1. Going Backwards: The Aquatic Culture Myth

In his 1983 work, The Birth of Vietnam, Keith Taylor argued that Vietnamese “mythical traditions. . . reveal a sea-oriented culture coming to terms with a continental environment. Civilization arrived with a culture hero from the sea. . .” (1)

The “culture hero” that Taylor was referring to here is Lạc Long Quân, a “mythical” figure that first appeared in the fifteenth century Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện 嶺南摭怪列傳 (Arrayed Tales of Selected Oddities from South of the Passes) and in abridged form in the fifteenth-century history, the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư 大越史記全書 (The Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt).

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The Silenced Mules of World War II Burma

In continuing to follow my interest in animals and animal-human relations in the Southeast Asian past, I was looking around the web site for the Imperial War Museums for information about mules in Burma during World War II.

Mules were used to transport weapons and goods for the Chindits, a British special forces group that entered Burma from India and fought the Japanese, and they are mentioned quite often in the oral interviews on the Imperial War Museums web site of soldiers who served in the Chindit expeditions.

chindits and mule

So it looks like one could use what humans have written and said in order to write a history of mules in World War II Burma. What one could not do, however, is to incorporate a “mule voice” for that history.

The reason why this would be impossible is not simply because mules don’t speak human languages, but because the mules that carried weapons and supplies for the Chindits were actually “de-voiced” in India before they headed off to Burma.


A doctor by the name of A. J. Moffett claims to have invented the technique for doing this. In an article that he published in the British Medical Journal in 1983, he recalled the following:

“Sometime in 1942-3 I was the ear and throat specialist to No 14 British General Hospital stationed in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, India. I was approached by Colonel Stewart of the Indian Army Veterinary Corps. He had a problem.

“A mule makes a loud braying noise that can be heard for two or three miles. The First Chindit Force – at that time a very hush hush operation – led by Colonel Orde Wingate used mules for transport. This braying of the mules alerted the enemy to the position of the force. Wingate wanted the mules silenced. Could I as a laryngologist suggest what could be done.”

mule and man sleeping

A. J. Moffett goes on in his article to explain that he developed a simple technique for cutting the vocal chords of a mule so that it could no longer make sounds. He did this after the mule had been put to sleep with general anesthetics, and laid on its side.

However, an animal transport officer with the Chindits by the name of Francis William Geoffrey Turner stated in an interview that the Imperial War Museums has digitized that when this technique was actually implemented, veterinarians just used a local anesthetic, and the operation only took about three minutes, during which time the mule remained standing.

crossing river

Turner then makes some interesting remarks about the consequences of this “de-voicing” of mules. In particular, he argues that this de-vocalization “messed up” the mules because it took away their ability to speak to each other “which in effect therefore had the undesired effect of a mule having to see before he would go as opposed to be able to talk before he went.”

As an example of this, Turner talks about a time when the men and mules that he was with needed to cross the Irrawaddy River at a place where it was about 800 meters wide. It was very difficult to do this, because the men had to force the mules to not turn their heads back when they entered the water, because when the swimming mules looked back and saw other mules on the shore, they automatically wanted to turn back.

He notes that, “The mule you see would [have] liked at that stage to be able to call out to his friend on the other side before he entered the water.”

However, by de-vocalizing the mules, that ability to “talk to each other” was taken away. It was only when mules got far enough out into the water so that they could mules that had already crossed and were on the other side, that they then were able to move forward on their own.

mules in river

So mules were literally silenced in World War II Burma. At the same time, mules and other animals have also been largely silenced in many of our accounts of the past. In listening to various interviews on the Imperial War Museums site, however, it’s clear that many aspects of the past were experienced together by animals and humans, and that many human experiences in the past are closely interconnected with animals.

I therefore think that it’s time then to “re-vocalize” the animals in history, so that we can gain a fuller understanding of the past.

Remixing the Past: Of Pigs and Men in 1920s Sarawak

Partly because I’ve been spending a lot of time in a forest that is inhabited by wild boars, and partly because sometimes when I’m out there I think about some essays that Jonathan Saha posted on his blog this summer about animals, I’ve been thinking about animals and how viewing the past from an “animal perspective” might be an interesting way to think about history.

And while there are of course a variety of different animals that one could use to examine history, I’m curious these days about pigs.

boar tracks

So I made the (somewhat random) decision to look through the issues of the Sarawak Gazette for the years of 1920 and 1922 to see what it said about pigs.

Indeed, it had a lot to say about pigs. So much, in fact, that I was able to categorize the information into various times of human-pig relations.

borneo pig

First of all, there was the relationship that the indigenous Dayaks had with pigs.

It is clear from my superficial examination of two years of the Sarawak Gazette that pigs were essential for the Dayak way of life. Of course their meat was an important form of protein, but in terms of religion and culture, pigs played an equally important role in various events and rituals.

There was an article in 1922, for instance, on “native medicine” which noted that “Dayaks and other natives use all manner of charms and talismans for procuring invulnerability, such as the material of wild pigs’ nest which is slung around the waist.”

Then there was an article on “Religious Rites and Customs of the Iban or Dayaks of Sarawak” which detailed the process by which a couple could get married. It involved various stages, and there was the potential for bad omens to bring an end to the ceremony at different stages. If, however, after that had happened the two sides still wanted the marriage to proceed, “a pig is killed the liver of which is examined: if the omen is good the marriage may be proceeded with, if bad it must be relinquished.”

And then finally there were ways in which pigs played a role in Dayak deaths: “Should a death occur from accident, the body cannot be brought into the house until a pig has been killed and each inmate of the house has been smeared with the blood, otherwise a curse would fall upon the house and it would be unsafe to live in.”


So pigs were clearly important to the Dayaks, and they way that they traditionally captured them, apparently was by trapping them. I haven’t figured out yet what those traps looked like, but they contained some kind of “magic charm,” which the above figure is an example of, and which now sell in the international art market for significant sums of money.

In the early 1920s, however, the Sarawak Gazette carried numerous stories about the injuries that Dayak pig traps caused.

A February 1920 report from Simanggang stated that “Penghulu Nuga reported the death of one Ujoi by a pig trap set by Jebin of the same house.”

In April 1920 there was a follow-up to this report that “Jebin [was] sentenced to six months imprisonment for culpable homicide in causing the death of another Dayak by his pig trap, and to pay $100 pati nyawa to relatives of deceased.”

In 1922 “a Dayak living at Slanjan was pierced in the side by a pig trap supposed to have been set by himself” while a man in Sibu by the name of Nglambai “was fined 2 piculs for causing hurt to a small boy by setting a pig trap in his fruit grove. The boy had a narrow escape from death.”

And finally, “A Sarikei Dayak was fined a pikul for setting a pig trap and slightly wounding a Chinese woman.”


I have no idea what happened before the Brooke family gained control of Sarawak when someone was injured by pig trap. I would assume that it must have been resolved by people in the longhouse.

However, with the arrival of the Brookes, European forms of justice started to be employed, and Dayaks had to compensate for the harm that their traps (unintentionally) caused in terms that they did not define.


We can also see a similar process with regards to the Chinese in Sarawak and their relationship to pigs.

In the January 16, 1920 issue of the Sarawak Gazette there is a report from Sadong (for December 1919) that stated that some Chinese coolies demonstrated outside a shop in the market on “the eve of some Chinese feast day.” They demanded that the owner of the shop kill three pigs for the feast the next day. The shop owner agreed.

So pigs were important for the Chinese, and to some extent this was religious, although I think these coolies were more interested in getting the pigs into their bellies. . .

In any case, a month later, in a report from Upper Sarawak, an official noted that “pigs were being killed at Siniawan in a number of places in the bazaar,” so he arranged to have a slaughter house built “on an approved site” and to lease the right to slaughter and sell pork there “to a Chinese at a monthly rental as is done at Bau.”

So seeing that the Chinese were slaughtering pigs, an official for the Brooke administration decided to establish a monopoly for the slaughter and sale of pork (a “pork farm”) in Siniawan, and to lease that monopoly to the highest bidder, which in Sarawak, like the rest of Southeast Asia, ended up being a rich Chinese.


Once that happened, Dayaks figured out that beyond religious/ritual benefits, there were other benefits that one could get from pigs. . . namely, one could become rich by selling them to Chinese who wanted to eat them.

In March 1920, the official stationed in Upper Sarawak reported that “The pork farmer [and I assume that he is referring to the person in Bau] ceased to kill pigs on the 18th as he said that he could not sell at the controlled price owing to the high price of pigs.”

The Brooke government apparently wanted pork to stay at a set price, but Chinese farmers started to demand higher prices for their pigs.

The man who had the monopoly on the slaughter and sale of pigs then “tried to buy pigs from the Dayaks” but the Dayaks had heared that the Chinese were asking a high price for their live swine, so they refused to sell at anything but the same price that the Chinese were asking even though “their animals are far inferior beasts to those of the Chinese breeders.”


Some from animals that had ritual significance to the Dayaks, pigs in the 1920s were being transformed into commodities that the Dayaks could demand a high price for.

Perhaps this explains why violence started to emerge in relation to pigs.

It was reported from Upper Sarawak in February 1920 that there was a “Dayak shooting case” that occurred in the following manner: “a pig drive was in progress when Sejit shot a relative of his named Sanyas in the back killing him instantly. Sejit saw the long grass waving and simply fired without waiting to see what he was shooting at with this unfortunate result. The Court sentenced him to a year imprisonment.”

A month later it was reported from Upper Sarawak that: “On the night of the 16th, a gardener’s house at Seringgok was held up by two Chinese armed with thorny sticks, while two more proceeded to the piggery, and cut up and made off with a pig weighing some 90 catties. The gardener got out through the back of the house and raised the alarm, but the thieves managed to make good their escape in the darkness.”

Pigs had clearly become valuable. . .


What this very brief and superficial examination demonstrates to me is that there is great potential in looking at the past from an “animal perspective,” or more specifically, from looking at the past from the perspective of human-animal relations.

In the case of Sarawak, for instance, one can clearly see larger societal and economic transformations in the situations that pigs found themselves.

If historians were to examine the past from the perspective of those situations that pigs found themselves in, we might not learn a great deal that is new, but I think we’d see a lot that we already know from a novel and enlightening perspective.

So in any case, to honor the role of pigs in the history of Sarawak, I’ve created a soundscape that I’ve called “Peaceful Pigs.” It’s not about Dayak pig traps or Chinese slaughterhouses. But instead, is a soundscape which imagines a (more or less) peaceful co-existence between pigs and humans. This might not be what actually occurred in the past, but that is why this is the past “remixed.”

Sinkesin in Indonesia!!

I have posted a couple of entries about the medicine Sinkesin (here and here). I first came across it in a Thai newspaper from the 1930s, and then in a Chinese newspaper from Burma in the 1950s.

Senkesin from 1950s Indonesia

Now I have found it (under the name Senkesin) in an Indonesian newspaper from the 1950s called Waspada. I don’t know Indonesian, but the images in this advertisement are the clearest that I have found for this product.

If someone would like to read what it says and tell me the gist of it, that would be wonderful.

What is great about this add is that we can finally get a good view of the monkeys. The Thai advertisement from the 1930s which I read said that the main ingredient in Sinkesin came from the sex glands of langurs. The two cute guys in the picture here, however, look like chimpanzees.

In any case, it is great to finally see the Latin term for this secret medicinal ingredient – Masculinum!

The Feel of Modernity on One’s Skin in 1960s Burma

In the early 1960s, before the army overthrew the civilian government, Burma maintained good ties with Japan. Prime Minister Ikeda visited Burma in the fall of 1961, and then in January 1962 the Toyo Rayon Company held a “Toray Rayon Fair” at the Rangoon city hall.

1960s Rayon advertisement in Burma

Today when we buy clothes, many people prefer to buy clothes made of natural fibers, like cotton. However, in the 1960s, however, synthetic or semi-synthetic fibers, like nylon and rayon, looked to many like they would be the materials of the future.

1960s Rayon advertisement in Burma

And the Toyo Rayon Company – “the leading manufacturer of man-made fiber in Japan” – was leading the charge toward that synthetic future.

1960s Rayon advertisement in Burma

The advertisements here all mention different garment manufacturers, such as the Zan Ben Seint Co. and Han Tha Aye Ltd. But what unites them all is that they were all using synthetic materials, such as nylon, produced by the Toyo Rayon Company.

This company was founded in 1926, and a year later it started to produce rayon yarn. During World War II it produced materials to support the war effort. Then after the war it imported technology from Du Pont to produce nylon.

1960s Rayon advertisement in Burma

So synthetic fiber clothing was not new in the 1960s. And the outfits which the women are wearing in these advertisements might look quite different from what their hip counterparts were wearing in Tokyo at the time.

1960s Rayon advertisement in Burma

But in fact the style of clothing that these women are wearing is a kind of modern style which emerged in Burma in the twentieth century. Chie Ikeya has recently written a wonderful book which examines the emergence of “new women” in twentieth century Burma and their new style of dress.

Like so many other places around the world, a small elite group of women in Burma gained an education, became “modern” and set a path of change which would ultimately affect the lives of many of their compatriots.

From looking at these advertisements, it looks like in the early 1960s women were still moving forward down that path, and thanks to the Toyo Rayon Company, their lives were getting even better.

They were no longer living in a colony, but in an independent nation. And as befit the citizens of a nation that was developing and moving towards the future, women in Burma could enjoy what development had to offer.

And what was that? Nylon! “Elegant, Durable, Light,” “smooth, cool, and agreeable to the touch.”

The feel of synthetic fibers against one’s skin – that’s the true feel of modernity. And in the early 1960s, Burmese women had the chance to feel it.

Getting Strength from the Life Glands of Monkeys in 1950s Burma

I was looking at this Chinese newspaper from Burma in the early 1950s and came across this advertisement below.

Sinkesin advertisement from 1950s Burma

It is an advertisement for a product which claims to be the “The Enhancement King of Male-Female Life Glands.” It can be used by men and women, the elderly and the young, anyone whose mental or physical strength needs a boost.

It is “Uniformly praised by famous Chinese and foreign doctors alike.”

Why is it so powerful? Well its undoubtedly because its main ingredient comes from the “life glands of monkeys. . .”

Sinkesin advertisement from 1950s Burma

While I can’t make out what is written on the box, this is clearly an advertisement for a product which was called Sinkesin, “The Hormone Rejuvenator.”

I came across a more detailed advertisement for this product in a Thai newspaper from the 1940s and wrote about it here a couple of years ago.

I’m sure it is Sinkesin because this advertisement contains the same warning. “Note: [Sinkesin] Gold is for men, and Silver is for ladies.”

You have to wonder – what would have happened if someone took the wrong pills?

Felling Lizards in Medieval Vietnam

Aren’t Buddhists not supposed to harm living things? Isn’t that one of the most basic concepts of Buddhism?

That’s what I thought anyway. Then I read the following passage about the medieval Vietnamese zen master Giác Hải in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái:

“During the time of Lý Nhân Tông [1066-1127 C.E.], [Giác Hải] and Daoist adept Thông Huyền were summoned to Lương Thạch Temple in Liên Mộng to attend to [the emperor]. Suddenly [two] lizards began to shriek at each other, making a sound that grated on one’s ears. The emperor ordered Huyền to stop them. Huyền uttered an incantation under his breath, and this felled the first. The emperor laughed and said to the master [i.e., Giác Hải], “That leaves one for the monk.” The master uttered an incantation at it, and after a short while it also fell. The emperor found this to be extraordinary and composed a poem which went,

The heart of Giác Hải is [vast] like the sea,

The way of Thông Huyền is abstruse.

Their supernatural powers able to bring about transformations,

One is a Buddha, the other an immortal.

Because of this, the master’s fame quickly spread across All Under Heaven. Monks and commoners relied on him.”

Ok, so I guess we don’t have definite evidence that Giác Hải actually “harmed” the lizard. Maybe he just put it to sleep for a while. . . Then again, maybe not. . . Hmmm. . .


Thời Lý Nhân Tông, sư thường cùng Thông Huyền chân nhân được triệu vào ngồi hầu trong chùa Lương Thạch ở Liên Mộng. Bỗng có đôi tắc kè gọi nhau, nhức tai điếc óc. Vua truyền Thông Huyền ngăn nó lại, Huyền lặng nhẩm thần chú, một con rơi xuống trước. Vua cười bảo: “Hãy còn một con xin để nhường nhà sư.” Sư đọc thần chú, trong nháy mắt con còn lại cũng rơi xuống nốt. Vua kinh lạ, làm thơ rằng:

Giác Hải tâm như hải,

Thông Huyền đạo diệc huyền.

Thần thông năng biến hóa,

Nhất Phật, nhất thần tiên.

Từ đó danh tiếng sư vang động thiên hạ, các vị tăng cùng kẻ tục đều dốc lòng tin theo.

The Blessed Pigs of Burma

The picture below appeared on the front page of The Nation on 5 February 1962.

The caption below the picture stated the following:

GOOD DEED FOR EVERYONE’S GOOD: “If we have ill-treated you in the past, forgive us. If you have done us wrong, we also forgive you. Let us not seek revenge on each other.” With these words and a prayer that the good deed for the day may result in happiness for al the people of this country, the Prime Minister gave sanctuary to 602 animals at a ceremony held at the Rangoon Mounted Police lines yesterday morning. He is shown above sprinkling water from a silver bowl with the aid of a “thabye” branch over the three pigs included among the 602 animals.

Three questions popped into my mind when I read this. The first regards the statement, “Let us not seek revenge on each other.” Hmmm, how exactly do pigs seek revenge on human beings???

Second, why 602? My guess would be that there was something significant about this number. What?

Third, this prime minister was overthrown less than a month after this picture was taken. What happened to these 602 animals after that?

Âu Cơ and Crocodiles

The Annan zhiyuan/An Nam chí nguyên 安南志原 by Gao Xiongzheng 高熊徵 (1636-1706) is an important source for premodern Vietnamese history which very few scholars have made use of, and those who have, have only done so minimally. It was compiled in the seventeenth century by a Chinese scholar who appears to have relied on materials obtained during the Ming occupation of Vietnam (~1407-1427), including local records. Some of the information it contains is unique, and very interesting.

The following passage is a case in point. It is about crocodiles, or what some people in Vietnam used to say about crocodiles. What I find interesting about it is the part at the end where it talks about crocodiles having many eggs, and that after they hatch, some babies descend into the water while others take to the land. That sounds a lot like Âu Cơ and her 100 sons. . .

To quote,

In the two prefectures of Tân Bình and Thuần Hóa there are crocodiles which look like giao [蛟, a type of dragon], and are over two trượng long. They are very strong. They use their tales to grab people traveling on the water and swallow them.

In the past, people were often taken away by the crocodiles. These people would use their hands to squeeze the [crocodiles’] throats, and the crocodiles would not swallow them. The [crocodiles] then left them alone, and [the people] escaped death.

Whenever there is a storm, the crocodiles float on the surface, and people gather to watch them.

A crocodile can produce some several tens of eggs. When they hatch, those which descend into the water become crocodiles while those which ascend onto the shore become peculiar snakes and worms. Sometimes the mother will eat them to not let them multiply.

Sumatran Civet Cats and their Coffee Beans

So kopi luwak is all the rage these days. Its been introduced on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and country singer Brad Paisley reportedly brews it on his tour bus. What is it? It is coffee made from coffee beans which have been eaten and then defecated by a civet cat. It comes from two main places – the island of Sumatra and places on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. People are not sure if what makes it taste so good is the fact that it passes through the civet cat’s body and some kind of chemical change takes place in the process or if it is because the civet cats only eat the best coffee beans. Either way, it is expensive! The coffee above is only “2% civet-cat-defecated.” So it’s cheap. But the container says that the company has been around since 1969. So kopi luwak has been a well-kept secret for a long time. That makes me wonder what other animal-defecated delicacies might still be out there which the wider world has yet to discover. . .