The Poinciana Woman of East Point: The truth behind Darwin’s most popular urban myth, by Roland Dyrting
This essay—part journalism, part ethnography, part detective/horror writing—won the Charles Darwin University Essay Award in 2009. You can read the work from all of the finalists from the 2009 NT Literary Awards here.
This essay is a highly personalised exploration of the foundations behind what has been called Darwin’s “… number one urban myth”, namely, the story of the Poinciana Woman of East Point.
The work explores contemporary and historical aspects of this tale and, although based on footnoted research, is nonetheless primarily written to entertain. No ghosts were exorcised during the production of this piece.
1. Irradiating their gonads
Darwin’s East Point, a short axe-headed peninsula cutting into the Arafura Sea, is listed in Lonely Planet’s Northern Territory travel guide, and justifiably so. In the morning you can visit the pokey, but agreeably idiosyncratic, East Point Military Museum – the photographs and weaponry there show what stubble-chinned young men used get up to before they discovered chest-waxing, replenishing moisturisers and the word “awesome”.
The point was extensively fortified during World War II, and remnants of once-virile military hardware still stand semi-flaccid throughout the peninsula – searchlight emplacements, lookout towers, ammunition magazines, field-gun turrets.
Cool afternoon sea breezes often blow in, while colonies of wallabies placidly graze the low grasslands and adjacent monsoon vine forest. Got some soy-marinated steaks in the esky? Then have a barbeque along the sandstone cliffs and photograph the silhouettes of blade-fronded pandanus palms against the brief poignancy of another one of Darwin’s bright, bruised sunsets. Poinciana trees will twitch and ripple in the twilight’s gentle winds as you and yours noisily pack the folding chairs into the troop-carrier’s boot.
But after dusk comes night. And when I was a teenager, East Point after dark attracted a horde of young hominids who, sad to say, disported themselves as if they’d all contracted a particularly virulent form of Abyssinian epilepsy. They subjected cars to elaborate but pointless accelerations and decelerations along unsealed roads, ingested unhelpful amounts of ethanol, explosively regurgitated stomach contents, smoked cannabis extracts, evacuated bowels and bladders indiscriminately, used Zippo lighters to set flatulence aflame, irradiated their gonads with hare-brained heavy-metal songs, and spontaneously assumed a chaotic variety of oral, digital and genital juxtapositions.
Paranoid schizophrenics, long-grassers, petrol-sniffers, metho-heads, and the Gerasene demoniac – onlookers to all this slap-happy conduct – also lived, loved and howled out in the surrounding army ruins. Yea verily, I say unto thee, at night behavioural patterns out on the Reserve were sometimes dangerous, often depraved, and almost always deplorable.
I tried to get out there as often as I could.
“$1BIL MARINA PLAN FOR EAST POINT,” read the headline in the NT News for April Fool’s Day, announcing the Arafura Harbour proposal – a thousand-plus homes, a marina complex, tourist resorts, shops, restaurants, all safely encased by an artificial beach and a massive sea wall1. This is planned to extend from East Point all the way to Nightcliff, incorporating the Ludmilla Creek and catchment area, and the surrounding mangrove and rainforest habitats.
Not in my back yard, said all the world and his wife, somewhat predictably.
Personally, however, this out-of-the-blue mention of East Point after so many years made me remember a story that I’d almost forgotten.
Here it is: There was once a beautiful brown-skinned Asian woman who long ago was raped by a group of Japanese fishermen out on East Point. She became deranged after this event and when she discovered that she was pregnant she hanged herself from a branch of a Poinciana tree near where she’d been assaulted. She has since become a wraith who stalks and kills men at night.
She entices them by initially appearing as a beautiful, white-robed, long-haired young woman but then transforms into a hideous wild-haired eagle-clawed hag just before she eviscerates her victims and feeds on their still-steaming guts. She has a distinctive shrill scream and can be summoned on moonless nights by spinning three times and calling out her name.
I first heard this story as a teenager, and like all oral histories there were variations. Here’s one: “According to local legend, Poinciana Woman is a real person who lived in the East Point area many years ago. She was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered by a man who was never punished for his crime. the Poinciana Woman’s ghost is said to haunt the area. Every now and then to avenge her murder she comes back and randomly takes the life of a young male.”2
Here’s another: “It’s a great big myth that’s been handed down since before Cyclone Tracy. The better version is that an indigenous woman was raped by soldiers during settlement, and then hanged and left on … [a] Poinciana tree. Reputedly she now haunts East Point and protects women.”3
This story has been around since cocky was an egg and has recently been nominated by the Australian Broadcasting Commission as the “…the number one urban myth about Darwin.”4 Plays have been written about it (the most recent being the 2006 Darwin Festival’s Urban Thrillogy), internet blogs have incorporated it in their hubbub, and when I was a high school literacy tutor a few years back, youngsters of all shades could still repeat the basic narrative, plot-point by plot-point, straight off the top of their heads, not even accessing Google once.
To be frank, when I first heard the account it didn’t particularly scare me – by that time I’d seen far worse things standing drug-stumped and slack- jawed in any number of Adelaide’s inner-city alleyways. What did strike me however, was the story’s precisely outlined, and utterly believable, violence. Pack rape, depression and insanity, unwanted pregnancy, suicide, infanticide, male-targeted homicide, ritual disembowelment, all rounded off with a dose of plump cannibalism – it could have been a historical- drama directed by Mel Gibson.
For me, the tale’s clear-cut details argued for some sort of veracity for it being at least partially based upon some specific past event. Indeed, there were many others who didn’t just credit the story’s historical validity but were confident about its ongoing reality as well.
“Man, I wish I was joking, but she is alive,” says one blogger.5 “You should get … some ghost show and prove it to people that it [East Point] is haunted.”
“I don’t believe it’s a myth,” blogs another.6 “I’ve been to East Point after dark years ago. And everybody’s car usually stops around the same place, losing all power … that’s why they built the gates down the road, so they can lock them before dark, because too many people were getting harassed by the Poinciana Woman.”
The devil finds work for idle hands, and spurred on by the NT News article, I decided to find out what I could about a wraith that could immobilise automobiles.
The earliest mentions I could find were from just after the Second World War, although the location of the drama changed from the East Point peninsula to the Daly Street railway bridge.
“Everybody said Daly Street Bridge was haunted,” Maisie Austin writes. “… Apparently, a man hanged himself there and people always saw his ‘shadow’ there … As well as the hanging, a lady was killed there in a car accident and people said she could be ‘seen’ sitting on the bridge at night … Another tree under which spirits gathered … was the Frangipani tree. Apparently, when a mother (and her baby) died at childbirth, their spirits met under this tree. the mother was called the ‘Poinciana Lady.’”7
Inez Cubillo concurs, writing, “He [Delfin Antonio Cubillo] captivated everyone with his stories … old-time stories about Darwin town, bush and Aboriginal stories. Many children sat at his knees … listening to his Filipino ‘ghost stories’ of the ‘Kapre’, the ‘Aswang’, [and] the ‘Enchanted Spirit Woman’ … seen at the Daly Street Bridge after midnight.”8
“She [the Poinciana Woman] is a bogey woman, curfew story,” sensibly concludes one internet writer.9 “When the curfews were on Non-Whites of the north after World War two, mothers used her deadly siren song as a way to make sure their kids were home before sunset. In about 2005, the Darwin City Council tried to chop some of the trees down and there was an outcry from the locals because of this legend.”
Later references had a strong tendency to portray the wraith as being not Asian but Aboriginal. In 1997, for instance, the NT News carried a story about a Larrakia man claiming the East Point area as a site of “… Aboriginal significance…”.10 He criticised the foundation of a fine-food restaurant nearby as being disrespectfully close to the “…Poinciana Lady’s…” dwelling place, a wraith supposedly important in Larrakia folklore. George Brown, Darwin’s Lord Mayor at the time, responded in a subsequent article by admitting that indigenous sacred sites linked to this wraith “…may exist…” within East Point’s immediate environs.11
And a few years later, a local theatre group performed a very successful play in which a girl is pursued by three lecherous teenage boys. they chase her into the bushlands where, hiding underneath a Poinciana tree, she prays for some sort of deliverance. the spirit of the tree, a good-looking Aboriginal woman, comes to her rescue. An enormous tree branch falls on one boy’s head, causing him to immediately chuck a perish. the second boy she lures over the lip of a tall cliff, after which he understandably loses much of his initial sexual enthusiasm. She spares the life of the third boy, however, only turning him into dribbling fruitloop instead.12
Indeed, by the twenty-first century, the wraith had been firmly embedded within an indigenous context. “There are many exquisite orange-red blossomed Poinciana trees,” states Aboriginal Darwin: a guide to exploring important sites of the past and present while commenting on East Point, “… around which there are a number of stories about the infamous and sometimes mischievous Poinciana Lady.”13
I distrusted these interpretations for three reasons.
First, the Kenbi Land Claim monograph, published in 1979 by the Northern Land Council, mentions several extremely significant Larrakia sites in the immediate Darwin area — Gundal, Madlamaning (Emery Point) and Dariba Nungalinya (Old Man Rock), in particular — yet makes no reference to any important Dreamings, stories, or even grave sites, present in or around East Point.14
Other important written sources (such as Under the Mango Tree: Oral histories with Indigenous people of the Top End15, Bunji: a story of the Gwalwa Daraniki movement16 and Saltwater People: Larrakia Stories from around Darwin17, for example) contain detailed accounts of Larrakia oral history but similarly make no mention of the Poinciana Woman.
Second, there is the Poinciana itself (Delonix regia), the tree most consistently partnered with the wraith. This is not indigenous to Australia – it is instead a Madagascan immigrant. And the ones standing out at East Point, judging by their size and structure, were planted sometime in the early 1900s, not in the pre-colonial past.18
Third, the story’s widespread attestation around other parts of northern Australia besides Darwin vigorously argues against it being a localised Larrakia tradition.
One internet informant writes, for instance: “What made me sure that this is not a myth was the time I was living in Perth, when my friend spoke of a woman who walks an island in Cocos where he is from. He called her the ‘Poinciana Woman’ – a witch. Now this is no coincidence. He hadn’t even heard of the story from Darwin. He was as shocked as I was when I told him of the story that I knew about the Poinciana Woman.”19
Another blogger chucks a U-ey and heads off to Queensland: “This is a common story in Cairns … I have also heard it around Thursday Island … she takes on the form of girls or women the boy or man knows to lure them. One version is also that she was pregnant, the child having died within her.”20
Like the Devil in the Book of Job, the Poinciana Woman seemed to come from “…roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.”21
2. The Narrows
The Indonesian drug-dealer is a companionable flurry of anecdotes, jokes, and cynical one-liners, but he’s steadily making me more and more nervous. We’re sitting around a large low-slung Balinese coffee table in his living room. Each side of this table has two pull-out drawers. The two facing him contain small satchels of hydro mull-heads, ecstasy tabs, amphetamine pills — and a shitload of legal tender.
We’re in a Housing Commission at in the Narrows, up on the third floor, but I’m not here to see him. I’m here because his brother, who also lives here apparently, had pinned a notice on a supermarket community board, advertising a second-hand laptop.
SUCK BULK PISS, urges some graffiti down in the car-park, but the only people following this advice are a large group of Aboriginal countrymen sitting out under trees in the surrounding parkland. They pass around plastic bottles filled with cheap moselle and are dryly chanting their Dreamings to the urgent staccato beat of clapsticks.
Everyone else around here seems to want to get stoned or zoned instead; every fifteen minutes or so there’s a knock on the unlocked security-mesh door. The white folks are buying the tabs; the coloured mob are stumping up for the broccoli. One Filipino punter even pays for his deal with four bound mud crabs and a cooking sauce poured into a large juice bottle.
I’m getting anxious for two reasons. this operation is so unprofessional – there’s no one standing lookout, no locks and bolts, and the drugs and moolah are all up front, ripe for the taking. And it’s not the police I’m really worried about, it’s the mechanics of predation: Drugs attract money, and together drugs and money attract carnivores.
The drug dealer places the mud crabs and sauce into his fridge and sits back down. “Wish everybody would pay with –” he begins.
An Asian woman walks slowly into the room from the flat’s central corridor. She’s wearing only a soccer jersey and is obviously still groggy from sleep. She has the body of a tennis-player, the face of Queen Nefertiti, and her shiny black hair reaches down to the back of her knees. She zombies over to the fridge, opens it and gulps down water straight from the bottle. After she shuts the fridge, the drug dealer smiles and says something to her in indonesian.
She jiggles an erect middle nger at him and then stumps out of the living room.
After seeing what her nipples just did with that jersey, I can’t think straight – man, I can’t even think curved.
“She’s a friggin’ Pontianak,” he says with a chuckle. “Blair Witch Project, or what! She’s a spunk, but my brother has to put his balls in a rack every –”
“What did you just call her?” I say.
His brother never does show up. After about two hours, I leave my mobile number and depart. (The bloke rings me up that night and says he’s sold the laptop to Cash Converters.)
As I wait in a concrete bus stop opposite the Housing Commission flats, a raggedy group of teenagers in a parkland decide to amuse themselves.
They tie upside-down, opened Garbags to lit boat- flares. These form black parachute-like contraptions that slowly rise from the lawns and drift off towards the industrial suburb of Winnellie.
Next week an almighty brawl will erupt here, involving over fifty people. Apart from the usual black eyes and busted-up lips, a man will be hacked in the neck with an axe, another will be impaled on a fence, and a woman will be stabbed with a replica samurai sword stolen from the Palmerston Shopping Centre.22
I wait for my bus, watching the teenagers’ ingenious kites. this place resembles what East Point Reserve used to be at after midnight, and yet it’s only eleven-thirty in the morning.
3. Infested with wraiths
If the dogs are howling, she’s far away; if they’re whining, she’s nearby.
She stalks lonely roads and roosts in tall trees. the cloying smell of kemboja (frangipani) often precedes her. An exquisite white-robed woman walking slowly, head downcast –“…her tapering nails of extraordinary length (a mark of beauty) … long jet-black tresses she allows to fall down to her ankles…”23 “After the victim falls into her trap, she will turn ugly and old with sharp teeth … another belief is that she was abused by a male individual …”24 The corpses of her victims, if found at all, will be unspeakably desecrated, a defilement of their mothers’ pain-of-birth.
She lives all over South-East Asia. Her most common name is Pontianak — “A vampire ghost of a woman who died in childbirth; a banshee,” explains one respected indonesian dictionary.25 She has other names as well. In the Malaysian peninsula she’s also called Langsuir, Matianak, Boentianak, in the Philippines, Pantianak or Tiyanak, in Indonesia, Kuntilanak, in Timor, Pontiana.26
There’s a middle-sized town in northern Borneo named after her, a place initially so infested with wraiths that an Arabic pirate once fired cannon balls from his boat at a throng of them as they trudged mindlessly on a beach.27 There’s been many movies made about her – nine that I could find.28 I’ve recently seen one of them. It was so bad it resembled what a porno movie would look like if all of the sex-bits had been carefully expunged.
One of the first academic mentions of her is in Skeat’s classic anthropological tome Malay Magic published in 1900 and sightings of her persist to this very day – mostly shitty footage shot on mobile phones.
The Poinciana Woman is the Pontianak who lives in Darwin – an illegal immigrant undoubtedly.
But who brought her here? Here’s a description of Darwin that doesn’t mention the Drover or Lady Sarah Ashley: “During the late 1930s, administrative concern over the presence of Asian crews in Darwin increased. in 1936 there were 130 Japanese and 103 Malays employed in Darwin. there were a number of ethnic groups loosely termed ‘Malays’ or ‘Koepangers’, including people from Singapore, Java, Maluku (Aru islands), Timor and nearby Sabu, and Roti and Sulawesi.”29 And the third largest group of Asian seamen? Filipinos, my friend. Apart from the soon- to-be exiled or imprisoned Japanese, all these sailors came from within the Pontianak’s traditional hunting range. Dead set.
I’d been searching for a specific crime, a definite rape case-history, but I’d instead discovered that Darwin is part of South-East Asia. That we’re all right slap-bang in the hey-diddle-diddle of what Matthew Flinders (when he encountered Makassans off the Arnhem Land coast) once called “… the Malay Road.”30
Selamat tinggal, Pontianak prey.
1. Adlam, Nigel (2009) ‘1 Bil Marina Plan for East Point’, NT News, 01/04/09, p. 1, 12.
2. Carleton, Stephen (1997) Smells Like Impulse. Hobart: Australian Script Centre.
3. ‘The Poinciana Woman’ by Shelz Keast, SciFi Fantasy Art. http://shelz.elfwood.com/ Poinciana_Woman.3215808.html
4. ‘Deep End – 18 August 2006- Deep End Five: Bunji Elcoate’. http://www.abcsport.com.au/ rn/deepend/stories/2006/1715550.htm
5. ‘The Poinciana Woman’ by Shelz Keast, SciFi Fantasy Art. http://shelz.elfwood.com/ Poinciana_Woman.3215808.html
7. Austin, Maisie (1992) Quality of Life: a reflection of life in Darwin during the post-war years. Darwin: Coleman’s Printing.
8. Cubillo-Carter, Inez (2000) Keeper of Stories, Delfin Antonio Cubillo: the history of the Cubillo family (1788-1996). Alice Springs, NT: Cubillo-Carter Enterprises.
9. ‘The Poinciana Woman’ by Shelz Keast, SciFi Fantasy Art. http://shelz.elfwood.com/ Poinciana_Woman.3215808.html h
10. Del Nido, Rod (1997) ‘Restaurant row at East Point’, NT News, 08/02/1997, p.3
11. Unknown (1997) ‘Sacred sites may exist: Mayor’, NT News, 11/02/1997, p.5
12. ‘The Poinciana Woman’ by Shelz Keast, SciFi Fantasy Art. http://shelz.elfwood.com/ Poinciana_Woman.3215808.html
13. Bauman, Toni (2006) Aboriginal Darwin: a guide to exploring important sites of the past and present. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
14. Brandl, M, Haritos, A and Walsh, M (1979) Kenbi Land Claim to vacant crown land in the Cox Peninsula, Bynoe Harbour and Port Patterson areas of the Northern Territory of Australia. Darwin: Northern Land Council.
15. Havnen, P and Norrington, L (eds) Under the Mango Tree: Oral histories with the Indigenous people from the Top End. Darwin: NT Writers’ Centre.
16. Day, Bill (1994) Bunji: a story of the Gwalwa Daraniki movement. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
17. Wells, Samantha (ed). (2001) Saltwater People: Larrakia Stories from around Darwin. Darwin: Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation.
18. Ross, Graham (intro.) (1998) Botanica: the illustrated A-Z guide of over 10,000 garden plants and how to cultivate them. Milsons Point, NSW: Random House.
19. ‘The Poinciana Woman’ by Shelz Keast, SciFi Fantasy Art. http://shelz.elfwood.com/ Poinciana_Woman.3215808.html
21. International Bible Society (1984) The Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
22. Unknown. (2009) ‘Axe Attack in Mob Riot’, NT News, 23/04/09, p.1
23. Skeat, Walter (1900, repr 1984) Malay Magic: being an introduction to the folklore and popular religion of the Malay Peninsula. Singapore, New York: Oxford University Press.
24. Bunson, M (1993) Vampire: the encyclopedia. London: Thames and Hudson.
25. Stevens, N M and Schmidgall-Tellings, A Ed (eds) (2001) A Comprehensive Indonesian- English Dictionary. Athens: Ohio University Press.
26. ‘Unravelling the Myths of the Pontianak’. http://www.spi.com.sg/spi/spi_ les/pontianak/
27. ‘Pontianak’. http://indahnesia.com/frame.php?link=/Indonesia/Kalimantan/Barat/Barat. php&lang=&code=BARPON
28. Anak Pontianak, Pontianak Kembali, Pontianak Harum Sandal Malam, etc.
29. Ganter, Regina (with contributions from Julia Martínez and Gary Lee) (2006) Mixed Relations: Asian-Aboriginal contact in north Australia. Crawley, WA: UWA Press.
30. Stephenson, Peta (2007) The Outsiders Within: Telling Australia’s Indigenous-Asian story. Sydney: University of NSW Press.
Photograph: Stop Barneson Boulevard at Frog Hollow FB group