22 – 31 January 2021
Tanjong Pagar Distripark

Unforgetting Weretigers

If you find someone at night when you are sitting on a raised platform waiting for game, give that person a matchbox. If the person cannot light a fire, then shoot. That thing is a weretiger. 

This is a tale I heard over a bonfire almost twenty years ago. Weretigers are known in Thailand as Sa-ming. The common threads are they are either a human who shapeshifts into a tiger, or a tiger who transforms into a human. If the tiger were originally a human, then that person had used magic to change into a tiger. If it were a tiger, it had eaten a human. Regardless of their original form, weretigers act the same way: they hunt humans. The subject of weretigers caught my interest again in recent years from the theatre production Ten Thousand Tigers (2014) by Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen, and an article on George Coleman’s tiger attack by Kevin Chua.[1] Nonetheless, weretiger stories do not specifically belong to Thailand, Singapore or Southeast Asia alone. One can also find them in Southern China, India and Sri Lanka. This means that the genre’s dissemination was subject to the inhabitants and the frequency of encounters between the two species. The declining accounts of weretigers tells us beyond the disappearance of man-eaters themselves; it might hint at the lack of diverse relationships with nature in ourselves. 

Cover of Long-Prai: Tuktapee (7th Edition, 1993).

In Thailand, weretiger stories were first recorded in King Chulalongkorn’s journal on a trip to Chanthaburi, south-east of Bangkok. He wrote that there were three weretigers in the town. They were men who stole weretiger oil from their master and ran away from Cambodia.[2] Later, after the Second World War, a literary genre emerged that was dedicated specifically to the jungle. Influenced by adventure novels about “white hunters” in Africa, Thai writers produced adventure fiction that took place in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. The first of its kind was Long-Prai [ล่องไพร], a series of adventure stories featuring a Thai amateur hunter from Bangkok and his sidekick who was a Karen (a hill tribe). They usually assisted anthropologists or ethnographers from the West in their exploration treks to unknown villages or civilisations. In the novels, the reader would see the Thai hunter mediating the tension between Western scientific knowledge and local folk beliefs. Of course, the author Malai Chupinit (1906 -1963) suggested that the best practice would be a combination of the two.[3] The novel speaks of the common attitude of Thais, which while tending to believe in modern weaponry over black magic,remains true to the dharma of Buddhism. Ironically, this genre is also where animistic and mythical accounts, such as that of the weretiger, were documented and preserved before they vanished following the conversion of untamed nature into Cold War battlefields and national parks. Long-Prai would later become one of the inspiration sources for Apichatpong Weraseetakul’s Tropical Melody (2004) which represented the environmental poetics of the jungle being preserved in a film. 

In lelaki harimau [Man Tiger: A Novel] (2004), Eka Kurniawan, an Indonesian writer, also wrote about weretigers. The story, set in Indonesia after the Second World War, tells the story of Margio, a skilled young hunter who received the spirit of a white tigress from his grandfather. Interestingly, the story takes place on the outskirts of a small town rather than in a jungle. Kurniawan spends a great deal of the story describing the rapid spread of modernity and colonization of nature through monoculture plantation. When Margio as a young boy escaped from the town and travelled through the jungle to meet with his grandfather in a faraway village, Kurniawan adds small touches of magical realism. He describes the relationship of the child to genies in the forest, who would guide him to his grandfather’s village. Learning from a storyteller that his grandfather had inherited a tigress from the ancestor, Margio asked what if he did not inherit her. His grandfather replied, “[s]he will go to your son, or your grandson, or she might never reappear if our family forgets her.”[4] We do not know for sure whether the tigress ‘skipped’ a generation and missed the modern subject of father or not, but the tigress came to Margio because he does not forget. Despite the story ending in tragedy, lelaki harimau highlights how quickly one belief disappears because of the change of its surroundings. But the question that remains and matters is – why should we remember weretigers today? 

I want to point out that the disappearance of weretigers is only a symptom of a bigger problem. It entails the disappearance of the aesthetic experience of a jungle, or a tropical forest as such. If the number of tigers in a forest shows its biodiversity, a declining number of stories about weretigers would indicate the lack of diversity in our perception toward nature, as it is being rapidly consumed in the Capitalocene age. When the forest is being converted into scientific discoveries, natural resources and leisure spaces, its magic perishes. It has also marked the disappearance of the contact zone in experience where things could remain withdrawn, mysterious and sacred. Fortunately, this experience is preserved in literature and revived by contemporary art. Nonetheless, we should choose to remember it despite its absence, so that weretigers can continue to reappear even in a future where there is no raised platform for game. 

Published January 2021.


Notes

[1] Kevin Chua, “The Tiger and the Theodolite: George Coleman’s Dream of Extinction,” FOCAS: Forum on Contemporary Art and Society, August 1, 2007: 124-149.

[2] King Chulalongkorn, Prarajaniponsadejprapartchantaburi [พระราชนิพนธ์เสด็จประพาศจันทบุรี], Cremation Volume of Chao Chom Manda Sud, 1912, 145-146.

[3] Long-Prai was on air first as a radio drama in 1955 via Thai Television before converted into publications. The novels contain a detailed account of the environment of a vast jungle beyond Thailand as the explorers traveled even beyond Southeast Asia to Nagaland and New Guinea.

[4] Eka Kurniawan, Man Tiger: A Novel, Translated by Labodalih Sembiring, New York: Verso, 2015, E-book edition.


About the Writer

Photo courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

Vipash Purichanont is a curator based in Bangkok. He is a lecturer at the department of Art History at the faculty of Archeology, Silpakorn University. His curatorial projects include ‘Kamin Lertchaiprasert: 31st Century Museum of Contemporary Spirit’ (Chicago, 2011), ‘Tawatchai Puntusawasdi: Superfold’ (Kuala Lumpur, 2019) and ‘Concept Context Contestation: Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia’ (Bangkok, Yogyakarta, Hanoi, Yangon, 2013-2019). He was an assistant curator for the first Thailand Biennale (Krabi, 2018), a curator of Singapore Biennale 2019 (Singapore, 2019), and a co-curator of the second Thailand Biennale (Korat, 2021). He is a co-founder of Waiting You Curator Lab, a curatorial collective based in Chiangmai.