Bizarre Thailand: The Legend Of The Killer Cannibal

“Don’t stay out after dark or the ghost of See Uey will eat you.”, was a refrain in 60s Thailand, this book extract investigates the Cannibal turned supernatural legend...
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“Don’t stay out after dark or the ghost of See Uey will eat you.”, was a refrain in 60s Thailand, this book extract investigates the Cannibal turned supernatural legend...

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Many Thai children who grew up in the 1960s received the same warning from their parents. “Don’t stay out after dark or the ghost of See Uey will eat you.”

The cannibal-turned-supernatural legend and movie villain was, in reality, a poor Chinese man who went on a killing spree around Bangkok and some of the nearby provinces. He had a taste for children. No one is certain, but it’s believed that he murdered and ate anywhere from five to eight children. Speculation also ran rife that his omnivorous ‘diet’ may have included some adults that he was never charged with. Caught in the act of burning one of the corpses by the young boy’s father, See Uey Sae Ung was finally arrested in 1958. His confessions traumatized Thailand, birthing a bogeyman who still haunts the nation’s psyche. After stabbing the children in the throat, See Uey told police, he then slit open their chests and ate their hearts and livers.

A Hainanese immigrant who toiled as a coolie, rickshaw-puller and vegetable farmer after arriving in Thailand, the country’s most legendary serial slayer was a former soldier, fighting against the Japanese invaders on the Chinese island during World War II. Some believe that his bloodlust was stoked on the battlefields of Hainan province. Professor Somchai Pholeamke, the former head of Siriraj Hospital’s Forensics Department, said, “His military commanders told the troops to eat the livers of the enemy soldiers to take on their strength and power.” Many of the Thai movies about See Uey use the battlefield as the focal point of his motivations. A scene in one such film shows the young soldier, famished and alone, after all his comrades-in-arms had been slaughtered, with nothing to eat but human carrion.

Eating livers is a ghastly rite often associated with black magic in Southeast Asia. Over the centuries it has been practiced during times of warfare to dehumanize the enemy and feed on their strength. Just as the samurais believe that a man’s courage resides in his guts, which is why the ritual suicide of seppukko consists of disembowelment with a sword, the troops of the ancient Khmer empire and the more recent Khmer Rouge ate the livers of their enemies to increase their strength and stamina.

See Uey’s cadaver, waxed with the preservative formalin, is the most popular exhibit at the Songkran Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum on the grounds of Siriraj Hospital, the country’s oldest medical facility, in Bangkok. The cannibal’s cockroach-brown corpse stands slumped in an upright glass casket off to one side of the room. The empty eye sockets, as well as the bullet holes left by the executioner’s machine-gun, have been filled in with white paraffin. Beside his final resting case there are several others occupied by killer rapists and murderers also sentenced to death.

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Of the two actual skeletons in the museum, the one in a glass case belongs to the former chairman of the hospital’s forensics department, Songkran Niyomsane, who founded the museum in 1965. “He was a true man of forensics,” said Somchai with a chuckle. “He wanted the students to be able to be able to study him after he died.”

Elsewhere in this academic bone-yard are Exhibits A through Z of murder weapons (knives, pliers, ropes, a hammer and a screwdriver) as well as bullets extracted from the dead during autopsies. More macabre still are the glass jars in which human foetuses, plucked from the womb after the mother had perished, swim in formaldehyde. One jar houses a two-month-old victim of hydrocephalus with a grotesquely swollen head that makes him look like an alien’s offspring. As a testament to Buddhist compassion, many Thai visitors leave dolls, candies and toys for the spirits of these kids.

Near the preserved cadavers of the mass murderers is a glass case full of skulls with bullet holes in their foreheads. There is no signage in either English or Thai to explain this display. Somboon Thamtakerngkit, the division chief of the hospital’s Forensic Pathology Department, said there is a modus operandi to the morbidity. “King Rama VIII, the eldest brother of our present king, was shot in the forehead back in 1946,” she said. “Not much was known about entrance and exit wounds caused by gunshots then, so they used the skulls of these unclaimed bodies for tests.” The results of these early shots at forensics proved that claims of suicide were skullduggery. Riddled with question marks, the case remains Thailand’s most contentious murder mystery.

But the real gallery of grotesques is the many autopsy photos lining the walls. They portray, in livid reds and bruising blues, exactly what an exploding grenade does to a torso, how a broken beer bottle can tear out a throat, a train sever a head, or a knife shred a woman’s genitals. As repulsive as most of these images are, the doctors who work with the dead learn invaluable lessons from them to help the living. The autopsies and photos, Somboon said, also assist the doctors, the police and judges to bring the perpetrators of these murders most foul to justice.

The Songkran Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum has no age restrictions. Some visitors are but schoolchildren on the eve of adolescence. Should they be allowed to witness such horrors? That is debatable.

The museum doubles as an ad-hoc classroom for students boning up on forensics and anatomy. They refer to the skeletons and cadavers as ajaan yai (“headmasters”) and wai them—a prayer-like gesture that is local sign language for respect and gratitude.

Professor Somchai pointed to a glass box containing the cadaver of a killer rapist. “The museum also might teach the students something else. If you do a big crime you could end up like this,” he laughed.

The Songkran Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum has no age restrictions. Some visitors are but schoolchildren on the eve of adolescence. Should they be allowed to witness such horrors? That is debatable. Perhaps what both the young and the old need to see are the horrendous effects of violence: not the slow-motion cinematic ballet of gunfire and falling bodies, but the ugly anatomy of real death.

In 2007, the terror trove was renovated and linked together with five other facilities under the banner Siriraj Medical Museum 6. For a miniscule entry fee, visitors can drink in a sobering six-pack of mortality checks and loathsome diseases.

The Ellis Pathological Museum is devoted to the pioneering work of the Professor A.G Ellis, an American who stayed in Thailand with the assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1919 to 1921 and again from 1923 to 1928. He was the first pathologist in the country. Touring this museum of organs infected with cancer, hearts deadened by strokes and livers pickled with alcohol could very well make you never want to drink, smoke or wrap your molars around another cholesterol-heavy cheeseburger ever again.

The squeamish and the anally retentive will have an especially crap time in the Parasitology Museum. Every worst fear and phobia any traveler ever had about the intestinal horrors lurking in Asia has been graphically outlined and exhibited: roundworms, pinworms, hookworms, whipworms and tapeworms. Idolaters of Stephen King and the medical thrillers of Robin Cook may relish opening this can of parasitic worms, but most visitors give it the bum’s rush.

Older Thais who grew up with admonitions from their parents that are straight out of a monstrous fairy tale are hypnotized by the cannibal

Of the six facilities, it is the Forensic Medical Museum that draws the biggest crowds and, of all the exhibits, it is See Ouey’s upright casket that generates the greatest number of glares and gazes. Older Thais who grew up with admonitions from their parents that are straight out of a monstrous fairy tale are hypnotized by the cannibal. Younger Thais who have seen the movies and TV shows are baffled by his tiny size. Many of the travellers and expats look stupefied by this medieval exhibition of putting killers on public display. After all, the crimes of the serial lady-killer Ted Bundy and the cannibalistic necrophiliac Jeffrey Dahmer were much more heinous than See Uey’s, but no one ever put their corpses on display.

For all the movie frames and column inches he has racked up, See Uey remains an enigma. The only information about him in the museum is a newspaper clipping in Thai, taped to the side of his final resting case, reiterating the few known facts about him – his upbringing on Hainan, his days as a soldier, his alleged body count and his execution in 1958 – along with a black-and-white mug shot in which the rodent-faced man is baring his teeth. But it’s difficult to read the expression on his face. Was he mugging for the crime photographers and living up to his reputation? Is this the glower of an extraordinarily angry and embittered man? Or does he look more like a cornered rat, baring his teeth and snarling out of fear?

To answer those questions, I spent a lot of time in Chinatown, over the course of many years, writing all sorts of features and guidebook entries about the history of the area and the exodus from China that brought in tide after tide of landed immigrants during World War II and after the country fell to the communists in 1949. An elderly woman who sold vegetables in the “Old Market” (little changed in the past century), told me, “There’s a Thai expression about ‘traveling with a pot and a mat’ to describe any trip taken on the cheap. But it actually came from the fact that those were the only two things that most of us Chinese immigrants brought to Thailand. Even thinking about that journey by boat makes me seasick: stuck in a cargo hold for months that stank of shit and vomit and piss, roaches and rats everywhere.” She shuddered with disgust.

“It was bad enough coming to all these foreign lands where people hated us, but our own people preyed on us too. My brothers and sisters never made it to Thailand. They were on another boat, but the sailors knew we’d be traveling with all our valuables. Once the boats were at sea, some of these pirates would rob people and throw them overboard to drown or get eaten by sharks. That’s what happened to my brothers and sisters.” Tears glittered in her eyes.

There are many Thai slang terms for us. Because we were seen as ‘reds’ they sometimes called us ‘pussy blood Chinks’

As a ‘boat person’ See Uey would have shared some of those experiences.

Another Chinese immigrant from Hainan, a retired police officer on active duty at the time See Uey was on the loose, spoke of the xenophobia directed at the so-called “Jews of the Far East” wherever they washed up after the exodus: Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the United States. “There are many Thai slang terms for us. Because we were seen as ‘reds’ they sometimes called us ‘pussy blood Chinks’. Since the communists wanted to destroy religion and the temples we were also referred to as ‘the Chinks who killed the temples’. That one I still hear quite often, but some of the older expressions like ‘rickshaw Chinks’ and ‘human animals’ that were used to describe our status as the lowliest manual labourers, aren’t really used anymore, expect by a few older people,” said Wen Liang, sitting in a shophouse that was a reconverted opium den, near the Dragon Lotus Temple in Chinatown.

As a coolie and vegetable farmer, See Uey would have also been a punching bag for many of the same jabs and swipes.

Like many people interviewed for this story, the retired cop expressed skepticism that the cannibal killed and ate as many children as he was charged with. “Let me put it this way. It would not have been difficult to pin some other unsolved murders on a poor, illiterate ‘human animal’. He did confess to killing some of the children, but it’s possible he may have targeted some adults, too. We found a few other corpses that had been cannibalized in Bangkok around that time, but he was never charged with those crimes or confessed to them.” Slowly and solemnly, the ex-cop nodded. “We detectives are forever examining motives. Some of my colleagues in the police force interviewed him after he was arrested and they did not think he was insane. I have often wondered if his anger was not a more generalized rage against the world mixed with a kind of sorrow that came from knowing he would never see his homeland again. Many Chinese immigrants of the time could probably identify with those misgivings.”

In the forensic museum, Professor Somchai had also addressed the quandary of whether See Uey was insane or not at the time of his homicidal binge

In the forensic museum, Professor Somchai had also addressed the quandary of whether See Uey was insane or not at the time of his homicidal binge. He pointed to a long scar on the cadaver’s forehead. “Here you can see the incision. After he was executed, they did an autopsy to see if See Uey’s brain was normal, and it was. But of course it was impossible to really assess his state of mind during the period leading up to his arrest.”

Feeding on all these different quotes and anecdotes, facts and fictions, legends and conjectures, features and guidebook entries, after a lengthy period of indigestion, I combined a bunch of them, adding a few of my own embellishments and allusions to The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, for a novella of mine that was long-listed for the Bram Stoker Award in 2008.

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His body melted into dreams rising like smoke from an opium pipe, where his wife tickled his face with her hair. “I love to see my cute little mouse wake up with a smile on his face.” When See Uey opened his eyes, the only thing tickling his face was a creepy-crawly scurrying across his forehead. He swatted the insect away. He spat a curse and sat up in the back of the rickshaw. Every night was the same. No sooner had he drifted off to sleep than insects ruined his rest.

See Uey sparked a match, the smell of phosphorus wrinkling his nose. As the flame flared up, he moved it across the wooden planks of the rickshaw, crawling with chubby brown cockroaches. He smashed a few of them with one of the rubbers sandals he’d cut from a car tire. With every smack, he recalled his mother berating him as a boy, some Buddhist or Taoist saying, “If you kill an insect you’ll be stupid for a week.”

Smashing them was a futile pursuit anyway; the insects scurried away too quickly. Sweat raining down his chest and forehead, See Uey breathed a sigh of defeat and put on his sandals.

He stepped down from the rickshaw. As soon as he tried to stand upright, pain shot up his spine and struck his head like a hammer blow. He groaned and massaged his lower back. Pulling rickshaws for three years in Bangkok, and the two decades he’d spent bending over rice fields in China’s Hainan province, made it impossible for him to stand up straight anymore.

The street was dark, the moon cobwebbed with clouds. The only light came from a single streetlamp near the corner of Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road

Little by little, he thought, I’m bending towards the grave. Soon I’ll be crawling around on all fours and those damn Thais will be right when they call us Chinese laborers “human animals”.

The street was dark, the moon cobwebbed with clouds. The only light came from a single streetlamp near the corner of Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road. From the moon’s position in the sky, perched above the dragon silhouetted on the shrine’s rooftop, he figured it must be around 3am.

Now that he thought about it, See Uey realized that his mother was right. All the insects he’d killed and eaten had made him this stupid and illiterate. It was the only explanation he could think of for his miserable life and rotten luck. Well, there was that, and the Japanese soldiers and the Thais.

He walked around the rickshaw massaging his lower back. As those aches dulled, the stabs of hunger sharpened. See Uey wrapped his arms around his stomach. He rocked back and forth. All he’d eaten that day was a bowl of rice porridge, salted with fish sauce, and a couple of half-rotten bananas. The meat and produce stalls in the Old Market wouldn’t be open for another hour or two but, when he counted the coins in his pocket, all he had was barely enough to cover the rent of the rickshaw. Thinking about his favorite Hainanese dish–boiled chicken breasts, dowsed with soy sauce and the red and green chili peppers Thais called “mouse droppings”–deepened his hunger.

Arms wrapped around his stomach, he paced the street, passing Chinese-style shop-houses with metal grates and a pile of garbage where rats scampered through the debris, rattling cans. The stench of rotting pineapples and dog shit burned through his nostrils and tunneled into his brain, unearthing memories he had tried to bury:

See Uey crawled through the mud on his elbows, the explosion of cannonballs rippling the earth under his stomach…he ran across the battlefield, a Buddhist amulet in his mouth to protect him, the smoke thick enough to obscure the bayonet on the end of his rifle…a cannonball exploded in front of him and he bit down on the clay Buddha image, choking as he swallowed it…the commander in his brigade ordered the soldiers to cut the livers out of the corpses of Japanese soldiers and eat them raw. “We must take on the power of our enemies. It’s the only way we can defeat them.”

That was the memory he most often associated with the war: a half-eaten Buddha image sitting in a pile of blood, feces and the chunks of undigested liver

Even dog meat, even the soup made of offal, tasted better than those bloody livers. For days after consuming them he had diarrhea. That was the memory he most often associated with the war: a half-eaten Buddha image sitting in a pile of blood, feces and the chunks of undigested liver from a dead soldier. But the commander was right. Only two days later they overran the Japanese forces along the coastline of Hainan.

That was exactly what he needed now: power. It was the only way he could earn enough money to go home and see his wife again.

“Hey! I need a ride home.”

He looked over at the man, dressed in trousers with some kind of Western-style hat. He was fat, so he had to be rich. The man was sweating beer. Slowly he swayed from side to side like rice stalks in a breeze. He’d probably just been to see one of the prostitutes in Green Lantern Lane, which was Bangkok’s main red-light district in the 1950s.

See Uey’s prayers to the Black Tiger God at the shrine devoted to him had finally been answered. The god had delivered this man to him at precisely this moment for exactly this purpose. But what should he do now? On the battlefield, he only remembered killing one Japanese soldier, and that was by accident: the Jap had leapt into their trench and fallen on the upright bayonet of See Uey’s rifle–a machete lashed to the barrel with strands of bamboo. The bayonet pierced the Jap’s stomach. Eyes and mouth agape, See Uey looked at the soldier sliding down the bayonet towards him, spewing entrails that smelled like a meat market on a hot day. In the cannonade of shells bursting and gunfire cracking, the enemy soldier could not possibly have heard his apology, “I’m sorry…I’m sorry.” The Jap tried to speak. All that came out was a dribble of blood trickling down onto See Uey’s face. Under the soldier’s weight, the rifle shook in his hand. He could barely hold it upright. The Jap was almost on top of him now, their eyes locked together in mutual surprise. The rifle slipped backwards and the Jap landed on him face first–

They were like whiny children with teething pains, who needed mothers to smear opium on their gums.

“Hey! I said I need a ride home.”

It was that air of impatience and self-importance the rich always exuded that bothered him the most, like their time was always more valuable than his, as if See Uey had been waiting around all night just to lug them home. They were like whiny children with teething pains, who needed mothers to smear opium on their gums.

See Uey wiped the sweat from his forehead. He walked over and asked him, “Where do you want to go?”

The man said, “Surawong. I’ll give you twenty-five satang.”

Ashamed of his ragged blue pajamas, tiny physique and faltering Thai, See Uey looked down at the dirt road. “Twenty-five satang…too far.”

“Well, that’s what I usually pay.”

“Too far twenty-five satang. Very late.” Dealing with drunks was one of the worst parts of the job. Sometimes they vomited in the back of the rickshaw. Then he’d have to clean it up. Sometimes they refused to pay. Often they berated him for not going fast enough.

“Never mind. I’ll go and find another rickshaw Chink.” He turned and teetered down the road.

Rickshaw Chink. Rickshaw Chink. Rickshaw Chink. How many times had he been called that in Bangkok? Dozens and dozens. Every time he’d swallowed their insults and his anger. He’d swallowed them, yes, but he’d never digested them. In his stomach a wok steamed and sizzled with rage even stronger than his hunger.

But the anger was also a tonic. His back no longer ached. His stomach cramps disappeared. The battlefield memories dissolved like cannon smoke. Walking back to his rickshaw, See Uey grabbed the hollowed-out buffalo horn he used to scoop water from the canals and stole up behind the fat man, stealthy as a tiger: the meat of a man or an animal made no difference to the Black Tiger God who now guided him.

See Uey leapt into the air, bringing down the buffalo horn on the back of the man’s neck with all the force he could muster. The horn cracked against bone, sending vibrations running down his arm. The man fell face first onto the dirt road, wriggling as blood gurgled from the wound. The god possessed him now. The buffalo horn was its single fang.

The man mewled as See Uey opened up wound after wound in his back. With each stab, he heard insults clashing together in his head like cymbals at a Chinese opera: “Rickshaw Chink! Human animals! The Chinks who killed the temples! Pussy blood Chinks! Chink! Chink! Chink!”

He could not stab fast enough to pay back every slur.

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