Thursday, 12 January 2012

Kampung Boy by Lat book review in The Daily Yomiuri on 3rd February 2007

'Lat the Menace' just a regular kid
By Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Kampung Boy
By Lat
Macmillan, 142 pp, 10.99 pounds

As Malaysia approaches the 50th anniversary of its independence from Britain, one cartoonist has chronicled the nation's transformation from a nation that was synonymous with rubber and tin production into one of Southeast Asia's most thriving Tiger Economies.

The cartoons of Mohammed Nor Khalid, or Lat as he is better known, have graced the pages of the New Straits Times for more than 30 years with their clever observations on modern Malaysian society.

Yet the nation's most famous social commentator's roots lie far away from the high-tech modernity of Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Twin Towers. An illustrated memoir of Lat's humble origins was published in his homeland in 1979 under the title Lat, the Kampung Boy.

Now more widely available 28 years on, his evocation of family life and rural society on the cusp of industrialization half a century ago will appeal to children and adults alike.

The world he depicts in Kampung Boy is the story of his childhood, growing up on a rubber plantation in rural Malaya in the late 1950s and early '60s.

The reader is invited into Lat's village from the day he is born to the moment he leaves for boarding school.

The artwork and narrative offer fascinating and heart-warming insights into the life of a Muslim family in the northern state of Perak, an area known for rubber plantations and tin mining at that time.

The drawings are funny and informative, with important chapters of his young life, whether they are related to home, school, leisure or religion, all conveyed simply yet effectively.

Muslim ceremonies, such as his "adat cukur kepala" (hair-shaving ceremony) 45 days after his birth, Koran reading classes, circumcision and a relative's wedding, are informative and delightfully drawn.

Physically, Lat's shock of unkempt black hair resembles that of Dennis the Menace, a scruffy Scottish cartoon character created by David Law in 1951--not to be confused with Hank Ketcham's tow-headed American cartoon creation of the same name that also debuted the same year. Both Dennises were known for their bad behavior, and so is Lat.

Like them, Lat prefers playing around with his friends to going to school, though his Western counterparts never had to bathe in the river every morning.

His gang gets up to harmless mischief, such as "borrowing" an old man's sampan to catch lobsters, pigging out on durians while "guarding" the trees during the fruit season and dulang-washing--panning for tin at the back of huge dredges on the river.

Generally, though, Lat is just a normal kid. Readers from any country, barring those who were juvenile delinquents or spoiled brats, should be able to relate to his antics.

Not unnaturally, Lat's family features heavily in the book. His mother is the solid, hard-working housewife while his father's boyish enthusiasm and bulk puts one in mind of Baloo from Walt Disney's The Jungle Book.

Lat's attention to detail is impressive, and the distinctive shape of an old Morris Minor automobile will take some British readers back a few years, though this reviewer was a glint in his father's eye when the movie showing at Lat's local cinema--The World of Suzie Wong--was made.

Along with cars and express trains, the movie theater hints at the modernization of Malaya in the years after independence, but it is the sinister intrusion of the tin dredges that elevates the book from a simple story of Malayan country folk into a comment on the loss of innocence in the face of easy profit.

The dredges' presence has a profound effect on Lat, and the story ends with him heading off to boarding school, unsure of the future, not only for himself and his family but also his village in the face of his young nation's quest for economic prosperity.

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