Bringing the mermaid myth back to port

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 October, 1993, 12:00am

WHEN several thousand ''thrill-seekers'' rushed to Aberdeen wharf last week in the forlorn hope of seeing a mermaid, many people were left floundering.

Such strange events often tell us not so strange things about the way we think and live; in this case, the underlying story is partly about intra and inter-ethnic stereotypes in Hong Kong, and partly about a pan-human fascination with the abnormal.

On his return to port the bewildered fisherman, To Hei, grumbled: ''I don't believe mermaids are beautiful as they are portrayed in Western cultures. To me mermaids are strange creatures with round heads and long hair.'' In European mythology mermaids were said to lure mariners to their destruction, and imprison the souls of the drowned deep under water. Generally, it was unlucky to see a mermaid as it pressaged storm or disaster.

Many of the ideas about mermaids (mei yahn yu, the Cantonese typification which implies they are beautiful) between the East and West are similar. This even includes speculation about the factual origins of mermaid stories, such as, are they a mis-identification of dugongs (a sea cow). Only in Greek mythology do you get a clear association of the mermaid with the love goddess, Aphrodite.

Chinese journalists covering last week's story used phrases like, ''Hong Kong's superstitious fishing community'', and the ''superstitious waterfolk''. This brings to light not so latent, ancient prejudices of land-based Cantonese towards these people - the Tanka.

The fascination and the fear associated with mermaids comes from the fact that they are an anomaly - being neither human nor fish.It appears to be a universal feature of human cultures that anomalous things are imbued with great power, for neither good nor evil, and therefore are often taboo.

If we look at Tanka categorisations of fish we find their sacred fish are anomalous in their appearance or behaviour. These are the sturgeon, which is thought to be like a dragon; the strange sawfish; whales and porpoises which are mammal-like fish that resemble humans and human-domesticated animals; and turtles which are of land and of the water.

If by some mischance any of these are caught, they should be thrown back. If they die they should be taken to a temple to avoid shipwrecks, deaths in the family, or loss of livelihood.

It is not at all surprising, therefore, that the reports of mermaids show they are to be treated by the boat people in exactly the same way as sacred fish. As one fisherwoman said last week: ''When a 'mermaid' is caught, fishermen must immediately burn incense and worship. If the 'mermaid' is still alive, it should be thrown back; if dead it must be placed on land'', presumably near a Tin Hau temple.

So for the Tanka a being which represented land and sea was ''bad luck'', and expressed their long-standing problematic relations with land-based Chinese; on the other hand, the fact the Tanka lived at sea made them anomalous to the land-based Chinese who not only attributed fishlike qualities to them, but also piracy, untrustworthiness, and so on.

The combination of fascination with, and fear of the anomalous is universal, it is not exclusive to the boat people of Hong Kong, and despite what the journalists implied, the impact of the latest rumour was not confined to the fishing community, even ifit started there.

While these are the divisive aspects of the mermaid rumour, there is also a culturally constructive side to it as well. No one who went to Aberdeen admitted to a belief in mermaids, they went ''just in case''. This is intriguing because rumours like thisthreaten to turn our understanding of the world upside down.

But perhaps they are really like the rituals that anthropologists have observed in many cultures, where, for example, men might act like women and women like men for the brief period of the ritual. The brief reversal of normality only serves to confirm for the participants the normality of their everyday lives. Similarly, while people may enjoy flirting with the idea there are mermaids they are relieved to find there are no such creatures. Unwittingly, Mr To brought the world of normality back to port.

Finally, given the association of mermaids with storms and disasters it is also not surprising rumours of mermaids being caught surfaced during Typhoon Dot. When the world around us is unsettled rumours thrive on the anxiety.

Dr Evans is Reader in Anthropology at the University of Hong Kong.