The man who paints tigers on an island

Martin McClellan

April 11, 2016

Singapore is especially difficult for Westerners to understand. People who visit come back like a blind man from the parable of the elephant, convinced that the trunk they felt represents the whole of the place.

Infamously, William Gibson wondered where the underground was when he visited in 1993 and wrote his Wired essay "Disneyland with the Death Penalty". He lamented, among other things, the loss of the red light district.

Bugis Street, once famous for its transvestite prostitutes — the sort of place where one could have imagined meeting Noel Coward, ripped on opium, cocaine, and the local tailoring, just off in his rickshaw for a night of high buggery — had, when it proved difficult to suppress, a subway station dropped on top of it. "Don't worry," the government said, "we'll put it all back, just the way it was, as soon as we have the subway in." Needless to say, the restored Bugis Street has all the sexual potential of "Frontierland," and the transvestites are represented primarily by a number of murals.

Which takes a lot of unpacking — because a white Westerner complaining the lack of specific on-demand sex workers for a drugged-up colonial tourist seems like a pretty loaded claim to hang a lament on. And blaming the government for not lovingly restoring a controversial red-light district after they've put in new infrastructure is, frankly, head-scratching (although, the New York Times was guilty of the same romanticization).

But such is the power of colonial orientalism (and to be clear, Gibson's version cyberpunk was partially founded on white cultural fascination of Asian heritage) mythologizing the exotic cultures of the East. Noel Coward may have missed old Bugis street — as might some of the locals who made their trade there — but pinning Gibson's disappointment on the point-of-view of the Brit underlines the point: Westerners never seem to ask what Singaporeans have to say for themselves.

It's not like there's a shortage of white people writing about Singapore, either. Noel Coward did, of course, as did Joseph Conrad, and Somerset Maugham, and even Hermann Hesse (who apparently complained about drunken Brits). Rem Koolhaas danced around similar themes as Gibson in his essay "Singapore Songlines", the introductory essay in his book S,M,L,XL, where he calls the city a "Potemkin Metropolis".

It's not so much that any of these views is incorrect, as that they are only one small slice of the story, one part of the elephant being examined by the blind men. And, to stretch the metaphor uncomfortably, the elephant is rolling its eyes, because it's perfectly capable of telling its own story.

Before you even meet the eponymous protagonist of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye — a sharp and canny graphic novel by well-respected comic artist Sonny Liew — you meet two figures, on opposing pages, under a banner bearing the Chinese proverb: "One mountain cannot abide two tigers." On the left, Lee Kuan Yew, and on the right Lim Chin Siong. In a series of twenty small panels each we meet and learn about these two men, and watch them age from young boys to old men. Unlike Charlie Chan Hock Chye, these two are not only real people, but they are both fundamental to the history of post World War II Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew, the "father of modern Singapore" was the Prime Minister for thirty-one years, and co-founder of the People's Action Party (PAP), which has been in power more-or-less since 1959.

Lim Chin Siong was another co-founder with Lee of the PAP, but was cast as more politically transgressive, and labelled a communist. According to Lim, Lee used that label to tar him, imprison him, and remove him as a political rival, and Lim left both Singapore and politics in 1969.

These two men — Singaporeans of Chinese heritage — approached the idea of a self-governing Singapore in a time of great upheaval. During World War II, the ruling British crumpled before a Japanese invasion, failing to protect Singapore. The war years were absolutely brutal in the small mostly-poor country. After, the British still held power in a colonial understanding, but their authority was radically undermined by their failures during the war, and for the changing view of Western colonialism. Their failure during the war was so complete, that the deeply-held view of Western invincibility crumpled like a paper tiger.

With the British in power, and communism sweeping Southeast Asia, it was up to Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong — just to name two of many — to play both ends against the middle and make a future for the tiny, nearly defenseless island state. A future that was free of both autocratic British rule, and the radical and dangerous Southeast Asian flavor of communism taking root, literally, around them: in Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and closer, in Indonesia, and what would become Malaysia.

Singapore emerged independent, although not by choice. Very few believed they'd be able to survive politically on their own, but with one of these men in charge they did, as a terrifically wealthy parliamentary democracy. From a swampy shipping port known for piracy and debauchery, to a modern skyscraper-laden metropolis with fingers in many aspects of international wealth, the PAP certainly achieved their goal of full independence for Singapore. The country is strong, with financial wherewithal, and despite its diminutive size and precarious placement on the end of the Malaysian peninsula, Singapore has forged many alliances to strengthen its position, and it influences the region in a way outsized to its diminutive geography .

So to start his story with these two figures, opposite each other, establishes not only one of the greatest personality clashes of modern Singapore, but also signals that Liew is not going to follow the party line on his country's history. He was going use this book to explode it. It signals that the real hero of this book may not be Charlie Chan Hock Chye. The real hero of this book is Singapore, and this is Sonny Liew's love letter to his country.

Liew never lowers the veil to show that Charlie Chan Hock Chye is fictional. Even the book trailer presents someone playing him, implying that he is a real artist. The conceit is a bit of a wink, because Singapore doesn't have a history of political criticism through comics that is the legacy of Hock Chye. Part of the cleverness of this book is that Liew is creating an underground history where one never existed, hacking together the seeds of the kind of counter-culture that critics like Gibson fault Singapore for lacking.

The story follows Chan's career, from a young idealistic artist who is a bit of a crank and a loner and possibly an idealist, to an old man who kept struggling against his lack of fame, despite his talent and hard work.

The history is told through Chan talking directly to the reader, and also through "reproductions" of his comics, and editorial commentary on them and their place in Singapore's history.

The comics are both simple allegories for Singapore's struggles, and stylistic layered political parodies that echo concerns of the players at the time they were allegedly written.

The first, Ah Huat's Giant Robot, Vol 1, for example, puts young characters in the middle of student rebellions in the mid-1950s. They discover a giant robot, but find that trying to command it using its voice recognition system doesn't work until they speak in Chinese, a subtle stab at British rule and attempts to erase cultural history. The art, also, echoes cheaper comics from the era, using typewriter-written captions and Japanese influenced cartooning. The giant robot ends up saving the students from the colonial soldiers, but at the advice of a slightly fictionalized Lee Kuan Yew, refuses to attack the soldiers and give the British an excuse to use violence against the protesters. Just this points to one of the great divides in understanding modern Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew was both an authoritative ruler, and a great negotiator.

In another dark, hilarious, and compelling stylistic ode to Eisner, Roachman, a "night soil" man (a subsistence worker that "collected and disposed of human excreta", we're told by Liew's own comic avatar in the book — Chinese farmers historically processed human waste into farm fertilizer) is bitten by a radioactive cockroach, giving him superpowers. Later, it's implied that since Roachman predated Spiderman, Stan Lee surely found influence here. Think about a superhero obsessed with economic inequality — what if Spiderman hadn't been a working-class American kid, but a lower-rung subsistence worker in a poorer country? What would he be fighting against?

Another section shows Chan's illustrations for a children's primer on basic Malay, which was to be the adopted as the national language when Singapore became a part of Malaysia in 1963, officially ending British rule. Just two years later, Singapore was expelled, and made fully independent. The Singaporean constitution lists Malay, Tamil, Mandarin, and English as the four official languages of the state. Malay is still the national language, but English is, ironically, the lingua franca. Chan's work was never used, we're told, and he was never paid.

There are odes to Wally Wood, Mad Magazine, Walt Kelly, Winsor McCay, and Disney artist Carl Banks. The stories are sometimes absurd — one reimagines Singapore as a wild stationary supply company and a Lee Kuan Yew stand-in CEO who is terrifically upset about a "Richard Marxist" (as in, the singer) conspiracy — and sometimes mind-bending, such as the alternate-history version of Singapore where Lim Chin Siong gained power and Lee Kuan Yew lost out, and Charlie Chan Hock Chye is writing alternate world political cartoons where Lee Kuan Yew took over.

Liew's art is stellar throughout, a bold presentation that is graphically fearless. Echoing early masters is one thing, but building them inside of compelling stories that are part of a larger narrative "presented by" the artist is a balancing act, and Liew delivers with aplomb. You could say it's a high-wire act perhaps, but maybe it's more correct to call it artistic parkour — you always feel like the ground is going to drop from under you.

Still, many stories have a sweetness to them, a genuine affection, as you get to know this fictional dedicated artist and watch him follow his dream, in his older age, to San Diego Comic-Con. He hopes to finally get the recognition he felt he deserved by the Western world. He draws the recognition he's sure is will come, and then draws the lack of consideration he found. Which points out a dramatic irony at he heart of Liew's work: he can present Chan as historical because most Westerners will be too ignorant of Singapore to know any better.

So what does the Western World know of Singapore? Maybe whatever William Gibson tells us. Maybe we've heard that it is illegal to chew gum, that they punish criminals with lashes from a cane, that importing drugs is a death-penalty offense. Maybe we've heard it's a great place for food ("Ohhh, you're going to Singapore," a ticket agent told once me at LAX, seeing my destination. "I love going there for long weekends to eat."), which it is, the influence of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Western cultures mean many amazing foods are available very inexpensively: roti prata, kaya toast, white coffee, chicken-rice, satay, dim sum, hawker centers filled with anything you'd like, where you could never eat a portion of the offered food, and if you're brave, street venders of durian, hacked into chunks and well-wrapped in plastic (just don't take it on the bus. They have no durian signs next to the no smoking signs).

Maybe we've heard the housing ownership rate for citizens is 90% (United States is 64.5%). Maybe we've heard the crime rate is one of the lowest in the world. That the government, normally cast as authoritative and inflexible, provides more social services and assistance to citizens than nearly any other country in the world.

Maybe we've heard about the guest-workers — maids, mostly Indonesian and Filipino (ten, or so, of whom fall to their death each year out of high-rise apartments where they work), and construction workers, mostly South Indian (who have Wednesday nights off, and who gather in Little India to drink beer and eat street food, a huge mass of people). That homelessness is nearly nonexistent — at least, according to the Government (panhandling is illegal, so the homelessness that is there is less visible). That homosexuality is technically illegal, but the law is rarely enforced.

Maybe they've heard that Singapore's political repression is "soft", that instead of silencing critics by killing them, or endlessly jailing them (as they once did) and creating martyrs, the government more-often uses lawsuits to silence dissent now. That Singapore, and Lee Kuan Yew, were a great influence on Modern China, and its political and economic growth philosophies may be one of its greatest exports.

Maybe, even, they heard that Sonny Liew's book was partially funded by a grant that the government recalled after finding out the contents of the book, which in turn made it a viral success, and the first printing sold out immediately.

Sonny Liew says, in a comic featuring him talking to the reader, "From 1965 through to the '80s, Singapore experienced a period of astounding economic growth. The PAP guided the nation through all its myriad challenges with a deft hand. But as with all periods of rapid change, some things were invariably left behind. The communal kampong spirt all but disappeared…"

The word, "kampong", is Malay for village, and reflects a kind of grounds-up community awareness. The Wiktionary definition says it is: "A sense of social cohesion in a community where there is understanding and compromise among neighbours, even as preferences differ from household to household." It's a willingness to pitch in and help build what needs to be build, and make sure your neighbors were taken care of. It's a kind of internal-facing question Singaporeans ask themselves: as we change and grow, as we prosper and change, can we maintain that sense of community that allowed us to be here, to overcome colonialism and communism, and, on balance, to thrive?

Maybe it is that mix of cultures. Maybe it's the Malay kampong spirit mixed with a Hokkien saying called out by a character in one panel: kia see lai!. Which was "a phrase used by Lim Chin Siong", Liew tells us in the footnotes. It means "Stand up!" or "On your feet!". Apparently, Lim Chin Siong once incited 40,000 people to rise with that saying, and the crowd chanted "Merdeka! Merdeka!" — a Malay word meaning independence.

Independence and community. Hokkien Chinese and Malay words, used in quick succession, coming together. That moment might be smaller than glossing about how sterile and scrubbed-free modern Singapore seems, especially to Americans raised on the idea that all culture comes from the counter-culture; that moment is harder to understand, from half the world away. That moment, that mix, that combination of cultures, is where you find the real Singapore.

Books in this review:
  • The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
    by Sonny Liew
    Pantheon Books
    February 29, 2016
    320 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox

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