Asian horror appears to have been on the rise in recent years with literary events and awards lists featuring both indigenous writers and people of the diaspora—those living beyond Asia in other countries. These creatives are bringing old lore and fresh perspectives to the horror genre, addressing topics such as gender, tradition, racism, poverty, war, and oppression through the lens of their lived experience. And Asian horror stories run the full gamut from terror to triumph, from epic adventure to ethereal ghost tales, and from bloody battles to quiet suffering. Yet as rich and vibrant as they are chilling, Asian stories always present a challenge, told as they are at the intersection of cultures, languages, landscapes, and generations.
Throughout Asian Heritage Month, Kendall Reviews is celebrating Asian horror creatives, culture, and folklore in this exclusive interview series with contributors from Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror edited by Lee Murray and Angela Yuriko Smith (Black Spot Books, Feb 2023)
Today, we welcome Yvette Tan, who is a Chinese Filipino horror writer based in Manila, and one of the Philippines’ most celebrated horror writers, known for using Philippine folkloric elements in her stories. She’s written a feature film, a ballet, and the lore behind a video game, among others. She has two short fiction collections in English, Waking the Dead and Other Stories and Seek Ye Whore and Other Stories, and one flash fiction collection in Tagalog called Kaba: 50 Kwento ng Kababalaghan at Katatakutan (Fear: 50 Stories of the Supernatural and Terror). Her works have been translated into Spanish, Czech, and Hungarian.
Her essay in Unquiet Spirits is “Fallen Leaves, New Soil” and is a personal reflection on how she uses the supernatural to connect with her Filipino side. Since she wasn’t raised in a traditional Chinese Filipino (Chinoy) environment and was refused explanation for the few traditions they did follow, she found herself alienated from Chinoy culture. One of the questions she asks is why, given that the Chinese brought their food, culture, and traditions to their new home, that they did not bring any beliefs in supernatural creatures. Because of this, she’s had to rely on media, specifically Hong Kong cinema, to try to understand where her ancestors came from, and how it relates to her in the here and now.
Kendall Reviews: What is it about horror that appeals to you?
Yvette Tan: I like that horror is not afraid to explore difficult aspects of the human psyche. A lot of people are scared or turned off by the label “horror,” mostly because they think the genre has to involve fright and jump scares, when it actually covers a broad, complex spectrum that can include elements not usually associated with it like comedy. It’s a good way to examine the parts of humanity not often talked about like grief, superstition, and the lengths one will go to when pushed against a wall. It can hold a mirror up to the world, forcing it to see aspects of itself that it would rather have stay hidden, and it can do so with depth, compassion, and even beauty.
KR: What makes Asian horror unique?
YT: What makes many Asian horror stories unique is what makes any well-told story based on folklore and superstition unique: it offers an insight on the way a culture operates. What makes horror different from other genres is that at some point, it’s meant to elicit confusion from the reader or viewer, something also experienced by someone experiencing a new culture. This means that to a viewer from a different culture, the confusion is doubled, because the experience of the new culture is compounded by the experience of the strange, particularly if it’s supernatural in nature. It’s a great way to get lost, though there is no guarantee of being found.
KR: What were your favourite reads growing up, and why?
YT: My love for the horror genre is rooted in my interest in folklore and the supernatural. I read a lot of true ghost story accounts growing up (there was a segment on them in one of the magazines in the salon my mother liked to frequent) and a lot of true weird books such as The Usborne Guide to the Supernatural World and the Time Life books on the supernatural. I wanted to be a parapsychologist when I grew up and ended up becoming a horror writer instead.
KR: What do you hope readers will take away from your essay?
YT: I write about using folklore as a way to connect with my culture., and I hope that readers understand that there are many ways to find out who you are and where you came from, and it might not fit the mold of what society says “discovering yourself” should be, and that’s okay. In the end, whatever helps you feel comfortable in your skin is what works best, and that can be a fun, lifelong process. The “fun” is important because life is too short to be taken seriously all the time, especially when figuring out who you are.
KR: Does your other horror work feature Asian myth and folklore? Do you make a conscious decision to include Asian experiences/characters in your writing?
YT: Most of my work features Filipino folklore. It’s a topic I’ve been interested in since I was a child, partly because it was such a normal part of life when I was growing up. As I mention in my essay, there seemed to be little delineation (at least to me) between folklore and real life in 80s Manila, and that’s something that affects my work in a major way. I know I’m cast as a horror writer, but internally, I think of myself as writing from real life.
KR: Here is an excerpt from Yvette’s Unquiet Spirits essay “Fallen Leaves, New Soil”:
I am a Filipino woman of Chinese descent. My paternal grandparents and my maternal grandmother all hail from the same tiny island in Fujian, China, and my maternal grandmother is from Bulacan, Philippines. My father’s parents raised their children in as Western a way as possible. As far as I can tell, my mother and her siblings were raised with a mix of Filipino and localized Chinese customs.
To this day, I find it hard to fully relate to my Chinese side, since we weren’t raised in the “traditional” way, unless it involved something unpleasant, mostly customs we didn’t understand and couldn’t be given a proper explanation for, or Chinese medicine, which tended to taste awful. I accidentally found a way to connect with my Filipino roots however, and that was through the supernatural.
KR: Finally, what’s on the horizon for you. Any news you’d like to share?
YT: I have a story coming out in This World Belongs to Us: An Anthology of Horror Stories About Bugs coming out in May from From Beyond Press. I’m also working on a couple of stories and a novel.
KR: Thank you for dropping by!
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Kendall Reviews talks to…
Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror
From hungry ghosts, vampiric babies, and shapeshifting fox spirits to the avenging White Lady of urban legend, for generations, Asian women’s roles have been shaped and defined through myth and story. In Unquiet Spirits, Asian writers of horror reflect on the impact of superstition, spirits, and the supernatural in this unique collection of 21 personal essays exploring themes of otherness, identity, expectation, duty, and loss, and leading, ultimately, to understanding and empowerment.
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