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:
An interview with Very Thai author, Philip Cornwel-Smith, In Chiang Mai’s City Life magazine.
Exactly 25 years to the month since he first visited Chiang Mai, before settling in Bangkok, Philip was interviewed by City Life editor Pim Kemasinki, who did her first paid writing two decades ago for the magazine Philip was editing, Bangkok Metro.
“Thais are not allowed to have fun with traditions,” said Philip Cornwel-Smith, author of the wildly successful book on Thai popular culture, Very Thai, now in its 10th printing and second edition. “It is very difficult to go against the master template, so Thais have always got their novelty from bringing in things from the outside. Being very receptive to imports, Thais have fun with it. God forbid you have fun with traditions!’
Philip has a knack of saying something obvious, or seeing something interesting, that hadn’t been said nor seen before. Which is why his book, published in 2005 (and seen prominently displayed in every bookshop nationwide ever since), took the country by storm. Here was this Englishman showing us Thais an embarrassment of cultural riches that had previously gone unappreciated. It was discombobulating, inspiring, empowering and most of all sanuk.
Having studied word history at Sheffield University, where the focus was less on wars and nation building, and more on culture, invention, religion and other such factors that build and destroy nations, followed by years working for Time Out London, Philip had a solid background in looking at culture from different perspectives. Serendipitously, on a layover in Bangkok on the way back from Australia in 1994, he was asked to start Bangkok’s first city listings magazine, Bangkok Metro, which would a focus on popular culture.
“Within four days of being in Bangkok I found myself editor of a city mag which soon had 1,000 listings,” said Philip. “People were instantly shocked to learn of so much variety in the city. The transport problems in those days meant that it took two hours to travel from Ekamai to Lumpini, so most people didn’t venture far out of their five or six known areas. But when they saw in Metro how many things were going on, they began to venture further. The mag was all about pop culture. I was coming at it with outside eyes, but it didn’t take long to become a semi-insider. With my background, I had a view that popular culture is an attraction that people would travel for. Up to that point it wasn’t treated with the seriousness of formal culture; there was shame associated with street life that city-sophisticates were embarrassed by.”
As not just an observer, but an influencer of Bangkok’s pop culture, by the time Philip left Metro in 2002 he had begun to put down thoughts and ideas that would eventually come together in Very Thai.
“I’d become fascinated by then-obscure things such as the ecology of the streets,” Philip explained of how his book came about. “In Thailand so many things are to do with rice and monsoon cycles, and this explains so much about the people, especially the need for village communities to develop in a reciprocally helpful way. This value was brought to the streets of Bangkok with the mass migration of rural people into the city. The co-op ethic is vastly different from the formal bourgeois attitude of the urban people: open shop houses, street vendors looking after one another’s stalls and even kids, motorbike taxis being socially helpful by directing traffic, running after thieves and delivering packages. It is a reciprocal village value but in the big city, which gives Bangkok a warm charm you don’t get inside the malls.”
“I wrote the book thinking there would be a market amongst expats like me,” he continued. “But I was as surprised as anyone at the massive splash the book made. Immediately the biggest and most loyal fan base became the young Thai Indies in the creative industry. I have been told that the book was almost definitive for them; they had been aware of these things, but because pop culture wasn’t treated seriously, they weren’t legitimate topics to work with. Suddenly low culture was put into a high culture format — an illustrated hard cover book — it was like putting something lowly on a high-status plinth. It suddenly legitimised these things and opened them up for exploration.”
Very Thai asked questions and attempted to offer explanations for such random and obvious things as the Thai sniff-kiss, why Thais use those ubiquitous thin pink napkins, why motorbike taxis wear different coloured vests, and what’s up with all the neon lights?
“A lot of these things soon became cultural signifiers,” said Philip. “The idea that middle class Thais would go around taking photos of street vendor carts was absurd until the book came out. Today you have places like Plearnwan in Hua Hin which is a virtual theme park for such streetlife. What was interesting to me was that none of it was wholly traditional and none of it was modern. It was all hybrid. Look at the neo-classical architecture of shop houses, or the vehicles decked out in auspicious décor. Tuk tuks were originally Italian, then Japanese, but even though 34 countries around the world use the tuk tuk, they are very Thai. They used to have words such as Daihatsu on them, but after the 1997 crash they started having ‘Thailand’ emblazoned on the back with red, white and blue colours. If you really look at them, they are a short stubby vehicle, but with a real elegance, because they use ancient forms and lines of oxcarts and long tailed boats.
Thailand saw such great change between the end of the Second World War and the early 2000s. It wasn’t a slow cultural change; it was a deluge. This led to a lot of impromptu solutions to things. Especially with the low income people – they began to jury-rig things, and do a lot of improv. This led to a great amount of creativity. You can see this clearly when thinking of the Thai temple fairs. It is little known that they came about when Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, in the 1950s, promoted them as a way to bring modernity to rural villages. Technology, modern medicine, outdoor cinema propaganda, these were all introduced, as a national policy, through temple fairs. People would then localise them to their own tastes. I have noticed that there are a lot of taboos about updating traditions, but Thais have a natural sense of fun and creativity, so they played around with new and modern imports. It’s quite interesting to see how, whatever the authorities do, simply becomes less fun!”
From observing pop culture phenomena, Philip has just about turned into one himself, with fans of the book sometimes asking to take selfies with him. Very Thai has been subject of numerous artworks and exhibitions and Philip is a frequent guest lecturer at various universities. One designer wrote recently on Facebook, “The defining moments for me as a Thai designer, both in was the mid-2000s. were the discovery of the book Very Thai, and visiting the Isaan Retrospective exhibition at TCDC.”
Which brings us to why we have chosen now to interview Philip who, until the end of this month, will be co-curating a fascinating little exhibition at TCDC Chiang Mai called Invisible Things. Together with TCDC and the Goethe Institute Bangkok, Philip and exhibition designer Piboon Amornjiraporn put together a collection of 25 everyday items which ‘we take for granted and no longer perceive, but which in fact influence our consumer behaviour’, according to the exhibition’s booklet. The selection of Thai objects echo a collection of German objects on the other side of the room, curated by Martin Rendel, which are on a tour which started in China.
Displayed are packets of mama found in every single Thai household, the largely unnoticed dragon jars sitting in nearly every garden, the sin sai white strings used in a bewildering number of ways from house blessing ceremonies to greeting a guest, and the omnipresent fisherman pants which Philip describes as Thai to the core, “Many cultures have some kind of wrapping trousers,” explains Philip. “Yet it is known internationally as a Thai thing. I find it very Thai because it is extremely flexible and adaptable, infinitely expandable and practical. It represents Thainess internationally.”
“One classic example of an invisible thing is the red Fanta bottle. Interestingly Thais prefer drinking green Fanta, yet millions of red Fanta bottles are left open on alters, shrines and spirit houses nationwide. Next to flowers and incense they are probably the most common offering. There is no definitive explanation for this so I called my spirit medium friend — as you do in Thailand — and was told that the red represents blood which the low spirits, the demons, like. Other people say it’s simply because the bottles are sturdy and don’t blow over or that spirits want modern pop drinks too. Whatever the reason, they are found everywhere, even by the feet of the Yaksha giants at Suvarnaphumi Airport!”
Philip went on to offer a warning, however, that the era of localising imports into Thainess is nigh. “With modern communication you can get everything instantly. We are no longer a decade behind Milan in terms of fashion, because of YouTube. There is no delay in knowledge getting to Thailand. People want objects in their purest forms and they can both afford them and have them immediately — whether a Samsung tablet or a handbag. Every culture is a hybrid to some degree, but the whole world is facing unrelenting sameness. Because of the ability of digital technology, innovation isn’t happening as much in the physical form. It’s shifted into a different realm, one that’s not tactile. Whereas you used to improvise and create a hybrid, now you just get the thing you need to do the job. It’s samey everywhere. Invisible things are becoming visible.”
Invisible Things Exhibition at TCDC Chiang Mai Open 10.30am – 8pm Tel. 081 833 4566 Until the end of February
‘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:
A roundup of Bangkok’s art and creative scene, with one of the quotes from yours truly. Thanks for doing this David Fernández, we need more coverage for Bangkok’s arts to flourish. The article’s done for the Asia Europe Foundation, which could explain why the title sounds like bureaucratic filing system category: ‘By people / In cities: Bangkok | city profile’. File Bangkok under ‘Creative’.
Long-standing commentator on the Kingdom’s eccentricities discusses the second edition of his book.
By Brian Curtin
Which cultural idiosyncrasies stick when you visit a foreign country? And what value do you accord them? Slightly amusing or perhaps just annoying? Indicative of some deep-rooted essence of that culture or merely a weird aberration? A challenge to your own vocabulary or a means of extending it? And why do some idiosyncrasies persist while others disappear or transform?
Thailand has an abundance of cultural idiosyncrasies and Philip Cornwel-Smith, a dedicated follower of local mores, has been exploring such questions for nearly two decades. Philip was the original editor of the defunct and much missed Metro magazine and of Time Out Bangkok, and his Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture is a must-read for anyone hoping to unpick such local phenomena as sniff-kissing and the pervasive influence of “hi-so” communities for Thai social hierarchies.
Originally published in 2005, the book has been expanded into a second edition with four extra chapters, and much of the rewritten material addresses how social upheaval has affected daily life here. Please describe how your new chapters relate to major cultural and/or political shifts in Thailand since the first edition.
The period between the editions has seen unprecedented challenges to the exotic Thai cliche. The world now questions those smiles. One reason I wrote the book was to celebrate the non-exotic things that also shape Thai character.
I look at how the internet has gained a Thai flavour. Modernity and the consumer lifestyle used to be synonymous with Bangkok, but increasingly they apply to the urbanising provincial middle class, too. One thread in the book is to view social evolution through the tastes of each class as it came to prominence.
Politics inevitably impacts many topics, though often indirectly. The chapter on day colours [wearing clothes of a specific colour on a certain day of the week] was an obscure curiosity for most readers _ then, overnight, the yellowshirts made it topical. Motorcycle taxis went from a lowly street fixture to an icon of a rising class now courted by election posters. Looking at everyday phenomena reveals how this political division is not just about parties, protests and personalities, but the latest of many shifts in the history of Thainess.
You have called one new chapter “Vernacular design”.
One trait of Thai street-life are those ad hoc solutions to practical problems with found materials like old planks and bits of plastic. Middle-class people associated that with slums, but the trauma of the Great Flood of 2011 turned that ingenuity into a meme on Facebook and an exhibition at the Thailand Creative & Design Centre. It became respectable once residents of housing estates suddenly had to live like canal-side squatters. Now it’s a style that is being called “vernacular design”.
Please comment on the readers Very Thai has attracted and what feedback you’ve received about it.
I wrote the book to explain what isn’t explained to expats. But its most enthusiastic fans are young, indie Thais who are hungry for fresh ideas. It’s become a required book in universities so I have to satisfy academics, too.
Last year’s exhibition of Very Thai photos outside Zen [CentralWorld] gained it a mainstream audience, who see it more sentimentally as a record of retro things that are slowly fading. In one new chapter I discuss how Very Thai became a kind of handbook for a zeitgeist wave that has made popular culture an accepted aspect of Thainess labelled “Thai Thai”. The design guru Pracha Suveeranont has written an afterword [for the second edition] about the impact of the book on creative Thais. Popular culture is low-status, edgy and even taboo, so they find the book lends a kind of legitimacy. Also they use it as a style reference for all kinds of stuff _ advertising, design, event organising. Independent of me, the book has been an exhibit in several art shows and the subject of film, mime and theatre performances.
Please discuss any criticisms you have heard about Very Thai.
Older readers complained about the font size. So we increased it. There has been less criticism than expected about giving street-life a platform as culture. That was partly to do with timing, because society was just starting to accept street culture as a legit form of Thainess. Some nationalists claim that foreigners can’t understand Thainess, yet Buddhism insists that detachment is necessary to see things clearly. There’s a concept called emic and etic _ insider and outsider views. Each is valid, and I try to integrate both in an insider/outsider approach.
The appearance of Very Thai is very different to that of other books about Thailand on the shelves. Was that a conscious decision?
Most illustrated books on Thailand strive to be beautiful and so the scene is often set up or “prettied” beforehand. That’s part of myth-making about Thainess, so it creates expectations. Yet the photos in Very Thai deliberately show normal things as-found. That impromptu aesthetic has emerged internationally _ and the public connects with this book precisely because it rings true to their experience. One reader gave the book to a friend who had moved away as an album of the photos she didn’t think to take while living here. It’s about looking at familiar things with a new eye.
The new edition kept a similar look, because the cover’s become a bit of a brand, but over a third of the pictures are new to keep up with how fast Thai tastes change.
How does Very Thai relate to other English-language literature about Thailand?
Ever more books tackle the chaotic street-life, often through fiction by the likes of John Burdett or Lawrence Osborne. But too much writing about Thai ways has veered to Orientalist extremes, whether sensationalism about infamous scandals or the fawning exoticism found in tourist, sponsored or Establishment books. Actually there is an older literary genre of objective accounts by Chinese, French, British, American traders and adventurers. Thai literature tended not to dwell on “low” topics, and murals just depict; they don’t describe.
So much of what we know about past popular culture comes from foreign observations of the kind reprinted by [local publisher] White Lotus Press. So I aspire to that legacy of insider-outsider commentaries. I’m trying to write contemporary history, but it’ll be up to future readers to judge whether I caught the tenor of the times.
Escape the heat and noise of Bangkok with a trip around the city’s green hideaways, says Andrew Spooner
It’s early on a bright tropical Thai Sunday morning and I‘m standing at what many Thais consider to be the centre of Bangkok: Victory Monument. It is here – where a dramatic single-pronged monument rises out of the swirling cacophony of buses, tuk-tuks, mini-vans, noodle stalls and thousands of rushing Thais – that Bangkok reaches its fierce crescendo.
Even during the so-called winter season – which runs from now until March, with temperatures averaging 26C – Bangkok’s sensory overload of noise, rush and heat can be unbearable. Burning concrete, brain-melting humidity and the constant fumes of traffic coagulate into one long exhausting throb. So what do visitors do when the Thai capital overwhelms? Most take the easy way out, get back to their hotel rooms and switch on the air conditioning. (more…)
Philip Cornwel-Smith proposes a fresher, interesting view on the everyday complexities of life, and how Thailand is full of them
By Krittiya Wongtavavimarn, Photo by Yingyong Un-Anongrak
Philip Cornwel-Smith is obsessed with details. A man of boundless energy and great curiosity, the 43-year-old British is a meticulous, a perfectionist who is incredibly careful about his work, and his keen eyes always see things beyond the obvious – things that are very… very Thai.
While culture normally is a term associated with refined arts and national prestige, Cornwel-Smith looks for ordinary things representing hybrids between Thai tradition and modernity. The Bangkok-based writer took seven years gathering over a hundred casual, everyday expressions of Thainess, and presented them in a practical, easy to read and well-illustrated book of 60 chapters entitled Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture. (more…)
In the first of Travelhappy’s Thailand Writers series, Philip Cornwel-Smith, author of the bestselling Very Thai, a guide to understanding everyday street life in Thailand, describes why he loves the Land of Smiles
Time in Thailand
What brought you here?
A backpacker bored with touring, I studied meditation and massage before staying in Bangkok with an ex-Time Out pal. Within four days, I was hired as founding editor of Bangkok’s first city magazine, Metro. A typical Thai tale of reinvention.
What do you most love about the place?
Unpredictability. Flexibility. Vibrant streetlife. General pleasantness. Tolerant acceptance of human nature.
Where do you live in Thailand? Why did you choose to live there?
At a house opposite where I first stayed, in a close-knit central soi dubbed Sesame Street, though it can evoke Melrose Place.
What irks you?
Obstacles to people flourishing: impunity, censorship, monopolies, philistinism, the education system.
Thailand is the Land of Smiles. Discuss.
The plural doesn’t mean uniform happiness; there are different smiles for every emotion and motive. To learn Italian you begin with gestures; here you must learn how to smile.
Cultural recommendations (ie getting over culture shock)
Learn how to smile.
Explain the passion and idea behind your latest book in 100 words
Exoticised presentations of Thai culture ill-prepare visitors for reality. Thai streetlife fascinates, but goes mostly unexplained. In ‘Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture’ I identified patterns amid the chaos, investigating things like grooming and ghosts, blind bands and truck art, which intrigue outsiders, and which Thais often overlook as familiar or déclassé. Happily I hit a zeitgeist. Thais increasingly find inspiration from street culture as they develop a new pop aesthetic in movies, advertising, design. ‘Very Thai’ captures a transitional phase when traditions still affect how Thais express modernity. My next book spotlights the emergent creative culture.
Very Thai – Philip Cornwel-Smith
Favourite Thai getaway
Koh Samet, and festivals in Isan or Lanna.
Favourite Thai meal
Spiced herbal soups like tom yum or tom khlong, crab fried rice, stir-fried bitter gourd vines, grilled squid with seafood sauce, char-grilled pork dipped in jaew, and any laab with aromatic leaves.
Community events unpublicised in English. Serendipity or sleuthing required.
Books published Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture (2005). Time Out Bangkok guidebook (3 edns).