EXCLUSIVE: CBLDF Talks with Sonny Liew About The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye and Censorship

When it came time to print Sonny Liew’s newest graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, the National Arts Council in Singapore abruptly withdrew their grant, leaving publisher Epigram Books with a financial burden. Taking on difficult subjects like Singapore’s historical struggle for independence and the repression of free expression, there was always an underlying concern that the book might upset governmental entities — concerns validated by the ways in which the Singapore government has censored and banned other creative mediums featuring similar content. With the pulling of funding by NAC over “sensitive content” which “did not meet [the NAC’s] funding conditions,” Sonny Liew and the publisher faced a financial obstacle, a type of passive censorship. Despite the withdrawal of the grant, an outpouring of support lead to a sellout of the first printing of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye and an immediate scheduling of additional printings!

Celebrating the release of his book, Liew agreed to answer a few questions from CBLDF. On the docket: his project, the state of free speech in Singapore, and how the comics medium can be used to tackle controversial subjects.

CBLDF: What inspired you to take on The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, and what importance does the subject matter have for you as someone who lives in Singapore and is a prominent creator in a medium that celebrates free expression?

Sonny Liew: The book is about a lot of things — I hazard to use the term “multi-layered,” but that’s maybe one way of describing it. On one level it does deal with the history of Singapore, and I’d wanted to tell a story that presented a more inclusive account of the past. There are historians, writers, and filmmakers here who’ve explored similar territory, and their works provided invaluable material and insights for the editor and me during the research process.

Growing up in Singapore, I had a vague sense that there were contesting versions of the country’s past, mostly set as a binary between the Official Singapore Story and the accounts offered by the old Left Wing. But the details usually escaped me, so this book was a chance to really get a handle on the material, to get a better understanding of the facts and interpretations, and then to try to figure out a way to present it in an accessible way.

The comics medium maybe fits the purpose perfectly, not just because of the image-text approach, but also because of its roots as a juvenile medium — the perceived simplicity of the medium perhaps makes it an easier gateway into complex subjects.

CBLDF: When the National Arts Council decided to pull their grant funding the publishing of your book, censorship concerns were immediately raised, especially given NAC’s ties to Singapore’s government. While NAC’s actions may not be overt governmental censorship, they can be interpreted as a type of passive censorship in that the decision made it more difficult for your publisher to bring the book to press. What do you believe are some of the underlying factors that lead to censorship in Singapore? What are the obstacles that creators must overcome in order for their works to be published, and do you think decisions like NAC’s symptomatic of a larger issue of governmental regulation and censorship in Singapore and globally?

SL: It’s a little ironic talking about the issue now — what had initially seemed like a financial problem for the publisher when the grant was withdrawn has turned into the best possible marketing for the book we could have hoped for. The media attention has raised awareness and sales of the book, and they’re starting a 3rd print run now.

That said, this feels like one of those lighting-in-bottle moments — it was something that fell into place, and you couldn’t duplicate it consciously. Which means that a lack of support for creative works that deemed politically sensitive remains a longer term issue for creators here.

There are, of course, complicated strands to unravel, but at heart, I would like to think that a national arts body can afford to be politically neutral, or at least aspire to be. Grants and funding should be decided primarily on artistic merit rather than political leanings. It’s never going to be a purely objective process, but we’d still be closer to it if it’s an ideal we work towards rather than something we dismiss as unrealistic.

CBLDF: You made a comment that you hoped that The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye would bypass possible censorship due to its nuanced message and the application of the comics form. What do you think that the comic form offers in the telling of stories, including potentially controversial subjects, that couldn’t be achieved through other mediums? 

SL: I’m not sure if I hoped to bypass censorship exactly. Maybe more a case of hoping the comics medium would be seen as less of a threat than, say, film or television. The documentary filmmaker Tan Pin Pin, for example, had her movie “To Singapore, with Love” banned partly because the authorities seemed to think the film medium was somehow more liable to sway audience minds. But maybe you really have to resort to interpretative dance instead to really get under the radar.

CBLDF: Despite NAC’s pulled funding, your book has been so positively received that there was an almost instant sellout of the first printing and it is headed back to press for a larger second printing. First of all, congratulations! Your book is clearly speaking to so many people. Why do you think that this is the case, and what do you think that indicates about the current state of free speech in Singapore, where people clearly aren’t afraid to read potentially contentious books?

SL: Thank you! Well it’s what I’ve learnt is called the Streisand effect, where attempts to draw attention away from something is precisely what fuels interest in it. So I think a lot of people are coming to know of the book through the controversy. But I hope that they’ll find there’s more to the book, that it’s a labour of love that celebrates the diversity of views about Singapore.

There’ll always be an argument for allowing the authorities the moral and political leeway to do things their way for the sake of more efficient governance, to treat them like Platonic philosopher kings. But there’s also the need to push back, because any government will be filled with inefficiencies and injustices. The developments in the Amos Yee saga is a case in point. Or the plan to get rid of the Sungei Road Thieves Market. These are actions not so much of philosopher kings as they are of callous bureaucrats.

CBLDF: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye will ultimately be being published in several different countries around the world, including the United States in 2016. Can you speak to how the concerns over content in the book differ in these countries? Are there other places where you think the book might meet resistance? 

SL: I’m guessing there might be minor edits to help non-Singaporean readers grasp some of the more local phrases or references, but those aside I don’t foresee any major issues for the book elsewhere. Outside of Singapore, readers will probably approach the book from a different angle, perhaps looking at its use of the comic language, the way it brings together several different forms of narratives, or maybe enjoying it as the story about the struggles of a little-known comics artist.

That’ll be one of the exciting things to see when the other editions are out, how different readers react to the book.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!