In the middle of August I was given a preview of a new graphic novel (some days, I love my job), one in the vein of that now best-selling series of childhood stories, by a local illustrator.
I LOLed every few pages.
Kuching-born Goh Kheng Swee, who goes by the monikers Jian Goh and Akiraceo (or is it AkiraCEO?) and the creator of the whimsically named Miao & WafuPafu comic blog, wanted to be the first Malaysian English-language comic blogger to publish a book. But someone else apparently beat him to it.
Once Upon a Miao: Stories from the Other Side of Malaysia sheds some light on the childhood of East Malaysians through selected episodes in Jian's (let's call him that) formative years.
The former "RnD opto-electronic engineer" – who is now a freelance designer and sells Miao&WafuPafu merchandise – has put together an impressive all-colour compilation of all-new stories of growing up in Kuching, Sarawak. None of the entries I know of are from his comic blog, on which he has been doodling for about eight years and counting.
From hijinks at home to classroom capers and a seaside holiday, the bumpy, knee-scraping roller-blade ride that is Jian's youthful adventures is made funnier by the inclusion of manga-style facefaults and local vernacular in his art.
And did I mention that all the main characters are depicted as anthropomorphised animals?
Jian draws himself as an orange tabby because (a) Kuching, (b) he's a cat lover, and (c) cameras don't like him (I'm told). His dad is a dog because he's a dog lover; his mom's a bunny because she's as quiet as a rabbit; and his elder sisters are a horse and monkey respectively, to match their Chinese zodiac signs.
Okay, but I'm more inclined to believe that it's because humans are hard to draw; most of the homo sapiens in his book are all featureless humanoids.
One can be forgiven for assuming the main draw of this comic is the comedy. It is, and that makes the few poignant parts more moving. The chapter "My Lakia Friend" reminds us of the racism some of our fellow Malaysians face, and the author's plea to stop using the term, considered a pejorative, tugs at the heart. As did his wistful longing to reunite with his group of secondary school friends to do something crazy again.
But of course, you want to know about the comedy.
The precocious Miao (the author's feline alter ego) provides most of the laughs, but it is his hopelessly degenerate friend "Bokiu" (appropriately portrayed as a buaya), who upstages him in later parts of the book.
I also developed a soft spot for Lingling, the tomboyish "tigress" and lone rose among Miao's group, which also comprises the gangster-like chicken nicknamed "Rippy", a football-loving monkey called "Haw", and a smooth-talking... whatever called "Mus".
Plus, I got to learn some phrases (the Chinese vernacular is different over there, too). Maiku (can be loosely translated as "dammit") features a lot, and feels satisfying to use.
Once Upon a Miao
I imagine the editor mumbling as he or she went through the pages: "Maiku Miao, boh spellchecker, ah?" And the phrase ngai ti ("oh my god") conveys incredibly heartfelt frustration when stretched.
With the rise in comics and graphic novels by local artists telling local or localised stories, Jian's publishing debut is a welcome addition to a growing body of work we'd all love to explore. And it's nice to imagine that he's also doing it as an ambassador of "the other side of Malaysia."
His window into life as a kid in a little corner of East Malaysia also stokes enough curiosity for one to want to fly over (maiku, so many types of kolok mee, lao chui nua liao...).
Once Upon a Miao: Stories from the Other Side of Malaysia is now available at all major bookstores. Follow Jian's further adventures on his blog and Facebook page.