Ridicule and Racism in Naming Malaysia’s “Bigfoot”

Posted by: Loren Coleman on February 4th, 2006

Now in its fourth month, Asia’s latest "Bigfoot" flap keeps on rolling. What can be learned from how the media is handling the story via the evolving names being used? Are there the hints of ridicule and racism, in the routine being revealed?

The Malaysian "Bigfoot," as a labeled cryptid, is slowly merging with various attributed "local" designations that are slipping into the stories. The name that is being picked most often reveals a developing story that moves the examination of the sightings from a more tangible cryptozoological landscape into a media-friendly "legendary status," with a hint of xenophobia.

At the start of the year, one name you might have heard in associate with the current Malaysian accounts, beyond "Bigfoot," was "Mawas." For several years, Mawas has been a term for unknown, man-sized hairy hominoids seen in Malaysia. Of course, what is intriguing is that Mawas in nearby Indonesia is most often related to discussions about the orangutan, (Pongo pygmaeus), known from ranges in the wild in Sumatra (Pongo pygmaeus abelii) and Borneo (Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus).

It is interesting to track the evolution of the recent use of "Mawas." On January 3th, for example, the Seoul Times reported that following a one-day expedition, led by Johor National Parks director Hashim Yusof, he said he was compiling "a database on Bigfoot or orang mawas sightings at various spots."

One wire service dispatch on January 8th, distributed widely, quoted director Hashim Yusoff as observing: "My personal feeling is that there is a possibility it could be what we call in Malaysia the ‘mawas’ … more of a primate."

Then, beginning the middle of January 2006, the term "Mawas" was mostly being employed in lists. Discussing the Malaysian sightings, the media has done this in two ways. One is by noting the "tribal people call the creatures Siamang, Mawas, or Hantu Jarang Gigi." The other is by saying "Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch, Yeti or Mawas." [As already mentioned on Cryptomundo, the siamang (Hylobates syndactylus) is a known ape, a form of gibbon, and inappropriate within such a list.]

While making waves in the news in January 2000 as Mawas, I don’t see any evidence that this name – which has appeared only about 20 times recently – will become more frequently used to characterize the current 2005-2006 sightings and expeditions.

The same is true for the term more popular during the 1960s. "Orang Dalam" or "Interior Man," for the very tall, ten foot hairy Malaysian hominoids may be more correct, but it has not been used except by some blogs, including this one.

That leaves us with the name that is being more commonly seen and heard in broadcast media, newspaper and online mentions – "Hantu Jarang Gigi" that is translated as "Snaggle-Toothed Ghost." This moniker usually allows the reporter to either make fun of the "toothy" name, and/or have the creature appear to live in a spooky world of phantoms and folklore. A certain kind of distance ("their legends call it") exists when labeling these encounters with the Hantu Jarang Gigi or "Snaggle-Toothed Ghost." There have been over thirty article appearances of this usage.

The current typical radio or news story, therefore, is beginning to characterize these hairy hominoids in more and more generic ways. Let’s look at two current examples, one politically liberal, the other conservative.

National Public Radio’s "Living On Earth," on February 3, 2006, did a report entitled "Is Big Foot back? Maybe in Malaysia." The headline writer for Rachel Gotbaum’s report did engage in the small but routine error of making "Bigfoot" into two words. For the record, NPR’s report is interesting, historically, for being straightforward enough, insightful about the habitat, and, well, for being on NPR. Watch what "name" Gotbaum gives for the creatures.

Here is the partial transcript of Rachel Gotbaum’s "Note on Emerging Science" report:

For several generations, indigenous groups in southern Malaysia have reported the existence of a ten-foot tall, hairy, ape-like creature that walks on two legs. Amid several recent sightings and almost daily media headlines, local government officials have decided to investigate the Bigfoot rumors. The habitat of choice for the Asian Bigfoot is Endau-Rompin National Park, a rainforest roughly the size of the island of Singapore known for its monkeys and gibbons, but nothing that could possibly be confused with the giant biped reported.

For the indigenous people of Endau-Rompin, Bigfoot is nothing new. For generations they called the creature the "snaggle-toothed ghost" in folklore and tribal history. Government officials from the state of Johor plan to send two teams of scientists to scour the rainforest in search of the elusive Asian Bigfoot. One team is on a mission to track him down. If they find him, the other team intends to study him. And just in case the government needs some help, 20 members of the Singapore Paranormal Investigators group are lending their special expertise to the search to find out if the truth is really out there.

Used with permission of Living on Earth; copyright 2006 Living on Earth.

"For generations…in folklore and tribal history"? Where do they find such "facts"?

Meanwhile, in the February 11th, 2006, issue of World Magazine, there’s this tidbit, showing how this "new" name for this cryptid is being distributed beyond the usual parameters:

On the prowl

Based on the eyewitness accounts of a Malaysian local, scientists in the Pacific nation are heading into the countryside on a government-funded expedition to search for Bigfoot. Since the reported sighting of a 10-foot ape, Bigfoot talk has dominated local newspapers. Jungle natives have told stories about large apes for generations, though they’ve been called the "Snaggle-Toothed Ghost," not Bigfoot, Yeti, or his North American cousin, the Sasquatch.

"Jungle natives"? "Snaggle-Toothed Ghost"? Oh come on.

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

4 Responses to “Ridicule and Racism in Naming Malaysia’s “Bigfoot””

  1. r.lee responds:

    Excellent comments, very perceptive.

    Too often, researchers of the “weird” — be it UFOs, paranormal phenomena, or cryptids — avoid addressing this issue. I understand this avoidance; though don’t condone it. It can be seen as being political, or “P.C.” but you know, sometimes you just have to acknowledge these aspects.

    (I’m going to link to this on my blog)

  2. Gurpreet responds:

    I don’t see the alleged racism in these press reports. I don’t see any malicious ridicule in the name “Snaggle-toothed ghosts”, either.

  3. Loren Coleman responds:

    Allow me to be very specific then…By the use of terms like “tribal groups” and “jungle natives” who are characterized as speaking about “folklore” and “snaggle-toothed ghosts,” the media demeans and dismisses eyewitness reports of credible local residents who have encountered unknown, hidden animals. It is rather obvious to most individuals how the ridicule curtain is often used to undermine local reports. Charles Fort called this media technique the “Wipe.”

    The racism, of course, comes into play by “setting” up the alleged folkloric elements from supposedly non-Westernized “jungle natives,” thus diminishing the encounters’ supposed “value” to science.

    Indeed, the credibility of these accounts are slowly being eroded by the media’s reframing of these sightings into a non-scientific, cultural point of reference.

    It frequently occurs thusly, and it seemed like it was time to bring this factor in the evolution of these stories into the light of the day.

  4. Loren Coleman responds:

    The following was sent along by reader Matt Knapp:

    I would say it’s more than a “hint” of ridicule and racism. In the world of writing, as certainly Loren knows, and especially when you’re speaking in terms of journalism news, the words you choose are extremely important when conveying the message to the reader. It is clear to me from reading these excerpts that they are trying to get this topic away from the scientific aspect, and more towards the “entertaining” approach. This is shown in several ways, such as the usage of the more “silly” of the names, “The Snaggle-Tooth Ghost.” That coupled with the information about a paranormal group being involved, and using terms such as “folklore” and “myth” jerks it right away from being taken as a serious scientific occurrence. The usage of “Jungle Natives” to me seems extremely condescending, as does including “folklore” with “tribal history.” It automatically gets the reader to paint a picture in their mind. I can’t say this is surprising however considering the media has for the most part always approached crypto subjects with the same tone here in the United States. A fine example of this was the media frenzy that took place following the death of Ray Wallace. Another example took place right here in my own city. I heard news of a local evening news broadcast about a Bigfoot sighting taking place just outside the city along the banks of a river. I contacted all the local news stations via email after searching through their recent archives only to find nothing. Eventually I was at last contacted by someone via email who informed me that the news report I was speaking of had just been an April Fool’s prank, and that they didn’t think anyone would actually take it seriously.

    Matt Knapp

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