Most people come to vintage-Ladybird-appreciation after using the books in childhood. A few people come to appreciate them as adults. But one of the strangest routes I’ve yet come across is via an Indonesian biscuit tin.
Last month a lady asked me to identify a picture from a Ladybird book. Recognising it instantly, I told her which book it was from and she bought a copy – along with a few other books. In the course of our discussion, I learnt that she was from Indonesia and had never heard of Ladybird books until coming to live in England. In Indonesia, there is, she told me, a brand of biscuits familiar to most Indonesians that features a very Ladybird-like scene: Mother, two children and afternoon tea. This image is cosily familiar to generations of Indonesians in perhaps the same way that the Bisto family or Birds Custard tin is familiar here – probably more famous than either because, as Yulia explained:
“In the 1980s, the choices of biscuits in Indonesia was pretty limited. There weren’t many brands available and people regarded Khong Guan biscuit as delicacy, something to purchase on special occasions only. Now the biscuits, whilst no longer special, are considered a classic.”
But, it seemed, no one in that country had any idea of the origin of the picture – that it was a clear copy of an illustration in a well-loved Ladybird book.
Yulia spotted a Ladybird book illustration on one of my social media accounts and recognised it as the original version of the famous biscuit-tin image. “An intriguing story”, I thought, and decided I wanted to have my own Khong Guan biscuit tin, featuring an Indonesian interpretation of Harry Wingfield’s Ladybird artwork. Kindly, Yulia arranged to purchase one and have it sent to my home.
This in itself proved surprisingly challenging. The Indonesian customs were very suspicious as to why anyone in Britain would want to import a single tin of Khong Guan biscuits and weren’t immediately convinced by the explanation. On arrival on these shores, the authorities were equally suspicious of my biscuit tin and wanted a complete list of every ingredient.
The tin finally arrived safely this week and is a lovely, colourful addition to my collection.
But it was at this point that I discovered just what a big thing the image on the tin has become in Indonesia. A link to the website showed that the company even has its own museum which heavily features the biscuit tin. In fact, one of the highlights of a visit to the Khong Guan museum in Semarang, Java, is that you can have your photo taken in a recreation of the iconic scene.
What’s more, it turns out that the absence of a father in the tea-time scene has caused many years of speculation across the whole country. Where was father? Why was he not in the scene? (Indonesia society is pretty conservative so, according to Yulia, the idea that the picture showed a single mother was never a consideration).
The ‘mystery’ has not died down in the age of social media. Instead, it has remained the focal point of spoof, parody and has lent itself to countless memes.
A quick internet search revealed numerous articles turning over the same ground
One of these websites explains:
The Khong Guan cookie tin has always been known as an essential holiday item that brings families together for a communal snacking experience since it was made available in Indonesia in the 1970s.
Painted by Bernardus Prasodjo when he was an art student at the Bandung Institute of Technology in the 1970s, the family portrait depicting a mother, her son and her daughter indulging at tea-time with an assortment of Khong Guan cookies has been appropriated as a comical meme by millennial users of popular social networking sites in recent years.
Many memes humorously explore possibilities as to why the father is absent in the family portrait.”
It wasn’t hard to find these memes – they were many and various. Some of them suspected that Father was living a double life – or that he was having an affair with characters on other Indonesian packaging. Some of these theories get quite dark and twisted.
In one theory, Daddy was suspected to be having an affair with the woman on the packet of a famous brand of noodles. It seems she has also borne him two children.
When Daddy finally came home from visiting his other family, the biscuit mother and children were planning to take revenge …
In the version above, Dad has made an appearance but no one is taking any notice of him because they are too busy taking Instagram pics of their meal.
In the age of Covid, the picture has lent itself well to social commentary:
Here the solution to dad’s absence is the fact that he’s giving his hand a really long, Covid-thorough wash.
An Indonesian newspaper recently used it as their splash picture to lead an article about the importance of staying productive when in lockdown.
Things get a bit political when, two years ago in – I understand – the highly-charged period before an election, a satirical video appeared online. In this take on the famous scene, the little girl was unhappy because of online bullying about her absent dad.
“The mother says that their father is employed again because the government has managed to reduce the unemployment rate to 5.13%. She also says the government has reduced the poverty rate to single digits, the lowest at any time in history of the republic, which is why they can eat well.
Moved by this news, the kids yell out “Mom!” and go in for a group hug. They tell her not to be afraid of being accused of campaigning and of answering the suspicions of netizens.
(Unfamiliar as I am with Indonesian politics, I’m not sure who is trying to say what with this video – but apparently there was some concern that it might lead to protests against the iconic biscuits by religious hardliners – much as there was talk of boycotting Yorkshire Tea and I don’t remember what else before last UK election).
So now I am going to let you know the answer to the riddle that has challenged 268 million people. Brace yourselves!
Daddy was not in the picture because … Daddy was at work. He came home two hours later to a joyful reception. This is what happens every day at 6 o’ clock when Daddy comes back home from Ladybird-Work. That’s Ladybird Land for you.
So if ever you find yourself in Semarang with an hour or two to kill, you must visit the Khong Guan museum, take a picture of yourself in the iconic dining room and let me see it.
Now, the big question is, should I or should I not break it to the Khong Guan company and the good people of Indonesia that their long-running mystery has been solved?
You can find more about artist Harry Wingfield here
You can read a little more about the creation of the original artwork here.