The Monkey King Dances is a collection of columns written for two New Zealand newspapers – which don’t archive online – between August 2007 & July 2008. Columns are reprinted as originally published barring any serious grammatical errors. Pictures and links added for fun.
Back in the good ole days, when my main aspiration was to someday become a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, us kids spent a lot of time being educated with the help of pictures and obscenely large place cards.
For math, we helped Mr. Farmer count his carrots. With the alphabet, we had a bit of Career Day mixed in. P was for Police woman, N for the male nurse, D was for dictator, etc. etc.
The geography lesson, however, made the biggest impression on me. With these illustrations, the class learned about different countries by the dress of it’s respective citizens. China was the place where everybody wore deep-coloured dresses and chopsticks in their hair. Canada was depicted with a Mountie and the Russian woman always looked like the haggard homeless guy who lived behind the grocery store.
Now that I’m a well-traveled young lad, I know some of those pictures were probably misleading and that not every African wears a disheki. I also chuckle a little to myself when I think of how different my life might have been if a New Zealander had been depicted in our lesson.
Now, on particularly slow moments during the day, I wonder how a classic Kiwi would have been presented to us.
I imagine strange, bristly legs jetting out of cumbersome half-Wellingtons, naturally ending with a pair of dirty stubbies. The weather-worn bloke has a five-o’clock shadow and a rolled up baklava perched on his massive, cauliflower ears like the head of a flowering mushroom.
The identifying characteristic, though, the trade mark of it all would be the oversized checker board hanging loosely on the body like some ridiculous Halloween costume. I’m of course referring to New Zealand’s most widely recognized icon, the Swanni.
Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been a Kiwi fashion statement for years. For the first few months, people kept coming up to me and complimenting my “Swanny”. At first, I was deeply offended and angry that Kiwis could be so insulting. When I realised people werer talking about my jacket and not my face, I was still in the dark somewhat.
Ever had the feeling of being the only person in a group not in on the good laugh, yet you chuckle anyone so as not to be caught? I had that feeling for five months. You see, my jacket is a “Woolrich”, and it’s a hand-me-down from my father. I know it’s old because the tag says something about being made since 1331.
My Swanny is also a point of pride, like a real coat-of-arms. Not only are bits of various adventures embedded and ripped into the material, but the jacket has also become a wonderful Winkler trademark back home. Because it’s so unique and versatile, I wore it everywhere.
But it wasn’t particularly popular some people, namely an old girlfriend. She hated my jacket almost as much as I hated her friends.
Countless times I was admonished for that “filthy rag”, and she was always suggesting alternative attire. I once walked in on her trying to stuff my pride and joy into a tot bag. She said she was taking it to the cleaners to get it washed.
“Why’s there a canister of starter fluid in your bag as well, my dearest?” I asked.
“Oh that? Mary needs it for her art project.” Needless-to-say, I think it was a cover-up. I knew damn well Mary was taking a ceramics class.
Now, though, I’m thrilled to be in a country that knows and respects decent threads. Not only that, but New Zealand has marketed the Swanny image far beyond anything I could have imagined. I suppose it’s not that impressive in a country where people are outnumbered by sheep almost 20-1.
Still, I took a trip to the Swannddri Factory store a few weeks ago and was flabbergasted at all the different ways a single pattern and two colours have been manipulated to fit on the body. There were Swanny hats, Swanny gloves, Swanny pants, Swanny scarves, Swanny swanny.
The choices were endless. Even the coats that looked like mine had a wonderful thermal lining inside. I was shown a whole new world of possibility. It’s as if I had spent my whole life wearing nothing but a shirt, and then one day, being suddenly introduced to the concept of pants and shoes. It felt like the first time I’d left Arkansas.
I walked around in a bit of a red-and-blue haze for awhile and when I left the store, I could have sworn I was seeing things in 3D.
I also left the store a little disappointed. After seeing so many choices, I felt certain I could find a little Swanny outfit for my American friends’ new born child, maybe even some Swanny diapers. When that didn’t happen, I thought some Swanny latex might be fun for a quick gag. Again, no dice.
The store itself is closing soon and it’s a real shame. I think the news item said something about the factory being moved to China. It’s bad, I know, but not nearly as bad as a red, white and blue hat that says “God Bless America” in the front, and “made in Indonesia” in the back.
Regardless of where Swanny is made, I’m just glad I’ve found a fashionable and timeless way to bond with my Kiwi brethren.
When I go back home, there’ll be a lot of questions for sure: No, they don’t have central heating; no, there’s no comic page in the newspapers. BUT, they have great taste in style and nobody ever complains about the cold.
Before the shop’s last day, I think I might go in there and just pack my duffel bag full of Swanny material. My own coat is eventually going to need to be repaired and I’ll have plenty of cloth for patch work. If I don’t use it all, it’ll most likely be stored until I have a little maggot of my own. I can already hear our annual argument when Halloween comes around.
“But Daaaaadddd. I don’t wanna be a Teenage Mutant Checker Board AGAIN!”
“Quiet Spawn! It’s not a TMCB. This year you’re going as a Kiwi Bloke. Trust me, it’s the scariest costume in the whole, wide world.”
– Timaru Herald, 2008