The Shookjong Shakes

Singapore is just emerging from a 12-day epidemic of fear.

It flashed through the Republic when it was rumoured that meat from pigs vaccinated against swine fever was spreading “Koro,” a marked refraction of the penis which Chinese believe will vanish completely into the abdomen if unchecked, killing the victim.

All over the island desperate men, beset by a sudden shrinking feeling, have abruptly exposed and seized their retiring natures, and then held them captive with chopsticks, a loop of wire, a bit of string or their bare hands while anxious bystanders have run for the doctor or dialled 999. At least 600 sufferers have hurried to hospitals and private clinics.

“Koro” was first mentioned in traditional Chinese medical treatises 3,000 years ago and has passed down in warning tones from generation to generation ever since. Senior medical experts here call it the “cultural disease,” since it is an inbuilt Chinese phobia. But it has also been found among Malaysian peoples and Sudanese, and both Indians and Malays have been among its victims this week.

Known as “shookjong” by the local Chinese, “Koro” seems to come from the Malay for tortoise and has no scientific Latin name. Western medicine regards it as a purely psychological affliction, an hysterical condition producing a real or imagined contraction of the male organ. But since anxiety can cause this shrinking, and the shrinking in turn causes anxiety, Singapore has been caught on a rising spiral of alarm.

Chinese healers have been curing cases with massage and herbal medicines (in one instance a mixture of pepper and brandy, half to be drunk, half to be rubbed into the affected part). Western-trained doctors have mainly talked the patient out of his panic. . . .

Two successful press conferences by the Ministry of Culture have now cut the flow of “Koro” cases to a trickle. But although the people of Singapore were told that the shrinkage was a harmless phenomenon and that pig vaccine and pork had nothing to do with it, many still clung to their old-fashioned fallacies. Slaughter in the abattoirs fell from about 1,300 pigs a day to 100. The pig trade is now very slowly reviving.