Here in Brunei, spirits permeate the air. Ghosts, jinn, bomohs, pontianaks, they spill from the jungle, older buildings, certain highways. They are as much a part of the landscape – spiritual, emotional, cultural – as the rainforest, Gadong Centerpoint, or Kampong Ayer.
Everyone knows a jinn story, most people know a friend of a relative or a relative of a friend who saw a thing.
There’s undoubtedly a market for stories about the supernatural and the mythical in Brunei. Rozan Yunos’ latest collection of articles, Monsters, Dragons & Fairies: Myths and Legends from Borneo and Brunei, is also his first thematic compilation (he has previously published chronological collections of his articles), and is a valuable well from which aspiring Bruneian writers, storytellers and scholars can draw.
A slim volume at just over 100 pages, there are 17 articles in the collection — all but five previously appeared in The Brunei Times newspaper. Readers familiar with Rozan’s former weekly column, The Golden Legacy, will be accustomed to his gentle, meandering and occasionally dryly ironic prose.
Despite the monsters in the title, if you’re looking for thrills and chills, look elsewhere — other than the previously unpublished essays The Origin of the Pontianak, and Spirits at the Golf Course, this collection is more fairytale than fearsome.
Underneath the princesses, dragons, giant snakes and fratricide, this collection is powered by two questions. The first one is: “Why?” Why do we use the phrase “macam Bujang Sigandam”? Why are there Tiger’s Caves in Brunei when there are no tigers on Borneo? Why, in a capital full of streets named after British Residents, is one street named after a Chinese minister (Ong Sum Ping)?
The second question is, “Did you know?” Did you know that there is a mythical city called Saranjana on Borneo, purportedly governed by jinn and/or spirits? Did you know that golf courses in Brunei have a multitude of supernatural stories about them, including sightings of ghostly funeral processions and spirit children? Did you know that Kampung Tanjung Nangka has possibly been inhabited for 1000 years? (I didn’t.)
And yet Monsters, Dragons & Fairies isn’t an academic text, or a historical one – Wikipedia is referenced extensively, as are blogs and Facebook, sources of questionable veracity, Walter William Skeat’s Malay Magic (1900) comes up repeatedly, as does Peter Blundell’s The City of Many Waters (1923). This is decidedly an anecdotal collection; hearsay and oral histories collected, compiled, curated.
The best way to describe this collection is that reading it is like listening to a really knowledgeable uncle who has lots of stories and experience, who isn’t too bothered about keeping to the point, and is occasionally vague about sources. This is sometimes aggravating, but once you get used to the digressing, oral style, it is a treasure trove of stories that might otherwise be lost.
‘Monsters, Dragons & Fairies: Myths and Legends from Borneo and Brunei’ is available from Fanboys Infinite for BND$12.90.
On the other side of the supernatural spectrum, there’s Abdul Zainidi, a proudly local filmmaker. I interviewed Abdul Zainidi in 2013 for ProjekBrunei.com, and earlier this year he was interviewed by biG magazine. Trained and based in France, Abdul Zainidi is perhaps best known for having the first Bruneian film screened at the Cannes film festival. His films regularly make the international festival rounds, but while he’s occasionally staged plays in Brunei, local audiences have never been able to watch his short films, despite many of them being shot in Brunei, using local actors.
Enter: Flying Udal — a short film about aliens in Tutong and the little boy who goes hunting for them — which has been screened in France and Malaysia. At three minutes, this short is a moment; a surreal fragment anchored in sound and setting and flickering cinematography. Much like the rest of Abdul’s oeuvre, it mostly comes together in retrospect rather than in the moment.
If Monsters, Dragons & Fairies is heavy on story over storytelling, then Flying Udal is the inverse of that. For audiences looking for a different, through-the-looking-glass perspective of Brunei and a divergent construction of Bruneian mythology, Flying Udal may appeal.
For those with a stronger stomach, Abdul has provided a link to Spark, a short, grotesque, “cruel” fairy tale set in Paris. It is definitely atmospheric, and Abdul’s disembodied, measured voice is very effective. But before watching, audiences should be reminded that, as per this writer-actor-director’s warning: “Disturbing is my domain”. (And, as an indicator of what lay ahead, the initial password he gave me to this video was “witchjuice”.)
Dr Kathrina Mohd Daud is a lecturer in the English programme at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Her short story, I Am A Bird, was the Judges’ Pick for the Asia-Europe short story contest in 2013. She is also the co-founder and playwright at Salted Egg Theatre, an all-female theatre troupe from Brunei.