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Interview with Lat: Kampung Boy and Beyond

By Mei Kuan

Ipoh Echo recently caught up with iconic cartoonist Datuk Mohd Nor bin Khalid (Lat) via an exclusive one-on-one to learn all about Kampung Boy and beyond. Amiable, down-to-earth and just himself, the 69-year-old was a lot of fun to be with as he gave this fan a sneak peek of the Rumah Lat & Galeri (Lat’s Childhood Home & Gallery) in Batu Gajah. 

Located next to an upcoming premium shopping outlet and an ex-mining pool off Jalan Bemban, the exciting government project is entering its final stage of preparation and is scheduled for launch tentatively in March. The work in progress is financed by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture on a state government land and set to be run by the Perak Museum. 

Once completed, the gallery’s exhibition halls will feature works of cartoons and comics by Lat and other Malaysian artists. Upon entrance, there will be a corner dedicated to the life story and everything about Lat. For instance, to be put on display are pictures of his childhood till his retirement and his books, namely Kampung Boy and Town Boy, both of which were published more than 40 years ago yet remain in print and a familiar sight in bookshops.

“These books are about friendship, niceness, culture and way of life, thus it will never be out of date. If you talk about Lat, it usually points to Kampung Boy, always. I was born in Kampung Lalang in Kota Bahru, just a stone’s throw away from Batu Gajah. My kampung (village) is still there but the number of people has reduced. My house is no longer there and only a few of my neighbours stay behind. It used to be a very vibrant place when I was a kid but as the pull of the city is so strong, people ended up in the town,” he shared with Ipoh Echo.

Regarding Rumah Lat, he explained, “I was born in this house commonly called the rumah bumbung lima (five-roof house), rumah limas or rumah kutai. This type of house has a protruding living room (anjung), wings, a central part (rumah ibu) and a kitchen. It is the place where I partly grew up – my father sold the house when we moved to Ipoh in 1963 while I was still in primary school.”

“When I was at the house for almost two years, it was really a Kampung Boy’s life. I grasped everything about the kampung: my friends, school and the river. I remember it well because I enjoyed the friendships, do-it-yourself games, environment and plantations with its various fruits. All the games were seasonal. During the season of bamboo gun war we would make our own by cutting down young bamboo,” he explained, adding that in those days, steam engines would stop at his village too as it had a train station. 

He continued, “After passing a special examination in a Malay school, I went to an English primary school and stayed in a hostel. Thus, it was a good system – I learnt all about the kampung, Malay school, history and then learnt another language at the English-medium school. When you have all that when you were young, it does stick.” 

Lat then enrolled in SMK Anderson to receive his secondary education.

After an initial stint as a crime reporter at New Straits Times, Lat who was in his mid-twenties subsequently drew for the same newspaper beginning in 1974 for 40 years. He had three to four deadlines weekly, usually falling on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Printed on the editorial page, his drawings depicted current affairs and a day in the life of multiracial Malaysia and the man on the street – with tongue-in-cheek humour!

“My work is always moderate and light,” he added. 

Drawn from memory, the Kampung Boy storybook was first published in 1979 and has been translated into 14 languages since. Did you know that the exact place setting (Kampung Lalang in Kota Bahru) of the story was never once mentioned in the book? Minus the geographical restriction, it is no wonder many are able to see pieces of their own places of origin reflected in the pages. Meanwhile, Town Boy, the companion novel to the critically acclaimed Kampung Boy, was done in 1980.

Lat’s furniture, some hailing from before WW2, which is sourced from the original house will be displayed in Rumah Lat just like how it used to be in the family house. Among the unique features of the traditional wooden Malay house is its shuttered tall windows with vents.

Having retired in 2014, Lat no longer draws for mainstream newspapers and is currently finishing up his upcoming storybooks in comic form while occasionally doing some drawings for promotional merchandise like calendars among others. “I hope to make more books and short animations,” he said.

The self-taught illustrator has been drawing before he even started school at 5 years old. His important tools include pencils, brushes, black ink, pens and dipping pens—as to date he still draws by hand.

“First of all, you must have the talent and ability to draw, that is in you given by God. It’s just like people who can sing and are melodious. It’s given. People who are not musical, they are into something else—in the sports field, for example. Everybody has got something,” he expressed, with a cheeky twinkle in his eye behind his black-rimmed glasses.

“When I was a young boy at about 10 years of age, I didn’t know that we could use liquid paper, then called Pelikan white ink, to make any amendments when we made a mistake! However, I never threw away my drawings even as a kid because we had spent money on the pen and ink, bought by my mother. Just one look at me whenever I stared into space and she would know if I needed ink, pen or paper from the newsstand. As she proceeded to give me the money, I would be very happy! It’s India ink, waterproof when dry, how magical is that!” he recalled vividly. Lat’s father was equally supportive as he would bring home loads of papers from his office.

“When this gallery and house are ready complete with a little cafe and souvenir shop, I would like to invite Malaysians, foreigners, visitors and tourists who are in the area of Batu Gajah to drop by Rumah Lat & Galeri in addition to other attractions here such as Kellie’s Castle and TT5 Tin Dredge. When this place is open, I’ll be here from time to time to meet people, give talks and take people around,” Lat enthused at the end of our interview.

Stay tuned to Ipoh Echo for more updates on its launch!


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