The year is 2049: two hundred years since the Pontianak first appeared in writing, marked insignificantly in Hikayat Abdullah as residues of superstitious and foolish beliefs of the Chinese and Malays that have persisted with time. I guess the only parts that Munsyi Abdullah was right about are the Pontianak’s timelessness and persistence. She is ageless, highly misunderstood and elusive, the right combination of being both an icon and iconoclast of the region. Two hundred years later, Singapore is finally celebrating the Pontianak and all her manifestations in a gigantic parade; The Pontianak Bicentennial.
It is the bicentennial for the people: the disenfranchised, the marginalised and the voiceless. We walk the streets clad in white shapeless gowns and long unkempt wigs, laughing hysterically in hordes in front of the Parliament as the orchestra plays a big band rendition of A.Ramlie’s Oh Fatimah. It is a reckoning, a mischievous syncopation permeating its way through strict laws and state mandated policies, challenging canonised histories and national narratives and breaking through the systemic structures. Finally, the long rusty nail that has subjugated and controlled the monstrous has been removed. We chant her names and those of her sisters out loud, calling her into being: Kakak, Kak Pon, Fatimah Rocker, Mati-Anak, Kuntilanak, Mae-nak, Pontianak, Pontianak, Pontianak!
Unlike most of the hantus in Singapore, the mutable Pontianak and all her manifestations have been kept alive through several films across generations, in literature, pop culture and mass media. In a cruel paradox, our collective memory has forgotten her origins. The female trope of the scorned woman who died under violent circumstances and returns for revenge has become the stereotypical narrative structure of similar female vampiric ghosts in the region and that makes it hard for us to trace back the genealogy of the Pontianak. Her liminality sits precariously between chaotic empowerment and patriarchal control. She is the woman who failed at childbirth, the heteronormative biological function of women in society and that renders her transgressive and unfit to be a legitimate symbol of society. She returns childless, angry and out of control, seeking revenge for her own failures. But is there more to her than that? Has she always been malevolent? Existing pre-Islamic communities such as the Semelai tribe in Malaysia believe that the Pontianak is a healing spirit and their shaman conjures her to search for missing souls lost in the forest. With her flowing hair, her long white dress and her child clinging to her, this Pontianak is not out to harm anyone.
In the opening sequence of the film Anak Pontianak, released in 1958, the protagonist Manis is dying from childbirth. Manis’ final wish is for her husband to pull out the nail that has been lodged at the nape of her neck. When he does, almost banally and without much hesitation, her face transforms three times. Witnessing these transformations, her husband exclaims, “I can’t believe you have turned into three different women Manis, that’s impossible!” To possess a Pontianak, a man has to drive a nail into the back of her neck, rendering her submissive, beautiful and marriageable, and her monstrosity is altered to fit the archetype of the ideal woman in a patriarchal society. Unlike most of the Pontianak films made during the Golden Age of cinema, this particular scene in Anak Pontianak subverts gender roles; the husband obediently carries out her request, setting up the progressive undertones of empowerment for the rest of the film.
The period post-World War II towards independence in the 1950s to the 1960s marked rapid socioeconomic and political changes in Singapore. The Pontianak series, a total of seven films, was produced by Shaw Brothers and Cathay-Keris between 1957 to 1965. Moving from the dark shadows of the forests to the bright cinema screens, the physical imagery of the Pontianak with her long unruly hair and her white dress became ingrained into the collective consciousness of the people. The first Pontianak film in 1957 was the first film to be dubbed into Mandarin and greatly appealed to non-Malay audiences. The film industry transformed the Pontianak into a transcultural icon, no longer just inciting fear within the Malay communities. It was also during the mid-1950s that Singapore Council for Women (SCW) was fighting against bigamous marriages and was tightening marriage laws to protect women from being at the losing end of divorce settlements. In The Haunting of Fatimah Rock: History, Embodiment and Spectral Urbanism in Contemporary Singapore (2009), Nur’Adlina Maulod wrote about the emergence of cultural ghosts during times of rapid and “often traumatic changes” and how these hauntings stubbornly situate themselves in between time. The film Anak Pontianak frames the Pontianak as a single mother bringing up her son, mirroring these shifts and allowing for entry points of acceptance against societal stigma.
The Pontianak’s visible cinematic body is that of the abject, as Julie Kristeva has defined it as one which disturbs identity, system and order. The Pontianak is no longer just an embodiment of the monstrous feminine but also performs the liminal narratives of the monstrous other. There is a scene in Eric Khoo’s Nobody, released last year in 2018, where the child Pontianak playfully steals the singlet of the migrant labourer and sleeps under the thin plywood that is his bed. On his bedside is a framed photograph of his daughter, back home in China, and the Pontianak’s reflection merges with hers. The Pontianak’s presence, though he cannot see her, restores the absence in his life. Through her, we become complicit to the oppressive working environments and the mistreatments he and the other labourers encounter. Through her, we see what is usually unseen. She disrupts the system of power and allows for us to embody her and confront it for ourselves.
On the parade grounds, the Pontianak floats playfully to the grandstand, a magnificent spectre marking the triumph of the times as the crowd applauds thunderously. There are no masks allowed at the party and she stands unapologetically in her true monstrous form. The Pontianak is no longer invisible and alienated. She is no longer silenced by her circumstances. She is not only accepted, but idolised by everyone around her. Her maniacal laughter is met with ecstatic cheers as she readies herself for her speech. But the Pontianak remains in temporality. She is an alterity of time, neither living nor dead, neither flesh nor blood. The Pontianak is resurrected and we are all coming out with her. We no longer hide in the margins. There is no exploitation. There is no erasure. Now we remember all that we have forgotten. She looks at the people calling out to her, for her, and screaming her name. Finally no one is averting their gaze out of fear, but for the first time, the Pontianak is unable to see or hear us.
She leans forward and asks: What is it now?
Anak Pontianak (1958) and Folklore: Nobody (2018) will be screened on 17 August 2019 at The Arts House. They are part of a wide range of programmes for LumiNation, which runs from 15 to 18 August 2019. Another film, Tan Pin Pin’s In Time To Come, will be shown on 16 August.
This post is sponsored by The Arts House Ltd. for LumiNation 2019.
About the author(s)
ila is a visual and performance artist who works with found objects, moving images and live performance. she creates alternative nodes of experience and entry points into the peripheries of the unspoken, the tacit and the silenced. With light as her medium of choice, ila weaves imagined narratives into existing realities. Using her body as a space of tension, negotiation and confrontation, ila creates work that generates discussions about gender, history and identity in relation to pressing contemporary issues. She also writes short speculative fiction about the region on her instagram.