Looking Through Very Thai
ART4D HAD A CHANCE TO SIT DOWN WITH PHILIP CORNWEL-SMITH, THE AUTHOR OF BOTH THE EDITIONS OF VERY THAI THAT WAS RELEASED RESPECTIVELY IN 2005 AND 2013
INTERVIEW BY PIYAPONG BHUMICHITRA / KANOKWAN TRAKULYINGCHAROEN / PAPHOP KERDSUP
PORTRAIT & MAIN IMAGE: KETSIREE WONGWAN
PHOTOS: PHILIP CORNWEL-SMITH
Since the first edition of Very Thai was published in 2005, the book has become influential to a great number of people in the design industry. Perspectives have been broadened as many take a different look at everyday objects in the city they live in. The mundaneness has been given new values. But in an even bigger picture, the term ‘Very Thai’ has become a description that people use to express quintessential Thai characteristics of an objects, place or to define certain behaviors. To us.’very Thai’ is like a ‘grey area’, it doesn’t always denote the notion of ‘greatness’ conventionally defined by the state. At the same time, it doesn’t necessarily possess any meanings that are entirely ‘negative’. art4d had a chance to sit down with Philip Cornwel-Smith, the author of both the editions of Very Thai that was released respectively in 2005 and 2013. We were interested in what he had witnessed throughout his 25 years of living in Thailand. Our conversation jumps from a recollection of Bangkok before the birth of Very Thai, to his observations on ‘Thainess all the way to the ‘self’ of the city such as Bangkok. Cornwel-Smith affirmatively states that even after all these years, he doesn’t consider himself Thai and still intends to maintain distance between Thai society and himself to preserve his view as an outside observer. art4d: Back to the beginning of the project, how did you come up with the idea of Very Thai? Philip Cornwel-Smith: It goes back a long way. I’ve been writing guidebooks since I was living in London in the 1980s. I worked for Time Out on that magazine’s very first London guidebook. Time Out guides were unusual, because they were guidebooks of the popular culture of that city. When I came to Thailand, I was offered the job to set up Bangkok’s first city-listings magazine Bangkok Metro. That was in March 1994, exactly 25 years ago. It’s quite a thing, living 25 years in one place. When I came to Thailand, I had no expectations of living here. But from the very first moment in Bangkok, my job has been to look closely at the popular culture. Then, after Metro, I went back to work with Time Out, writing their guidebook to Bangkok. That also looked at the pop culture, from the perspective of it being something tourists would come here to see. So, I’ve been looking at something that hadn’t been considered as ‘culture’ in Thai terms. To many visitors, frankly, the popular culture is more interesting than the high culture. That’s awkward for Thai people to hear, but it is very often true. Something foreigners really like about Thailand is this kind of very flexible, good humoured, fun, informal culture. The friendly manner of it all. You don’t have to dress up for it. art4d: Can you elaborate the differences between the first edition and the second edition of Very Thai?
PCS: Very Thai is about popular culture, which reflects popular taste, and taste keeps changing. So, the book has to be realistic, and keeps evolving. The second edition came out several years after the first. I thought to myself, enough changes have happened that I wanted to do a new version. Also, there wasn’t really a conclusion to the first edition. The second edition has got 4 additional chapters, and they give a round-up of what Very Thai is really about, and the book’s effect on the culture itself.
Almost every chapter has parts rewritten or added, and certain pictures had to be updated. One of those extra chapters talks generally about what had happened since the first edition. The big protest movements hadn’t started yet, and those changed a lot about the way the country sees itself. Also, the digital devices had been minor before Very Thai first came out, but now they’re essential to everything.
Another chapter dealt with ‘vernacular design.’ That’s the everyday informal furniture, and improvised solutions to technical problems. On the street, you see an awful lot of things that are handmade, using all kinds of spare materials, found objects, whether it’s a parking barrier or bench, or some device to put the queue numbers for the motorcycle taxis. Each one is unique and often uses ingenuity in a witty way. It’s great being able to find handmade quality that you don’t get in many other world cities. The chapter called ‘Thai Thai’ covered how popular culture has slowly become a recognised part of mainstream Thainess. Often I see Thais adopting the term ‘Very Thai’ as a label for the kind of messy stuff covered in the book. I suppose Very Thai became used a description, like a genre, because it’s not the same as a traditional Thainess. The book was deliberately not about traditional culture. I wanted to showcase the ordinary stuff of Thai life, mainly urban, which is a hybrid of modernity and tradition. After a few years, the book itself became an influence. A lot of designers and event organisers use it as a sourcebook. Students study it in universities. At the design fair I met several designers who said that pieces of their collections were inspired by ideas in the book. A few artists have even used the book as an exhibit in exhibitions. This was sometimes done without my knowledge I only found out later that they had turned the book into an artefact. The last chapter was not written by me. It’s an Afterword by Pracha Suweeranont, a design expert who came from an advertising background. He was able to talk in a way I can’t about the effect the book had on the creative culture within Bangkok, how other people were using and seeing the book. So it’s a feedback loop; the book has gone back to the culture. art4d: How has your perspective changed from the first edition to now? PCS: When I did Very Thai, Bangkok was in an optimistic mood. Lots of thing were suddenly going right. There was a huge surge of creativity. personally think the biggest thing that happened in Thailand really was the 1997 crash. That’s the most important moment, because the boom before that was destroying so many traditional things. When the crash happened, it was like an artificial pause. It had to stop. The country couldn’t afford all these imports; they had to look inside, to the resources within the country. Many unemployed architects, in particular, went to apply their skills to design to make their own businesses. Instead of working for condominium companies, they would create products themselves. This was basically the birth of the Thai design industry. Logistically, it went from a small to a very big, inspiring scene. Lots of fields changed at that time. That’s when herbalism, which had been declining during the boom years, with the promotion of western medicine and the forests disappearing. However, suddenly, a new spa industry came up, and proved that Thai herbalism is an asset. It clearly reversed the decline. Very Thai reflected that period of optimism, with a very upbeat feel to the book. It had something to do with what was in the air at the time, before the big political division. Thailand has since become noticeably less happy. It’s a very different perspective these days. So, it became more delicate to do an update. Some general observations of popular culture topics suddenly became more difficult to talk about, like the streetlife, which now has a political flavour to it. Surprisingly, the book seemed to appeal to both the red and yellow sides, if for different reasons. There was a focus on ordinary people, and the recognition of everyday things as culture. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of nostalgia for its simplicity and charm.
When Very Thai was written, I had to draw a line on what to include. I decided that there shouldn’t be anything that’s purely traditional, and nothing that was purely modern. Everything in Very Thai had to be a hybrid. Either it’s something indigenous that gets modernised, or it’s something from outside that comes in and gets ‘Thai-fied’. Most of the content originated between the Second World War to around 2000. That was the period of making hybrids. I think nostalgic people identify the things in this book with a more innocent early period in Thailand’s development. Maybe those were better years. It is very gratifying that people can see different angles to the book. I aimed to be neutral and worried in the beginning whether I might offend people, but it didn’t occur. The reaction seems to be happy that these bits of their daily lives are being celebrated by a foreigner.
Since the second edition, there have been more changes. I think the book maybe due for an update in coming years. Some topics just no longer exist in the same way, like the comedy cafes. They were a big scene back then, but maybe I need to focus on newer forms of humour, since satire is on television now. Those comedy cafes shifted into the TV variety format and comedy films as well.art4d: How about ‘Song for Life’. Now it’s gone, right? PCS: Not quite gone. It became more obvious that it’s a generational thing. ‘October People’ are now reaching retirement age and aren’t going out as much. Well, I have to wonder, should there be a section in the book of things that have gone into the past? You know, when I launched this book in London, somebody said ‘I hope you’re collecting all this stuff, because it’s going to disappear!’ It’s popular culture, it’s popular taste. It’s going to really change. But also, what people notice less is how traditional culture itself evolves. Some like to think of tradition as static, but of course it’s not. A lot of what is talked about as being officially traditional is actually one stage frozen in time. In reality, tradition was changing before it froze, and has been changing ever since too. For me, tradition adheres to the Buddhist principle rule: everything changes. art4d: Do you plan to do a third edition in the year to come? PCS: Oh, l’ll probably need to do one, but not quite yet. It must be when Thailand is a little bit clearer. The dust hasn’t settled yet. I did a second edition in 2012, after the dust in 2010 has settled. Now it’s all up in the air again. art4d: Can you talk about the projects or current research you’ve been working on? PCS: I’ve been working for several years on a new book, which is about Bangkok. Very specifically Bangkok, as opposed to Thailand. It’s not the same thing. I’m asking questions like: what is Bangkokness? In contrast to Thainess. I’m looking deeply into this difference in various dimensions-and that’s hard to wrap one’s head around, Another reason it takes a long time is that the situation has been so unstable, it’s difficult to know which direction it’s going. art4d: Do you have any example between the Bangkokness and the Thainess? PCS: Well, you might have to read the book to find out. (Laughs.) It’s called Very Bangkok. With Very Thai I could pick another 65 topics, and it could still feel similar, but with Bangkok, there are some topics I must cover. I look a lot at the way the city’s built, how people get around it. It’s thematic, and not really by genre or area. It’s not a guidebook. It’s really about why Bangkok is the way it is.
Read the full interview in art4d No.266 ‘Urban reflections’
Looking Through Very Thai
Art4D magazine interview supplement explains beyond the book.
An interview Philip Cornwel-Smith did with the architecture and design magazine Art4D on his 25th anniversary in Bangkok they turned into a free 32-page colour booklet! In both English and Thai, it goes into depth about the book and its effects, and probes his thoughts about Bangkok city for their issue theme of ‘Urban Reflections.’ It is an experimental new format for Art 4D, so thanks to the Art4D team for your generosity. It was great working with you. #verythai #verybangkok
For the full interview in English and Thai, please go to:
All pictures courtesy Art4D
A lot has happened in Thailand since the 2nd edition of Very Thai was launched. King Bhumbol passed away on 13 October 2016, beginning the reign of King Vachiralongkorn. The Bangkok Shutdown protests, the coup of 2014 and the subsequent junta regime have changed many things about the country’s popular culture, especially in the capital.
In particular the junta and BMA have targeted the informal economy, evicting communities, closing famous markets, banishing streetfood and vendors from most of downtown, reorganising motorcycle taxis and car taxis, buses, boats and other streetlife. They have also affected nightlife, media, entertainments, and the river, among many other things. Meanwhile, movements like new curated markets have made a big splash. In addition, the world has shifted ever more into the digital realm, with apps becoming a major feature of Bangkok life.
This update has kept the structure of the book the same, but affected most chapters in some way.
Podcast about Very Thai
‘Very Thai’ continues to spark media coverage. The latest is a podcast on TalkTravelAsia. The podcast is an interview with author Philip Cornwel-Smith by journalist Trevor Ranges and Scott Coates, who was co-founder of the bespoke travel agency Smiling Albino.
The podcast is available through the following channels:
TalkTravelAsia website: http://talktravelasia.com/2015/07/15/episode-28-very-thailand-with-philip-cornwel-smith/
author of Lost Japan & Bangkok Found
This is the book I wish I’d had when I first came to Thailand. A hundred things which had intrigued me for decades became clear on reading it. Such as where the statue of the beckoning lady came from, or why the alphabet always appears with pictures. Another hundred things, to my embarrassment, I had hardly even noticed, but these turned out to be among the most interesting. Such as the little pink napkins set out on café tables, or the organisation of motorcycle boys at the mouths of soi.
Thailand seems an informal, free-wheeling place, even at times chaotic. But you do come to realise that there’s an internal logic and symbolism invisibly ordering everything. One of my Ten Laws of Thai life is: “There is always a Thai way to do it.” Somewhere, inside an item of molded plastic, or submerged in the glossy pages of a hi-so magazine, the inner structure is there to be found.
This book begins to get at that inner structure, at deeply ingrained attitudes towards life. In the popular culture, these are embellished with fantasy, redesigned for convenience, and finished off with a feeling of sanuk. Thus Hindu goddesses end up as beauty queens, court etiquette asserts itself at the whisky serving table, boat prows transform into the painted bonnets of trucks, and the sparkle of temple walls, in the form of electric light bulbs, drapes itself over trees and avenues.
I feel like a godfather to this book. I was there when many of the photos were taken, edited the text, and saw the book grow and transform. Philip and John, in their separate ways, both began collecting photographs and ideas years before the idea of the book arose. In his photos, John has a knack of capturing Thai things as we encounter them, on the street. With Philip, what struck me was his incredible curiosity and persistence. We would be speeding along a highway and he would suddenly insist that the car stop – so that he could investigate and photograph a roadside shack where they made trash bins out of used tyres.
Philip would grill an expert for hours about what society women’s hairdos had to do with 19th century court fashion. If he heard about a temple fair, or a medium’s convention, or a comedy hall, or a luuk thung concert – Philip was off to see it.
Only someone with great curiosity – and energy to match – could have written this book. In the process, Philip ended up taking an entirely new approach to Thai pop culture. My mathematics teacher in high school used to jump on the table and shout at us: “The secret of life is to look deeply into simple things!” This is what Philip has done. Very Thai looks at the simple things of daily life that Thais and foreigners usually pass by, but in these very details lie the mystery and magic of what it is to be Thai.
The chapters link the past to the present, and Thailand to the outside world. They hint at delicate connections between the zany and wonderful, and often beautiful forms that Thai pop takes. Unlike most writing about Thai culture, it’s not a book about the past, but a book about now. At the same time, Very Thai is a precious documentary of many customs that are dying away, or transmuting as Thailand loses a bit of its ‘Thainess’ and blends into world mass culture. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time.
A book seemingly about trivia and trifles, Very Thai is about Thailand’s very soul. As such it has a truly transformative power. I know that I can never look the same way again at a motorcycle taxi boy’s jacket, a potted plant, fairy lights, a little pink napkin, a blue pipe, or the number nine.