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