Once upon a time in Asia

There's really no substitute for the written word


As people approach their half-century mark, they tend to get nostalgic. One way they seek to recapture fading memories from childhood is by visiting antiquarian book dealers and scrounging around garage sales, looking for books they enjoyed as kids.

While in San Francisco, I asked a book dealer if he stocked one particular title. “You’re about fifth person who’s asked me for that one recently,” he smiled.

While momentarily elated, I immediately felt disheartened, thinking that if demand for the book was so great, it would be difficult to obtain. I should have known better; “The Five Chinese Brothers,” by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese, is still in print, having gone through 40 or so editions since it first appeared in 1938.

I read it as a lad in upstate New York in the early 1950s. I later did some research and learned this story is quite famous in China.

It’s about five identical Chinese brothers. One could suck up the entire ocean into his mouth. One had extensible legs. One could breathe without air. One was fireproof; and one’s skin could not be cut.

Chinese storytellers had a wonderful gift for exaggeration, and the transmission of these traditional fairy tales into European languages finally gave children in the West the chance to enjoy some amazing adventures.

Ironically, if such a book were to be offered to a publisher for the first time today, it would be rejected as politically incorrect. “It engages in ethnic stereotyping,” someone on the review committee would undoubtedly grumble, or “contains too much violence.” Never mind that these five brothers were righteous dudes who stuck together, were devoted to their old mother, and deservingly got to live happily ever after.

The story I read at the impressionable age of six and a half may very well have kindled my lifelong interest in Asia. I read others, and the next thing I knew I was living here. After years of effort, it got to the point that I could even read the story in the original Chinese.

The problem now, however, is that even though books don’t need recharging, never require upgrades and are 100 percent free of harmful radiomagnetic emissions, nowadays with the exception, perhaps, of the Harry Potter craze they’re losing the battle for kids’ hearts and minds to computer graphics on television, DVDs, video games, the Internet and so on.

As much as Japanese youngsters seem to always have their noses buried in comics and other printed matter, statistics show that they, too, are reading less than ever. “Katsuji-banare” is the word for this phenomenon, and it has educators worried, because it’s closing our minds. The fact is, the world is fast running out of quaint customs.

This makes the storytellers’ work harder too, since little Sally in Cleveland can hardly be impressed by the story of little Saburo in Osaka, if his only encounter with tigers is when he cheers for the local baseball team.

Tales from Asia generally fall into two categories: translations of traditional stories and original works in English, which are often adapted from old myth or legend.

China and Japan are the main suppliers to the English book market, but the next time you travel in Asia, stop at the local bookstore and look for some traditional stories in English. My shelf presently contains works from Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and even Mongolia.

And Japan’s most beloved fairy tales are readily available in English translation. There’s Issun Boshi, the Japanese Tom Thumb; young Urashima Taro, the Japanese Rip van Winkle, who saved the life of a turtle and was invited to romp in the Sea Dragon’s Palace, but woke up an old man; lovely Kaguyahime, the little princess who popped out from a piece of bamboo, and many others.

So how, then, can kids on opposite sides of the globe but who wear the same Gap gear, play the same video games and eat the same food take pleasure in learning about cultural diversity?

For what it’s worth, here’s my suggestion: Turn the clock back 100 years. Return to the charm of storytellers past. Why not? They’re still fully capable of teaching today’s kids that people in every land, since time immemorial, have always placed importance on the same basic values. They contain universal messages about the virtues of courage, honesty, loyalty, fair play and respect. They remind us that might doesn’t make right.

So help a book to find a good home. Parents: switch off the TV, sit down and read to your kids. Take them to the library. Nurture in them a love of good books. Cajole, bribe, threaten them whatever it takes. Video gizmos are fine and dandy, but reading is a habit that’s definitely worth preserving. And never, ever forget that something that captivates your child’s mind might change his or her life in ways you cannot possibly foresee. Such is the power of a small child to dream. Believe me, I know.