you will lose something.

Alvin followed-up with a question about the lack of successful local books about local superheros, and this is Sonny's take on it:

Writer Dave Chua, who was in the crowd, asked: Do you think you'd be done with Singapore stories?
Sonny: I want to be engaged with books which deal with similar kind of things. I have this idea that I want to do a book next about the role of capitalism in the world and in Singapore as well. I enjoy engaging in ideas with what society means, what economics is, even what our role in the world is. Even if it's not about Singapore, I hope that I will be able to do more books with similar ideas and themes.  

Finally, Red Dot Diva had a chance to pipe in with a question, and here was what she asked Sonny:

A man was curious about the name and character of Charlie Chan, and asked Sonny this interesting question. "Anyone approaching the book before reading will be struck by the reference to Charlie Chan. Charlie Chan is a fictional detective in the films. Is there a detective element to the book?"
Sonny: I come to Charlie Chan through another story. There's another movie by an American Chinese Wayne Wang called 'Chan is Missing'. It was one of the seminal Asian-American films of the last 20-30 years. What this movie is about is this guy called Charlie Chan goes missing and his friend has to look for him, and in order to look him, he has to go around asking Charlie's acquaintances, and all of them had a different story about him. Part of what the movie is about how you can never really know this person and that different people who know him would have different views about this person. The usual arthouse complexity about how much one can know about a person. That always interests me and partly, this is what book is about as well. Who is Charlie Chan? Who is Singapore? What is its history? We have all these different ways of looking at it. 

Time was running out so a a young man was given the chance to ask the last question of the session. "Who is your favourite DC character?"
Sonny: It used to be Batman. I like how the Flash is on the TV show. Batman was the most interesting character for me. But right now, he's been done so many times and especially with Ben Affleck playing him, I'm not sure what will happen.

The session was quickly wrapped up so that everyone could make space in the aisle and line up for Sonny's autograph. Unlike some of the Q&A's that Red Dot Diva has been to, the autograph line was super long, winding down past the musical scores section in the store, and with quite a number of people holding two copies of the "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye".

Red Dot Diva was in the first 30 or so of the queue, but had to wait for a more than half an hour before she got to the front of the line. Sonny had been including cute little doodles or at least a smiley for everyone's books, and when he recognized Red Dot Diva, he said she could look for him during STGCC or some other local meet-ups to get a better drawing. No worries, she said. She knew he had still so many people to sign for! Many of whom has never met him in person before.

Soon after Sonny's session, Red Dot Diva received news that the "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye" was already sold out at Kinokuniya's Ngee City branch. Since then, it has sold out in all other stores, and Epigram is in the works of going into a 2nd print! WOOHOOO! Way to go!

Having read the book, Red Dot Diva thought it was a wonderful and intellectual read, offering a different yet highly possible interpretation through Charlie Chan's eyes of how Red Dot Island's history may have unfolded. History is always seen through the eyes of someone's perspective, and as one of those who was born when Red Dot Island was already independent, it was certainly enlightening to even consider alternative realities of how this little island could be like.

Just today, Red Dot Diva read about an Iranian artist who had been imprisoned because she drew politicians in the form of animals. There are certainly many anthropomorphic characters in "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye", and despite their decision to not approve the funds for the book, NAC and the authorities had been more gracious than they might have been if Red Dot Island was ruled differently. Talk about alternate realities, right?

The different art styles used by Charlie Chan also enhanced rather than detracted from the various plotlines in the book, which was mostly a political satire. There was also just the right touch of aching nostalgia and feels when the frames switched to Charlie's personal life. Red Dot Diva is pretty sure the echo of that simple question "Eh Tan Jiak, Boh?" is immediately familiar to most.

It was definitely great to know that the non-geek community now recognizes and knows what the nerds already know for years. Now that fabulous artwork and genius of Sonny Liew is in the limelight, Red Dot Diva wonders what other creative surprises will he give us with next?

She can't wait to find out.


Sonny usually has several ideas and works in the pipeline. He is currently working on Issue #2 of DC Comics' "Dr Fate" together with Paul Levitz, who is writing for the series. Do check out Red Dot Diva's interview with Paul Levitz and Sonny Liew about "Dr Fate".

"Dr Fate" will be on sale on 17 June, 2015. A preview of the series can be read online at this link.

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