By Maureen Tai, 10 May 2018
“And so…there we were – my family and I … beginning a new life in this new place. We have become town people…”
On this first day of a new era for my home country, it is fitting that I should pay tribute to one of my favourite comics from my youth. Malaysia’s much-loved cartoonist, Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid (fondly referred to as Lat, short for bulat or round) wrote Town Boy almost three decades ago. It is an semi-autobiographical tale, set in the 1960’s, of a young Malay boy growing up in a small town.
It is my childhood too. And it is the childhood of several generations of Malaysians.
Mat is 13. He and his family – his rotund father with a guileless smile permanently on his face, his bespectacled mother in her batik sarong and his three siblings – move from their kampung (village) to the small, clean town of Ipoh.
It’s a big deal for Mat, our introverted, budding artist and music lover. His new world is full of streets lined with shophouses, cinemas, coffee shops and lively markets, and bustling roads where rickshaw drivers and motorcyclists weave in and out between Volkswagens, Austins and Datsuns. Groups of teenage schoolboys sporting Elvis-styled hair, pomaded with Brylcreem, cycle to school. At recess, the school canteen is packed with boys from all cultures – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Punjabi, Eurasian – stuffing themselves with karipap (curry puffs) and nasi lemak (coconut rice with spicy sauce and condiments).
And then one day, Mat meets Frankie, a Chinese boy with more teeth than his mouth can hold. Frankie’s parents run a coffee shop, and he has records and a record player. Mat sheepishly admits that he has only a radio at home. “Then come to my house laa!” invites Frankie. They cycle home, Frankie squished in between Mat and the handlebars. They eat. They talk. They do what the music wills them to do – they dance.
Frankie and Mat, illustrated by Lat
Lat is a master of observation. He embellishes his pen and ink drawings with tiny details that make a knowing reader smile with recognition, like sharing a private joke. Spot the man in the corner, squinting at the page in his lottery number “dictionary,” which no self respecting gambler would be caught without. See the bundles of joss-sticks by the family altar, the discarded wooden clogs and Japanese slippers at the foot of the stairs.
We follow Mat and Frankie through the school years of their friendship. They sneak into the cabaret to peep at dancing girls. There they are, getting caned on the buttocks for cheating in a race. Their heads are turned by Normah, the most beautiful girl in town. Together with their posse of friends, they endure secondary school maths, art and corporal punishment, survive extra-curricular activities, and try to look cool in flowery shirts and dark shades. They grow up, tall and lanky, as those around them bend and age. And they dance.
All too soon, it is over. Those innocent, gentle, uncertain, hopeful, hilarious, and maddening days of being young, unencumbered and unknowing. Frankie leaves for university in the UK, and Mat is left standing forlornly on the platform of the train station. The wave of nostalgia is overwhelming. Because that was my youth too. And I hope it will continue to be for generations of Malaysians to come.
For ages 10 and up.