Town Boy

Author: Lat
Year: 1980
Genre: Memoir

In his native Malaysia, Lat is a phenomenon. A cartoonist since age 9, he's been enormously popular for the last thirty years, and was even commissioned to draw the artwork for AirAsia jets. Of course, he's practically unknown here in the United States, but First Second Press (publishers of American Born Chinese) are introducing him to American audiences by publishing two autobiographical volumes, Kampung Boy and Town Boy.

I haven't read the first volume, but that was no handicap at all. This book starts off when Lat's family moves from a village (or kampung) to the town of Ipoh, and follows the exploits of Lat and his friends through their first (age 10) and last (age 17) years of school together. They discover rock 'n' roll, cheat on the cross country race, perform in the marching band, and dream about pretty girls.

The striking thing about this kind of story is the mix of similarities and differences from what I would find familiar. While all the subplots could (and probably would) be found in an American memoir from the same generation, the setting shows some tremendous cultural differences. Malaysia is a very diverse country, and the English edition of the book includes some aspects of Malaysian English (notably the multi-purpose particle lah) as well as bits of dialogue in Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese, and what I believe is Tamil. Also, the schools are boys only, and the British-derived educational system makes some of the school scenes difficult to understand completely.

Despite the foreignness of the Malaysian setting, though, the overall feeling is of the warmth of friends and family. Lat has fond memories of childhood fun and mischief, an engaging storyteller's style, and a wicked caricaturist's sense of humor. I look forward to reading Volume 1.

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