A cartoon lesson in history

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Tiang Wei reports on the launch of a cartoon people’s history book of Malaya, “Where Monsoons Meet”. History has never been so accessible and readable – and to think that the book was written by two engineers and an architect!

Where Monsoons Meet –
A People’s History of Malaya
Price: RM18
(Available at Popular Bookstore and Borders Bookstore)

A newspaper announcement drew my attention to the impending launch of a cartoon history book of Malaya. Expecting little, I decided to attend the book-launch on 24 Nov 2007 at the Caring Society Complex in Penang.

When I arrived, the room was already quite crowded – roughly 120 people. Not bad for a book launch, I thought.  Not long after I sat down, the facilitator introduced the agenda for the day.  

Mr. Chong from the publisher, Strategic Information and  Research Development Centre (SIRD), first explained that this cartoon history book “Where Monsoons Meet” had been published for the third time.  It was first published in 1979 in London and again by Insan in 1987 with four pages omitted from the original book. In its third production, not only are the four pages restored, but the Malay and Chinese translated versions of the book are also available.  

Two of the authors, Lee Khek Mui and Low Swee Heong, are practising engineers. The third author, Choo Foo Yong, is an architect, now residing overseas.  Both Lee and Low spoke at the book launch.

Lee recounted how the idea of a cartoon history came about as a result of the authors’ active involvement in the Malaysian and Singaporean students movement in England during the 1970s and 80s.  The authors took advantage of the easy access to libraries in the School of Oriental and African Studies, part of the University of London, to do most of the research.

The idea of coming out with a cartoon history book was inspired by the then popular “Beginners Cartoon” series  such as  “Einstein for Beginners” and “Marx for Beginners”. Many others contributed in terms of debating and challenging the ideas to be presented. The collective effort  eventually resulted in this cartoon book called “Where Monsoons Meet – A People’s History of Malaya”.

Low, on the other hand, spoke about the relevance of this history book in today’s context.  According to him, the administration in power decides on the documentation and dissemination of history and its interpretation.  To this end, Umno as the dominant political power chooses to emphasise the importance of Umno in the struggle for Independence.  In contrast, “Where Monsoons Meet” tells the history of the struggle for independence through the common national aspiration of the multi-racial communities of the land. Hence the authors called it “A People’s History of Malaya”.

A Form Five student then shared her experience of reading “Where Monsoons Meet”.  She related the lack of interest in history among students because of the way history text-books are written. The presentation of “Where Monsoons Meet” in the form of a cartoon book is refreshing and captivating. Moreover the book with only 172 pages is so concise that it covered all the material she needed to study over three years in school. She said  this cartoon history book was a “must read” for all lower secondary students.

The last speaker, Dunstan Chan, a trained lawyer and motivation speaker, said he found the phenomenon of engineers and architects writing history books intriguing. He felt that it was driven by the salient influence of the period of the students’ uprising in Paris, the anti-Vietnam War and the adventurism of freedom expressed during the era of the flower-power people. He said history was such that when the situation and prevailing conditions were right, the human spirit for freedom of expression would always rise to the fore.

I was pleasantly surprised that a simple book launch turned out to be a rather refreshing lesson about history.

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