/ 5 July 2006

Mr Midnight, Asia’s answer to Harry Potter

Young Asian readers seeking the thrill of ghouls and haunted houses no longer turn only to Western favorites to satisfy their itch.

Asia’s answer to the record-selling British boy wizard Harry Potter is the Mr Midnight series of books.

It has sold more than one million copies in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, China, Hong Kong and Indonesia, says Alex Chacko, of the books’ publisher.

Full of ghosts, dark closets, witches and creepy things, Mr Midnight is a heartbeat-racing hit that has been translated into several different languages.

The appeal, says Mr Midnight author Jim Aitchison, is the books’ ability to address an Asian child’s values and sensibilities.

”Asian kids are very different from American kids. They have different values,” says Aitchison. ”The kids in Asia are a lot more innocent … what would shock an Asian kid in a book, an American kid will think, ‘That’s it?’,” he adds chuckling.

Having spent 20 years in Singapore, the youthful-looking Australian deems himself qualified to write about Asian children.

”I lived here long enough and I have seen enough kids and I have talked to enough people,” Aitchison says.

Mysterious about his own age, he says ”you sort of understand the [child’s] mindset after a while, but it comes with age”.

The books, with their candy-colored illustrations and gothic script, are set in high-rise flats, steamy jungles and other familiar Asian surroundings, contrasted with the occasional ghoulish surprise.

”All urban kids in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur live in flats,” Aitchison says, explaining how young readers connect with his books.

The protagonists are all Asian children who display forgiveness, team spirit and other values highly prized in Asian society, Aitchison says.

”Even in the food they eat, they don’t eat cucumber sandwiches. They are eating noodles and I guess there is just this feeling that ‘it is in my city’,” he says of the Asian connection.

Aitchison wears an earring and a wide smile. Since quitting his lucrative advertising executive position 10 years ago to become a writer, he has written numerous books on advertising and is most well-known for his Sarong Party Girl series. The trio of tongue-in-cheek books mocks Asian women’s shallow fascination with Caucasian men.

”A good story is universal,” he enthuses. ”It will sell anywhere.”

Retailers interviewed by Agence France-Presse confirmed the Mr Midnight series is a consistent top seller, with sales similar to Harry Potter.

”In Singapore it’s comparable to [the] Harry Potter series and was up on the Popular bestseller chart for months,” said Lynn Lee, marketing manager for Popular, a local bookstore chain.

Cindy Chu, marketing manager for Singapore’s Borders bookstore branch, agrees the series sells well.

”The Mr Midnight series is one of the more popular local children’s series of books and they are generally consistent sellers,” she says.

Targeted at youngsters between ages seven and 12, the books have sold more than 830 000 copies in Singapore and Malaysia, and another 300 000 copies in the other Asian countries, says Chacko, director of Flame of the Forest Publishing.

Although the biggest markets are Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, translation into Mandarin, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Thai has extended their reach, he adds. In China, the first-print run sold 180 000 copies. In Thailand 60 000 books have been sold while Vietnam has seen 50 000 and Indonesia 15 000, according to Chacko.

”The idea is to try and get the books into all the Asian countries,” he says.

Other markets being considered are South Korea, the Philippines and India.

”I’d love for the books to go to Korea and the Philippines … Korea is a producer of horror films and obviously [they] have an interest in being scared,” Aitchison says.

With a movie in the pipeline and 29 books published in total, Aitchison admits that writing for Asian children is an ”awesome” responsibility.

”All these kids have suddenly nominated your books as ‘it’ … they have actually given you their loyalty as readers. You do in quiet think, ‘wow this is amazing’.”

Aitchison says the books can be educational as well as entertaining.

”In Thailand one story is in Thai and then it is repeated in English. You can almost use it as a study guide,” he says with a laugh.

Despite the Asian focus of the books, non-Asian countries have also expressed interest in Mr Midnight, says Chacko, who recently reached an agreement with New Zealand publishers to distribute the books there in English.

”A good story will sell not only in Singapore, but in any other part of the world. It’s different because it’s Asian and same because it’s a good story,” he says.

Staying true to the book’s Asian roots, Chacko said he rejected a deal with Australian publishers who wanted to anglicise the Asian names.

”I was willing to let it go … we have to stay true to our original intentions,” Chacko said.

”Why can’t Australian kids read about Asian kids?” Aitchison pipes in.

”Why do we have to make them all Smiths and Jones?”

With a lofty aim to plant the Mr Midnight flag worldwide, the father of a grown daughter believes race is no barrier to books.

”If Asian kids can read about Caucasian kids, like in Harry Potter, why can’t Caucasian kids read about Asian kids?,” Aitchison asks. ‒ Sapa-AFP