The View From Asia

A pandan ghost and two stone toads

Two writers from the region muse about life's simple lessons for people when they are away from the daily hustle and bustle and in the comfort of family life.

Fragrant encounter

June Wong
The Star, Malaysia

For several days early last month, whenever I opened my bedroom door, there was a strong smell of pandan.

It was as if someone had crushed a huge bunch of the leaves and left them in my room. Except there was not a single leaf in sight.

I am not superstitious. But after being greeted by the smell of pandan for three days in a row, I was creeped out enough to start wondering if there was some other force at work.

My husband, on the other hand, is the typical superstitious businessman. Since we could not locate the source of the smell, he decided to ask a friend who claims to be psychic.

Lo and behold, Psychic Friend determined that there was indeed a lost soul who had blundered into our home. But no worries, she was a friendly spirit, hence the pleasant pandan fragrance.

The psychic even identified the ghost as a woman named Mei Fan who died 340 years ago. He issued my husband a "Certificate of Charitable and Virtuous Deeds" and instructed him to burn it as a way to invite the dear and (very) old lady to leave.

My cynical self returned and I snorted with derision at this mumbo jumbo. But since he felt we had nothing to lose, my husband did as told.

Well, what do you know, the smell disappeared. The whole family went sniffing and there was not a hint of eau de pandan. Amazing. We had managed to bid adieu to Mei Fan.


In the first article, the mysterious pandan fragrance in the writer's bedroom was attributed to a female spirit but later discovered to be the work of a musang pandan or Asian palm civet, like those pictured above. BERITA HARIAN FILE PHOTO

The experience became great conversation fodder and I enjoyed regaling friends and relatives with stories of my first-ever paranormal encounter.

That was until I met my friend, TC, who is pompous and hard to impress. So I could not resist springing my pandan ghost story on him. But before I was halfway through my tale, he stopped me.

"I am a man of science and I can tell you there are no ghosts," he declared.

"Do you live near a forest?" he asked.

"No," I replied smugly.

"But are there a lot of trees?"

"Well, my neighbourhood is quite leafy."

"Do you have musang running around?"

"Er, yes." I have seen quite a few of those squirrel-like animals scurrying in my garden.

"But this one is a musang pandan and it went up into your ceiling."

A musang what?

TC whipped out his phone and quickly googled "musang pandan" to prove he was not making it up. This animal, also known as the Asian palm civet or the toddycat, emits a pandan smell, hence the name. He opined that the civet must have been living in my ceiling. The nocturnal creature is known to drag its anal glands to mark its territory and that, he believed, was what triggered the pandan smell in my room.

Of course, I wanted to argue - why just my room and why only when I opened my door, and so on.

Then it hit me. Indeed, I had heard scuttling, scratching noises in my ceiling. I thought it was a rat but the sounds seemed to indicate a bigger creature, like a cat.

Still, I did not connect this with something else that was happening.

Several weeks earlier, I had noticed light brown stains appearing on my bedroom ceiling and the number of spots seemed to be growing. Fearing roof leaks, I called in my long-time handyman. That was a week after my meeting with TC.

When randomness leads to a happy outcome, like striking the lottery three times... then we are likely to attribute it to divine intervention or benevolent cosmic forces. If the outcome is unhappy, like an accident or mass hysteria triggered by, say, the sighting of a figure in black, then we are likely to blame bad luck or some malevolent paranormal force.

Handyman Vincent went under and on top of the roof but he could not detect anything amiss. Hamid, his Indonesian worker, however, did not think the stains were caused by a leaky roof. There were too many and they were too random. He suspected the stains were caused by animal pee like that of a musang.

So there you have it, dear reader. Three disparate happenings - scuttling noises, stains appearing and a strange smell - segueing into one likely culprit: a pandan-scented civet.

Who would have guessed?

This experience made me realise how quick we are to look for supernatural causes when we are stumped for a more rational one to explain an inexplicable situation.

There is a term for this, when random things happen. It is "stochasticity".

It was my daughter who alerted me to this unusual word after she heard a Radiolab podcast which described stochasticity as "a wonderfully slippery and smarty-pants word for randomness (that) may be at the very foundation of our lives".

Stochasticity, or the role of chance in more layman terms, apparently works on many levels, including sports, gambling (of course) and, more intriguingly, the cells in our bodies.

When randomness leads to a happy outcome, like striking the lottery three times or two siblings separated for decades meeting again unexpectedly, then we are likely to attribute it to divine intervention or benevolent cosmic forces.

If the outcome is unhappy, like an accident or mass hysteria triggered by, say, the sighting of a figure in black, then we are likely to blame bad luck or some malevolent paranormal force.

If the stochasticity proponents are correct, randomness that leads to coincidences is just a fact of life. But when the coincidence is too great, it is human nature to want to attribute it to something paranormal or miraculous.

In my case, it was my ignorance about the existence of an animal called musang pandan and the coincidence of the smell disappearing after my husband burned the ghostbuster certificate that made a supernatural explanation plausible.

Now that I have accepted the smell and the stains were not the work of Mei Fan and the rain, I am calling back Vincent to check under my roof again to see if there are gaps that need sealing to stop vermin from entering and throwing their scent at me. And pissing me off.


Fairy tale for the family

Kim Haeng Jung
The Korea Herald, South Korea

On April 16, something unusual happened at our farmhouse, marking a milestone in our rural life since we started farming and gardening about 10 years ago.

My wife and I held an unveiling ceremony of stone toads in commemoration of a short fairy tale I had written. The ceremony was attended by our children and grandchildren.

Prior to the unveiling, I briefly mentioned that it was the love of my grandchildren that motivated this writing, and I thanked them.

And I said that it was only the beginning and that there would be a follow-up series, which caused a round of applause.

The stones were unveiled by our grandchildren.

Then, I presented a copy of the story to them.

One conspicuous thing was the banner, which read: "Welcome to the unveiling of stone toads at the birthplace of the Fairy Tale of Pop Eyes Valiant And Vivacious".

Our first grandchild summed the atmosphere up in three words: "This is unbelievable!"

What encouraged me further was my first daughter's response to this somewhat childlike endeavour of mine. She asked me to e-mail the story to her.

Here is an outline of the story:

Two toads once lived behind an old farmer's house, protecting it against evil spirits. Hoping that they could better watch over the farmhouse, they climbed up the chimney through the fireplace and then the flues of the room floor.

The fireplace was where the grandchildren of the farmer would make a fire whenever they came to visit.

The toads were fascinated by the white smoke coming out of the chimney and had a bigger dream: They were going to soar high into the sky riding on the smoke which transformed into a dragon. Their final destination was a constellation.

When they finally arrived after many a difficulty, they were welcomed after a simple test by its ruler, the Big Dipper, who was magnanimous. From high up in the stars, they could far better watch over the farmer's house year after year.

The themes of the fairy tale centre on:

•Arousing interest in both rural life and the traditional Korean heating system.

•Doing one's best to try to achieve one's dreams.

•Being faithful to one's job.

I hope this little effort of mine has a ripple effect.

There is a saying that one swallow does not make a summer, but I dare to defy that idea. I am going to hold a personal campaign to share my story with others.

As a matter of fact, I already gave a copy of it to a lecturer of oral narration of fairy tales as material.

May is Family Month, and I think that it is an opportune time to spread this humble story so that it is read among family members year after year.

And I have promised to myself that I will do my best to reinforce it with a follow-up series as I announced at the unveiling ceremony of stone toads.


  • The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers. For more, see www.asianews.network
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2016, with the headline 'A pandan ghost and two stone toads'. Print Edition | Subscribe