Bawang Putih, Bawang Merah: A Retelling of a Malay Fairytale (Prologue & Chapter 1)


Malay fairytales were passed on from generations to generations through the oral tradition in the area of Maritime South East Asia. A generally known fairytale of a Cinderella variant of Malay Archipelago is ‘Bawang Putih Bawang Merah’ (literally translated meant garlic and red onion). It is a fairy tale because of its happy ending where the poor victim of circumstances is eventually married off to a prince and they live happily forever and ever. (In Vietnam, for example, such a fairytale is also found in ‘The Tale of Tam and Cam’.)

None of the available text versions of Bawang Putih Bawang Merah explores the characters in detail. This retelling of Bawang Putih dan Bawang Merah tries to explore the various psyche of the characters and presents to the reader a deeper psychoanalysis of the characters and their traits.



  • Merah

a young daughter of Mak Kundur and Pak Sukam

  • Mak Kundur

a woman in her late 40s, murdered tragically by Mak Labu; first wife of Pak Sukam, biological mother to  Merah

  • Pak Sukam

a paddy field farmer, father to Merah and Putih, died from a chronic bee sting

  • Mak Labu

a woman in her early forties, second wife of Pak Sukam, mother to Putih, step-mother to Merah


Chapter 1: Invisibility

On nights like tonight, Merah finds peace and the oneness with God. As she is staring up into the open sky, she admires its bountifulness and infinite ravine of nothingness – yet in her heart, it was plentiful. Sometimes, she closes her eyes as if trying to memorise all the different celestial points and feeling at one with those glittering stars.  Her thoughts fly a thousand miles a minute; reaching into the infinite spatial vastness of the dark yet glittery night sky. “What a beautiful night,” she exhales. God IS great. Nothing can spoil these perfect moments of tranquility and solitude. Yes, nothing! Tonight, Merah does not seem to mind the shouting, squealing and yelling from Mak Labu who hasn’t spared Merah a day off for a little moment of rest and self-reflection.

As fast as a passing star, her mind suddenly recalls a painful memory – the evening she lost her beloved mother. Her heart shatters a million pieces as now, all that is felt within her is an emptiness and void irreplaceable even by the quadrillion stars she sees tonight. She gently wipes the tears that flow down her cheeks while looking around to the left, the right and left again to see if anyone had caught her in tears. No – no one must know how she really feels. Merah has to stay strong to face what is deemed to be her duty as a filial daughter. A daughter to the only living parent she has now.

“But she isn’t my real mother. For my real mother, the one I love, is gone now and gone too soon.”

Merah thinks to herself but without an ounce of self-pity. “I should go back in there now,” she recovers herself thinking aloud and she quickly stands up, almost tripping and missing a step. ‘In there’ lies hell. ‘In there’ lies evil. And ‘in there’ lies darkness as dark as it can ever be. ‘In there’ is the house where she lives with her step-mother, Mak Labu and her half-sister, Putih. “Steady,” she reminds herself to be as quiet as a mouse and not to make the slightest sound even if she cannot help the creaking old wood floors while walking up the back stairs to get back ‘in there’.

“Merah!” The squealing begins again – as harsh and as intimidating as always. Merah’s heart begins to sink yet again:

“I am invisible.  I MUST try not to get anyone of their attention.”

To be continued