GIF of the Giant Asian Honey Bee
Exhibited at the National Museum of Singapore
Title: Madu means "Honey"
A Southeast Asian Folktale Reimagined 
With AI Image Synthesis Software
A gifted palace gardener, Hitam Manis, falls in love with a prince.
Portrait of the beautiful Hitam Manis
Tragically, their love invites the ire of the Sultan and jealous nobility. To prevent the couple from marrying, she is ordered to be killed by the Sultan. 
At the moment of her death, Hitam Manis turns into a honey bee and flies to the rainforest surrounding the palace.
Portrait of the handsome Prince
Years later, while out hunting deep in the forest, her prince is drawn to a tall Tualang tree. 
Nestled amongst the highest branches, are giant half-moon-shaped honeycombs, buzzing with thousands of honey bees...
Image of half moon graphic, in pink outline

GIF of the Giant Asian Honey Bee
The tale of Hitam Manis and the Tualang Bees originated from the honey hunters of Kedah, Malaysia.
Hitam Manis means “sweet darkness" in Malay and Bahasa Indonesia.
This is the honey hunters' name for the Asian Giant Honey Bee or Apis Dorsata F. one of the largest honey bee species native to South East Asia.
A crescent moon, generated by Studio 1914
Photo of Kedahan honey hunters harvesting honey on a moonless night, photo by Hasnoor Hussain
photo by @hasnoor.hussain
Honey hunters sing songs to placate the bees during the harvest, which occurs on moonless nights. In some regions, the songs include lyrics where ‘honey’ is likened to a woman or young girl’s beauty.
The loud and highly aggressive vibroacoustics of the Giant Asian honey bees are well documented. The bees employ defensive strategy known as 'shimmering' to defend their nests. Their bodies create a visible and audible ripple across the surface of their honeycomb to warn intruders to stay away.
Photo of large Apis Dorsata honey combs on a Tualang tree branch, photo by Hasnoor Hussain
photo by @hasnoor.hussain
Apis dorsata F. colonies practice open-air nesting - building their iconic crescent-shaped hives on the branches of tall Tualang trees (Koompasia Excelsa) or steep cliffs, away from natural predators and pests.
The great heights keep their colonies away from natural predators, such as the Malayan Sun Bear, and pests.
GIF of a traditional Malay spear, animated by Studio 1914
The tale's warning of iron blades refer to the traditional belief that honey bees will abandon honeycombs cut with metal knives
Some rainforest honey hunters still uphold traditional harvesting rituals, preferring tools made of buffalo bone or wood over metal-based materials. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​
Today, we know Apis Dorsata F. exhibit patterns of nest recognition, which means they do return to the same nesting sites post migration.
While modern honey harvesting methods utilise metal equipment for efficiency, we are reminded to be critical of any overexploitation of a natural resource. 
Deforestation, rapid urbanisation, and climate change have continued to threaten regional and local populations of native honey bees. Bees rely on foraging from hectares of rainforests to produce honey.

Pink illustration of Tualang Tree, created by Studio 1914
The majestic Tualang trees have a protected status amongst locals and the felling of these trees for timber is highly taboo, particularly as rainforest honey is a highly valuable and precious crop.
In certain regions, individual trees are owned by families and inherited through matrilineal succession.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Regional names of the ‘bee trees’:     
* Tualang (Malaysia, Singapore)     
* Sialang (Indonesia)     
* Tapang (Iban peoples, Sarawak)     
* Tanying (Berawan peoples, Sarawak)     
* Mangaris (Sabah)     
* Bangris (Kalimantan)
GIF of a Giant Asian Honey Bee
The Hitam Manis story has its roots in Kedah, Malaysia.
Still from the Istana set in Madu, generated by Studio 1914
Still from the Istana set in Madu
The Istana design in the animation is inspired by the Balai Besar Kedah, which is a royal audience hall built within the complex of Kota Setar Palace. 
The Sultan was well-travelled, and the mixed-style architecture of the royal complex was believed to be an accumulation of inspirations acquired from his journey.
GIF of Kedah architectural motifs, generated by Studio 1914
Synthesised images of Kedah architectural motifs
There is an eclectic mix of architectural styles and influences in the Balai Besar such as vernacular Malay architecture, Siamese architecture, Sumatran architecture, Colonial architecture, and Islamic architecture. 
This is in line with the philosophy of the Malays which tends to assimilate rather than discriminate, revealing a pluralistic culture and environment that has existed since the 1700s.
GIF of the Petik Bunga dance movement, animated by Studio 1914
Did you notice this gesture in the animation?
Hitam Manis’ movements as she coaxes flowers to bloom were inspired by ‘Petik Bunga’, from traditional Malay dance. Translated as “picked flower”, this elegant hand movement drew inspiration from our symbiotic relationship with nature.​​​​​​​
Like the bees which pollinate flowers, Hitam Manis' green fingers were crucial in aiding the palace garden in the story to flourish.
GIF of Synthesised Image
We wanted the synthesised images in Madu to be informed by regional and local historical works and imagery.
The generated images uncovers layers of visual details, which now interacts with our urban perspectives through technology.
Synthesised Image of the Moon behind a Tualang tree, generated by Studio 1914
Madu (2023)
Created by
Hong Hu

Story Inspired by
Heidi Shamsuddin, ‘Hitam Manis & the Tualang Bees', Nusantara - A Sea of Tales

Photographs by
Hasnoor Hussain, ‘Honey Hunters of Ulu Muda'

The synthesised images in this film have been created by training on selected datasets with permission from the
‘Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum',
'Collection of the Peranakan Museum',
'Collection of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board.
Gift of Mr. G. K. Goh.’

GIF of the Giant Asian Honey Bee
There are live Tualang trees in Singapore!
You can view smaller specimens and other emergent trees native to Southeast Asia at the Sembcorp Forest of Giants arboretum and along Telok Blangah Green Road.​​​​​​​
2022-2023 © Studio 1914