Bangkok Recorder

Recorder Read: ‘Very Thai – Everyday Popular Culture’

by Laurie Osborne

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Forget Lonely Planet, Very Thai – Everyday Popular Culture takes readers on a far more in-depth foray into Thai culture, one you won’t see on the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s website.

This Technicolored book is packed with explanations of modern-day phenomena, ranging from the everyday to the cosmic. For foreigners, it answers a thousand puzzling curiosities, from why tangled webs of electrical wire are proudly displayed as symbols of modernity to how whisky tables reinforce social hierarchy. Thai people themselves seem to have a more bemused attitude to Very Thai, delighted that such recognizable objects are the subject of a best-seller.

Before casting cynicism over the English author of a book called Very Thai, consider the detached and non-judgmental approach the writer, Philip Cornwel-Smith, has adopted in presenting popular Thai culture. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see value in the simple things. 

What better perspective than a 12-year resident of Bangkok and founding editor of Metro magazine? We sat down with the British-born Philip to discuss sex, tattoos and rock ‘n roll… 

BR: Mercifully, you seem to steer clear of hackneyed explorations into the Thai sex industry, was that a conscious decision?
P: The point was to focus on stuff that people hadn’t looked at it… Nothing has been more exhaustively and exhaustingly covered than the sex industry here. I don’t pretend it’s not there… but I talk about it in a very matter-of-fact way. Nothing in this book is about sensationalism. I‘m absolutely certain that if I had written about it as a chapter heading, there’d all kinds of hysterical, sensationalist writing all about that chapter and ignoring the rest of it. And with Bangkok Inside Out, that’s exactly what happened. There’s a lot in Bangkok Inside Out that’s worth looking at, but the publicity was all about when it tackled Patpong… it was very unfortunate. I don’t think that book merited banning.

BR: Yes, your book seems to be a winner among Thais and farang, how did you manage to keep this book on the shelves here? 

P: I had [the book] rigorously checked. It was published by a Thai publisher and any of the traditional subjects went through several traditional experts from universities. Also, it was edited by Alex Kerr, who is internationally recognised as an expert on South East Asian culture… There were a lot of filters to stop making any crass errors. 

It’s a question of approach… I was really aware when I was writing this book that I just have to present things in a way that was respectful, and not looking down, ever… There’s no excuse for condescension, there never is. People don’t like condescending people, and they don’t like condescending writing. All the subject matters can all be dealt with by looking horizontally… and treating it with its own respect and value.

Two big influences on my writing was Alex Kerr, who has written very important books about Japan, and… another writer on Japan called Donald Ritchie. He’s writing about another culture that’s hugely sensitive about face… He finds a way to say absolutely everything and yet not cross any taboo boundaries… You just make it clear what happens, but you don’t pass judgment. He allows you to see everything that happens, even if he doesn’t describe it all, it’s very clever. He’s lionized for that. It was very useful to have those models of how to write about a culture like this, and have it be accepted by the people themselves.

BR: Have there been any criticisms of the book? 

P: One criticism of the book was that it could have had more ordinary voices… But, you know, ordinary voices aren’t always reflective and the book is a reflective book. But that might change more now that popular culture is reflecting stuff much more strongly. 

The book ends not on a conclusion, but like a stepping off point. Because the indie generation was the first to really reflect on… culture. It’s like a reflective ending. These are people who are processing all the stuff earlier in the book into modern culture.

There’s been an interesting retro thing ever since the [1997 economic] crash. Before everything [Thais] wanted was modern, new and imported. In the crash, that was less affordable, so Thais fell back on things they already have… So there was a new market in retro things.

At the same time the indie revolution happened, there was a new consciousness among young people that was looking at street things, everyday things… In the last few years, popular culture suddenly became the back drop for fashion shoots, decor, articles in magazines… Videos, TV programs were much more delighting in things like temple fairs, street themes and popular culture objects… Graphic design radically changed, and suddenly it became interested in street graphics.

The biggest problem that Thai design, fashion, music has is that so much of it in the past has been too close to what the West produced. Now, it’s got a Thainess that’s not necessarily tradition and people love it.
BR: Many of our readers scorn the current invasion of hip hop, what’s your take on the scene here? 

P: Well, things go in phases and hip hop is the pop music [of] the world… Thais tend to back a winner. It’s a culture that’s very heavily based around luck. They generally want to be conciliators, they’re not huge risk-takers. They don’t want to make a big mistake and lose face, so they go along with the mainstream generally. I think they like [hip hop], but they’re not particularly attached to it.

What’s interesting is that Dude/sweet is the front, leading wave. Dude/sweet music is edgy and new here. It’s a sort of mix eighties, nineties, maudlin. I’ve just come back from New York, and that sort of music is department store music. It’s in every bar, in every lift. That’s not to put down Dude/Sweet, I love it… Dude/Sweet was early, even for the West. But what’s avant-garde and new here on the leading edge is actually already mainstream music in America and in London.
BR: Six years in the making, where did you find most of your material? 

P: Frankly, the best sources were the Bangkok Post and the Nation, they are the best archives of popular culture… better than academic coverage. A lot of these subjects are ones that are not necessarily considered culture, but they are the sort of things newspapers comment on.
BR: What was the most fascinating part of researching Very Thai? 

P: I love Thai festivals. Thai festivals are like a storehouse for lots of things that happen in other parts of the culture… things on the street, …all of the entertainment,… all the rituals. Also I think in the Thai psyche, they are most expressive in festival times. Thais are generally more reserved as people. They let go a bit more… and that’s partly the point of Thai festivals… So, things like flirting, discouraged socially, were allowed at festivals so that courting could take place and people could have fun, people would get to know one another and then suddenly when it’s all quiet again, their circle’s expanded a bit and they know a bit more about other people. 

It’s quite curious when now in modern day times, you get prudish middle-class people saying, “Oo, all this flirting at Songkran is all improper.” When, in fact in the past, it was the designated time when you could flirt.
The tattoo festival was a very strong experience because I ended up being stampeded on… The entire crowd, hundreds and hundreds of people, converged on the stage… And then everyone was sprayed with holy water from a power hose! 

I found myself sitting among the congregation. All the journalists were back behind the military line because these tattooed people get possessed by the spirits of the tattoo and they charge the stage… There were lots of people whose eyes were rolling to the back of their heads, they were entranced, they were having fits. Quite a few people would be vomiting because they were possessed. It’s a bit disturbing… It might be auto-suggestion, it might be crowd phenomena, but there’s something else as well. They believe it so there’s a power.

BR: Tell us about your new book? 

P: Well, popular culture is so vast a subject I couldn’t cover it all in one book. I very early realised I had to cut certain things out of Very Thai. I applied the criteria for Very Thai that it would be only things that were everyday… The next book is a companion book. Same format but different layout, but it will be about modern pop culture. So, it will be the arts, entertainment, design that are consciously being created. Very Thai was all about not so unconscious, it’s stuff you’re so familiar you don’t really think about. The next book about is about are deliberately created by Thais with the self-conscious view that this is their creativity. I expect I’ll end up being asked about [Very Thai] for years and years, I’ll never be able to get away from it [laughs].

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