When I was a child, my parents would shop regularly in Chinatown, in Singapore. Yes, even in this country with a Chinese majority, there is a Chinatown. It goes back to our colonial past, when the powers-to-be decided to cut up separate neighborhoods for the different races. The strategy not only divided and conquered, but also co-opted communal leaders to govern their ethnic communities. And so, besides Chinatown, we now have Geylang Serai (a traditionally Malay neighborhood) and Little India.
Chinatown, back when I was little, in the 1970's, was a mishmash of the old and the new. Among derelict shophouses bloomed modern shopping malls, or at least they felt very modern at that time. My parents would shop in the fancy departmental store, OG (with escalators!), and, since I hated shopping, would deposit me in the tiny books section, and collect me when they were through.
In that corner of the store, I discovered the picture book series, Little Men. The books were far too easy for me, but I loved the solid colors of the characters. I loved the pattern that governs the series, and the variations of that pattern. I loved the idea of serial development. And while my parents brought OG shopping bags home, I carried off with me, like a prize, another Little Man.
They behaved just like their names. Mr. Happy
was always happy despite the cloud in the story.
Mr. Tickle learned when not to tickle but tickled
every other time. And when friends righted him,
Mr. Topsyturvy turned wrong side up again.
Chinese names, unlike Mr. Lazy’s, aim
too high. Yang Yang plays for glorious glory.
Swallow Peace, my sister, flies her temper.
And mine raises the stakes: Jee Leong
shoots for (don’t laugh) universal goodness.
What disappointments Chinese children are! What
a hoot to find out adults are like old cartoons.
There slinks Mrs. Divorce. Here comes Mr. Knife
in the back smiling. And at her father’s funeral,
radiant Miss Sun dries her eyes on the flowers.