Sonny Liew's Guide to Singapore

Courtesy Sonny Liew
Photo of Jaclynn Seah
Singapore Travel Writer16 February 2018

Sonny Liew is an Eisner award-winning comic artist who shot to fame thanks to his 2015 publication The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, in which he illustrates a compelling tale based on a lesser-known perspective of Singapore’s tumultuous formative years leading to and after its independence in 1951. This Malaysian-born artist has been based in Singapore for most of his life, and he shares with us a view of his Singapore in an email interview.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew | © Jaclynn Seah / The Occasional Traveller

What is a typical weekend like for you in Singapore?

If there are project deadlines to meet, they’re pretty much the same as any other day – a trip to the studio for drawing and erasing. Otherwise there might be outings of various sorts.

What is your favourite neighbourhood in Singapore?

I’ve lived in the East most of my life here in Singapore, so places like Parkway Parade, Katong, Siglap and East Coast Park remain my favourites.

Where is the one place you will bring your tourist friends to when they visit Singapore?

It really depends on their particular interests, but I suppose Haw Par Villa offers up something different with its journey, the circles of Hell and other weird and wonderful panoramas.

Singapore Haw Par Villa | © Mitch Altman/Flickr

Where can you find your favourite Singaporean food?

The Yes Natural Bakery at Haig Road makes excellent vegetarian buns and bread.

Is there a place in Singapore that inspires you?

Anywhere with large bodies of water, preferably windy, can be nice to spend some time. East Coast Park, perhaps?

Do you have a favourite cultural experience in Singapore?

What is your favourite memory of Singapore from your childhood?

Falling asleep on the taxi or bus ride home after spending a day out with my family when I was young – you wake up just in time for some reason as you’re about to reach your destination, and there was a sense of warmth and safety there, in that groggy half-awake moment, amongst loved ones.

Are there any local artists who you look up to/inspire you?

The paintings of Chua Mia Tee – humanistic realism tempered by an instantly recognisable style all his own.

National Language Class by Chua Mia Tee | © Jack TT Lee/Flickr

Name one quirk/pet peeve you love/hate about Singapore/Singaporeans.

It’s a fairly new one – the rental bicycles that can clutter up pathways, as yet there isn’t enough of a feedback loop to get the rental companies to really address the issue.

Also tailgaters!

Is there any particular thing about Singapore’s history that surprised you when you were doing the research for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye?

Maybe the thing that struck me most was the presence Lim Chin Siong had in the early days of the fight for independence, in contrast with his faded memory in most mainstream accounts.

Are any of the places in Charlie Chan drawn from a strong personal experience/memory?

There’s a strand in the book involving an artist’s struggles, which is drawn in part on my own experiences. But facing challenges, the ups and downs of a life – those really happen to everyone – so I would say the book as a whole was a composite of many lives, including my own. In some ways the personal is never quite just that, given how much common experiences we share in just being human.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew | Courtesy of Jaclynn Seah/The Occasional Traveller

How would you describe your relationship with Singapore?

When I was a bit younger I would sometimes think of myself as a Causeway Child, neither here nor there, stuck between the place I was born (Malaysia) and the place I lived. I suppose that’s still true in some ways, even if I’m more rooted in Singapore now.

How have you seen Singapore change over the years?

New buildings come up all the time, it can be a little disorientating – places you think might last forever, or at least your lifetime, disappear. Lion City Hotel, Funan, the Sungei Road Market, amongst many others. Change is unavoidable, perhaps, but the pace of it can make a difference to our sense of identity and belonging.

Describe Singapore in 3 words.

One Party Rule.

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