I love ghosts, and their stories.
Even (oh, especially) the badly written ones. The Russell Lee ones from my boyhood. The jump-scares. The ones that don’t make sense. The ones Grandma tells so matter-of-factly. The ones which are definitely true, because it happened to somebody’s mother’s friend’s cousin.
Ghosts are slippery. They pass through walls. They slip out of categories. Red-eyed, black-eyed, three bags full. Ghosts are unexplained, unexplainable; that’s partly why they’re so scary. But why don’t ghosts disappear, if they’re so untrue? Why are there shadows sitting where they shouldn’t?
Why won’t they go away? I hope they don’t.
I love my ghost stories. I like how they make me look at the darkness differently. I relish the strange uneasiness of the unknown. It’s like the bite of the sambal belachan on my tongue, hurting, but hurting so good. It is the strangeness that makes me return, again and again, to the fantastic and the supernatural.
But there are so many other reasons to like ghost stories.
I also like ghost stories because they are mirrors. They can tell us so much about ourselves. Beneath the rotting, lurching meat, or the bloodthirsty demon lie tangible, concrete foundations of truth and reality. To me, the most unnerving ghost stories are the ones that sound like they could have happened or have already happened. The ones that leave you speechless, unable to laugh them away. I think the best ghost stories endure because they resonate with aspects of our selves we can’t reasonably see, or touch, or hear—but know to be there. Facets of our pasts, our dreamscapes, our lived lives. Stories told and heard and understood by anyone, not just men (often men) in high castles of ivory.
In preparation for this post, I revisited Russell Lee’s series of True Singapore Ghost Stories, a collection of local tales I used to scare myself silly reading in my primary school days. Every self-respecting schoolboy would have read at least one book from that series, drawn to their iconic covers, which always featured a pair of glaring eyes (pupils tinted in assorted colours depending on which book in the series you were reading).
I have a vivid memory of my nine-year-old self sitting at the kitchen table, having just finished a story from that collection on a hot, bright afternoon. I had been so frightened then that I was quite literally riveted to my seat….
More than ten years on, a thrill ran through me picking up BOOK FOUR from the Library at random. What would I find, revisiting this old space, these strange stories?
Between those glaring covers (eyes tinted red), waiting like an old song, or a good friend you thought you’d long forgotten, were the stories I’d grown up with.
Yes, the old archetypes, as snug as any steaming bowl of comfort food. The unexplained scent of jasmine at midnight. The Pontianak, tree-haunting, man-stalking. The kepala anjing, dog-headed, child-hunting. The orang minyak, oily-flanked and lecherous. The deep, disembodied voices behind you, late on a windy night during the Chinese Seventh Month. The shadows that shouldn’t be there. Stories which aren’t told so often anymore, in this impatient era of bright lights and shiny things.
But I also saw other things.
Nestled deeper in these stories I also saw Singapores which didn’t exist anymore. Ghosts are birthed from, are inextricably tied to, specific cultures, emotions, landscapes, trees, smells, animals, months (of the Julian, Gregorian, solar, lunar calendars). What is strange, outlandish, obscene, taboo, is knotted to a specific period, and the peoples who held these philosophies, living in a certain place.
And so within these bizarre stories—sent in by Singaporeans from all walks of life—were visions of a wilder, older Singapore. When the Jungle was still lovely(?), dark and deep. When there were still telephone operators, and bus conductors. Stories which only make sense in the claustrophobic squeeze of the kampung, where entire communities could be plagued by a pontianak for weeks, if not years. Stories of old corners, and stadiums, and neighbourhoods. Stories of the unexplained monsters National Servicemen would see while doing their military training in the primordial rainforests of Brunei…
Now, as an older Singapore fades away, I treasure these stories more. The way they smell of forgotten names and taste of older mysteries; like the roots of a vanished tree, still slumbering in some strange darkness. The way these stories are neither History nor Poetry, neither true nor untrue, deliciously both-and. The way they allow us other eyes/roads/shoes/paths to talk, and tell, and think about ourselves.
I was born under the bright lights of this City, where we are always urged to think of Tomorrow. But I think shadows are important too. I think yesterday is important too. Sitting in these stories are other Singapores, imagined differently, floating on the murmuring dim edges of Dream. So come take a little trip around Singapore Town. Come look, and listen a little more closely, to these unsung corners, these shadows that won’t go away.
What do you see?
Ruizhi prefers to be lost in stories, but occasionally he gets lost in cities too. He is currently completing his Masters thesis on colonial fisheries at the National University of Singapore, where he also teaches history to undergraduates. He runs @singapore_stories, an Instagram project offering alternative insights into Singapore’s pasts, presents and futures, and lives in a quiet neighbourhood named after conquerors from a faraway land. There, under the shade of a Central American tree, his grandmothers tell him stories he can’t find in textbooks.