Lat: A Sentimental Education
In his third interview with Reader’s Digest in over two decades, Southeast Asia’s beloved kampung cartoonist and storyteller shares with us his work for the Southeast Asian comics anthology Liquid City
By Joyce Sim, 15 October 2010
Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid aka Lat
Can you talk a little about your work for the Liquid City anthology?
Lat: Well, before Liquid City, there were two volumes of Rosetta, another anthology series edited by Ng Suat Tong, also from Singapore, which compiled works by various comic artists throughout the world. Then came Liquid City. These are all what I consider to be new kinds of drawing for the present-day generation. It involves a lot of modern-day techniques of drawing, using computer-assisted techniques.
How does it feel to be part of such an anthology?
Well, we’re doing it for the second time ’round. It’s a new group of artists who have either already got a good following or are beginning to gain a following. They express today’s comic style; I belong to the old style. I feel good to have been invited and to have the opportunity to join in, although I may be from another era. To be able to be in the same collection with the present-day generation – to me, that’s a good thing. The anthology is a good mix. You find people presenting different kinds of subject matter in their comics. And I add in the old style, which to me can sometimes be quite evergreen.
How do you decide on what to do for such anthologies?
It’s not like I’m always ready for this sort of thing, because I have my own routine. When the editors contacted me and say they’ve got this project, I said I’d join in. I said yes, I’ve got some stories, I’ve got material – without thinking too much about where I’m going to get it from, since each one of us only had to contribute a few pages! There are always some leftover drawings or drawings that have never been used – I can always open up drawers to look for them or to get ideas. Some of these were parts of long stories that weren’t continued for some reason or another. The latest one in the second volume of Liquid City, “Night at the Stadium,” was from the 90s. It was part of a book that I thought I would do, but I got distracted and I got involved in other things. In this case, it was the animation project for Kampung Boy in 1995–1997. Once that happened, I had to forget all these things that I had been scribbling for a couple of years earlier. So I picked these bits and pieces, joined them together and turned them into a short story. That’s what happened with the Liquid City series.
“The Trip,” the first story you did for the first volume of Liquid City, was really a great story.
“The Trip” was a title that I thought I would never use, because if I were to think of a story with the title “The Trip”, I think I must have heard it sometime in the 1960s. But in this case, we see a guy jumping off a lorry after hitching a ride, so the title accompanying it would certainly have to be “The Trip,” because that’s the beginning of the story. It is a short story, but I wanted to tell people that there’s this trip that somebody is making. It’s as simple as that. I must say that I didn’t spend much time writing the dialogues or the captions!
The story is part of a long story about a young man visiting his brother in the slums in the big city. In 70s’ Malaysia, there were still areas occupied by squatters in quite big numbers. I had relatives staying in these squatter areas where I would even spend nights, taking shelter after a trip. Visiting relatives or friends meant that you would spend the night over at their place, so that was the experience.
Although I didn’t go through the same sort of story as “The Trip,” I did spend time visiting friends and relatives in the squatter areas when I was young, during the school holidays. I think it’s a very good experience because it shows that, among the obligations we had to do then, you had to find a place to stay when you went to the big city, and one usually ended up with close relatives at this kind of place.
Today, you don’t see those areas anymore – or maybe they just don’t look like squatter areas of before anymore. They may look more like nice houses with compounds and so on. But we definitely still have a squatter problem today, although not as massive as in the old days.
How does that compare to your experience now? Do you miss the city at all?
Well, whether in Kuala Lumpur or Ipoh or Penang, I have certain areas that I consider as my own – places where I used to hang out and where I can feel comfortable, even in Ipoh today. Ipoh is divided into two parts – the old town and the new town. And the old town, to me, is still the same. I can just be anywhere. I know where to go, to see the scenery or the shops, which are still the same. It doesn’t mean that I want things to stay the same. I’m from that area, and it makes me happy just to be in the places I’m very familiar with. In Kuala Lumpur, no matter how busy it is, there are certain areas I can feel easy and relaxed in, spots that seem to have been kept in a time capsule.
I don’t really miss the old Kuala Lumpur or the old Ipoh. If anything, it’s the company of friends or people I knew that I miss. But as time goes by, everything changes. Your friends move away, you move away. The good thing is, there’s always some connection. Just yesterday, I received a phone call from someone I knew long ago. He’s still working in a shop in Kuala Lumpur. He’d called me to tell me that he’d appeared in an advertisement in a newspaper – on page 40-something, at the back of the paper. Anyway, that’s for me to find out today. I didn’t manage to find that newspaper yesterday, because I had a busy day with meetings. Maybe I’ll pay him a visit today.
You see, it is good to keep in touch, because that keeps you going also. And you’ll find that there are always other people who still want to get in touch with you. Sometimes you live in the same city or town for many, many years, and you just cannot find that person that you’ve been thinking of, because it’s not in the habit of some people to keep in touch. You may be living in the same town, but you don’t see each other. But there are people who live far away, friends or distant relatives you keep hearing from. They are always keeping in touch, they’re always there; there’s always a simple message or joke from them on your mobile phone. People are divided into many types. And then there are meeting places where you always are, like a club. Sometimes, you find that you’ve lost many friends already, but there are some remaining ones you can still keep in touch with. But as time goes by, you have to make new friends and try to keep in touch with the old ones.
Do you keep in touch with the comics community very much?
We are just like all the people involved in the arts, whether you’re a filmmaker or a musician or an artist. All these people throughout the world, they’re well-connected. There are always messages and letters. In the world of comics and cartooning, it’s good enough if we can just look at each other’s work from time to time. That is one form of communication. You don’t really have to find out how your friends or colleagues are. If you look at their work, you know how they are. If you see the latest works of an editorial cartoonist or political cartoonist, you’ll know if they’re alright. If they’re still drawing, they’re okay – mentally, at least! If they are stressing or delivering their opinions to the public, then you’ll also understand their thinking. If they doing adventure stories or trying to do some historical stuff, then you’ll know who’s into what. That’s already good enough. We don’t really have to get too close to find out. If we get to meet just once in a while, usually in a big group, it’d be good.
So how do others keep in touch with your work? Are you still doing regular gigs?
I still draw once a week for The New Straits Times (NST) on Mondays. I’ve tried to stop drawing for the newspaper. I used to do three drawings a week, but I’ve been drawing once a week for a couple of years now. My relationship with NST goes back long way. I’m one of the ol’ faithful, and the longer I stay in touch with the newspaper, the harder it is for me to say goodbye. They’ve treated me very nicely all this while. I only know a handful of people there, because the old gang is no longer around. The editors keep getting younger and younger, but they all seem to know my past work. It’s been 36 years with NST, so I just continue with commenting on current events on Mondays. I think once a week is good enough. I’ll draw on Sundays and email the drawings, or send it to the NST branch in Ipoh.
Do you still work alone?
Yes, I still draw with the old method. I know all these people who know how to handle computer graphics – they get very smooth lines, and so on. But I’ve been with this style for so long – I think it’s the only way I know. But the new techniques are good, and the people have to use new technology. I know of an artist in Hong Kong who goes around using just a laptop and drawing tablet. That would be impossible for me. When I draw, I need my hand or brush or something; my hands have to get dirty.
There is so much life and emotion in your work as a result of that handiwork. What do you think about works that are made using new technology? Do you feel that there is much emotion being communicated through such works?
The storytelling and creating emotion is just one part of making comics and cartoons. The other part is the technical aspect. If everybody used the same technique, then all the work would be the same.
Once upon a time, long ago, every artist used the brush. So when you use the brush, you have the tendency to draw in one style. When I was a kid, many comic artists were using the brush. The brush is good, of course: it gives you the bold stroke and looks professional, and you’ve got your freehand.
In later years, the technical or felt pen arrived. Someone using a thin pen would end up drawing all thin lines and no brushstrokes at all. The line seemed to get monotonous – it was all very thin lines. So I would try to advise artists to try using the brush once in a while to add some variety. Some people would do wonders with thin lines. They make even you want to try doing all thin lines, because they are just so good at it! There are some editorial or political cartoonists who just use thin lines. They do it in such a way that the lines repeat – they do multiple lines, and it looks good and gives identity to the artist. But there are others who use thin lines, which make their drawings look very amateurish.
As time goes by, these things change, and it’s all up to the artists to pick their own techniques or styles of drawing, and eventually, their own identity. The Japanese, I think, were among the first to use superimposed photography for backgrounds. That made things easy, but when everyone’s doing it, you just have the same kind of city, landscape or skyline. It’s all from photography –the camera is working in the background, and you’re just adding characters in the foreground. If everybody is doing the same, where’s the excitement? I think the old test is still best: you give somebody a piece of paper and see what he can do with it.
Sometimes, for me, like almost anybody involved in this business, you have a piece of paper and you’re trying to think of what to draw. Whatever you decide on, you should create a good presentation for whoever the viewer is. When I read the newspaper, for example, I just don’t fancy the subject matter sometimes. There is more sad news than happy news, which can probably be attributed to age too. I mean, when I was young, there was sad news too, of course, but I didn’t feel sad. When I did read the news, I would read the happy news. Today, as an old man, I look at the sad news and say, why are these things happening? How am I going to comment on them? Should I comment about it, or should I pretend it’s not there? So it’s quite difficult.
I guess the real excitement for the comic artist or the cartoonist is in picking the subject and presenting it to the readers. What subject should we choose? The viewers and the public may not be thinking about these things, but if we can present it to them and attract them, if we can take them in another direction and say, forget the bad news, forget what you read in the papers for a moment and look at the happy things in life – if we can do that, that’s one way of making good, positive work. But it’s quite difficult. Once you do something, you’ve got to make the reader understand. And usually, in order to divert their attention, to take them away and see another point of view, you have to do something that’s funny and good. And if you’re tired of talking about current events and want to do something else, you have to do it in a way such that the viewer would understand it within three seconds and hopefully smile at the end of it. So that kind of struggle for the artist will go on.
What at this point in your life, in the history of the world or Malaysian society makes you want to pick up your pen and do that now?
Oh, there’s no end to the list. You just think about something, but it has to pertain to the ordinary life of the people. For example, during the festive season [Hari Raya], people would be travelling, and reminders and notices telling them to drive safely would be everywhere. So where do you come in? Do you just want to add to that and say, “Drive Safely” in the form of a cartoon, because everyone is doing so and that’s the message, basically repeating what the authorities are saying? But maybe there’s another direction you can take. Say you still want it to be about safe driving and safe travel. Maybe you can say something about the environment, for example. You can say, travel safely, but use public transport too: say, if you take the train, you can travel with other people; or if you take the bus, you can have cleaner air. You can even suggest ways of spending the festival without even travelling. All these can be done, but it should help or be relevant to the reader.
What about pop culture nowadays? If you came across, say, a pop star like Lady Gaga, would you feel impelled to draw something about it?
Yah, I see it in the news, the latest kind of craze. It all belongs to the young generation. They are always creating their own style, to be different, and a comment from an older generation would mean nothing. All these changes happen rapidly, and they go on and on. During our time, we changed our hairstyles from ducktails to long Beatles-style, and then the crew cut came back – at one point, it was called the crew cut, then it was called the skinhead. Nowadays, it’s all come back, and it’s all for the young to enjoy.
When I was a teenager, there was a visit at a function by an officer from the Ministry of Culture and Youth, who was giving a talk in our area. He was probably in his 40s or his 50s at that time, which to us was old. He said, “The reason I don’t have long hair is because I’m old. If I had long hair like you, I would look awful. But it’s okay for you to have long hair, because you’re young.” I didn’t think about all that at that time, because all the young people around me then had long hair. He was just trying to compare the generations. I guess when you’re young, there are so many things that you can do. You can dress any way you like, because that’s the time to do it. If you feel like following fashion, you might as well do it when you’re young.
Do you know if you constant streams of new followers from the new generation? Is that something you’re aware of?
There’s got to be some, because I don’t have any new work, but people still keep on getting them, so it seems that they’ve either lost their old books, or they just keep finding new books in hardcover to buy and keep.
If the young people today are reading me, it must be the old books. Some of them, like Kampung Boy or Town Boy, would remain, I would consider, evergreen, because they’re from a different period. But if it’s a compilation of drawings from the newspapers, from the 70s or 80s, it’s all so dated. Many of those politicians and prominent figures that I drew then are no longer around or not even known. Politicians become unknown the moment they step down from office – the moment they retire, people forget them, unless they have names like Tun Mahathir.
I think the young get advice from their older folks. When I meet young people who say to me, “My mother or grandfather was your fan,” I have a feeling that they were encouraged by their older folks to read my books. I don’t mind them reading Kampung Boy or Town Boy, just as something to get to know the life and situation during their father, mother or grandfather’s time. That would happen anyway. Family members, friends and older folks tell you stories. The cartoons just do the same thing.
More than that though, your stories, especially your evergreens, tend to be really good sources of sentimental education for the reader.
Well, one way of telling the story would be in this form, to turn them into a cartoon series or book. When I was drawing them in the 70s and 80s, it was a recording of what I knew. The friendships I’d made as a teenager and as a young adult made me do Town Boy. I found that music was the reason why I was mixing with my friends, even in my pre-teens. I used that as a point to convey my story. In fact, there’s not much of a story. Maybe because it’s nothing sensational – and that’s what most of us go through really, nothing sensational – we realise that there’s not much of a difference between us. Whether we come from a small town, kampung or big town, growing up definitely involved mixing around with friends.
How do you think your work has changed over time?
If you’re travelling from Japan or the western countries and you come to Southeast Asia – you come to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta, when you land in Malaysia, there’s this guy who draws cartoons about village life and so on. I think that’s the way people see my work. Even people in Malaysia, they don’t understand what kampung life is about anymore, even in the kampung. In the village in Malaysia today, you don’t take water from the well, you don’t go for a dip in the river, you don’t go looking for firewood. It’s all part of our past way of life and history, just like if you go to Melbourne, there’s Ballarat, where people would go mining for gold in the 19th century. These are all the things that interest people. I guess I don’t have much to offer except for these sort of things, and I will continue to do it for as long as I can.
What’s your major project now?
My own current project is to try to build a kampung house that’s exactly like the house I was born in and partly brought up in in Perak. And I am trying to get the local government to help with the location. My old house in the kampung had been demolished. Actually it was sold off by my father when we moved to Ipoh. I bought it back from the relative he had sold it to, but by that time, it was already not as it used to be, because the then-owner took most of the wood away to build a new place in another town. What I bought was almost just the structure. And when I bought back the land, it was a very small piece of land. I demolished the house, because it was already an eyesore at that time. For me, it wouldn’t be suitable to rebuild in that area, because it’s too small an area, and we don’t have many people anymore in the village in Kota Bharu, Perak, near Gopeng (not to be confused with the big Kota Bharu in Kelantan). I used to spend my childhood in towns like Gopeng, Kampar and Batu Gajah nearby. God willing, I’d like to build a replica of that house somewhere near Batu Gajah.
What other projects are you involved in right now?
There are other things happening, but the whole idea is not that I want to create such a big impact on our lives, but just to continue to do things. [Multimedia group/broadcaster] Astro wants to continue with the Kampung Boy animated TV series, so that would definitely require my involvement again. We did 26 episodes in the 90s, but at that time, we had to do it in US and the Philippines. Now we can just do it in Southeast Asia and have much more Southeast Asian flavour in it. We’ve just agreed on starting to work on the series, which will probably be another 26 episodes.
In the 90s, we had to do it abroad because animation created using such computer techniques was just beginning in Malaysia at that time. We weren’t really familiar with it, and we had to do it abroad. I was happy that we did it there then; otherwise, you won’t be seeing it again today. It was nicely done. We don’t see the series produced at that time in Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur, today anymore, because viewers don’t follow them anymore. You see, the toddlers – two, three, four, five-year-olds – they are the decision-makers. If they are attracted, the series will go on. For Kampung Boy, the four-year-olds just keep on coming, which is why it has been rerun and broadcast repeatedly from the 90s until today. The artists in Los Angeles and the Philippines were working on what we call the ‘Saturday morning TV cartoon kind of formula, which attracts little children, and we will continue with that style.
Do you do all the scripting for these animated episodes?
I do the character score and character design, and suggest stories for the series. Then we work on the stories together. And there are the story editors – a bunch of people who work on the stories – followed by the storyboard artists. Eventually, the animation people would be involved. I think the difficult part is also the voice recording and direction. My part is creating stories and of course making sure that the characters adhere to the original character score. Each character has a certain behaviour, and that acts as a guideline for the series.
I won’t be working very hard on the animation this time round. The animators, artists and inking people would be doing a lot of work. My part is to ensure that there is continuity. I would just try to readjust the story so that the new story will be more Southeast Asian.
Is there anything else you would like to do, apart from animation?
If you have paper and ink at home, there’s always something you can work on and that can be used in a compilation in the future. There’s always something I’ve sketched that can be part of something in the future, say a book. There is a picture of a double-decker bus at home now I don’t know what to do with or where to put. But it’s what I used to know, and I want to use it one day. So if you think that I think too much of work, the answer is no, but there’s always something there.
About Lat (Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid)
Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid aka Lat (Malaysia) is one of the most beloved cartoonists in Southeast Asia. Born in 1951 in Kota Bahru near Gopeng, Perak, the comic prodigy has been published since he was just 13. His most beloved works include Kampung Boy (1979) and Town Boy (1981). The former was named Best Animated Television Series award at the 1999 Annecy International Film Festival, and is set to be made into a musical in December 2010.
Lat has received numerous awards, including being conferred the prestigious Malaysian honorific title of ‘Datuk’ in 1994 and the first cartoonist to be named an Eisenhower Fellow in 1998. Most recently, he received the 2004 Malaysian Press Institute Special Jury Award.In the inaugural 2010 Reader’s Digest Asia’s Trust Survey, he was voted fourth most trusted personality in Malaysia.