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A spectre is haunting Southeast Asia: the spectre of spicepunk. Across the polyglot populations of our eleven nation-states and the vast archipelago of our global emigrant and expatriate diaspora, artists and authors alike find ourselves independently possessed by the same spirit; the same hantu or anito; the same phi, nat, boramey, sanghyang, or thần.

What is spicepunk? The word describes a recent-ish wave of speculative fiction and fantastical arts, countering Western(ised) hegemonic modernity with alternative visions anchored in Southeast Asian heritage and history.

It is Dean Francis Alfar’s Hinirang tales, such as “The Kite of Stars”, set in a magical version of the colonial Philippines; it is Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya stories, such as The Tea Master and the Detective, set in a Vietnamese-inspired galactic empire. It is Zarina Muhammad’s multidisciplinary art event Pragmatic Prayers for the Kala at the Threshold, linking Singapore’s urban geography and queer bodies with pre-colonial Malay legends and ritual magic; it is Zedeck Siew’s zine series A Thousand Thousand Islands, chock-full of Southeast Asian-inspired scenarios and illustrations, created to serve as the basis for tabletop RPGs. It is, to an extent, Disney’s deeply problematic Raya and the Last Dragon, yet it is also the ordinary Southeast Asians that rose up on Discord to critique the work in depth, as featured in a YouTube lecture series curated by Xiran Jay Zhao.[1]

The term “spicepunk” is not yet in wide circulation. I coined it myself in 2017 as an Anglophone Singaporean writer and researcher of spec fic.[2] Since then, I have attempted to flesh it out through my literary networks in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, though limited by my ignorance of developments in other urban centres, and in the multiple vernacular literatures of the region.

The world of Southeast Asian spec fic is vast, uncentred and close to unmappable. In the essay that follows, I make bold statements about its contours, but am bound by humility to remain open to contradiction and correction. This manifesto, like the field of spicepunk itself, must be read as a work in progress.

 

1.  History and Contexts

Spicepunk is, as the name suggests, kin with the well-established genre of steampunk and Ken Liu’s conception of silkpunk, which he defines as “a very specific technology and literary aesthetic,” informed by the notion of the poet-engineer and “materials of historical importance to the people of East Asia and the Pacific islands.”[3] Yet it is even closer cousins with Nnedi Okorafor’s Africanfuturism, a sci-fi subcategory “specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view” that “does not privilege or center the West,” and is “concerned with visions of the future, is interested in technology … skews optimistic.”[4]

All non-Western cultures have been marginalised on the world stage. Southeast Asia, however, has consistently suffered outright erasure, falling by the wayside after tokenised Asian representation by China, Japan, India, and the Middle East. The great kingdoms of Funan, Bagan, Khmer, Srivijaya, Majapahit, Melaka, Đại Việt and Ayutthaya remain obscure footnotes in the lexicon of history, to say nothing of the numberless societies that steadfastly resisted state incorporation, such as the Orang Laut and the hill peoples of Zomia. Too often, grand narratives of the march of humankind have nothing to report on our region until the advent of the Vietnam War.

This disrespect has poisoned our relationship with our heritage. Sociologist Lily Zubaidah Rahim identifies the phenomenon as the cultural deficit thesis:[5] a belief that certain cultures are too backward, too primitive, to be beneficial in the modern world, and must be discarded or transformed in the name of progress. This is why, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Southeast Asian intellectuals advocated an abandonment of superstition and fantasy, insisting on social realism as the only valid genre of literature, relegating our naga-and-diwata-littered legends to the nursery.

There is, of course, nothing fundamentally regressive about Southeast Asian culture. We need only look to early works of regional fantasy to find examples of proto-spicepunk, where authors imagined magic, tradition, technology, and cosmopolitanism in harmonious coexistence. Sunthorn Phu’s 1844 epic poem Phra Aphai Mani features not only Thai sorcerers, warrior princesses, mermaids and ogresses, but also steam-powered ships, mechanical music players, and characters of Sri Lankan, Indian, Dutch, Portuguese, Malay, and Chinese provenance. Ishak bin Haji Muhammad’s 1937 novella Putera Gunung Tahan (The Prince of Mount Tahan) has British colonial surveyors bested by mystical Malaysian mountain royals: one of them even demonstrates the use of a bamboo telescope that can provides views of any location in the world, even the colonists’ own English village.

Early Southeast Asian science fiction, however, struggled with pessimism, as authors struggled to imagine how we, as peoples of the Third World, might endure while the global superpowers flexed their superiority in military technology.[6] Stella Kon’s 1961 short story “Mushroom Harvest” depicts a Singapore bereft of agency in the wake of a distant nuclear war, its women helpless as they birth a new generation of children deformed by radioactive fallout. Gregorio Brillantes’s 1980 short story “The Apollo Centennial” pictures a Philippines still mired in poverty and corruption in the year 2069, its peasants wandering through a massive exposition of the joint European-American conquest of outer space.

Twinklings of spicepunk may be glimpsed in other late 20th century works. See S. P. Somtow’s 1986 short story “Fiddling for Water Buffaloes”, a riotous tale in which a rural Thai family mediates with and swindles an extraterrestrial delegation searching for an artefact in a Khmer archaeological dig. Also Diana Darling’s 1992 novel The Painted Alphabet, an adaptation of the Balinese dramatic poem Babad Dukuh Suladri, updated with bemo lorries, tourists and televisions milling amidst the warring witches and wizards.

But if pressed, I would locate the movement’s birthdate in 2003. This year marks the appearance in Strange Horizons of Dean Francis Alfar’s aforementioned "L’Alquilone du Estrellas" (The Kite of Stars) [7], a tale of the 16-year-old Maria Isabella du'l Cielo, voyaging across the mythscape of Hinirang, in search of materials for a fabulous kite with which she may woo the astronomer she loves. It is a mélange of Philippine legend and baroque technology, beloved by international readers in its many reprints, and highly influential in Alfar’s own country: other Philippine authors such as Nikki Alfar, Kate Osias, and Vida Cruz have gone on to use Hinirang as a setting for their own stories. 2003 also happens to be the publication year of Faisal Tehrani’s 1515, a Malay-language novel that presents an alternate history of Malaysia, wherein the 1511 Portuguese invasion of Melaka (the first act of European colonisation of a Southeast Asian territory) is beaten back by the supernaturally-powered holy warrior maiden Nyemah Mulya. The prize-winning work has since been hailed as a contemporary classic of the Malay literary world.

In the two decades since, spec fic has exploded  across the region. We’ve seen anthology series such as the Philippine Speculative Fiction Vols. 1 through 11, initially edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar, as well as the Indonesian language Fantasy Fiesta 2010 and 2011, edited by R. D. Villam. Publishing scenes have been transformed, with companies like Epigram Books in Singapore and BukuFixi in Kuala Lumpur elevating local SFF novels from pulpy throwaway rags to well-edited, highly Instagrammable objets d’art. There’ve been regional initiatives, such as Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia and Jason Erik Lundberg’s LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. And of course, the ubiquity of online discourse has enabled even Southeast Asia-based authors such as Neon Yang and Benjanun Sriduangkaew to achieve lofty levels of fame (and, alas, infamy) in the still US (United States)-centric world of spec fic.

Lion City © Ng Yi-Sheng

Naturally, not all these texts may be regarded as spicepunk. Nor is spicepunk confined to text: consider epic action films set in precolonial kingdoms such as Nonzee Nimibutr’s Queens of Langkasuka, Yusry Abdul Halim’s Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (The Malay Chronicles: Bloodlines), Dustin Nguyen’s Lửa Phật (Once Upon a Time in Vietnam) and Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s Wiro Sableng (212 Warrior).[8] Consider fantasy games such as Boomzap’s Last Regiment, art projects such as Renz Botero, Natu Xantino and Ram Botero’s Diwata, and even Indoeskrim’s viral ice cream ad "Kisah Legenda Nusantara" (The Legend of Archipelago), which features sarong-clad royals riding giant eagles while messaging each other on ornately gilded smartphones.[9]

Together, this constellation represents a new surge of confidence among Southeast Asian artists, as we grasp that our cultures are not a burden but a source of wealth; that progress need not require decimation of the non-Western self, but a process of rediscovery and reconstruction of one’s own forgotten roots. In spite of ongoing political, social, and economic injustices across the region—or, perhaps, even because of them—we imagine in polyphonic chorus that another world, a better world, is possible.

 

2. Complications

Some may ask: what are the borders of spicepunk? I hesitate to draw precise demarcations. Better perhaps to think of the word less as a genre than an adjective: a work may be very spicepunk, or a little bit spicepunk, rather than simply in or out of the category.

Readers may notice that I have, thus far, mentioned no works of horror fiction in my list. Make no mistake: I wholeheartedly embrace ghost stories as a major dimension of Southeast Asian culture, from Nguyễn Dữ’s 16th-century compilation of Vietnamese legends (Casual Records of Strange Tales) to Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo’s Philippine comic-turned-Netflix series Trese. I’ve even argued in my introduction to A Mosque in the Jungle: Classic Ghost Stories by Othman Wok that spine-chillers kept the speculative tradition alive in a time when literary authors were hell-bent on social realism.

The truth is, I regard spirits as such an integral element of our everyday reality that I cannot interpret the world of the average Southeast Asian ghost story as one fundamentally different from our own. The same logic applies to my omission of magical realist works, such as Eka Kurniawan’s Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty Is a Wound) and Veeraporn Nitiprapha’s The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth: they are set in our own reality, in our own timeline, albeit with a decolonial perspective. I am, however, sympathetic to the use of the term to describe tales in which Southeast Asian historical and legendary figures burst into the contemporary world, exposing its mythic foundations: when the prophet Khidr, the princess Tun Teja, and the goddess Mazu manifest in a newly democratic Malaysia in Joshua Kam’s How the Man in Green Saved Pahang, and Possibly the World; when a Bruneian scuba diver confronts the Nabau, a giant divine serpent, in Kathrina Mohd Daud’s The Fisherman King. Spicepunk, like so many delicious things, has spectrums of flavour and intensity.[10]

What, then, of fiction that rides the lines between spicepunk, steampunk, and silkpunk? I have, alas, encountered works inspired by Southeast Asian colonial history that stop short of condemning European colonialism, such as Lim Cheng Tju’s graphic novel Guidebook to Nanyang Diplomacy. Should we praise them for their reclamation of the past, or object that there is nothing “punk” about being uncritically seduced by a Victorian aesthetic? And what of stories so steeped in Chinese diasporic histories that their Southeast Asian settings are barely evident to international readers, such as Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, inspired by the Malayan Communist Emergency of 1948-60, or my own short story “Xingzhou”, based on tales of 19th- century Chinese immigration to Singapore?[11] This is why I speak of adjectives rather than genres. It feels foolishly petty, in an essay calling for mutual exploration and connection, to focus on exclusion.

We must, however, speak of issues of  of equity. In the global literary marketplace, it appears that not all Southeast Asian cultures are born equal. Stories set in bureaucratic Confucian empires, such as the Vietnamese-inspired domain of Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune and the Singapore-inflected world Neon Yang’s Tensorate Series, have sold well internationally. Seafaring sultanates/rajahnates and jungle societies, though far more common in Southeast Asian history, have been comparatively sidelined: Joel Donato Ching Jacob’s precolonial Luzon-based Wing of the Locust and Golda Mowe’s Borneo tribal-based Iban Dream trilogy have been granted only regional publishing platforms.

Furthermore, non-Anglophone writers remain relegated to the periphery of our emergent SFF community. The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore are home not only to talented English-language authors, but also to those who write in vernacular languages. The tyranny of English also means that the greater world knows little of the speculative fiction in the huge nations of Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, and virtually nothing of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Timor Leste. More translation and transcreation are desperately necessary, as well as an openness to non-Western literary conventions and ideologies. Might one of us to do for a Southeast Asian vernacular genre what Ken Liu has accomplished for Chinese language science fiction?

Finally, let us grapple with nomenclature. Is “spicepunk” the best term for the phenomenon I describe? With it, I make reference to the spice trade which linked pre-modern Southeast Asia to the planet, and the fabulous riches once associated with native produce such as ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg,and mace; at the same time, I invoke our violent colonial history, as European powers battled to control this trade. However (even disregarding associations with Frank Herbert’s Dune), there are other territories with deep historical links to spice: South Asia with its pepper and curry leaf; West Asia with cumin and saffron; the indigenous Americas with its chilli, allspice, and vanilla; even sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, where once-foreign ingredients have been embraced and re-exported through the vibrant flavours of peri-peri and jerk. How should we answer if authors and artists from these cultures lay claim to the term?

Again, I refuse to squabble. Ours is a common struggle against colonial hegemonies, and we should recognise the kinship between our various calls for greater and better visibility. It is no coincidence, I think, that Aliette de Bodard chose to set her Obsidian and Blood trilogy in Aztec Mexico, or that Zen Cho chose African and Indian enchanters as her protagonists in Sorcerer to the Crown. Whether before, during or after colonialism, the spice trade has flourished due to a human desire for exchange, for encountering new tastes. Though the field of appropriation is fraught with ethical quandaries, we must make space for the joy of sharing.

 

3.  Towards a Communal Spice Garden

Why speak of spicepunk as a Southeast Asian movement? Why speak of Southeast Asia at all? The very notion of the region as a unified entity is a colonial construct, first popularised by Anglo-American military forces during World War II. Might it not be a decolonial act to reject this flattening of our internal diversity? Should we not insist on specificity, and only speak of trends occurring in each of our eleven distinct nations—sambalpunk, tomyumpunk, adobopunk, perhaps—rather than project a Kumandra-esque mirage of our cultures as a coherent, blended whole?

To that I say: in solidarity, there is strength. Even our own horribly flawed governments have known, since the founding of ASEAN in 1967, that it is better to be in dialogue and alliance, rather than atomised and at the mercy of superpowers. (Activists have learned the same, often while protesting at the same association’s political summits.) Despite our diverse ethnicities, religions, and systems of government, the term “Southeast Asia” reminds us of all we have in common: on one hand, we share similar tropical climates, foods, and long histories as convergent points for diverse global traditions; on the other, we face similar battles against power-hungry dictators, runaway capitalism, corruption, and pollution. As the playwright Kuo Pao Kun said, comparing cultures to trees in a forest, “if you go deeper, the roots touch. You go higher, the branches touch, the leaves touch.”[12]

Thus, here, on the landless soil of the online journal, I imagine a garden. Here, seeds of spice have already been planted by generations past and present; here, I call others to plant varietals of their own, not alone but in concert; to cross-pollinate and cross-fertilise; to till and to harvest; to feed readers of many tribes; to flourish as a collective.

Ng Yi-Sheng © author's own photograph

Truth be told, the “punk” in spicepunk is not only a call to resist the totalising visions of the West, but also to shun the small-mindedness of nationalism and ethnocentrism; to ensure that if Southeast Asian authors are to prosper, then we must prosper together.

Or, in the voice of a manifesto—

Speculative fictionists of Southeast Asia, unite!

You have nothing to lose but your bland, colonial baggage,

And a jungled multiverse, studded with spices, to gain.

 

This essay was written with input and feedback from Amir Muhammad, Vida Cruz, Victor Fernando R. Ocampo, and Eve Shi.

 

 

 

[1] “How Disney Commodifies Culture -  Southeast Asians Roast Raya and the Last Dragon (Parts 1 and 2)” and “Raya’s Queerbaiting of Southeast Asians – the Importance of Cultural Context to Queerness” at https://www.youtube.com/c/XiranJayZhao.

[2] This was in conjunction with my Singapore Writers Festival talk “The Merlion and the Pontianak: Towards a Uniquely Singaporean Mythology”. The term subsequently appeared in associated online news coverage thereof: Mayo Martin, “Would Singapore’s mythology include the Merlion and the Pontianak?”, Channel News Asia, 14 November 2017.

[3] “What is ‘Silkpunk’?”, Ken Liu, Writer. https://kenliu.name/books/what-is-silkpunk/.

[4] “Africanfuturism defined”, Nnedi’s Wahala Zone Blog. http://nnedi.blogspot.com/2019/10/africanfuturism-defined.html.

[5] Lily Zubaidah Rahim, The Singapore Dilemma: The Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community, p3.

[6] This pessimism was by no means universal. Some early novels envisioned Southeast Asians participating fully in scientific progress, such as the mad Filipino scientist of Fausto J. Galauran’s Doktor Kubain 1933 and the Indonesian astronaut of Djokolelono’s Jatuhke Matahari (Falling into the Sun) in 1976.

[7] http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/laquilone-du-estrellas-the-kite-of-stars/.

[8] There is, of course, the potential for such films to feed into toxic nationalism. Legendary heroes are easily harnessed for chauvinistic purposes, as in the case of the Malaysian warrior Hang Tuah, who’s been “adopted as one of the popular icons of... Malay Muslim ethno-nationalist movements.” (Farish Noor, What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You: The Annexe Lectures (Vol. 1), p. 240.)

[9] Ni Nyoman Wira, “Local ice cream commercial gains worldwide attention,” The Jakarta Post.
https://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2017/07/11/local-ice-cream-commercial-gains-worldwide-attention.html.

[10] Other examples of spicepunk overlap with other genres include Aliette de Bodard’s detective mysteries and K. S. Villoso’s explorations of grimdark epic fantasy.

[11] There is much to be said about the apparent overrepresentation of diasporic Chinese writers (e.g. myself) among internationally published Southeast Asian speculative fictionists. However, the issue is too complex to fully address here, due to the varying degrees of privilege and persecution the Chinese face in different nations. Singa-Pura-Pura: Malay Speculative Fiction from Singapore, edited by Nazry Bahrawi, represents one effort to correct the imbalance.

[12] “Between Two Worlds: a Conversation with Kuo Pao Kun”, 9 Lives: 10 Years of Singapore Theatre, p 135.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Ng Yi-Sheng is a Singaporean writer and activist with a keen interest in Southeast Asian history and myth. His books include the speculative fiction collection Lion City (winner of the Singapore Literature Prize) and the as-yet-unpublished historical fantasy novel A Gate of Dragon’s Teeth, set in precolonial Southeast Asia. Check out his website ngyisheng.com or his Twitter and Instagram at @yishkabob.
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