Continuum: SFFH with Asian characteristics

This is not a panel write up; it’s more of a rambling meander of panels I was on and panels I witnessed and thoughts I had along the way. It includes recommendations. But all of it is talking about Asian (mostly Southeast Asian) science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Thanks to Creatrix Tiara (sorry, Adeline coined this term!), I’m referring to Oz-based PoC involved in SFFH as Fae of Colour and I have no regrets. Hopefully you also have no regrets.

Do you know much I love Asian SFFH, specifically Asian horror? I love it so much, and I can talk about it at basically any time, riffing off from any topic.

One of my favourite things over the whole weekend was how much Mia and I got to talk about Asian horror. We started this great conversation late on Friday night, on a panel with Devin Jeyathurai, about Asian SFFH. This was a panel that Mia as local GoH suggested as a way to just ramble about Asian SFFH. Yes, good!

It was so amazing, words cannot describe it but this is a blog post and I’ll attempt to do it justice. We talked a lot about how horror is not considered a genre when you think about Asia, in large part because the things that are classified as horror in the west are actually just a daily part of life. The telling of ghost stories is very social. We talk about them all the time, like a description of the car that overtook us at the lights or the reason we rejected that house in the cul-de-sac, like the aunty who always compliments your hair.

Mia spoke about finding Australians and people in general less superstitious when she moved to Australia; nobody saying ‘excuse me’ to ant hills. She BEAUTIFULLY described ghost stories as being stories about neighbours you never acknowledge but you know are there. It’s true. I talk a lot about how the unspoken spirits and ghosts rule my family life (the ghosts of Alzheimer’s and accidents; the spirits of bankruptcy and the fire in the oven that never lights first try). It’s a bit like following superstitions just in case, which Mia, Devin and I all agreed we do; but it’s a bit like knowing the ghosts believe in you.

Anyway as a result horror and fantasy can’t be a separate genre from anything else; in this way lots of things that are classified as fantasy in the west might not be in Asian genre. Wuxia is mainstream media in China and diasporic countries, but the fact that there’s flying and ridiculous things means it’s considered more fantasy in the west. In the Philippines, top mainstream dramas are often fantasy.

Tiara tweeted her personal thoughts from the floor in our panel, which I am linking to cos she grew up Bangladeshi in Malaysia and also is excellent.

Mia is compiling a big post of the recs we made during this panel, so stay tuned for that. I will link it here when it exists.

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I had a costume for the Masquerade. So many people were going as superstitions, I bought a bagua and was going to dress in silver sequins (like a mirror) with red and green stripes, and the bagua attached like a fascinator to my head.

I think I’m hilarious.

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I joined a campaign recently, my first ever tabletop gaming experience. It’s Call of Cthulhu, and it’s set in 1920. My character is a 31 year old Chinese-American woman, an average pharmacist but a pretty good exorcist, who believes her success hinges on her understanding of all ghosts as effectively fitting into a Taoist framework.

To that end, when she walked into a cave under a house and there were spikes with human heads on them, and in the next room was an organ made up of human heads, she passed all her sanity checks and said, “oh, shit, I didn’t realise it was so easy to gain entry into the gates of Hell,” because I definitely got a vivid picture of Haw Par Villa in my head at the description. Beside me, my (white) BFF, who I forced to visit Haw Par Villa on her first visit to Singapore, giggled at the realisation, despite not having made the connection herself.

Later, when the party walked into a cave full of smoke and incense and a giant fucking snake statue, she said “We have to get out of here, there are definitely live snakes in here,” because I am from Penang, I know what happens when there’s incense and a snake statue.

The DM was confused, both times. I had to break character and explain it in more detail.

The point of this story is that Asian horror is the best, even within a Western, racist (LOVECRAFT, YOU SHIT) framework.

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I did a panel with one of my favourite white boys, Grant Watson (who took the photos on my Haw Par Villa piece, incidentally). We had, since the previous Continuum, been planning a panel on Journey to the West, coming at it from our different perspectives: me, having been brought up on various chapters and then encountering the BBC-dubbed Monkey with confusion; and him, his first encounter with Sun Wukong having been the BBC-dubbed Monkey, which has led him to a lifetime of wuxia and appreciation of Asian movies and tv. After the announcement earlier this year of Netflix’s Journey to the West adaptation, we thought we’d change the framework a bit and ramble, still about our different approaches, but also about whitewashing and what it means to have a Chinese story adapted by people who aren’t Chinese.

I like to use this example, now: when Grant linked to an article about the new adaptation on his facie, comments included people who thought it was based on a Japanese story, and people who denied its religious connotations. (Imagine thinking Narnia isn’t religious, you know?)

So it’s important to talk about the wheres and the whys and the hows.

Anyway this post is very long, in summary my favourite written translation is the Yu, but the Waley is common and perfectly acceptable in the absence of the dollars required to purchase the Yu. Journey to the West uses monkeys as an allegory for human foolishness, and the book is a Buddhist text and a satire about human bureaucracy, and incidentally it’s also my favourite road trip story. Its ubiquity in Chinese culture (and in the diaspora) is what makes it so fun and easy to adapt; every chapter is a story in itself.

 

 

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It’s cultural, the different ways we think about hauntings. I had this thought during the Horror in the 21st Century panel, when Michelle spoke about a great second hand black dress, and how a friend commented ‘what if someone died in that?’ My notes have a little 哈哈 in them – in Chinese horror, in Chinese life, it’s not unusual to wonder if someone died in it, but the death doesn’t matter – the life can change the spirit of the dress as well. It took a decade for my very traditional mother to get over her fear that my love of op shopping might lead to my spiritual possession or my haunting by some old Australian bad spirit.

So the thing I was alluding to in yesterday’s post is how frustrating it was – after I had such an amazing weekend talking about Asian horror just constantly (not necessarily always in public, just riding on a cushion of SEAzn horror), to end up in a panel (Horror in the 21st Century) on my last day that was ostensibly about horror but actually just about Western horror. It was incredibly dispiriting to hear people wonder where modern themes are going with current “global” politics – the implication being Europe and America and Australia – when there have been changing themes in Asian politics for the last 20 years! Similarly, to hear there is a recent rise in religious horror – when, again, the religious themes have seen a rise in various Asian countries for the last two decades, not just the last two years.

One example I can address is the May 1998 riots in Indonesia, which were massive and awful and violent, and I have multiple friends who came to Australia to escape them. Following the unrest of the Tragedi, Indonesian ghost stories and ghost hunting changed format and focus, and reflected the greater interest in Islam through the incorporation of Quran and concepts into ghost stories. For example, many hantu like pontianak and penanggal are now understood through a framework of being djinn rather than hantu. And YouTube and apps have become the most popular tools, not only of ghost hunting but also of telling stories of hantu. Isn’t that fun? Isn’t that a great look at modern themes of horror due to global politics? Isn’t that a great look at the rise of religion in horror? Fuck, yes!

The 21st Century technology example I can speak to is another Indonesian one, which is funny because I think my knowledge of Indonesian horror is pretty patchy. There’s been all sorts of exciting technological shifts in Indonesian horror in the last century. Reading the Quran has become a literal tool in video games – you defeat the ghosts and djinn through literally reciting it out loud, and it reduces the hit points on the djinn. This is an intertwining both of technology, and an increase in fundamental Islamic spirituality since the turn of the century in Indonesia. There’s also been this increase in the use of twitter as storytelling tool, and youtube as a way for ghost hunters to connect. Cool yeah? Great look at changes in horror stories since the turn of the century? Use of politics in horror? Yessss.

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To end, my personal horror story: I woke up at 0400, my phone ringing, a withheld number. I had four missed calls. I answered; it sounded like background. I hung up and it rung again; ‘Stephanie,’ said my father, who hasn’t spoken a word in two years. ‘Dad?’ I said, into the phone at 0402, ‘are you okay?’ There was mumbling, nothing distinct, but it was my Ba. As I swiped across to my call screen, my phone rang again; I hung up. I called his nursing home; asked the nurse to check on him. ‘He’s asleep, and moving.’ It wasn’t until morning, until I woke up fully and saw I’d missed another five calls from ID withheld, that I realised she told me that so I knew he wasn’t dead.

‘What do you think happened?’ asked my friends in the weeks after. I didn’t know; I haven’t known, except that I assumed he was calling from the middle plains, and I kept expecting a call from my sister to tell me he was gone.

At Continuum, I related the story to Mia, after she mentioned the proliferation of Philippines call centre horror. ‘Oh, shit,’ she said, her hand on my arm. ‘You couldn’t say what he needed to hear, and he went back to his body.’ And I knew.

I’m not religious, not really, and I’m not spiritual, not really. But I’ve lived with spirits and ghosts and monsters my whole life, and it took another Southeast Asian to tell me exactly what was staring me in the face. And it’s true. The ghosts are our neighbours.

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Further Reading:

  • I wrote this 8000 word essay and I love it to death, come back to me after you’ve read it: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance: Feminist Ghosts and Monstrous Women of Asia. It’s about GHOSTS and FEMINISM.
  • ALSO BY ME: I wrote a wuxia story which you can find in Behind the Mask: A Superhero Anthology; the fantasy element is not the wuxia, it’s the dirigibles 😀 😀 It’s set in Melbourne early 1900s.
  • By Cassandra Khaw, Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef. With thanks to L Chan, from whom I stole the descriptor ‘like Constantine Ah Beng’ to talk about it.
  • Comfort reading for both myself and Mia: The House of Aunts, by Zen Cho. I actually paused to read it again after I linked it here.
  • Rubik, by Elizabeth Tan. I haven’t read this yet but I’ve heard great things, and Mia and I are friend’s with the author’s sister (which I mentioned to Mia on the panel, and she SCREAMED with surprise).
  • Lontar Journal, the Southeast Asian Journal of Speculative Fiction.

 

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