Why do we love the pontianak so much?

We may have gone from tiny kampungs to towering skyscrapers, but this bloodthirsty creature of folklore still plays a powerful role in our imagination. Sightings of them are reported to this day.

Sharlene Teo grew up in Singapore but a lot of Malaysian mythology finds its way into the stories people tell each other, she says.

“And I’ve always been interested in the myth of the pontianak. This woman who dies in childbirth, and comes back to haunt neighbourhoods,” says Teo, 31, in a recent telephone interview from Singapore.

“I was very interested in how this ghost enters the domestic space. Young girls are scared of her, men are scared of her. But she’s basically a young woman who’s a predator. I thought that was an interesting subversion.”

Countless films have been made about this creature, who really should become some sort of mascot for Malaysian horror. And a film about the pontianak plays a major role in Ponti, Teo’s debut novel (see review here).

Ponti is the tale of three Singaporean women, told in three timelines. In 1977, Amisa is a determined if somewhat self-centred small-town beauty cast as the lead in Ponti, a B-movie about the pontianak.

While the movie never takes off, it becomes a cult sensation, and Amisa resigns herself to an ordinary life, with occasional fan letters to remind her of the glory days.

In 2003, Amisa’s daughter Szu is a troubled teenager, having to deal with the horrors of secondary school as well as putting up with her mother, who now conducts fake seances with her sister at home.

The only spot of light in her life is Szu’s best friend Circe.

Finally, in 2023, Circe is a burnt out social media consultant. She and Szu have cut ties. However, in an odd twist of fate Circe is assigned to promote a remake of Ponti, thus bringing her old friend and her mother back into her life.

Yes, the novel is a little hard to describe. But it’s certainly been making waves. In 2016, the unpublished manuscript for Ponti was selected as the first winner of the Deborah Roger’s Award, which celebrates authors as they finish their first book.

Selected out of 885 entries, Ponti earned Teo £10,000 (RM53,000) and glowing accolades – including from noted British author Ian McEwan, who said in awarding the prize that the manuscript was “a remarkable first novel in the making” and that “I read this extract longing for more”.

Sharlene Teo Ponti pontianak

Teo drew inspiration from the haze which enveloped Singapore in 2003 as it ‘cloaked the country in this surreal, claustrophobic atmosphere’. Photo: Filepic

A remarkable feat, especially since according to Teo, Ponti started very, very differently. Believe it or not, its original premise was “A pontianak discovering the Internet”!

“I started writing the novel from the point of view of the pontianak. How the creature would feel in this contemporary society. How can you be afraid of things when you can find information about them at a push of a button?

“I was interested in the contrast between the old and new. Fifty years ago, you’re afraid of the pontianak. Today, you’re afraid of someone hacking into your accounts, or embezzling your cryptocurrency,” Teo laughs.

The author, however, soon realised she couldn’t go anywhere with the idea. Teo then changed her narrative, adding another thing she is fascinated with: scary movies.

“I love scary movies – although I’m a chicken when I watch them! I think horror is the genre that is most reflective of ‘contemporary now’, because we live in a strange horror show now. All kinds of radical things are happening, and I think we’re slowly killing the world with pollution,” Teo says.

Environmental issues also played a role in shaping the novel: It seems that Teo drew inspiration from the haze which enveloped Singapore in 2003 as it “cloaked the country in this surreal, claustrophobic atmosphere”, she said in a 2016 interview about Ponti in The Straits Times.

She began weaving a story set in 1970s Singapore, when local cinemas were starting to lose ground to television. Her idea: a filmmaker trying to make a film about a pontianak, something not considered “cool” any more.

“Whenever I read books that are set in Singapore, they’re often about WWII, or times like that. I’d never read one in this time period. So I did that,” says Teo, whose writing influences include Shirley Jackson, Yiyun Li, Tan Mei Ching and Cyril Wong.

Pontianaks may lurk in the corners of its pages, but Ponti is not a horror novel. Instead, it touches on loneliness, friendships and memory, while exploring how lives can be shaped by tragedy or failure.

The book also examines the intricacies of the female experience in an Asian setting.

“People behave in very specific ways according to the context. If we have women picking fights in a corporate context, for example, they would do it very differently here than in America. But we’re used to getting very Western-centric perspectives of female rivalry and stuff.

So I wanted to make a realistic depiction of how South-East Asian women are, and the expectations placed on them,” Teo says.

“It’s quite a ‘female’ novel. That may be quite limiting, some men may read the blurb and go ‘eeee’! But that’s a risk I’m willing to take because it’s the story that’s truest to me and what I want to write.”

Teo is now working on another novel. She’s tight-lipped on what it’s about, only revealing it will be “radically different” and “not for everyone”.

Her advice to aspiring writers? Pick up a book or two dozen.

“Read as widely as you can. You can’t be a good writer unless you are a good and voracious reader

“ Your voice is a lot more interesting than it is, and I think bad writing only happens when you try too hard to sound like someone else, when you bury your originality,” Teo says.

Brief Bio

Teo studied at Singapore’s Methodist Girls’ School and Anglo-Chinese Junior College before heading to Britain in 2006 to read law at the University of Warwick.

In 2012, she received the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship to do her master’s in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. The following year, she was chosen for the David T.K. Wong Fellowship, which disburses £26,000 (RM140,000) to a fiction writer in Britain to write in English about the Far East.

She went on to do her PhD in creative and critical writing at the University of East Anglia and received the Deborah Roger’s Award in 2016 for the unfinished manuscript of Ponti.

The award was set up in 2014 to honour renowned British literary agent Deborah Rogers, who once represented literary giants such as Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. Rogers died from a suspected heart attack in April 2014, aged 76. Teo was the award’s inaugural winner.

Follow Teo on Twitter at twitter.com/treebirds. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network