PETALING JAYA: Cheeming Boey has fond memories of Yati (not her real name), the Indonesian maid who helped tend his father’s bird farm in Johor Bahru when he was a child.
The California-based graphic-comic artist recalls she was tall and skinny. What Boey remembers most vividly about Yati was her sheer athleticism and strength.
“She climbed a coconut tree at the back of our house with such ease and without any rope. I was just blown away. When you’re young, you’re easily wowed,” the 45-year-old told FMT Lifestyle.
Boey documented this particular incident in his graphic novel “When I Was A Kid 3”, which was published in 2014 and earned him a Popular’s Readers’ Choice Award the following year.
Almost a decade later, things have taken an unexpected turn. Following protests in June by the Indonesian NGO Corong Rakyat outside the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta, the Malaysian home ministry said last month it was banning “When I Was A Kid 3” in accordance with Section 7(1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984.
The ministry gazetted the ban on Sept 25, citing “harm to morals, public interest, and state interests, as well as community anxiety”.
Boey was evidently shocked by this development, taking to social media to apologise “to the parties that took offence to this, and the people I have unintentionally hurt”.
And speaking with FMT Lifestyle via Zoom recently, he explained that the aim of his two-page story had been to “tell how fantastic she was at climbing”.
“We often associate fantastic human feats with animals, like ‘you ran as fast as a cheetah, as swift as an eagle’. It was high praise. That’s the bottom line. My intent was never to stir the pot or create any conflict.”
In the book, Boey’s father asks him to “come see monkey”. The young Boey excitedly follows his father – only to see Yati up the coconut tree.
Protesters have now objected to the use of the word “monkey” and Boey’s seemingly derogatory comparison. But he insists it has been taken out of context, alleging that certain articles published after the protest only stopped at the fourth panel instead of showing the entire 12.
“If I had ended the story here, it would have been disastrous. That then would be me calling her a monkey. But it didn’t end there. I continued to show our admiration of her strength,” he stressed.
Indeed, the narrative actually shows the young Boey attempting to emulate Yati – and then being disappointed to find he cannot.
Boey also pointed out the alleged lack of communication from the authorities regarding the ban, which he read about on the social platform Reddit.
“If the authorities had notified me, I could have had the chance to explain this was all a misunderstanding. We could have even taken that story out and put the book back on the shelves.
“Right now, some bookstores have apparently taken down my entire series, not just that one book. This will definitely affect my livelihood,” he said.
Consequently, Boey intends to challenge the ban as he “wants to right a wrong”. Yet, he emphasised that he understands why his story could have been misinterpreted, and apologised again to those who have been hurt.
“Some stories, some words, don’t stand the test of time,” he acknowledged. “I didn’t think writing about my childhood was going to stir up the situation that I have right now.
“When I was writing it, offending people was never on my mind.”
This isn’t the first time Boey has had to face professional challenges. He moved to the United States 28 years ago for art school and, after graduating, worked for a game developer.
He said, without elaborating, that he was subsequently laid off after advocating for some of his colleagues.
At the time, he had already begun working on “When I Was A Kid” to showcase and promote Malaysia to his American friends. This turned out to be a lifeline as Boey was able to devote himself entirely to the book, which spawned a series and earned him a devoted global following.
Now, the full-time writer and illustrator is again at a crossroads. “I normally wake up at 4.30am to write but I haven’t been able to. This is an experience I will carry with me. But whether I overcome this or not, I’m not done being a writer.”
And despite all that has happened, Boey still holds a deep affection for Malaysia. “There’s just something about it. It’s home. This is where my parents are, and why I had all my childhood experiences.
“Every year when I go back, it feels like Johor Bahru hasn’t changed a bit, even though it obviously has. I feel like I’m a time traveller who’s visiting a time capsule, and I enjoy that.”