I am a superstitious being.
I hold my breath as I pass by cemeteries; I won’t go near a number which contains 4; there is an upside-down 福 by my door and I’d hang a 八卦 mirror by my door if I thought I required it. I don’t wear black to weddings; I bow before the buddhas and the red altars I pass, just in case. At 春节 I stuff the mouth of the Kitchen God so he can’t tattle on me to the Jade Emperor.
I walk under ladders, I don’t throw salt and I don’t care about mirrors breaking. I don’t understand the thing about magpies, or umbrellas inside, and I forget about thirteen until it’s come and gone.
I am afraid of Chinese ghosts.
This is, in many ways but entirely anecdotally, a peculiarity of overseas Chinese. It’s something I didn’t encounter quite so much when I was living in Beijing, wandering through its old hutongs and talking to old Beijingren who have lived in those alleys their whole lives. But it’s something I’ve lived and breathed all through Singapore and Malaysia, through growing up part of the Chinese diaspora in Sydney and Perth. Even now, as an adult in Melbourne, it’s something I often glimpse out of the corner of my eye.
In part this could be due to the nature of the media – horror movies and etc are restricted in China, and this could feed into a lack of ghost discussion? But surely not that much.
In Singapore this fear of ghosts is best captured in my memories by Haw Par Villa, a theme park dedicated to Chinese mythology, religion and Confucianism. It was designed as a place to teach about traditional Chinese values, but mostly all I remember is fear, twisted faces, decrepit models and the ten courts of hell.
The ten courts of hell can be found in a ‘cave’, ten separate dioramas of molten faces, rendered corpses, and disjointed limbs. I wanted to tell you more, but reading about it online to get my facts straight caused my stomach to turn and my breath to quicken, so I shall simply link you to this walk through and say that if I were ever religious, and pious, and motivated by my religion, it would be fear of the courts of hell and their kings that would prompt me to be a beautiful person.
I picked up Bitter Suites, by Otto Fong, on a recent jaunt to Singapore. It’s a very Singaporean book in so many ways, not only in its every day Singaporean setting and the Singaporean ridiculousness of its main characters, but in the way it wove Haw Par Villa into the plot and speared my heart through with a childhood fear I hadn’t realised would come back.
I found Bitter Suites terrifying and compelling, mostly through my growing horror as I realised just how important a role the early visit to the Haw Par Villa and the ten Chinese hells would play in the story, as those who had committed a cruel practical joke were slowly and eventually, eternally, punished for their crimes. I found the writing adequate but it was the illustrations that sold me, and the little softer asides.
I fear, however, that this is a very specific book. I suspect that one might need to be overseas Chinese, and specifically SEAzn Chinese, familiar with the ridiculousness of Haw Par Villa’s decay and yet indoctrinated from childhood of the ever-presence of spirits, their constant needs for placation and the reality of the hells until reincarnation.
It’s not that it’s a book opaque to outsiders. It’s that it’s a book that plays very specifically to one thing, and it’s a thing that I will probably always hold in the depths of my psyche, and probably looks ridiculous to everyone else.
Horror is, after all, subjective.
If you want to read it, let me know; I have a copy hiding under several piles of paper where I cannot see it.