Sonny Liew's next project: The story of Singapore WWII heroine Elizabeth Choy

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
An exploratory sketch for Sonny Liew’s story about Elizabeth Choy. Image: Sonny Liew

After exploring Singapore politics in the 1960s in “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”, acclaimed graphic novelist Sonny Liew will soon tell the story of Singapore war heroine Elizabeth Choy.

It will be one of 30 short stories in the Femme Magnifique graphic novel anthology, which celebrates the achievements of female trailblazers in “pop, politics, art and science”. Personalities profiled include former US First Lady Michelle Obama, abolitionist Harriet Tubman and French war heroine Joan of Arc.

Besides Liew, those contributing to the anthology include well-known comic creators such as Gail Simone and Matt Wagner. Launched on Kickstarter on 14 February, the project has already exceeded its US$40,000 goal, raising more than US$50,000 ahead of its 16 March closing date. The anthology is expected to launch in September. Editor of the anthology, Shelly Bond, said Liew was chosen to be a part of the project because he is a “tremendous storyteller”. She added, “Sonny has been nothing but a wonderful, professional artist and it’s been a great joy watching him develop his unique art style.”

Choy, who died in 2006 at the age of 96, was an educator, artist and politician. During the Japanese Occupation, Choy and her husband helped Allied prisoners-of-war in Changi Prison by passing them money, medicine, letters and parcels. She was arrested by the Japanese and imprisoned for 200 days, being repeatedly subjected to torture. After the war, Choy remained active in public service and also stood in two elections.

Asked what made him decide to focus on Choy’s story, Liew told Yahoo Singapore, “I guess her general commitment to public service stood out for me, as did her unwillingness to name her torturers during the War Crime tribunals, placing the onus on war rather than individuals caught up in them. And it’s a Singapore story of course – I thought it would be good to represent this Little Red Dot in the collection.”

Despite having a National Arts Council grant withdrawn for its “sensitive content”, “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” gained widespread commercial and critical success, going on to win the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize.

Liew admitted to only having a “vague memory” of her story from school textbooks, but will be consulting online articles, oral history archives and Choy’s biography in the course of his research. He has yet to decide on a title or a narrative style.

Coincidentally, Liew’s new story will zero in on a period of Singapore’s history that has come under increased scrutiny of late.

A new gallery at the former Ford Factory, unveiled on the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore on 15 February, was initially named ‘Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies’. This was later renamed to ‘Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies’ following a public outcry, and an apology issued by authorities.

Asked for his take on the matter, Liew expressed surprise that “no one involved thought it might be controversial”.

“The fact that it was framed in terms of what the generation who experienced the war would think, but expressed by people who didn’t have that experience, complicated things a bit. But overall it does show that memories of war will always need to be handled with sensitivity.”