Horror stalks us wearing a cultural mask. So how does one explain the commercial success of writers like Stephen King and Peter Straub who have written horror stories that have sold around the world and have been turned into blockbuster movies? King and Straub have a reputation for pushing the right fright buttons to make an international audience wince, sweat, and shiver with fear. But nothing beats the local boogey man to put the torch of fear into young children.
When I first came to Thailand more than twenty years ago, Thai parents trying to control a child who misbehaved or refused to go to bed at the appointed time, had a surefire way of ensuring See Uey. “If you don’t do what I say, then See Uey will come into your room in the middle of the night, cut you open and eat your liver.” That’s not an exact translation but reasonably close.
See Uey was the big, bad Thai boogey man who earned his starring role during World War II as a real life cannibal who ate the heart and liver of young children in Bangkok. See Uey (there are other spellings: Si-oui or Si Ouey) was a Chinese immigrant who arrived in Bangkok in 1944. There is no record of him doing visa runs, hanging out in expat clubs, public speaking or writing books. What we know is that See Uey stayed in Bangkok where he murdered half a dozen young Thai boys. After he killed them, he ate their hearts and livers. See Uey claimed a Chinese belief that eating the heart and liver of children not only gave him strength and power but made him immortal. That particular conceit was put to arrest after See Uey as arrested, charged, convicted and hanged for his crimes. He was hanged in the 1950s. See Uey was executed around the same time that other mass murderer died: Stalin.
Both bodies were to be preserved for future generations. But for very different reasons.
Thailand first mass murder, serial killer, and cannibal had little competition in gaining top billing as the most terrifying entity to ever visit a child. There have been TV and movies that featured his evil deeds to reinforce that even though hanged, in the land of wandering ghosts, See Uey remained present and watchful. And he was still quite hungry for hearts and livers.
See Uey’s remains were placed in what looked like Dr. Who’s transporter and kept inside Room 101 at Siriraj Hospital. See Uey slumps inside this telephone booth like structure not unlike David Blaine trying to figure out an escape from a water tank. The exhibit does look a bit like performance art.
Over the years several things have changed in the See Uey saga. First the place where his remains are kept is no longer called Room 101. That’s a pity, I say. I put the change down to CSI, the TV series, has given forensic science a boost in public awareness.
In 1989 I visited the Forensic Museum at Siriraj Hospital. Though I don’t recall that the word “forensic” in those days. What I do recall, though, was the star exhibition was in Room 101. We all recall (of course we do) that Room 101 was the one place that Winston Smith feared most of all in Orwell’s 1984. The place where those opposed to the regime were taken to have their mind changed. Room 101 was where the most fearful of Western boogey man waited with instruments of torture.
My local sources confirm that words “Forensic Museum” have sometime ago replaced “Room 101” as the designated place to house the corpse of See Uey, among other exhibits such as stillborn children in huge jars of formaldehyde. That takes the horror out of the room and makes it all scientific. I say that the modern world shouldn’t be so quick to extinguish the horror of crimes and replace it with white lab coats, microscopes, and vials with squishy things.
Okay, by changing the place where the mass murderer’s body is kept in the telephone booth like box filled with formaldehyde is one thing. The other big change is the attitude of modern Thai parents. It is doubtful most young Thais (under 20 years old) have any idea who See Uey is. Thai parents have taken to enforce their discipline over children by threats of generic ghosts. What we have is a ‘has been serial killer’ who know longer generates much fear, a mere shadow of his past, someone who has pretty much lost his scary edge. He’s like an old actor who once had star billing and now is lucky to get a walk on role in a low budget conversation about the past.
How did it come about that a new generation of young Thai kids stopped being told about See Uey? Times change. What scared your grandparents and parents probably doesn’t scare you. Globalization has made scary more universal. And movie special effects are a huge competition for See Uey’s mummified body that looks like it has been a badly upholstered footstool. He’s all shiny, copper and could pass for ET’s grandfather. The Internet let’s kids look up the old scary boogeyman, have a good laugh, and refuse the mother’s order to go to bed.
There’s another possibility, too. The Chinese position and role in 1944 isn’t the same in 2010. He’s a bit of an embarrassment to the substantial Thai-Chinese population—most of them who arrived after WWII. Given See Uey was Chinese and all. An likely an illegal immigrant to boot. It was only a matter of time before someone decided the time was ripe to rehabilitate See Uey.
A few years ago the vehicle for creating a kinder, more loveable See Uey was a TV drama series, showing his early childhood, his life, his hopes, dreams, drama—you get the idea—and the boogeyman became a misguided (and rather hungry) man to be pitied. In the fear business, pity doesn’t cut it. Monsters deserve and receive no pity, and with one TV show the mystical horror of See Uey was transformed into a sensitive Chinese man who had taken the wrong culinary turn. Add CSI to the Thai TV drama, and it is no surprise that See Uey’s ability to scare contemporary children has faded to nothing.
With See Uey out of favor, the museum is still a must visit if for no other reason than having a look at the preserved exhibit of a 75kg scrotum amputated from a man suffering from elephantiasis. Forget about scaring children for a moment, it’s time to introduce a nightmare for resident expats.