Accolades for Charlie Chan surprise author Sonny Liew


Illustrator Sonny Liew is gratified at the praise his graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, has received internationally

Local graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye has won numerous accolades from international publications this year, leaving its author and illustrator Sonny Liew "surprised and gratified".

It was the only graphic novel to make it onto The Economist magazine's Books of the Year 2016, joining non-fiction titles such as China's Future by David Shambaugh and The Egyptians: A Radical Story by Jack Shenker in the political section.

It was also picked as one of the year's best graphic novels by several media outlets, including The Washington Post newspaper, trade publication Publishers Weekly, radio network National Public Radio and Filipino newspaper The Philippine Daily Inquirer.


Liew, 42, says: "I did wonder if Charlie Chan would present a particular challenge - marketing a book to a wider audience often involves finding the right angle at the right moment, and a book that is in large part about Singapore and its history might be a hard sell."

He noted, however, the worldwide acclaim met by the likes of Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus, about a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor, and Italian author Elena Ferrante's novel My Brilliant Friend, about the friendship of two girls in Naples.

"That goes to show a story well told can find readers no matter where they come from."

It hasn't become easy by any means, but the road no longer feels as dark or thorny, which is something to be grateful for.

GRAPHIC NOVELIST SONNY LIEW on how recognition impacts his work

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which was published in Singapore last year by Epigram Books, is a satirical retelling of Singapore's journey to nationhood through the eyes of a fictional Singaporean artist.

It became the subject of controversy after The Straits Times broke the news that the National Arts Council had withdrawn an $8,000 publishing grant it awarded to the novel.

The book includes satires and caricatures of Singapore's late founding Premier Lee Kuan Yew, as well as his political rival Lim Chin Siong.

The book has since gone on to be the first local graphic novel to win the Singapore Literature Prize and climbed to the top of bestseller lists for Amazon and The New York Times earlier this year.

Epigram founder Edmund Wee says he never expected the book to accrue such international attention.

"For most of Epigram's books, we think only of the Singapore market. We hadn't even sold a book overseas at that point."

It is now in its seventh print run in Singapore.

Mr Wee estimates that about 13,000 copies have been sold.

It was published in the United States by Pantheon Books and is due for release next year in France by Urban Comics, in Italy by BAO Publishing and in Spain by Dibbuks.

As for Liew, the recognition has provided him with some elbow room to work on more personal books of similar scope.

"It hasn't become easy by any means, but the road no longer feels as dark or thorny, which is something to be grateful for.

"In a wider Singapore context, I think we still face a lot of structural issues in the publishing industry here - not least the sometimes uneasy relationship between state funding and artistic expression. (There are) no easy answers to be had, but perhaps more dialogue can help improve things."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2016, with the headline 'Accolades for Charlie Chan surprise author'. Print Edition | Subscribe