Up close with Lat

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When Lat visited Penang for the George Town Literary Festival in December last year, Penang Monthly caught up with him to chat about the importance of having friends from various backgrounds, the kampung way of life and naughty monkeys.

"We shouldn’t use the word 'kampung' as a term that reflects backwardness – we are proud kampung people! We were born in the kampung, but we can strive in the big town."

Humble, endearing and full of quaint anecdotes, Mohd Nor bin Khalid, better known as Lat, is the grandfather I’d love to adopt. The legendary cartoonist is round and bespectacled, and has a jovial smile. His career spans almost 50 years, beginning in Penang in 1964 where his first comic book, Tiga Sekawan (“Three Buddies”) was published by Sinaran Brothers. He has issued more than 20 books over the years, and his illustrations and brand of humour are now unmistakable – light, comedic and often poking fun of the Malaysian social and political scene. Even so, Lat has managed to build a sort of immunity because, according to him, “In the kampungs, there’s always a grand old man or lady who can say anything and get away with it.”

His book, Kampung Boy, has been adapted into a TV series, and in 2009, he collaborated with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra to present a musical animated feature called Lat’s Window to the World. Coming from a generation where the different races mixed together like sambal ulam, Lat’s works echo his sincere calls for harmonious diversity, and at this point in Malaysia’s social atmosphere, this is needed more than ever.

The man himself.

To me and many of my contemporaries, Kampung Boy was a huge influence – it was humorous, endearing and warm, not to mention the amazing intricacy. Do you miss the kampung lifestyle, and what do you think the younger generation can learn from the communal, tight-knit way of life?
Of course I miss it. The kampung is gone. Living in a kampung is just like living in a town. You have more space in the compound of your house, but the problems you have are the same problems that city dwellers have. The kampung you see in Kampung Boy has got only very few houses left. Where I was born, Kampung Lalang, there are now only five. They look like the ones in the book, but by now they’re all worn down.

Speaking of which, I’ve got relatives coming back from, let’s say, picking up their children from school to their empty house in the kampung; they open up their doors only to find monkeys inside! Their house has been overtaken by monkeys! (laughs) Monkeys are very naughty, you know. Just like what you have in the Botanic Gardens, those monkeys are the same. They come into the house, open the fridge and look for chicken eggs. Very smart monkeys. They disturb the washing by taking the clothes and throwing them here and there while the people are away.

But we left our kampung many, many years ago. I left when I was about 10 to 12 years old, because the pull of the city was so great. There were townships and housing developments helping the poor and helping kampung folks to a new life with new jobs – that all happened in the late 1950s and 1960s.

The kampung is no longer the same today, but we still have the kampung spirit. We stick to traditions and we are closely knit. We shouldn’t use the word “kampung” as a term that reflects backwardness – we are proud kampung people! We were born in the kampung, but we can strive in the big town.

Staying true to one’s origins – how important is that to you? Your children grew up in the city, but do you bring them back and show them the different lifestyle?
If you still have a kampung, you can do it, but there are many people whose kampungs have vanished. So what we can do is remind everyone about the rules that we have in the family, and we must also remind everyone that in order to make our lives and our country successful, we cannot do without each other. Right from school days to young adult days, I’ve always mixed with so many best friends. We depended on each other for the comfort of conversation, and maybe sometimes we needed help -in finance. These are the things that happened – you need to have close relationships with friends and the more friends you have, the better.

We started becoming friends in school because the education system at that time was such that we really mixed a lot. From Malay, Chinese and Indian schools, we went to secondary English schools. So that’s why we were close to each other, and we need to be close to each other because if we go our separate ways – you go your way, I go my way – I don’t think the country will be successful.

How do you think art can bring about unity in that sense? You’ve done a lot of serious cartoons as well – how much sway do you think that has on society?
Society only looks at the simplicity of my work – the simpler it is, the easier it is to understand. So I mainly stick to our traditional way of life so that it can be remembered. We don’t expect people to live in houses on stilts or in estates – we want everybody to advance and improve their lives. I hope that the drawings I make can convey this message.

There was a series I did about this young man who went from the kampung to the city for work, and when he became a city boy, he seemed to forget his roots. This is not good, because one day, when he grows old, he’s going to remember. Then only he will look for his past.

But my message also is to get out of your cocoon, you should mix with everyone. That’s the best thing. Learn from everyone. I think many of my stories are based on that sort of theme.

You’ve accomplished so much, and are fondly known as Malaysia’s icon. What would you say was the proudest moment of your life?
I think I was very proud when my first comic came out, and when the next comic came out, I was also proud. The next cartoon came out in a magazine, a series of cartoons that ran in the mid-1960s each month – a continuation – and I was also very proud. So at that time, yeah, I was thinking it’s great, it’s great, but today, I want to do something that is meaningful to the reader. As a kid, I was very much influenced by TV and by movies, so the stories I did was like what P. Ramlee did. But I was very young. When you are young, you can’t really express yourself. In your later years, you discover your style and people will recognise it and say, “Oh, this is a Lat drawing.”

Speaking of style, how did you develop the really distinct characters that you have?
This went on over a long period. Eventually, you find something that you always draw – perhaps you always draw the nose like this and the mouth like that, perhaps you always draw the head like this and the hair like that. So when this happens, your friends suddenly start to tell you that they recognise your drawing and they say they can tell it by the lines – some are very thick, some are very thin. Some people draw all thin lines, while some people draw all thick lines. It depends on the artist. The style – your own original style – comes over the years. There’s no such thing as “I want it to be done by next week”. You will automatically get it eventually.

What would you say to our budding cartoonists?
I want them to be very Malaysian, very South-East Asian, and try to reach out to the outside world but at the same time promote our area (South-East Asia). I mean, you go to Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, you’ll find that we have almost the same kind of humour.

It must be ours, so that when people from Europe or Japan come, they will be attracted to it. They don’t want to see things that they’ve seen – they don’t want to see Toy Story because that’s already been done by them. They want to see our things, our stories, what is it that we have. Manga also – manga is now a genre, it’s been accepted. So if you get into manga, then you draw manga, but don’t draw manga like the Japanese or the Taiwanese. The characteristics of the people you draw are very important. You must make it Malaysian-lah.

Lat tickling the funny bones of his fellow speakers during the George Town Literary Festival.



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