a for altitude, anarchism
on the relationship between altitudes and the attitudes of anarchism: from the high altiude anarchism of the upland hill tribes of zomia to the low altitude piracy that plagues the archipelagoes of south-east asia, and the connection to the of (indic) cosmology, where mountains and seas are places of power.
keywords: anarchism, animism, aporia, archipelago, ascending/descending, assimilation, diagram, mountain, piracy, water, zomia
b for buffalo
on the symbolism of the buffalo in the buffalo-tiger fights staged by the javanese courts. across different historical periods, the significances of the buffalo-tiger pair shifted. the buffalo was a life-giving animal of civilization, while the predatory tiger manifested the wild and savage power of nature. there are times when royalty and peasantry alike rooted for the buffalo against the tiger, but at other times, the peasant rooted for the buffalo against the tiger of the royalty. during colonial periods, the royalty stood behind the buffalo against the tiger which embodied dutch colonial power. to connect this elasticity of signification with a notion of south-east asian subjectivity through the technique of fabricating wayang-kulit (shadow play) puppets out of buffalo skin.
keywords: agriculture, barbarian, bondage, boundary, buffalo, colonialism, forest, peasants, royalty, shadow puppet, tiger
c for circle, corruption
on the continuity of the form and logic of corruption from ancient to contemporary south-east asia, beginning with early cosmological system of cognatic kinship (transmission of power through maternal and paternal lineages) and endlessly proliferating circles of kings) to the nepotism of today. describe corruption as a physical and cosmological system, a corruption of the spirit and a spirit of corruption.
keywords: air, circle, contagion, corruption, cosmology, modern leader, money, royalty, transmission
d for decay
begin with an archaeological mystery in perak, malaysia, where excavations uncovered what appears to be graves, except that no human remains were discovered. a recent hypothesis/speculation is that the acidity of the soil, intense rainfall and high rates of humidity in malaysia brought about the complete decomposition of all human remains, including the bones. this term deals with both the absence of material artifacts plaguing historical research in south-east asia, the impossibility of forensic.
keywords: burial/grave, decay, dispersal/disaggregation, human remains, humidity, forensics, rain, river, soil
e for epidemics, evasion
on epidemics (both biological and ideological) and tech- niques of evasion.
keywords: contagion, ecology, efficacy, evasion, transmission of ideology
f for fiction, friction, forest
on the friction of terrain presented by the dense, tropical forest in which shelter outlaws (bandits, communists, etc) as well as myths and magic are sheltered.
keywords: fiction, flight, flora/fauna, fluidity, forest, friction, frontier, magic/shamans, outlaw
g for ghost, ghostwriter, gene z. hanrahan
on south-east asia as a geography of ghosts (the continuing involvement of the dead on the affairs of the living), the production of history through the work of ghostwriters and the history of communism in south-east asia. to end with the figure of gene z. hanrahan, the supposed 'author' of the communist struggle in malaya (1954) — the first authoritative text on the history of the malayan communist party. however, the existence of gene z. hanrahan is open to question. he is an author dreamt up / produced by his books.
keywords: authors/writing, cpm/mcp/mpaja, espionage, geography, ghost/spirit, guerilla, transmission
h for humidity
about the prevalence of water (and water vapors) in south-east asia, the pressure of the environment (as ambient oppression), imbalance between the inside and the outside, and the sweat of labour.
keywords: air conditioning, diagram, heat, humidity, hydrology, irrigation, landscape, oppression, rain, river, sweat/labor, trade, water
i for identity, inscription, irrigation
on the relationship between identity, inscription (tattoos, writing) and irrigation (inscription of the earth).
keywords: aerial shot, agriculture, authors/writing, construction, identity, imitation, inscription, invulnerability, irrigation, tattoo, unreadable sign
j for jellyfish
on the proliferation of jellyfishes in south-east asia (due to pollution) and the notion of "jellyfish tribes" (shape-shifting tribes in the zomia area).
keywords: jellyfish, pollution, shape-shifter, zomia
k for kinship, kingship
on the system of cognatic kinship in south-east asia (transmission of power through maternal and paternal lineages), and a mapping of contemporary south-east asian kinship ties in ruling families.
keywords: family, kinship/kingship, modern nepotism, royalty
l for legibility, lai teck
on the relationship between illegibility and fungibility in south-east asia, as connected to its long, subterranean history of shape-shifters playing major roles in its political events. to end off with the figure of a man known as lai teck — one of the 50 or so aliases of the sino-vietnamese who was the secretary-general of the malayan communist party from 1939 to 1947, and who was also a triple agent working for the french, the british and the japanese during the world war ii. he was later revealed as traitor and said to be killed in thailand in 1947, though very little of him remains known to this day. in the figure of this man known as lai teck, is inscribed the play of historical and political forces that swept across south-east asia, and in his mutability, a model of a nascent south-east asian subjectivity.
keywords: 1900-1947, authors/writing, body in water, colonialism, cpm/mcp/mpaja, espionage, guerilla, japanese occupation of malaya, legibility, river, shape-shifter, unreadable sign
m for mandala
an analysis of non-euclidean organization of space in south-east asia, through how ancient, pre-colonial empires of the regions understood the notion of territory, as radiating outwards from centers without physical limits. this is in contrast to the western model of empires, which are drawn inwards from clearly demarcated borders. this conceptualization of space was first theorized by kautilya in the 2nd century bce, who wrote on the mandala system of governance in the arthashastra, a sanskrit treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy.
keywords: aerial shot, cosmology, india bce, magic/shamans, mandala, manpower, map, mobility, network, survey
n for nation, narration, narcosis
on the narcosis of narration and nation.
keywords: aerial shot, narcotics, narration, nationalism, survey
o for ocean, opium
on the connection of oceans and opium: the trade that links india (production), distribution (singapore) and consumption (china) by looking at the opium trade in the 19th century: production in india and distribution in china, with singapore as a nodal point for exchange, the same sea route that was central to transmission of memes across south-east asia — a meeting point between indian and chinese cultures.
keywords: india/china, ocean, opium, opium war, orality, origin
p for padi, politics, plateau
politics in pre-modern south-east asia is padi politics. its mantra: to concentrate the population and hold it in place, and its key condition: creating such state space was easiest where there was a substantial expanse of flat, fertile land, watered by perennial streams and rivers. against the practices of swidden (slash and burn) agriculture practiced by the tribes of highland plateaus. to connect with gregory bateson's study of the plateaus of intensities in balinese paintings (appropriated by deleuze and guattari).
keywords: balinese painting, bateson, buffalo, colonialism, deleuze/guattari, deleuzian diagram, highland tribe, irrigation, padi, peasants, periphery, plateau, politics, river, royalty, swidden agriculture, tiger
q for queen
on queens (mythical and historical) of south-east asia.
keywords: colonialism, ocean, queen, question, quotation, royalty, underwater, water kingdom, women, women with white males
r for resonance
about metallurgy in south-east asia and the technology of gong-making (key instrument in south-east asian tribal rituals). the term 'resonance' also forms a model of how to think the unity of south-east asia.
keywords: gong, metal, ritual
s for slavery, soul
on the connection between the concepts of south-east asian slavery, historical slavery in south-east asia and the animistic concepts of soul (and soul stuff).
keywords: animism, cosmology, emanation of power, fanaticism, ghost/spirit, mandala, map, network, obedience, royalty, sea, slavery, society/state, soul
t for tiger, thedolite
to begin with an analysis of the print, unterbrochene straßenmessung auf singapore (interrupted road surveying singapore) by heinrich leutemann, which illustrates the encounter of the british chief surveyor (george dromgold coleman) with a tiger in the singaporean jungle in 1835 during a surveying trip. the tiger attacked only the theodolite — an instrument for surveying, but not coleman's party — which was made of indian convicts on forced labor. from this single image, in which different civilizations as well as different modes or being confront each other, we extrapolate a network traversing the nature/culture division.
keywords: colonialism, cpm/mcp/mpaja, espionage, forest, indians/prisoners, japanese occupation of malaya, map, singapore before 1900, slavery, survey, tiger, water
u for utama
to begin with a mapping of the genealogy of sang nila utama — the mythical founder of singapore and malacca — a family tree which stretches to south india kings, alexander the great and king solomon, from which we ponder the mysteries of origin.
keywords: malacca, ocean, origin, royalty, singapore, sumatra, utama, water kingdom
v for vampires, vaginas
on the malayan myth of the vampiric pontianak — ghosts of women who die during childbirth) and the javanese legend of ken dedes, the wife of a local governor whose genitals glowed with fire.
keywords: fire, pontianak, vagina, vampire, voice
w for weretiger
on the myth of weretigers as embodiments of man-animal symbiosis. such transformations take place in water — the most liminal of elements.
keywords: body in water, magic/shamans, ritual, tamil tigers, tiger, water, weretiger
x for xeno
on the relationship to the outside/outsiders.
keywords: becoming-animal, first contact, foreigner, intercourse, xenophilia/xenophobia
y for yielding
on the spirit of yielding — an attitude to things and forces, lending itself to sympathetic magic.
keywords: first contact, foreigner, magic/shamans, obedience, yielding
z for zone, zoomorphism
on the shatter zones of refuge (forest, mountains, archipelagoes), which are also the zones of zoomorphicism, against the zone of control (zombies and zoos).
keywords: animal, archipelago, evasion, forest, jellyfish, modern nepotism, mountain, oppression, royalty, shape-shifter, water, weretiger, zombie, zomia, zoophilia
g for gene z. hanrahan
the communist struggle in malaya, first published in 1954 by the institute of pacific relations and subsequently republished by the university of malaya press in 1979 was one of the earliest general historical accounts of the malayan communist party.
this short and concise text by gene z. hanrahan remains to this day a key resource for this period of malayan history, and has been regularly cited by subsequent studies of communist histories in southeast asia. his writing was crisp, his analyses reasonable, if never spectacular. but what made the text valuable was the author's access to confidential documents beyond the reach of other researchers, although hanrahan never explained how his sources were explained.
the bibliography of hanrahan is dazzlingly diverse. the books that he has been involved with as a researcher, translator (of multiple languages), editor and writer, include documents on the mexican revolution (documentary publications, 1981 to 1985), a 9 volume collection of confidential documents related to the madero revolution of 1910, writings on military strategies and guerilla warfare, as well as introducing, translating and editing the writings of carlos marighella, the brazilian marxist revolutionary and urban guerilla theoretician.
then, there is hanrahan's more "literary" streak, in putting out assault! (bantam books, 1962), an anthology of "real" descriptions of the pacific war by "real" us marines, hemingway - the wild years (dell publishing, 1962) a selection of ernest hemingway's articles for the toronto star, as well as 50 great oriental stories (bantam books, 1965), a collection of the "finest oriental tales ever written", chosen and edited by hanrahan. he also wrote brief but erudite commentaries for each section of the anthology, meant for "students of oriental literature".
hints to the biography of this polymath, or hack are meagerly scattered on the dust jackets of his publications, or in prefaces and forewords written by others. hanrahan has been variously described as a naval intelligence officer, a lecturer and a specialist of guerilla warfare. but judging from the tone of these prefaces and forewords, it would seem as though none of the authors know him on intimate terms. and in from pki to the comintern, 1924 - 1941: the apprenticeship of the malayan communist party (cornell university press, 1992), the malaysian historian cheah boon kheng declares: "it is believed that gene z. hanrahan as the pseudonym of a research assistant or a research organization".
but if "gene z. hanrahan" was indeed a pseudonym, it was one that in turn, had a pseudonym. according to the u.s. library of congress, the author known as william j. kennedy is the pseudonym of gene z. hanrahan. as william j. kennedy, he authored pre-service course in shop practice (john wiley & sons, 1943), a technical manual for "pre-induction training based upon the requirements of the u.s. army" to be offered to high school seniors during the second world war, and secret history of the oil companies in the middle east (documentary publications, 1979).
the oeuvre of "gene z. hanrahan" can be described as consisting largely of texts that are "documentary" in nature, but it partakes of fiction at a different level – the construction of an author. gene z. hanrahan is an author dreamt up by his books, and in the oneiric skein of his bibliography, is entangled the history of malayan communism.
h for hydrography, hydraulics, hydrology, humidity
water is a constant and central feature in descriptions of early southeast asia. closed in on the north by the mountain ranges of the eastern himalayas, and internally choked by dense tropical forests and swamps, this was a region difficult to access by land, but everywhere opened up to navigable waterways. its long, hospitable coastlines welcomed steady streams of seafarers for more than two thousand years, bringing together a mosaic of people, things, ideas and languages, dispersed inland through its network of rivers. this understanding of the role of water in the fertile plurality of the region's genetic and memetic matrix is born of an alignment between history and hydrography – a science originating in the making of navigational charts, based on understanding the physical features of water bodies and a mapping of their changes over time.
by the beginning of the common era, two distinct but sometimes overlapping forms of polities had emerged in the region. the first, found along the river plains of continental, or mainland, southeast asia were religious-political systems centered on wet-rice agriculture. these were societies organized around the construction of large-scale irrigation and drainage systems, from which a type of padi-politics was born – the planting of rice and the pinning down of people, a population rendered sedentary, countable and taxable. the second, found in archipelagic, or island southeast asia, were thalassocracies fueled by flows of maritime and riverine trade. their modus operandi was the struggle for the control of coastlines and strategic "choke-points" along river-ways and their power measured by the number of boats controlled. however, both types of domination are in their own ways, techniques of distributing bodies through the manipulation of water flows. therefore, analyses of both political systems are necessarily a kind of hydraulic analytics, attentive to the generation, control, and transmission of power by the use and control of pressurized water. (1)
although both the hydrographical and hydraulical modes of historical understanding remain crucial to making sense of the region, they are primarily mechanical systems engaged with quantitative relations of force and matter, dealing with water solely in its liquid state. what escapes them is water's inherent liminality and innate propensity for qualitative phase changes; water not only flows, it freezes and it evaporates. to fully grasp the manifold relationship between water and southeast asia requires a third mode of thought – a hydrology devoted to cyclical transformations; an ontology of metamorphosis to supplement the mechanistic systemics of hydrography and hydraulics.
intuitions of such a hydrology can be found in the animistic cosmologies of the region, where water plays a central role in the emergence of life or in the founding of a people (usually through the union of a local woman with a man who arrives from the sea). yet the sacredness of water in southeast asia has always been accompanied by an attitude of deep ambiguity to this element. it is attributed with the powers of healing and purification, just as it is commonly dreaded as the source of epidemics, bad spirits and bad deaths. (2) water does not, in itself, possess a value that is unequivocally positive or negative. it is beyond good and evil because it enables the transition between good and evil. as a lubricant for transgressing boundaries of all kinds, it faciliates passage across inanimate and animate states (the emergence of life) and dissolves the separation between the inside and the outside (the birth of a people through the synthesis of the local and foreign). (3) this is why in many parts of southeast asia, it is said that a shaman or a sorcerer who seeks to turn himself into a tiger did so in the midst of crossing a river. should a body of water not be close at hand, the would-be weretiger performs three somersaults, drawing in the air the sign of the swastika – the symbol of water and of cyclical return. to think hydrologically is to think metamorphically, and in the context of southeast asia to water, this means attending to water in its most prevalent but also most invisible mode, as vapors permeating the atmosphere. southeast asia is an empire of humidity. (4)
humidity is ambient oppression, at once imperceptible and visceral. a human subject in a humid atmosphere is prone to breathing difficulties and respiratory conditions such as asthma, along with symptoms of hyperventilation, chronic anxiety, numbness, fainting, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and loss of concentration. the invisible forcefield of water vapors in the air palpably impedes the body's normal processes of heat dissipation primarily by preventing sweat from evaporating. and if the environment is as warm, or warmer than the skin, the heat-carrying blood that rises to the body surface is also prevented from cooling via conduction into the air. this results in a continuous surging of blood to the surface of the body and a corollary reduction of blood flow to the active muscles, the brain, and other internal organs, which in turn brings about a decline of physical strength, loss of alertness and mental capacity, a condition known as "heat stress", which in extreme cases, leads to death by heat stroke. it has been predicted that by 2045 climate change would push heat stress impacts in southeast asia to a boiling point, with dire implications for national economies and the safety of workers. in singapore, the number of heat stress days has been projected to rise to 364 days (from the current 335), resulting in a 25% loss of productivity. (5) for an island state engineered as a model of ruthless efficiency, humidity is an apocalyptic threat that can only be contained by an intensification of microscopic control over the air. the former, hydraulic systems of discipline are mutating into the hydrological model of societal control, embodied by invisible, but pervasive, air-conditioning.
if death by fire is exuberant and immediate; death by water (and its vapors) is a kind of endless falling into a dense darkness, lethargic and dream-like, a daily death that is infinite, akin to the sluggish melancholy we experience in the presence of a dormant pool, or a stagnant, asphyxiated pond on a hot, humid afternoon, where time itself seems to have slowed down to an infinite crawl.
* * *
(1) a hydraulical mapping of power also offers insights into the forms of resistance and evasion under these modes of domination. to think in terms of water is to think the latent possibility of seepage and a restless search for side-stepping blockages. on the southeast asian mainland, the key strategy for people wishing to escape state control has always been to abandon the sedentary existence of wet-rice agriculture, adopting a nomadic existence in the refuge of forests or the mountains. see james c. scott, the art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland southeast asia, yale university press (new haven), 2009. on the other hand, on island southeast asia, anarchy often took the form of a subversive use of the same water channels that the state had sought to control, by intensifying the inherent dynamics of water. in the malay archipelago, nomadic sea tribes could swiftly strike, before quickly disappearing into the the labyrinthine water ways.
(2) for example, the cosmology of the ngaju dayak of borneo is centered on the notion of a life-giving water stored up within the tree of life, while many tribes in indonesia attribute their origins to the union of a local woman with an "overseas" man. see peter boomgaard, "a state of flux" in world of water: rain, rivers and seas in southeast asian histories, kitlv press (leiden), 2007, pp. 5 - 7. this text is also a typical example of scholarship somewhat "stumped" by the contradictory attitudes of southeast asian people to water. for example, boomgaard describes how the ngajuk dayak also associate water will illnesses, and consider the annual flooding of the river their "lifelines" as a source of prosperity by connecting upstream and downstream territories, but at the same time, causing death by drowning and by crocodile.
(3) a variant of the common indonesian myth of origin through local woman and "overseas" man is also present in the account of the founding of the funan kingdom, which emerged on the lower mekong delta between the first to sixth century ce. it was said that a woman ruler of that region led an attack on a passing merchant ship. after successfully defending themselves, the merchants made their way to shore, whereupon their leader "drank water from the land" and married the woman ruler, who is described as the daughter of the ruler of the realm of water. water eases the transitions between the inside and the outside.
(4) the combination of equatorial heat, proximity to water bodies and high rainfall makes southeast asia home to some of the most humid cities on earth.
(5) the resarch was carried out by the british firm verisk maplecroft in 2015. see report "too hot to work: climate change puts south-east asia economies at risk" in the guardian, 28 october 2015.
l for lai teck
a fleet of illegible and nameless specters haunts the political landscapes of early and mid-twentieth-century southeast asia. british special branch reports from this period tended to present its communist enemies as faceless statistical digits, revealing few personal details about them. the abstraction of these reports is further exacerbated by the fact that the most frequent sources of intelligence were agents, double agents, double-crossers, informers, snitches, squealers, stool-pigeons, rats, spies, traitors, tattletales, turncoats, and apostates — all of whom have been known to fabricate stories.
this problem is symmetrically compounded by the highly secretive and conspiratorial nature of the malayan communist party, which bordered on the paranoid. party statements scarcely mentioned names, especially those of their leaders and agents. this security measure for concealing the identities of its operatives seldom worked out in the long term, and its chief weakness was that it rendered these figures invisible to the public, which had no image of the party's leadership, or knowledge of its policies and activities.
from 1939 to 1947, the secretary general of the malayan communist party was a man known as lai teck, sometimes written as loi tak, lai te, or lai rac as he was known to some in vietnam. it has been said that he lived as truong phuoc dat until 1934, but other sources report his birth name to be nguyen van long, hoang a nhac, or pham van dac. throughout his career, lai teck accumulated more than fifty names: lai te, lighter, mr light, mr wright, c. h. chang, chan hung chang, chan hoon, chang hung, soh king, lao wu, lee soong, wong kim geok, huang shao-dong, jin tang, d. ling, the right hand of ho chih-minh, ah le, ah lin, or malaya's lenin. he is every name in history. and in may 1948, the central committee of the malayan communist party named him: "the greatest traitor in the history of our party."
while there seems to be a consensus that he was born in 1903, accounts vary on his birthplace, which ranges from the nghe tinh province of vietnam, to saigon, to ba ria in the south. but all commentators seem to agree that he was of mixed blood — with a chinese mother and an annamese father — as though this mélange prefigured the form, or rather, the formlessness of his life.
drawn to communism at an early age, he joined the indochina communist party while he was still a student in saigon. after leaving school, he entered the french navy and lived a life of water, circulating through the underbellies of asian port cities, among an interregional cast of transients, seedy outlaws, and small-time revolutionaries. for a person gifted with strong mimetic faculties, life out in the open, fluid sea was a constant temptation toward dissolution, a slow unbounding of the self. for someone like lai teck, to be at sea was to become sea, to become water, in water.
in 1925, he was arrested by the french sûreté générale indochinoise for disseminating communist literature among sailors. some believe this to be the moment when he "turned" to the other side; he would have been only twenty-two years old. others think that the turning point took place six years later, when he was arrested at the french concession in shanghai. in any case, lai teck worked in vietnam as an informer until 1934, when his cover was blown in an incident in annam. no longer useful to french intelligence, he was gifted to the british, with whom he would begin a new chapter in his career. authenticated by documents that the special branch had seized in raids in hong kong and shanghai, lai teck arrived in singapore in 1934 with impressive credentials. the british slyly cast him as a former aide of ho chih minh, which was convenient, given that ho had been arrested in hong kong in 1932. lai teck arrived as a comintern agent specially sent to resolve an internal rift that was paralyzing the malayan communist party.
according to a japanese military report that surfaced after the war, "comrade wright" made an immediate impression within the party. his knowledge of theoretical marxism earned him the epithet of "malaya's lenin," while his natural ability for organized destruction showed itself in an intensive, six-month purge that restored "ideological unity within the party." using the police to remove his competition, he rapidly rose within the ranks of the party, becoming secretary general in 1939.
when singapore fell into japanese hands in february 1942, lai teck did not take to the jungle like many of his comrades. he chose to remain in the occupied city, according to one source, accompanied by two vietnamese wives and a chinese mistress, until he was picked up by the kempeitai in a security sweep. from then on, lai teck began working for the japanese. news of his arrest spread, but so great was his aura within the party that it was believed that this master of espionage talked his way out of prison. in the years of the japanese occupation, lai teck went about his business flamboyantly, in a morris eight saloon given to him by the japanese. but there can be little doubt that he facilitated the extensive destruction of the party's organization in singapore and malaya, often by setting up high-ranking party members for kempeitai ambushes. throughout his career, he was responsible for the arrest and execution of at least 105 party colleagues.
with the japanese surrender and the return of malaya to british rule, lai teck, with characteristic seamlessness, resumed his work with the british. however, suspicions against him had been accumulating in the last years of the war, and the central committee of the party summoned lai teck for a meeting on march 6, 1947. sensing that something was amiss, lai teck did not turn up. instead, he spent the next months in hiding before disappearing with most of the party's funds to hong kong. however, prior to this, lai teck had made what was arguably his most far-reaching political move — steering the armed, anti-japanese communist guerillas away from a forceful take over of malaya before the british return. and when chin peng, who succeeded lai teck as secretary general in 1947, led the party to armed struggle, the initiative had already been lost. vessel to every power, in the vicissitudes of lai teck's career, can be traced a chronicle of the entire region's political turmoil.
the death of lai teck, like so much of his life, came through hearsay. according to chin peng, whose account was in itself the result of a sequence of chinese whispers, lai teck was tracked down in thailand in 1947 by a death squad. he was suffocated, his body stuffed in a sack, and thrown into the chao phraya river. a watery grave for a man whose being in the world was like water in water.
the closest thing to an official confirmation of lai teck's death is the recent release of his picture by the special branch, something that is usually done upon the death of former agents. in this single photograph of him that survives, we see a lean and severe man with large, deep-set eyes staring straight out at us. cloaked in blankness, this is a face that lends itself easily to our imaginative projections of cloak-and-dagger fantasies. and in the very inconstancy of his soul, we sense an incompleteness that defines the region as a whole; an identity not defined by interiority or substance, but shaped through exteriority and relationality. in the uncertain and ambiguous biography of this nameless shape-shifter is inscribed the history of southeast asia: subjected to multiple possessions and manifold dominations, alongside a brute — and mute — will to survive.
t for tiger
a common notion found throughout the peoples of southeast asia is that there are some individuals who have the ability to magically transform themselves into tigers. the basis for this belief lies in the ambiguity of the tiger's association with people: the two species occupy similar ecological niches, in which they neither have a relationship of direct competition or mutual cooperation. the tiger's preferred habitat is an ecologically liminal or transitional zone: spaces near water and at the edges of forests. similarly, the people of southeast asia had historically settled along water, while their agricultural activities created forest edges, the tiger's preferred transitional zone. the agricultural produce of men attracted deer, pigs, and monkeys, which in turn attracted the tigers that hunted them, leading tigers to populate the liminal areas between villages and the forest.
people have a tendency to attribute human-like qualities to the animals they live in close proximity with. thus, tigers are sometimes believed to live in villages, subject to rulers, and with their own social structures and rules. occasionally these tigers transform into humans, a magical act that usually takes place in the crossing of a boundary such as passing through a tunnel or swimming across a river. these tiger-people were thought to be dangerous, and were feared, although they were not necessarily always considered evil.
to the peoples of southeast asia, tigers embodied the power of nature, which was essentially ambiguous. the forest was a space outside civilisation and beyond human control, but it was also the place where magical herbs for healing could be gathered. in this sense, tigers were guardians and emissaries from the forest, passing between nature and culture, a boundary also traversed by shamans, who are in turn also attributed with the power to transform into tigers. this relationship with the tiger is apparent in the healing rituals of some village shamans: their hands may appear to change into tiger claws, or their behaviors might take on aspects of a tiger. sometimes, the presence of tigers can even be perceived to be beneficial to a human community, as they help to rid cultivated land of foragers. and since the protection of crops is a task usually assigned to the community's ancestors, it is perhaps unsurprising that a partial merger should occur between tigers and ancestors: tigers are sometimes perceived as ancestor spirits, and as such, they might even be regarded as enforcers of ancestral rules, punishing offenders, but also guarding their descendants' property.
this symbolic web between tigers, ancestors and shamans should be differentiated from that of magicians who magically transform into were-tigers for their own, usually nefarious purposes. the magician's purpose for transforming into a tiger can range from a taste for raw flesh to murderous intent. these transformational processes sometimes require the magician to go some distance from the village, where he will shed civilisation by the removal of his clothes, followed by the recitation of a magical formula. this process can sometimes be facilitated by the use of a piece of tiger skin or a yellow and black striped piece of cloth. sometimes, it is said that the transformation requires one to somersault – occasionally through one's own urine, creating the sign of the spiral, which in turn evokes water, traditionally understood as a passage to the underworld.
the tiger is an inhabitant of the liminal zone between the civilised and the wild, and as such, the relationship between the human and the tiger is one of deep ambiguity. as manifestations of protective ancestral spirits they can be considered a force for good, but when a man takes the form of a tiger outside the community, such actions are considered to be beyond the pale. he is thought to have forsaken humanity, to be out of touch with "god" or the creative power of the universe.
w for weretigers
it has been said that the javanese people do not, after sundown, utter the word macan (tiger) for fear of invoking its presence. instead, they refer to him as guda, from the sanskrit word gudha, which means hidden, or secret.
what one cannot know, or does not wish to know, one passes in silence. this is why certain tribal groups in malaya refer to the tiger only by stretching out their right hands in the shape of a claw. the gayo of sumatra call him mpu uton (grandfather of the forest) or mpu tempat (grandfather of the place), while the acehnese refer to him as datok (grandfather or ancestor) or gop (other person, someone; used also for people from another village or place). yet these aliases tell us something of the tiger's secret: it is a creature of the forest, it is a being of nature, and it is other to humans — though never completely or radically so. for it is also kin, bound by blood to humans in the distant horizon of an ancestral time, for tigers dispersed across southeast asia more than a million years ago, long before the emergence of homo sapiens. tigers have always been here, at the origin of our histories.
when early human settlers arrived in the region, they favoured as their habitat the transitory zones between the forest and the waters, an ecotone already occupied by other large, ground-dwelling mammals like the deer and the boar — and the tiger that preyed on them. humans did not yet have the capacity to dominate this savannah-like landscape, for which the tiger was so perfectly adapted. with its paws masterfully designed for stealth, and its eyes attuned to darkness, the tiger, with its striped coat of yellow and black, dissolved into the golden brown fields of the tall lalang grasses, silently stalking its prey from behind, awaiting the perfect moment at which it would bound up and seize the throat. to live in such a terrain, humans had to attune themselves to the ways of the tiger, a process that brings about fusion between the two species.
this traversing of the boundary between nature and culture is especially apparent in the healing rituals of some village shamans: their hands seem to take on the form of tiger claws, or their behavior takes on aspects of a tiger. this is why across southeast asia, the tiger was widely believed to live in villages, where the houses have walls of human skin, and the roofs are thatched with human hair. and when crossing lakes and rivers, the tiger can dissolve into the shape of a human. should a body of water not be close at hand, the would-be weretiger performs three somersaults, drawing in the air the sign of the swastika – the symbol of water and of cyclical return.
the first written record of the malayan "weretiger" comes from an early fifteenth-century chinese source, the triumphant visions of the shores of the ocean, by ma huan, who served as an interpreter to admiral zheng he, the great navigator-eunuch of ming dynasty china. of his visit to malacca, he wrote: "in the town there are tigers which can assume human form; they enter the markets, and walk about, mixing with the populace. if anyone recognized one of these creatures, he would seize it and kill it." there were ways by which one could discern a weretiger. in its human form, it is believed to lack the philtrum, the cleft on the upper lip, and is a being without a fixed abode: a vagrant, a beggar, or a shaman who traverses the liminal space between nature and civilization.
the british colonial rule of malaya brought about an unprecedented disruption that was at once ecological and cosmological. tigers were massacred, and weretigers exiled to the realm of folklore. but like a leibnizian divine machine, where animal being is a deathless monadic composition that knows only ceaseless reconfiguration, the tiger keeps returning to haunt the region in reconfigured forms. in 1942, the japanese 25th army led by japanese general tomoyuki yamashita - known also as the "tiger of malaya", exacted revenge upon the british forces in malaya. moving swiftly through the forest – savage, amphibious and full of guile in a battle – the japanese forces seem to embody the very qualities that had made the tiger such a feared adversary of the early british settlers.
the principal resistance in malaya against the japanese occupation was the malayan peoples' anti-japanese army, a guerilla organization under the leadership of the malayan communist party. when the japanese forces surrendered in 1945, the epithet of "tiger" gradually transferred to the communists, who now constituted a very real threat to the returning british forces which were deflated and weakened by the war. the british eventually responded by intensifying their regulation of forested zones, offering cash bounties, organizing hunts and ambushes – similar strategies previously employed to annihilate the malayan tigers. and in the shadows of the dense tropical forest, the british hunters of communist guerillas sometimes found themselves coming face to face with tigers instead.
to embark upon the trail of the weretiger is to follow through with its line of perpetual metamorphosis – an anthropomorphic, yet non-anthropocentric line that is at once materialist and metaphorical. and in the myriad entanglements of this metamorphic line, one senses the contours of a shape-shifting region.
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(1) robert wessing, the soul of ambiguity: the tiger in southeast asia (dekalb: center for southeast asian studies, northern illinois university, 1986).