The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye: A Small Heartbeat of Singapore

PCK Private Ltd! Best in Singapore and JB, and some say Batam!

Gurmit Singh as the well-loved character Phua Chu Kang

Gurmit Singh can speak many languages.
But Phua Chu Kang speaks only Singlish.
If our children learn Singlish from Phua Chu Kang,
they will not become as talented as Gurmit Singh.

Singapore’s Second Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong
“First-World Economy, World-Class Home” speech

I am born in Singapore, but I am not Singaporean. Supposedly, my passport says I am Indonesian, but I share very little affinities with the archipelago nation. But I did live in Singapore for eighteen years as well as Sydney, Shenzhen, and most recently Chicago. Asking me where I am from is going to end up me explaining what a third culture kid means and that might take ages.

If I don’t feel like opening my mouth much, I would say that I lived in Singapore. The response, if it isn’t “That’s a place in China, right?”, would always be “Singapore must be a clean city!” and I say, “Yes, indeed.”

In fact, a Lacoste salesman in Madrid actually said something like that to me a month ago: “A friend of mine showed pictures of Singapore when he was there. It’s so beautiful!”

Everyone praises the country’s pragmatism and modernity, but there is always something off about it that I can’t explain. Some would point the Michael Fay and Amos Yee cases and say these highlight the problems in the country, but they are merely symptoms of something bigger.

I like to call it “cultural amnesia”.

Because of this cultural amnesia, Singapore is one of the hardest countries to explain in my opinion. But thankfully for readers interested in this tiny Southeast Asia country, an unlikely companion’s guide to history books has surfaced. In Sonny Liew’s biography of Singapore’s great cartoonist, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, we see a nerdy kid who loves comics, in particular Osamu Tezuka’s 新宝島 (New Treasure Island), and wants to draw comics like him someday. His first comic penned at the age of ten is titled Ah Huat’s Giant Robot and it’s about a robot that can only follow orders in Mandarin. Ah Huat who thankfully can speak both Mandarin and English commands the robot to protect the Chinese student protestors against the British police gunning them down.

If that sounds heavy, that’s because it is. The political symbolism and use of the Chinese language are deliberately blunt in the hands of Charlie Chan. His mom amused at her ten year old son’s drawings asks him, “Why does the robot only understand Chinese? So funny!” Charlie “could have tried to explain that it was a commentary on the socioeconomic schism in Singapore between the privileged Chinese who spoke English, and the poor disenfranchised ones who only knew Mandarin and dialects … that those who’d come to Malaya generations earlier fit into the colonial system in a way that was alien to those who’d arrived in more recent times, whose work and educational opportunities were limited under British rule.” But he kept it all inside, knowing that there was no need to say it. If she doesn’t get it, she won’t even if he explained.

Charlie’s comics begin to evolve as he gets exposed to more styles from American comics and learns how to depict the current state of Singapore with his writing buddy Bertrand Wong. The two boys experiment with aesthetic styles and storytelling techniques before finding their own voice and what they want to create: political comics that examine the identity of Singaporeans in a time of modernization.

Force 136 is a particularly good example. It displays the juvenile humor and understanding of the cartoonists in their full glory: Colonel Sugimoto is a “Jap” dog with small eyes while Singaporean and Malayan soldiers are cuddly cats with rifles. Bertrand conceived of this comic when he noted that children love animals and wars. Stories of brothers in arms, friendship, and rivalry go well with animals. So why not combine both?

But as time goes on, the two creators felt this was unsatisfying to create generic plots modeled after American pulp. They wanted to mimic Harvey Kurtzman of EC Comics who depicted war as it is: bloody, gory, and futile. Animal characters are massacred in the fourth issue, recalling the events of Operation Sook Ching — a systematic purging of the Chinese by the Japanese during their occupation of Singapore.

In the seventh issue of Forces 136, the cartoonists writes narration as if they are shouting at the reader: “Who will you trust now: The white man who flees as soon as war arrives? The soldiers who forsake their humanity to follow orders to shot and kill? Or the communist who justifies every dark deed in the name of revolution?”

This rhetorical question posed on the few Singaporeans who read the comic is thought-provoking. It is as if Charlie and Bertrand have the foresight that Singapore will be strive for independence soon. While the comics didn’t do well and it was soon cancelled, the two kept on looking for their artistic voices. Singapore searched for its own as well. Charlie wouldn’t know this then, but he would later become an important cartoonist that captured the ebb and flow of Singaporean voices.

The catch is: Charlie Chan is fictional.

This little trick employed by Sonny Liew, the faux biographer and illustrator of various comics including The Shadow Hero, is never revealed and it is hidden under convincing photographs and mockups of comic books. But it is obvious when you start to realize how neatly the story of Charlie intersperses with the histories of comic books and Singapore. Indeed, the reader finds themselves reading an allegory of a cartoonist whose best comics are allegories of Singapore’s history.

Much like Charlie Chan’s heavy-handed works, Liew’s narration style becomes extremely apparent when he comments on the apathy of Singaporeans. “You know,” Liew’s self-insert character says when he comments on how Singaporeans “uh-huh”s press freedoms, “this is exactly the sort of blasé attitude that makes the PAP’s [People Action Party, the ruling party of Singapore] policies so troubling.” A Malaysian-born Singaporean who has no pictures of him not smiling, Liew takes a more authorial stance in the final pages of the book and criticizes the government more openly than his titular character.

Indeed, it is impossible to not notice Liew’s commentary on his fictional character when he explains to a kid with a baseball hat what certain symbolism and jargon mean. “Chan used [this ‘hinterland’ business] to mean the Malaysian peninsula,” he explains on an allegorical comic panel about animals representing Singapore trying to join the newly formed state of Malaysia, “and the idea that Singapore needed it as an economic hinterland.” But the kid gets frustrated at him blabbering so much and leaves. Liew ends up waving his fist at him before telling him to read the notes in the back of the book.

While it is obviously a play on how the more political a book on Singapore is, the likelier it will be ignored by the mass public of the nation, Liew openly expresses through this conversation that this biography of Charlie Chan is indeed an allegory. If no one will listen to him talk at length about the problems of Singapore, why not a comic? Even then, he knows he will be facing the same problems as Charlie did.

One of the obstacles is in fact from the government itself. The National Council on Art gave a grant of $8,000 SGD (about $5,782.44 USD) to the cartoonist before withdrawing it at the height of its publication, citing concerns of “potentially undermining the authority of the government.” The government hasn’t even read the book, let alone the notes in the back of the book!

That may be the biggest problem for Singaporean arts. People can talk, but no one wants to listen and the government censors anyway. And fiction is useless anyway. What’s the point?

In the introduction to the inaugural Singapore Literature Prize book Fistful of Colors, the writer and civil servant Suchen Christian Lim confessed she faced difficulty getting her books published. Her superior would always to ask for her proofs before getting it published, even though the books may have no trace of politics at all. But in the end, she found it worthwhile when her book won the prize and paved the way for Singaporean literature.

“A nation’s literature is the mirror through which people see themselves,” Suchen writes in an op-ed for The Straits Times, “children and adults need to see themselves in their country’s fiction and poetry. Lois-Ann Yamanaka, the Pushcart Prize-winning poet and author of the book Name Me Nobody, said: ‘… until you see yourself in literature, in the written word, you don’t exist.’ This is why every national school curriculum includes the study of its nation’s literary works.”

But there is still a sense of pessimism and distrust from Singaporeans over Singaporeans writing any piece of good media. While Suchen’s words — “reading the literature of a country is like listening to its heartbeat” — strike true to anyone who reads national literatures of different countries voraciously, the global novel and overwhelming influences of American, Korean, and Japanese media have caused apathy in the hearts of Singaporeans. Even a children’s book series like Harry Potter may sound innocuous at first, but it can ingrain the cultural meme in children a love for Anglo-saxon culture before an appreciation of the local cultures they are in can grow. Singapore may have its “Great Novel” and Catcher in the RyeIf We Dream Too Long by Goh Poh Seng, but chances are most Singaporeans either never heard of it or are too embarrassed to talk about it.

This dearth of culture goes along with Sonny Liew’s point that Singapore may have sacrificed too much for its modernity and ambition to stand on the same place as other first-world countries. There may have never been a Singaporean identity except the masks imposed on their constituents by the ruling party of the nation.

An example of this strange behavior would be the use of Standard Singapore English and the virtual outlawing of Singlish, an interesting creole that personify I believe the essence of Singaporeans. Singlish is considered a broken, debauched form of English by the government. An educated Singaporean speaking Singlish to a foreign partner could be an embarrassment to the nation. To save their image of a pristine country with a great work force, the government has launched several campaigns to “Speak Better English”.

Gurmit Singh as Phua Chu Kang

This had led to a virtual wipeout of media in the past. TV shows like Phua Chu Kang Ltd used the creole for comedic humor and introduced many people loanwords from Hokkien, Tamil, and Malay. Cute phrases like “don’t play play” were quoted by classmates of mine when I was still in the local schools, Beng Wan Primary School and Bendemeer Primary School. While we didn’t celebrate Halloween, it wasn’t unusual for kids to appear in Phua Chu Kang’s attire: a terrible lined shirt, a mole on your face, and giant yellow rain boots. The show was openly discouraged by the government and thus self-censorship soon followed. Nobody began talking about this iconic character who characterized the 00s of Singapore and people soon forgot who he was. Proud Singaporeans who used to love Singlish now despise it and see it as a parasite on society. Phua Chu Kang who once paraded on National Day with soldiers and politicians slowly disappeared before the actor Gurmit Singh retired from public view to be with his family more.

This isn’t the first time the government has interfered with culture and language. Jim Baker, writer of Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore and a Singapore American School teacher I knew, noted that Mandarin was the only dialect accepted in Singapore, much like China. Both Singapore and China wanted to phase out other dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese for Mandarin for the sake of cultural hegemonism.

But with the self-censorship of Singlish, it is a stab into the Singaporean identity. Parents would not allow their children to say one word of it. In consequence, it is a rejection of Singaporean media and culture because artists are writing in the creole. They feel that Singaporean Standard English is artificial.

Indeed, it is. Supposedly following the British English rules, Singapore Standard English isn’t at all standard. If it is British, why are my nieces’ English textbooks filled with examples of American English? It isn’t unusual for kids to ask why that the correct spelling of “color” (or is it “colour”) is. Likewise, lift and elevator are interchangeable in Singapore Standard English to the confusion of Americans and British.

I know this because I had to standardize my Singapore English into American English for eight years. People who know me over the years would recognize my English is still suffering from the jumble that is Singapore English. Tenses and misuse of American and British expressions are the least of my worries.

While there is value in learning a standardized English, I don’t believe the country should teach it in a reductive fashion ala American education with English as a Second Language. It would also help if the teachers actually knew what English was too.

But nevertheless, the rejection of culture and history is problematic for a country that wants to step forward and preserve its values at the same time. And when we add government censorship to the table, it makes the situation even muddier. Fear of Writing by Tarn How Tan is a play about how a play goes through the state censor, Media & Development Authority or MDA. In the first act of the play, the director pops up on the stage and talks about how this play had passed the censorship test before learning that the license for this play was revoked by the MDA at the last minute. They decide to go on with the play and call it a “private performance” for party members, which is what the second act is about — the play inside the play. The third act involves the audience members who unwittingly participates in the play getting rounded up by the MDA and police officers.

While this play is lauded for its metafiction elements, it displays a worrying awareness that Singapore is demanding on how it is portrayed in media. The government can cripple the sponsors and artists without pulling any punches.

This makes people uninterested in the potential of the arts. And this apathy fueled by fear of offending the sensibilities of the government is what makes the Singapore culture nonexistent. Creators are afraid or at least discouraged to face the country’s history and politics and therefore cannot create the identity that Singaporeans need. We cannot hear the heartbeat of Singapore unless we search for it deep inside libraries and bookstores.

As modernity approaches, Singapore begins to lose its voice. The Charlie Chans of Singapore become disillusioned with the political practices of Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party. Charlie Chan himself made a space opera allegory of Singapore and later a cutting satire of the founding fathers’ policies in actions in the microcosm of a stationery store.

Sonny Liew foreshadows this development very early on the book when Charlie Chan reminiscences about Geylang Hill, a little mound he and his childhood friends once played Ta Guan (hitting sticks); while the kids remember it being a giant hill, in photographs they are standing on what looks like a small bulge from the ground. The next panel shows the development of the modern Singapore: buildings, roads, and offices. The haunting words echo: “And if you went back to the place itself today, there would be no way of knowing if it was a trick of the light how things really were in those days of being wild.” Villages were razed over for new housing complexes and nothing of the kampong culture exists today except in tourist traps.

Singapore is no more. Only a graveyard masquerading as a metropolis remains.

All that are left are preserved in historical fiction like The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye and the barren National Museum. They are impractical after all, not fit for a country well-known for its pragmatism. You might as well stuff press freedoms and democratic ideas down the chute too.

After all, it doesn’t stop the tourists from coming in and enjoying the grandeur of Singapore. They can enjoy the casinos in Marina Bay Sands and shop in Ion Orchard for shoes. American tourists in Trafalgar buses I’ve met over the years loved Singapore. “Sure,” I recalled a middle-aged balding man saying, “the country is a bit crazy with the fines and that chewing gum thing. However, it’s the prettiest city I’ve seen in my life.” An obese guy joined in and said, “Great nightlife in Sentosa too. Too bad the country confiscated my katana I bought in Japan in customs. Who knew that was illegal?”

There is nothing controversial about the country in the local news. Praise for PAP keep on heaping, even with votes getting lesser for the party. Singapore is practically the best country to live in because it is so safe. When the Michael Fays and Amos Yees — the rebels without a cause — appear, you can just shoo them away and let them be. This is what it means to be uniquely Singapore: silence.

And yet, in the midst of this silence, we can hear a small heartbeat. A glimmer of hope. In the end of the book, we see Charlie Chan, alone and decrepit at the age of 74, still drawing comics. This time, he is inspired by the great Carl Barks who gave us Scrooge McDuck. He is still happily drawing comics as if nothing has happened.

Charlie refuses to follow the practicality of his fellow Singaporeans and instead is hinted to begin satirizing Singaporean capitalism instead. He hasn’t let up the fight and is ready to keep on drawing. It is no coincidence that Carl Barks drew “Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold”, the comic that would inspire Osamu Tezuka to create 新宝島 and thus creating a full circle with Charlie’s list of influences.

It is difficult to say if Charlie Chan is the artist-hero we all aspire to be or deserve in times of need. If anything, it shows the hopelessness of pursuing the path in a country like Singapore.

Such is the doubt raised when Simon Leys opened his introduction to his essay collection, Hall of Uselessness. Can there be usefulness in useless and impractical things like culture, democracy, tradition, and comics?

There has to be because “this sort of uselessness is the very ground on which rest all the essential values of our common humanity” according to Leys. Whatever drives people onwards to do useless things is more beneficial than pragmatic Asian values in society. They are what reminds us who we are.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye: A Small Heartbeat of Singapore

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