Sunday 12 March 2023

More on the Malayan Ape-Man

      Who knows what mysterious creatures might walk out of the jungles of southeast Asia? Rumours abound of strange bipedal apes sequestered in those rainforests. Many US troops saw them in Vietnam and called them "rock apes". (See also here.) But it is on the Malay peninsula that things get really weird.
      A year and a half ago I reported on Harold Stephens' expedition in search of the orang dalam, and his discovery of humanoid footprints consistent with something 8 feet or 2.4 metres in height. The orang dalam would thus appear to be similar to the North American bigfoot. But this is pedestrian compared to what came out of the jungle at Christmas 1953. I also reported Harold Stephens' summary of those events. On three occasions there were encounters with two male and one female humanoids with pale skin, long body hair, and protruding fangs, all of them wearing rough loin cloths, and with the males sporting mustaches which reached to their waists. This represented a whole new level of weirdness. They sounded like some bizarre group of human beings. Now, however, I have just come across a document published in 1957, which not only provides full details of the encounters, but contains a lot of follow-up information.
     The author was a Malay writing under the pen name of "Ungka Dong". Although educated in England, he grew up in the villages, and heard all the familiar stories about the spirits of the forest.
   But most fascinating and thrilling of all were the Hairy Men! My father told me of these weird, sinister creatures one night as I lay on my mat in the darkness of our roomah [house]. They were not exactly apes, he said, but ape-humans. I shuddered as he went on to describe the Hairy Men - men covered with hair from head to foot and with long, fang-like teeth projecting from their mouths. And, most strangely of all, their bodies underneath the hair were said to be white.
     Now for the events of 1953/1954, and how they were carefully investigated shortly after the event by two radio commentators, Tony Beamish and Stewart Wavell. Essentially, the summary provided by Harold Stephens was accurate, but a few extra snippets of information could be gleaned. 
     For a start, the first witness, Wong Yee Moi was 16 years old. As she spoke to the interviewers, her eyes darted from face to face, and she glanced fearfully out of the doorway towards the rubber trees. The second witness, one of a detachment of security forces, was a Malaya Police corporal, Abdul Talib. When he raised his rifle, the creatures dived into the water. The third witness, the Hindu worker, was a 45-year-old Indian rubber tapper called Appiasamy. All their descriptions tallied, although they were told independently to different interpreters, in three different languages: Cantonese, Malay, and Tamil respectively.
     Miss Wong described the male as being as tall as 6 foot [183 cm] Wavell, but much broader. She and Appiasamy, both of whom had been grasped by one of the creatures, described an "animal smell". Wong said that the "woman" spoke in a language like birds croaking. Abdul Talib said they made strange grunting noises. Appiasamy reported hoarse growls and laughter. Wong said that the female wore a yellow bark skirt, and the males loin cloths made from either skins or tree bark. All three reported that the males had curved knives slung at their hips.
      In other words, they couldn't have been mere animals; they must have been some different version of humanity. But how could a community large enough to be capable of making such items remain hidden in the jungle? The many suspected unknown primates are all reported to be solitary and nocturnal. But human beings, and even, presumably, our immediate ancestors, are diurnal and live in, at the bare minimum, small bands. There must be clusters of makeshift dwellings, with bits and pieces of tools and the like, sprinkled around the forest. Over a long period of time such things could not go unnoticed. It doesn't make sense.
     Now earlier reports were coming out of the woodwork.
     Eight days after the last reported appearance of the hairy trio, veteran Malayan Henry W. Cowling came forward with evidence of an encounter with similar creatures which he had experienced twenty years before. He recalled that he and an Army officer saw a "very hairy ape-like couple" walking along the Mura Batu Anam road. The female was carrying a pole about ten feet [3 metres] long which had been stripped of bark. "Could these have been ancestors of the present trio?" asked Cowling.
    He had been motoring towards Batu Anam and was about thirty miles [50 km] from the town when his driver suddenly cried, "Oran Utan!" Cowling and his companion, Major Armstrong, looked up and saw two waddling figures at the side of the road walking towards them. They were very hairy and black and rusty brown in colour. Fear showed in their bloddshot eyes as the car passed them. Both creatures were between four and four-and-a half feet [120 - 140 cm] in height.
    Mr. Cowling added that he stayed that night with an engineer, Mr. J. S. Boissier, who told him that a whole colony of these hairy people - about a hundred and twenty of them - existed near the spot where Cowling had seen the two creatures. They lived in tree branch shelters and contact was made through the Sakai aborigines who could speak "ape language".
      The next day the well-known badminton star, Ong Poh Lim came up with a story of what had happened, not in Malaya, but in the forest of South West Borneo, near the Sarawak border, nearly 20 years before. (This was before the area was incorporated into the modern state of Malaysia.)
     I was a schoolboy of eleven and we lived near the area. A group of fishermen passing through the jungle saw a hairy figure leaping from tree to tree. At first they thought it was a monkey but a second look told them it was not. The fishermen rounded up more people from the village and, after a hectic chase, the creature was caught.
     There was a great excitement in the village when it was discovered that the creature was a man. He was covered all over with thick hair. He wore no clothes and was unable to understand or answer his captors when questioned. He was taken to a nearby hospital where doctors shaved off the hair to examine him. He was found to be wearing earrings.
    The prisoner became morose and refused to be fed. Finally he died and, soon after his death, natives found an old wreck near the spot where the creature had been captured. It was then believed that the creature was a sailor who had wandered into the jungle years before when his ship had been wrecked.
     May I humbly suggest that this second hand story has gained a bit in the telling? And the most obvious point of contention would be the earrings, which would certainly mark him off as human. A shipwrecked sailor would be unlikely to survive in the jungle. If he did, he would run to the fishermen for help, not leap from tree to tree. And he certainly wouldn't grow a coat of hair to replace his lost clothes. On the other hand, the site was close to the area where zoologist John MacKinnon undertook the first field study of the social life of orangutans. And on pp 113-5 of the popular book about his adventures, In Search of the Red Ape (1974) he recounted how, much to his amazement, he came across a set of small humanoid footprints which the natives attributed to a ghost called a batūtūt. He also noted that the footprints matched even larger ones in Malay attributed to the orang pendek, and in Sumatra to the sedapa.
     But to continue with the Malayan story, an army office sent the following report to the Director of Aboriginal Research in Kuala Lumpur: 
     In 1951 I was stationed at Ulu Dong in Pahang. One of the villagers spoke of having seen tall, hairy creatures washing themselves early in the mornings at a spot some miles up-river. I wanted to visit the spot when on patrol but I was moved from Pahang before I could arrange it. A police lieutenant was with me when the villager spoke of the hairy people and he afterwards reported that while on a patrol from Ulu Cheka, he had seen some of the creatures.
     Among other testimonies, we have the following from a planter in Perak:
     I met five of these creatures in the Cameron Highlands in 1927. It was a hot August night and all the dogs were howling and barking. We spent an eerie and restless night. The next morning some workmen came to say that many strange footprints had been discovered in the newly-dry nursery beds at the Experimental Station. I decided to investigate.
     After a hurried breakfast I started. Ko Po Chet, a Burmese, and Nirh Bahadur, a Gurkha, insisted on coming with me. All we had was one shotgun, one saung dah and one kukri. We had been walking for about an hour in the jungle and were going up an incline. I was taking my turn to clear the way ahead when we were brought to a sudden stop by the sound of a deep cough. Looking up we saw an apparition corresponding to the description of the Trolak 'ape-men'. It had huge fang-like teeth and a placid, fixed gaze.
    Behind it I saw four more of the creatures. I felt weak at the knees and looked round for the gun which Ko Po Chet had been carrying. To my dismay he had put it on the ground and moved off.  He shouted to me to leave the gun alone. When I looked up again I saw all five creatures had turned their backs on us and were moving away.
    Po Chet later told me that these creatures were quite common in Burma. They were, he said, the spirits of murdered people, sometimes visible, sometimes not. They were hunting their murderers with the aim of tearing them to pieces.
     Then we heard from another army officer: This was at the height of the war against communism during the Malayan Emergency.
     In 1949 I led a five-man patrol on a jungle track some miles up-river from Kota Tinggi, Johore. I saw what appeared to be a human lurking in the undergrowth about thirty yards away from us. I halted the patrol and loosed off a shot. There was the most horrible scream I have ever heard and I had the fright of my life when I saw a hairy shape, the size of a fully grown man, running with one hand clutching its shoulder. The rest of the patrol saw it, too. The Bren gunner was too flabbergasted to do anything. I would not like to come across the same thing again!
Reference: "Ungka Dong" (1957), 'The fang men of Malaya', The Wide World, March 1957 (Aust./NZ), Feb. 1957 (UK/US), pp222 -9
      Then something similar appeared close to the site of the original sighting less than two years later. I shall quote from The Straits Times, 15 Aug. 1956, page 1
'Hairy' creatures scare tapper.
     The big question is: were they apemen?
     Slim River, Tues. - Three hairy “things” - two males and a female - have been seen in the jungle near here, reviving memories of the famous ape-men who hit the headlines when they were spotted in this district two years ago.
     Terrified villagers are now asking: “Are they human or animal?”
     The “things” were seen twice in a day recently by separate groups of tappers.
     Two sisters working in the Kampong Chempa area, two miles from here, were the first to spot them. Chan Ming Tuah, 12, said she saw three hairy creatures suddenly appear ten yards away at seven o’clock in the morning. The creatures, covered with long, matted hair, walked upright towards her with their hands “wobbling wildly” at their sides. They had long fingernails and were about four feet in height. Chan screamed and fled with her sister. In her panic she fell several times, tearing her samfoo. And for three days after that she was too frightened to go to work.
    Three Indian tappers, working some distance away, also saw the creatures who shambled off when they shouted at them. The tappers, who did not know Chan and her sister, corroborated the girls’ report that the unknowns had hairy bodies and long fingernails. The creatures, they said, carried short sticks. The two males were taller than the female who was about four feet [120 cm] in height.
     Officialdom, however, was sceptical about the reports. “They are probably apes,” said a spokesman of the Department of Aborigines.
    A police officer said, “We’ve heard rumours but no one has lodged a report. We are NOT investigating.”
    In January 1954, 20 Special Constables sent to scour Trolak Estate in a “bring ‘em back alive” bid after the ape-men. On that occasion witnesses described the ape-men as having bushy eyebrows, long fangs, and wearing scanty loin cloths. Their stories aroused world-wide interest and speculation in anthropological circles.
    Asked what he thought about the “things”, the Manager of Trolak Estate, Mr. G. M. Browne, said today: “I haven’t heard the reports but I believe they could well be true.” He pointed out that though people had scoffed at the ape-man theory, no one could account for the fact that different eye-witnesses, unknown to each other, had seen the creatures on separate occasions and given identical accounts.
   At that time many people came forward with stories of their encounters with similar creatures in different parts of Malaya. A man quoted a P.W.D. executive engineer, Mr. J. S. Boissier, as saying that a colony of ape-men lived 30 miles from Batu Anam in Johore around 1934. The ape-men wore loin cloths and lived in tree branch shelters. Contact was made through aborigines who could speak their language.
     Another reference was: 'Those Ape-Men Appear Again', Singapore Standard 15 August 1956.
    One account said that the creatures were naked. How did they recognize their sex? Unless the witnesses got a good look at their genitals, it is most likely that the female had obvious breasts. That would imply that either she had a baby nearby, or they were close to the human evolutionary lineage, because it is only human females who possess prominent breasts when non-lactating. In any case, despite their small size, they were mature.
    It is far from clear that the creatures related here all belong to the same species. So just what going on in the jungles of Malaya?

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