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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Pontianak, the Vampire and... the Sundal Tree

I admit to a long-standing fascination with vampire lore, which first started from childhood stories and movies about the pontianak. Back then, nothing could be more terrifying than a pontianak; but now, they seem to be sad creatures. According to old Malay folklore, women who die during childbirth were thought to turn into pontianaks if the proper rites and rituals were not observed. The modern variant of the pontianak folklore however maintains that they are the vengeful spirits of women who have been spurned in love and have taken their own life or women who have been murdered by their spurned lovers.

I vaguely remember that one of these funerary rites involved keeping an overnight wake to make sure that no cats (especially black ones) came anywhere near the body to awaken the spirit! The worst thing that could happen is for a cat to jump over the body as that will cause it to raise and walk among the living as one of the undead (in cultures as far-flung as Ancient Egypt and Thailand and also the Slavic countries, cats are thought to carry the spirit of the dead).
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Not surprisingly, pontianaks are attracted to houses where a woman is about to give birth. They apparently feed on the blood and after-birth. To thwart the pontianak, it was common practice in the past to scatter thorns, nails and anything sharp on the ground below the houses (in the past, wooden houses were built above the ground on stilts). The modern-day pontianak however, prey mostly on men - as they seek out those who wronged them in life!

Another point to note is that pontianaks are said to be attracted to the sundal tree; a tree which bears white, heavily-scented night-blooming flowers. Pontianaks are thought to roost or seek shelter on sundal trees while waiting for a victim to pass by! Interestingly enough, the word sundal also refers to a woman of easy virtue. But what is a sundal tree? I'm asking this question because the sundal tree plays a role in my book, The Jugra Chronicles : Miyah and the Forest Demon.  Check out the review by Brigitte Rozario:
After an extensive internet search (and several false leads), it seems that the sundal could be one of the following trees:

the Frangipani/Champa/Bunga Kemboja
the frangipani (Plumeria sp), also known as champa in Laos and India, and bunga kemboja in Malaysia. This seems to be the ideal candidate as the frangipani is thought to be haunted by ghosts and demons in local folklore and often planted in cemetaries. But it is also known as the Temple Tree in Sri Lanka and often planted around Buddhist and Hindu temples. But the spanner in the works is that the Plumeria supposed to have originated in the New World! Apart from that, it has large sparse leaves - hardly a place for a creature of the night to hide. We had a large frangapani tree growing in the front yard of the house when we were living in Federal Hill, Kuala Lumpur but I never felt any supernatural energy from the plant!

Night Jessamine/Sundal tree?

The next candidate is the night jessamine (Cestrum nocturnum) also known as the Queen of the Night. The night jessamine seemed to have all the right attributes - a tree bearing large quantities of small white flowers which produce an overwhelming sickly sweet frangrance at night. But then again, it turns out to be a New World plant. Also the night jessamine is more of a large bush than a tree.

The third candidate is the parijata or harsingar; other names for this flower are coral jasmine and night flowering jasmine. Nyctanthes arbor-tristis is also known as the sad tree or the tree of sorrow as its flowers are shed like tears, at the first light of dawn. The parijat is the only flower which can be picked from the ground to be given as offerings at temples; all other flowers have to be hand-picked from the plant. The parijat is also the state flower of Bengal. But the parijata is pure and unlikely to be the sundal tree

The fragrant tanjung blossoms are thought to be the tears of a faerie

Another flowering tree of note which is found throughout tropical Asia and Southeast Asia is Mimusops elengi. Known as the tanjung tree in Malaysia/Singapore and bakul/vakul tree in India. The tanjung flower or bunga tanjung appears frequently in Malay folklore, sometimes to represent a lost lover. There is an enchanting folktale about the tanjung flower, which like the parijat, is sweet-scented, blooms at night and is shed at the first light of dawn. According to the folktale, the flowers are actually the tears of a faerie, who was stranded in the forest because she was unable to find her magic selendang (a long scarf) which allowed her to return home. Similar folklore of stranded faeries (usually because someone has hidden her magic cloak) appears in many Asian cultures, from India to Japan. There is a re-telling of the Tanjung Blossom Faerie in my book, Timeless Tales of Malaysia. But the tanjung or vakul is the exact opposite of the sundal in folklore. It is considered as sacred by the Hindus and its frangrant 'flowers of paradise' are offered to both Vishnu and Siva as offerings. The flowers are also said to chase away evil spirits, unlike the sundal which is supposed to attract ghostly spirits!

My knowledge of Western vampire lore initially came from old Dracula movies played so menancingly well by Christopher Lee. But I admit to watching only one or two of those - there was just too much blood and the plot/story lacked finesse. I think Stephen King wrote a couple of books on vampires but his premise didn't make sense either - what was the point of turning an entire town into vampires if your main source of food happened to be living humans? Talk about eating yourself out of house and home!
It was Anne Rice and the movie that resulted from her book, Interview with a Vampire, who got me well and truly hooked into the genre. Finally, vampire lore that made sense - a small and very secret group who achieved immortality through an ancient bloodline; a vampire king and queen from ancient Egypt (see Queen of the Damned starring the tragic Aaliyah and the gorgeous Stuart Townsend).
However, my favourite vampire movie to date is Van Helsing; Peta Wilson also plays an extraordinary vampire in the role of Minnie Harker (a character from Bram Stoker's book Dracula) in the movie, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But what got my pulse racing was the discovery that Count Dracula, a character created by Bram Stoker in his book Dracula (published in 1897) was actually based on a real person. Vlad Teppes or Vlad the Impaler, from Transylvania (in modern Rumania) whose father took the family name 'Dracul' which means 'dragon'. This information also triggered another memory... Malaysia's very own legend of Raja Bersiong or the Fanged King (for more info on Vlad Dracula and the Fanged King refer to the post on Raja Bersiong).

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Asian Festival of Children's Content (AFCC 2012), Singapore

On 31 May 2012, I took the express bus to Singapore to attend the Asian Festival of Children's Content. It was a lucky confluence of events that brought me to Singapore -  we were required to fly from Zagreb to KL 'post-haste' in mid-May when I received an email from Tan Vay Fern about the Asian Festival of Children's Content which was only two weeks away! The venue was The Arts House, which was quite close to Chinatown. So I registered online, booked a room at The Inn at Temple Street and got the return bus ticket to Singapore.
In Chinatown - photo courtesy of Tan Vay Fern. We had fatty crabs for dinner at the restaurant in the background!
As I haven't visited Singapore for at least 15 years (we lived in Singapore from 1992 - 1995 and my daughter was born there), I was truly impressed with the changes I saw. It wasn't the ultra-modren architecture or the orderly streets - it was the greenery everywhere and the lack of pollution and congestion. Even modren high-rise buildings had terraces with flowering plants and some had roof gardens or even had climbing plants covering their walls! I had heard about their famous tagline - 'the garden city' - but I didn't think they could turn it into a reality.

Hard to believe, but I met Vay Fern in person for the very first time in Chinatown, Singapore! Although we had collaborated on Eight Treasures of the Dragon, it was entirely via email. I had heard of her before and knew that she was a young and successful illustrator, with at least eight children's books published to date. After a lot of walking along the colourful and busy Temple Street, we decided to have fatty crabs at a nearby restaurant for dinner. I had forgotten how scrumptious fatty crabs could be!

The last two days of the AFCC, which took place at The Arts House was exciting, mainly because I got to meet people I've only known on Facebook. The talks were great too but I noticed that some of the speakers used it as a platform to promote their own books rather than impart information/tips and a few were only recently published. I was also agrieved by the fact that there was no wifi at the venue! But the fact that it was being held at a historic building - the former Parliament  of Singapore -made it quite special.

The AFCC was a great opportunity to network - there were old friends like Dr Gwen Smith, and acquintances like Linda Tan Lingard (from the Yusof Gajah Lingard literary agency) and Daphne Lee (author/columnist/editor at Scholastic Malaysia). And people I met for the first time: Yusof Gajah, celebrated illustrator of children's books and his wife Zakiah; Teoh Choon Ean, the only author I know who actually makes money from writing books (in English); Quek Sue Yian, young and talented author of 'Khailash', a picture-book about a refugee zebra, illustrated by Khairul Azmir Shoib (Sue had a book launch and I bought a signed copy of  Khailash, ); Mohana Gill, award-winning author of  cookbooks,Vegemania and Fruitistic, and the 'Hayley' cook books for children; Naomi Kojima, a well known illustrator from Japan who bought a copy of my book 'Timeless Tales of Malaysia':); illustrator Isabel Roxas, Cecilia de la Campa from Writers House Inc; Sayoni Basu from Harper Collins India; Tarie Sabido, (an FB friend whi didn't recognise me) and a blogger from the Philippines; Salwah Abdul Shukor, a lawyer whose dream job is to write children's books; Denise Tan from Bookaburra (what a brilliant name for a book store); Shobna Janardanan from ASTRO, Rafilda Rahman from the SCBWI Malaysia; and last but not least Norhayati Razali from the Malaysian Book Council.

The highlight for me was the dinner at the penthouse of the National Library -great company, great food and what a view! Will I attend the AFCC again? For sure, especially as they are going to focus on Malaysia in 2013!

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Dragon, the Phoenix and the Qilin - 2

I've been reminded by a couple of friends that my last post was on 15 June 2009! On hindsight, it seems that I got into blogging from the excitement of getting my first book published - Timeless Tales of Malaysia by Marshall Cavendish. Since then, I had the great fortune of having four more books published, this time by MPH Publishing. Three of the books are collections of folktales and legends from Asia (all books are available from :

Eight Treasures of the Dragon is a collection of folktales and legends about dragons or naga from Asia. (for more information on the naga, refer to my post The Dragon, the Phoenix and the Qilin - 1).

The chosen stories reflect the pervasiveness of dragon lore in Asia and its close connection with the element of water and with ruling houses. The book is illustrated by Tan Vay Fern. I had never met her when we collaborated on this book and we only corresponded by email. I looked her up on the Malaysia Author Index webpage and was impressed to find out that she had already had five books published by MPH - all at the same time!

The treasures in this collection include:

From China comes The Dragon Wells of Yanjing, the story of a dragon king and queen whose fates are intertwined with that of the city of Yanjing (ancient Beijing). When their underwater palace in the Great Lake of Yanjing was destroyed (the lake was drained and rivers diverted) to make way for the new city of Dadu by Kublai Khan, the dragon couple set out to destroy the people of Yanjing! The second story from China is The Cave of the Pearl Dragon, an epic tale of a young man's quest for the green water pearl which will save his village from starvation;
from India, Prince Mombathi (The Candlewax Prince) an intriguing tale of a queen's machinations to conceal the identity of her naga child;
from Indonesia, The She-Dragon of the South Seas; the legend of the Dragon Queen of the South Seas and the terrible vengence she exacted on those who wronged her;
from Japan comes Ho-Wori and the Princess of the Sea, the very ancient and haunting love story between the Lord of the Hills and the Princess of the Sea; the second story from Japan is The Acolyte, the Tengu and the Dragon, a story which echoes the ancient anmity between the tengu - a bird-man creature and the dragon/naga;
from Malaysia, The Dragon of Tasik Chini an Orang Asli tale of the origin of Lake Chini,
and from Singapore, Sang Nila Utama a reinterpretation of the celebrated story of Sang Nila Utama.

* Eight Jewels of the Phoenix is a collection of tales which are regarded as cultural icons from the countries they represent. Black & white illustrations by the author. Published in 2009 by MPH Publishing.
-From China comes The Girl with Snow White Hair (also known as Long Hair Girl) about a girl who sarifices herself to save her village;
-from India comes Chandrika and the Festival of Lights - a story about reversal of fortune and how the wisdom and wit of a young woman helped to restore her family's fortune;
-from Japan we have Kaguyahime (from the Taketori Monogatari), the celebrated story of a girl found in a bamboo grove and how she was courted by the Emperor himself;
-from Malaysia comes two stories known to most school children - The Princess of Mount Ledang is a story about a faerie princess who is courted by the Sultan of Malacca and has fascinating similarities to the Japanese Kaguyahime; the second story from Malaysia is Bawang Putih, Bawang Merah (literaly White Onion, Red Onion), which is the story of the Malay Cinderella;
-from the Philippines comes The Fruit of Passion and Repulsion - an amusing and enchanting story of the origin of the durian fruit - a fruit some find irristible and others repulsive;
-from North America (Pacific Northwest) comes the story of The Raven, the trickster who decides to help humanity find light in the Arctic darkness;
-and finally from Thailand comes the story of Manohra - a kinaree or bird-maiden who wins the heart of a handsome young prince but is betrayed by a jealous courtier and almost loses her life in a sacrifice by fire. The story of Manohra is known all over Southeast Asia, from Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand all the way to Malaysia.

*Eight Fortunes of the Qilin is a companion book to the Phoenix book. As the fabled Qilin represents compassion, wisdom and respect for nature and life, these qualities are echoed in the stories. Black & white illustrations by the author. Published in 2009. The stories are:

-Princess Santubong and Princess Sejinjang - a haunting tale from Borneo about two sisters who fell in love with the same man. In my interpretation, one of the sisters, Santubong is a shaman who blessed the rice crops, represented Day while the other sister, Sejinjang, who weaved beautiful cloths, represented Night.

(A beautiful old song recounting the tragic relationship between the two sisters, Santubong and Sejinjang)

-The Jaguar is a legend from Central America about a shape-shifting pair of jaguars and the boy who stole their most precious possesion.
-Little Red Cricket is an engrossing tale from China about how an Emperor's obsession can make something as small as a cricket affect the fortune of a family.
-The Singing Bamboo is another haunting tale about two sisters, but this time from India. This story however is about a sister's devotion to her sibling even after her death.
-Keong Mas is an enchanting tale from the island of Java in Indonesia about a princess who is cursed by a witch and lost in the wilderness.
-The Sister is a chlling tale from Korea, about a sister who seemed to be possessed by an evil spirit and the brother who tried to save her.

(The video features the precociously talented young singer, Song So-Hee, who sings only Arirang - traditional Korean folk songs. This song is MiryangArirang)

-Princess Firefly from the Philippines is about an unfortunate young princess who refuses to marry her suiter.
-The Amber Tea Bowl is tragic story from Vietnam, about the unrequited love of the handsome son of a boatwoman for the highborn daughter of a mandarin.