Southeast Asian cross-cultural fascinations with death

In countries with an Anglo-centric tradition, Halloween has become a commercial opportunity to think about death, albeit in a “cheap” way. In Southeast Asia, things are somewhat different. Robert Bociaga discovers that the obsession with the beyond seems to have no borders.

Halloween enthusiasts in Vietnam prepare for celebrations at Yun Cosplay in Hanoi / photo Tran Ngoc My

In the Buddhist cultures of Southeast Asia, Japan and China, where the dead are cremated, corpses play a role in religion, literature and art not seen elsewhere in the world. .

“Mummies of monks and those who died unnaturally are kept in glass coffins for people to view and give gifts,” writes Justin Thomas McDaniel, author of capricious distractions, a detailed review of his studies of Buddhist practices in Thailand. “Furthermore, the practice of corpse meditation is often cultivated in temples to understand the impermanence of life.”

Additionally, many people carry on the tradition of making ghost dolls which are sculpted from clay into small human figures to contain one’s spirits and serve as protection.

Amulets and a monk meditating on a corpse in the manuscript of Phra Malai Klong Suat / photo Justin Thomas McDaniel

The Buddhist stories that underpin these beliefs about death and ghosts have circulated through much of the region for generations. However, for a growing number of people, Halloween has become the most anticipated holiday in October.

In Vietnam’s major urban centers, on the last day of the month, people usually rush to the streets to go out in the evening, dressed in their masks and costumes.

“Last year, because of Covid, people celebrated online by gathering on Zoom, or in bars with less than 10 people allowed,” says Tran Ngoc My, a costume designer from Hanoi. As a result, face masks were an indispensable part of the costume, for those who braved bars.

Costumes go hand in hand with face masks in a Vietnamese Halloween / photo Tran Ngoc My

Vietnamese have their own annual holiday to remember the deceased. Vu Lan, or the Hungry Ghost Festival, is celebrated in the middle of the year and is known as a time of forgiveness. Stemming from Taoist and Buddhist thought, the festival is a chance for these spirits to leave the gates of hell, visit the living and reincarnate.

“It’s completely different from Halloween,” says Tran Ngoc My. “We make offerings for lost souls who might otherwise curse us.” Halloween, on the other hand, is fun because “people turn into ghosts and have as much fun as Westerners,” she says.

Zaw Zaw Myo Myo’s photos of his creations: a Halloween couple and a three-eyed monster.

For Zaw Zaw Myo Myo, a special effects artist, it’s not a lot of fun this year. Born in the city of Myeik in Myanmar, he moved to Thailand and then to Yangon in his native country to learn the craft of creating the masks and costumes of various creatures.

He lets his imagination run wild while working on horror art, but after Myanmar’s military junta restricted the public celebration of Thandigyut, a religious festival of lights commemorating the Buddha’s descent to earth, this year “Only a few have decided to celebrate Halloween in the privacy of their homes,” he says.

On the other hand, there are countries in Asia where the celebration of Halloween is discouraged by religious authorities and may require prior permission if held publicly.

In Malaysia, Halloween is considered a Christian festival of the dead and against Islamic teachings. Therefore, the country’s National Fatwa Council advises Muslims to remember the dead by reciting prayers and reading the Quran.

However, prior to the pandemic, the Malaysian business sector evolved from an unpopular and coerced event to one promoted by malls and embraced by many restaurants and bars.

Nevertheless, “the costume party is celebrated by adults on a small scale, as a way to liven up the workplace,” says Faruq Kilau from Kuala Lumpur. “The Malays who celebrate it are from big cities and culturally adaptive.”

Also in Indonesia, Halloween does not get much attention due to the prevailing Islamic traditions. The country’s indigenous culture, however, is rich in its own beliefs about death and supernatural calamities pervading the human world.

Bali mythological leyak, designed using 3D software / photo Reinnard Bartholius

Reinnard Bartholius, based in the Indonesian town of Tangerang near Jakarta, does not celebrate Halloween. The 23-year-old Tionghoa ethnic group was however inspired by the story of the leyak, a mythological figure, known in Balinese folklore as a flying head with entrails.

As a 3D artist, he drew a multi-dimensional image of the creature to enter the Non-Fungible Token (NFT) community’s Halloween contest. “It’s linked to my childhood memory,” he adds. “A leyak walking around and eating people at night scares me until now.”

Putri Prihatini from the Indonesian island of Borneo echoes her vision of Halloween. “It’s a product of popular culture,” says the Balikpapan-based blogger. “I can, however, understand feelings towards the dead and scary things.”

“For me, even as someone born and raised in an urban area and not involved in many cultural practices, I still believe that ghosts and the supernatural are not something to be dismissed because we cannot see them” , she comments. “There are a lot of fascinations around this subject, because it has a big impact on our life, and it makes traditions related to death or ghosts revered.”

She names the concept of “Sandhya Kala” rooted in Javanese culture as an example of a belief similar to that of Halloween. According to her, ghosts could kidnap children at sunset when the door to the spirit world is open.

Day of the Dead and 7th lunar month altars at Haw Par Villa in Singapore. /photo Journeys Pte Ltd

Importantly, despite the decline in the practice of Indigenous celebrations across the country, some communities are reinventing ancient myths to meet current needs. In a bid to curb the spread of Covid, a neighborhood in Indonesia’s Java province reportedly deployed a group of “ghosts”, locally known as “pocong”. Wrapped in white fabrics resembling corpses in burial shrouds, the patrollers scared people into staying at home.

Also, while Indonesians do not give sweets to children who knock on their door, many in rural areas knock on pots, wood and utensils to prevent an unwanted ghost from bringing calamities.

Looking back, Halloween had strong religious affiliations. It is believed that with the spread of Christianity in Europe, the church replaced the ancient Celtic holiday with All Saints Day.

To explore perspectives on death and the afterlife across a multitude of cultures, Singapore’s Haw Par Villa recently curated an underworld museum that incorporates the 10 Courts of Hell. They decided to cover not just the Chinese afterlife, but comparative religions.

“Art can certainly help, but providing knowledge, deeper insights and an understanding of our evolving view of the afterlife is also crucial,” says Jeya Ayadurai, its director. “Religions have important commonalities that are often overlooked. Most also espouse a belief in the afterlife, the principle of “cause and effect” and the concept of judgment on the life one has led.

But why do we wonder if we can continue to live metaphysically?

Many say that at the root of our fascination with death is an attachment to life.

“After all, death and the afterlife are relevant topics for all of humanity,” says Jeya Ayadurai.

– Asia Media Center

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