In search of ‘Chindak’

In Tiger Fangs, the Malay natives insist to a young British planter that they are not hunting man-eating tigers, but chindak, or were-tigers which are humans who have the ability to morph into tiger-form. Though initially as cynical  about an American film’s liberal use of correct colloquialisms and exaggeration of myths for the silver screen as that young planter, the accuracy of the other Malay phrases used in Tiger Fangs prompted me to look deeper in search of ‘chindak’.

That there were various local beliefs in weretigers was not surprising. William Walter Skeat (1866 – 1953), an English anthropologist, dedicates a section discussing Malay anthropomorphic beliefs in tigers in his seminal Malay Magic.[1] More recently, Dutch historian Peter Boomgaard’s Frontiers of Fear also explored the historical representations of tigers through both colonial texts and traditional texts.[2] From ancestral tigers to shamanic shapeshifters, weretigers was one of many in the rich tapestry of beliefs surrounding the tiger in a pre-colonial and pre-Enlightenment (with all its accompanying unenlightened complications) belief system, which Boomgaard argues kept local populations from hunting tigers excessively.

Back to the search for Frank Buck’s ‘chindak’, I was pleasantly surprised that this term of reference wasn’t entirely made-up after all. Munshi Abdullah, the father of modern Malay literature, uses the term ‘harimau jadi-jadian’ to refer to people who can shapeshift into tigers in the early 19th century. Frank Swettenham, a British civil servant at the turn of the century, records that many Malays believed that people hailing from Kerinchi, a state in Sumatra, had the ability to change into tiger form, especially those from a district called Chenaku (or Cindaku). The orang cindaku is thus the most probable basis for Frank Buck’s ‘chindak’.


Image of orang cindaku. Boomgaard, Frontiers of Fear, p. 188

This short exposition is, however, not intended to be either a defense or attack on the portrayal of local belief systems in Tiger Fangs. After all, Peter Jeremy (Duncan Renaldo) was awfully dismissive of ‘superstition’ despite his uncle’s exhortation that he just needs experience and time in the country to learn to accept them. Despite some sensitivity (or rather, tolerance) to local beliefs on Buck’s part, the narrative also supports the triumph of the scientific explanation for man-eating behaviour, over the locals’ undying belief in chindaks, which persists till the very last scene played for comedic effects. That aside, at least this film didn’t make up a fictional term for weretigers.

Join us on 10 March, 7pm, at the NUS Museum, to watch the underlying clash of belief systems about weretigers in Frank Buck’s Tiger Fangs.

[1] W.W.S. Skeat,Malay magic: being an introduction to the folklore and popular religion of the Malay Peninsula. (London: Macmillan, 1900) pp. 157-170

[2] Boomgaard dedicates a chapter discussing the weretiger belief in Malaya, Sumatra, Borneo and Java. See Peter Boomgaard, Frontiers of Fear: Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600-1950 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), pp. 186-206


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