Hatpins we have loved

Here is a retro hatpin found by my daughter and me in a sweet-jar in a junkshop in old Penang, Malaysia.

I particularly liked it because in my collages I like to use images of vintage telephony. The jar was half full of hatpins, most of them, apparently, from France. We bought several. At some point, some French person resident in Penang must have looked at their collection of hatpins and thought: Non! I won’t keep zeese old hatpins hanging around ze house (more likely: the condominium) any longeur! I am going to take zem down to Jalan Chulia and sell zem to one of zose old shophouse antique places. Saperlipopette! Tida’ apa! Incidentally, Saperlipopette is translated as Blistering Barnacles in the Tintin works, and Tidak Apa (lit.: Not What) is Malay for No Matter.

Or maybe the French expat died, leaving a great range of puzzling objects for the landlord to dispose of. I hope to do the same one day myself. Here is another French hatpin so sourced, charmingly celebrating the cabbage.

Removed from their context, hatpins can have a delightful random charm. They also command attention through the intensity of the colour of the enamel. And their indestructible quality is breathtaking. As that French expat might have said,

L’art dur, seul a l’eternite!

(Only hard art lasts forever – a warning here for any modern sculptresses working in fragile materials, or for collage hobbyists using  tissue-thin original material and Pritt Stick, yes! Pritt Stick, can you imagine? for adhesive).

I make no secret of the fact that I have collected hatpins, and well beyond the time when most other people packed it in. They look lovely! And they are cheap and small to buy as souvenirs. However, it is important to state that one does not wear or keep hatpins as souvenirs, but as hatpins per se. As a matter of fact, we should find, on ze hat, a range of varied hatpins some of which cannot be accounted for as to source or meaning. This is the approach taken by my brother, and he is entirely right.

I’m assuming that most people have stopped collecting hatpins, because they are less and less easily found in the shops. This is excellent news, as it makes the purchase of a hatpin into a safari, a treasure hunt. My son and I spent an entire afternoon traipsing the malls of Singapore before finding, finally, this one. It has the merit of simplicity. They chose the lion/dolphin city emblem as representative of their country. They could have chosen the high rise apartment block, the efficient police officer, a phalanx of compliant schoolchildren, smooth-flowing traffic, ultra-tidy streets, but they chose something unreal instead, bless them.The only imaginable improvement would be for them to use an image from the Haw Par Villa showing some of the miseries awaiting sinners in the many realms of the afterlife.

And across the causeway we find that Malaysian hatpins for tourists can also be very simple.


Others try to offer you a permanent impression of the vibrant scenery and the eye-boggling flora and fauna:


Still others reference cultural activities, and these are, as you might expect, Malay rather than Chinese or Indian or as relating to the aboriginal peoples of Malaysia. There are actually some very interesting Malay cultural phenomena, such as running amok, mass hysteria, and the condition known as Latah, a sort of hypnotic state, but these hardly lend themselves to hatpin iconography, let’s be fair. So they go for the traditional pursuits: kite making and flying, and no doubt, top-spinning, wax-printing, and pewter manufacture.


Over in East Malaysia we see the same trends. Piracy and headhunting, the suppression of indigenous peoples, wholesale deforestation, these are avoided as hatpin subjects in favour of flowers, hornbills, and orang utans (albeit these are in need of rehabilitation; heaven only knows what delinquencies they have fallen into).


This all makes me wonder what UK hatpins look like, as I have never sought them out. No doubt we would find the Houses of Parliament, the Millennium Wheel, the BT Tower, like that, but aren’t there more representative images that could be considered? The discarded kebab? The puking teenage drunk? The street beggar? The 4 X 4? The roundabout? The triumphant celeb? The overpaid banking exec? The charity shop?

If someone opened a Footballer Rehabilitation Centre, we could have a whole series right there.


Malaysians do like their hatpins and key rings. Here are two that celebrate I don’t know what. One is for MSS and one is for MSSS. The Melaka one is rather a puzzle – is that a life buoy? And are there hands reaching up from it, trying to grasp the … the thing up there? Melaka is a maritime city, to be sure. I’m betting that the SS is for Sailing Ship on that one. The additional S in the other one is surely for Sabah, the state in which the silhouetted mountain, Mt. Kinabalu, is situated.

It seems that any opportunity is taken to issue a hatpin or a key ring. Here is one that was issued by the school I was working in in 1981, Sekolah Menengah Hamid Khan in Tapah, Perak, on the occasion of Sports Day. I was told that a prominent teacher at that school, charged with the organisation of the Day, visited the local Bomoh, or Shaman, to try to book good weather for it. Pre-Islamic magical ideas are still strong in Malay culture, and they can be found in the Malaysian cultures of other races too. When he arrived at the Bomoh’s house and stated his business he was asked: When you came here today, did you walk on the right side of the road or the left? His answer disappointed the Bomoh. Ah, if only you had walked on the right, I could have guaranteed good weather, but as it is, I can’t be 100% certain.  I don’t know if that story was true; it might be a rural myth.

Anyway, on that day, they made me an official, and I got a special badge to show it.

This showed terrific faith on their part, because on an earlier occasion the head of Sports had made me referee a football match, assuming that my inservice training was the equal of a Malaysian teacher’s. Don’t make me! Don’t do this! I had urged. But he must have taken this as polite modesty for he would hear nothing of it. I stumbled around the field, asking the children what had just happened and what should happen next. It was shambolic. After 15 minutes, on came Mr. Johari with his whistle and waved me back to the stand.

Well, humiliation is easier to bear than nightmare. Not What, that’s what I say.


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