Saturday, 2 January 2016

Review: Charlie Chan Hock Chye

You may know about the controversy concerning Sonny Liew's graphic novel "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye" - The National Arts Council revoked its funding ($8000) for the graphic novel just before the launch, causing the publisher to returned all the funds disbursed, as well as print stickers to cover up the acknowledgement of the support (now revoked) of the NAC for the publication of the graphic novel.

The reason for the revocation of the grant? The imaginary/speculative history undermines the authority of the Govt.

Well, I got to read the graphic novel recently, and here are my thoughts on it.

Sonny Liew is obviously talented and has mastery over several styles of drawing/illustration. In the course of the story, he drew in various styles, including Mad Magazine and Walt Disney comics. Quite good I must say.

In this graphic novel, he was able to develop the life and character of Charlie Chan Hock Chye quite believably. I was reasonably sure the character is fictitious when I started reading, but at some point I wondered if I were wrong, and Charlie really did exist. That's good story-telling.

The story was partially historical, part fantasy, and part speculative alternative history.

Which appeals to me. However, for my own reasons, from my own understanding of history, I found his speculative, alternative history to be un-anchored in facts or critical junctures in history.

While I can agree that generally, history is just "one damn thing after another", as a sci-fi and Doctor Who fan, I subscribe to the idea of "Fixed point in time and space". But I wonder if there are also corollaries or opposites to this idea - "Weak points in time and space" where a slight change might have huge ripples through time and space.

For example, did LKY won the PM-ship by one vote?

Also what of the events of 1955 to 1957 when LKY lost control of the PAP for 10 days? And the communists elements in the party were detained?

Yes, Sonny Liew is not a historian. He is just an artist, and comic book illustrator if you will. And while he has done considerable research for this work, and while I find his perspective unduly sympathetic to Lim Chin Siong, I do not hold that against him.

Maybe he means to provoke. Maybe he simply wants to speculate and entertain. Maybe he simply wants to provide a different perspective. That is allowable. That is art. That is an expression of an opinion.

And certainly, there were sufficient and rather accurate presentation of historical facts - re Tan Siew Sin, the Finance Minister during merger.

And certain facts were indisputable - that PAP framed the referendum on merger to be a no-lose referendum. But that the Barisan Sosialis call for the people to cast blank votes as a rejection of merger only resulted in 25% of blank votes cast. 71% voted for merger.

And even if he intended to "subvert" the established narrative, so what? If the mainstream historical narrative is so fragile that it cannot withstand the fantasy speculation of a comic book with an overwhelming reach of... 7500 readers (as of the third print run, IIRC), the fault lies with the dissemination of the mainstream narrative. As Bilahari notes:
"...we are paying the price for de-emphasising history in our national curriculum."
Overall, I felt the graphic novel was pretty factual. Sure, there were some personal perspective, but I do not know if that is the authors true opinions, or the opinion of his alter ego Charlie Chan Hock Chye. It was certainly presented as the character's. And that is not a problem.

But as a dilettante of History, particularly Singapore's history, I find the speculations "flippant" in the sense that it did not seek out the "weak points in time and space", where a single vote or a single roll of the dice might have sent Singapore down a different historical path. And there are many such "weak points". Like Toh Chin Chye's face off against the Middle Road Unions and their attempts to get unseat LKY. Or the Barisan 13's decision to quit Parliament and pursue "extra-parliamentary struggle"? Or the almost-PM Ong Eng Guan?

Unfortunately, Sonny's focus was Lim Chin Siong (vis-a-vis Lee Kuan Yew), and so this "alternate history" is limited at best, and biased at worst.

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