Shelf Life
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Shelf Life: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew

I first heard about Sonny Liew and this graphic novel (like many others), through the NAC grant controversy, and became interested in the book that caused such a stir amongst the ongoing conversations about censorship in Singapore. I also heard about its overwhelming popularity, its sold-out print runs and overwhelmingly positive reviews.

So I decided I had to get my hands on it, and when I found a copy lying on the shelf at Page and Panel at the Toronto Reference Library, I grabbed it without hesitation.


Phenomenal. Phenomenal. Phenomenal.

The sheer variety of comic styles that show up in Chan Hock Chye is ridiculous, and imitated to such wonderful precision. The presentation of these strips, styles and colour splashed across the page, perfectly organized and placed page to page is itself a design feat, and such wonderful attention to storytelling.

The sketch lines of pencil drawings, the creases of sketch paper, the tape used to hold down strips, the colour of strips, the texture…I could go on, but the point is, all these details are carefully and consistently present in the book, beginning with the jacket all the way through to the inside pages of the hardcover.


Liew uses the graphic medium to expand the “Singapore Story”. He weaves deftly between sharp and on-point critique with humorous narrative methods to present the complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity of what is generally seen as Singapore’s road to success and prosperity.

The above “Cutout Paper Doll” page is an example of that balanced mix of critique through humour, a comic strategy within a graphic novel to tell a part of history that has been often elided from its official tellings.

This includes a critique of all the different phases of rule Singapore has been under (no one is let off the hook) from the British, the Japanese, to the Malaysian government and then the one-party PAP rule, every era’s unique mix of problems and events are at least briefly touched on and represented through the comic form.


To take on the challenge of telling this sprawling tale, Liew employs multiple narrative frames, encapsulated in a meta-narrative of fictional comic artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye, who lives through Singapore’s history while drawing comics about it.

Within the meta-frame of biography, Liew explores the tumultuous history of a country that is extremely unfamiliar to North America, intertwining anecdotes, important and forgotten events and figures with Charlie Chan’s own aspirations as a comics artist, and a commentary on the role of art in the cultural-political sphere, and the freedom of expression.

One of my favourite chapters contains a second running commentary to the larger narrative (which is itself one of Charlie Chan’s political comics about Lee Kuan Yew’s government), that appears at the bottom of the page and continues for a few pages.

In the strip, Sonny Liew appears as himself, talking to a rather blasé young person about the issues at stake in the larger narrative such as the government’s asserted censorship through various acts, laws and legislative decisions. Reading the two narratives side by side create a strange moment of self-consciousness, as the graphic novel invites us to step into that strange overlapping space between the two comic presentations about the same events of history, told in different ways by the same person who is (within the text), two different people.

This kind of mind-fuckery is exactly what makes The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye so masterful.


The “Days of August” chapter begins to tie all the threads of the story together, in the sense that we can feel the story starting to move toward ending its own trajectory,  as Liew wraps up his historical retelling by literally retelling it through the narrative strategy of an alternative reality.

Singapore’s alternative reality sits next to Charlie Chan’s own reimagining of his career as a comics artist, and the two alternative histories serve to highlight the present in its most ambivalent form – only because the alternative histories in their optimistic rendering also serve to remind us that that option is not necessarily what we should be wishing for either.

I’m not sure what more to say about how I felt after finishing this book except I felt the overwhelming desire to shove it in everyone’s faces and yell ‘READ THIS NOW”.

Thoughtful and complex storytelling, beautifully illustrated and non-compromising, Sonny Liew has surely delivered a book that pushes at the boundaries of what mixed medium storytelling can do. I’m so excited this book exists in this world.

Read this interview he did with CBR HERE.


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