Kitty-happy

Hello Kitty. What makes you so special? I am asking as a fan, of course. I am partial to cool cats – the dudes who can carry a tune and Felix and his ilk who grace the toons, too. I love Tom and Jerry, liked Sylvester and Tweety, giggled at Top Cat and am always happy to see Garfield and Heathcliff. From the sleepy, beatific smile of Garfield to the devil-in-his-eyes smirk of Tom plotting another damn-fool move against Jerry, there’s something felicitous about felines. When cool cats grace a cartoon show or a comic strip, the entertainment’s just purr-fect.

Hello Kitty. Are you listening? Given every cat slinks across as cute in a cartoon, what’s so special about you that gives you a super-duper hold on Singapore? Sure you can see stuffed Toms and Garfields parked on cars’ rear windows, lying in nurseries and playrooms, but you don’t hear of people queuing up and getting into fights over Tom and Jerry, Sylvester and Tweety, Top Cat, Garfield or Heathcliff in Singapore. No, that only happens over you, Hello Kitty.

Sorry, I am asking the wrong cat. Kitty’s lips are sealed. Ah, that’s the difference with all other cats. Cats generally may be silent as the grave, but they are prone to lick their whiskers, purr a soft “Miaow” – and even talk in cartoons. Hello Kitty, the doll that Singaporeans can’t get enough of, on the other hand, has eyes, nose, paws – but no visible mouth.

Is that what makes her so special? The cute little doll in the cute little dress with no mouth in sight – is that why she is so adored in pretty little Singapore, where people are urged to be polite as you please and tend to mind what they say?

Even when Hello Kitty and her friends open their mouths on television, the dialogue is cutesy-cute, child-friendly, not badmouthing anybody. The local media, too, are required by law to be sensitive and maintain harmony in multi-religious, multi-racial Singapore.

Is that why Hello Kitty is so popular in Singapore – as a cutesy little island paradigm?

This is not the first time the Hello Kitty craze has swept the island. The fever struck in 2000, too, when the island went bonkers over the doll. People rushed to McDonald’s for Hello Kitty – queued, scrambled and fought for the toys – just as they did last month.

A lot has changed since then. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has succeeded Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. The government has launched new policies, the people have become more vocal, there’s a rambunctious alternative media on cyberspace which is occasionally pulled up for crossing the OB markers. Singapore 2013 is not Singapore 2000. Hello Kitty the mouthless doll hardly seems analogous any more. If it could ever be an island paradigm, it must have been in an earlier time. Is that why it is still so popular – as a retro reminder of an older Singapore?

Whatever lies behind the Hello Kitty craze, it rocks the notion of the cold, dispassionate Singaporean. A Gallup poll last year reported Singapore was the least emotional country in the world. But can the least emotional country in the world get into a tizzy over a doll?

No, the whole saga was a reminder that Singapore can develop a crush like any teenager – that it has a heart as awkward as any adolescent. It may not bare its heart all that often, but it’s there, as anyone knows who has heard the Kallang Roar or watched the National Day celebrations.

This is not to say the Hello Kitty craze was the best thing that happened in Singapore. Observers quite rightly cluck-clucked their disapproval in the media of the fights that broke out and the profiteering online where the dolls were sold at exorbitant prices. But It showed Singaporeans are as toy-loving as anyone else. Which, I think, is a good thing.

I speak, of course, as a toon lover who scrambled for Hello Kitty in the past. My family and I did not join the rush this time, but we were there back in 2000. Once I had to queue up even before sunrise to get a particularly sought-after doll. I was cursing under my breath waiting in line in the pre-dawn darkness — but once I had the doll, the relief, the exhilaration, the triumph of a mission accomplished!

The dolls are no longer at home. They have disappeared over the years. But the thought that I ever had to queue to collect them makes me smile. Getting them made us happy then. And isn’t that we all want: happiness?

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