A Very Thai live event in Bangkok’s ‘new’ old town.
by Philip Cornwel-Smith
Bangkok experienced a new kind of festival over the middle weekend of February – an “ideas festival”. BangkokEdge combined diverse threads into an unusual mix: literary talks, city forums, lifestyle workshops, outdoor films, food trucks and big-name Thai singers. In this downcast period, thousands of Bangkokians relished the intelligent entertainment and cultural sophistication in a scene dominated by lowbrow commercial pop. It was such a success that BangkokEdge 2 is being planned for next year.
The festival’s name reflects its progressive tone. The talks had real substance, with edge. Hyeonseo Lee relived her escape from North Korea. Jung Chang spoke about the bans on her memoir Wild Swans and biography of Mao. Duangrit Bunnag’s provocative vision for a creative city, Bangkok Manifesto, drew cheers from a hall packed with young Thais. Panels discussed the threats to rivers and communities, the geo-poltitics of the new Asia, changes in Burma, and whether Bangkok really is a gay paradise or not.
Duangrit Bunnag announcing his ‘Bangkok Manifesto’ at Bangkok Edge
There was a focus on contemporary culture too. Edge is located is in the historic old city, on a riverside that is reviving into a creative district. The bands (headlined by Hugo, Palmy, Ornaree, Lek Greasy Cafe) were indy. We got to hear Kevin Kwan discuss his hi-so hit Crazy Rich Asians; thriller novelists John Burdett and Christopher Moore debate the rise of Bangkok Noir; and Veraporn Nitiprapha dissect her SEAWrite-winning novel ‘Blind Earthworm in a Labyrinth’.
A panel called ‘Bangkok’s Leading Edge’ explored Thai subcultures with three leading Thai creatives [disclosure: I was moderator]. Graffiti artist Alex Face spoke on street art, director Kongdej Jaturanrasmee on indie films, and nightlife impresario Pongsuang ‘Note’ Kunprasop on the rise of Thai fashion sense as seen from the DJ booth at his Dudesweet party nights.
Alex Face describing his graffiti with film director Kongdej Jaturanrasmee and Dudesweet party organiser Pongsuang ‘Note’ Kunprasop, moderated by Philip Cornwel-Smith
The festival founder, Mom Ratchawang Narisa Chakrabongse, comes from a literary background, as the publisher of River Books. She wanted to launch a writers festival in Bangkok, but the format hasn’t taken off here, despite a couple of low-key attempts like two WordPlay festivals at the Neilson Hays Library. The secret to BangkokEdge is that she conceived it not as “literary” but as an “ideas festival”.
Ideas do matter in Thai society, but it has traditionally been an oral culture, less focused on the written word. Even in the modern era that remains largely true. Historically, Thai books tended to be manuals: how-to guides in ritual, medical, farming, or some other practical need. Manuals still rule Bangkok bookshelves today, whether business, education, language, cookery, decor or guidebooks. The other historical format was graphic. The murals, banners and illustrated folding books of scripture and epic poems were essentially panel cartoons – and illustration still flourishes in comics, travelogues, cute indy pocketbooks and social media.
The festival format was also styled to appeal to Thai ways. “We staged Bangkok Edge as a ‘contemporary temple fair’,” says Narisa. “Many things are going on at the same time, so people can browse around and choose what appeals to them. Some may go for the talk, others for the music, or the films, or for the food. We have lots of things to nourish different interests.”
Veterans of film, arts and literary festivals are familiar with the fact that you can’t see all the talks, workshops, and other events. This was frustrating to some, but is unavoidable if a festival is to have diversity and buzz. Most of the Thai language programs were strung in a series at one venue. In the end, several sessions ended up bilingual. No matter: the talks and concerts have been uploaded to YouTube.
Among workshops on book design with Xavier Comas and crowdfunding with Jay Montonn, were cooking demonstrations. Chef Bo of Bo.lan and Err explained the essentials of Thai curry paste, while Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne, authors of ‘The Burma Cookbook’, demonstrated piquant recipes from Myanmar.
In between talks and workshops, festival-goers could mill around the site and grab lunch, drinks or snacks from the many food trucks and vendor carts set up along Maharat Road and in the MuseumSiam grounds. There were also stalls selling books, clothing, design items and ecological products in the vein of Bangkok’s pop-up market phenomenon.
A “chill pass” (B500 for the weekend) gave access to relax in the riverside grounds and beer garden of Chakrabongse Palace, with tours to the house being a hot ticket. To mark the fact that Saturday was Valentines Day, a live chat session on the music stage covered stories about how couples met, hosted by Hana Tassanawalai, wife of Hugo Chakrabongse.
The organisers had expected a few thousand visitors, figuring it was an untested concept, located in the old town, and would appeal to niche groups. The response was astonishing. The first day 17,000 people turned up, plus 12,000 on the Sunday. Evidently Bangkok relished having such an event.
“I just love that there’s a festival specially about my own city,” said Somporn, 27, who attended sessions on gentrification and about the river. Many gave feedback that they were especially pleased to have a festival about their city, where they could hear independent experts talk about issues that matter to them, and have the chance to question the speakers.
This runaway success encouraged the organisers to plan BangkokEdge2 on 4-5 February 2017. It will be held at the same venues, and with even more attractions planned for the weekend. Like its logo bridging Bangkok’s old and new skylines, the festival straddled the tensions between traditional and contemporary. Now with its own dedicated annual festival, Bangkok has another way to keep its edge.
This article was first posted in Bangkok 101 magazine’s website.
Thailand’s first ‘Ideas Festival’, Bangkok Edge, will feature talks, workshops, music, film, tours and an exhibition, along with food and other entertainment on Feb 13-14, 2016.
On Feb 14 at 1-2pm, Very Thai author Philip Cornwel-Smith will host one of the panel discussions, ‘Where is Bangkok’s Leading Edge‘, with three Thai figures who are moving the culture forward. the talk will be at the Rachini School venue in the Tha Tien festival enclave.
Philip will look at how Thai trends emerge, become hip and then get accepted into the mainstream.
Pongsuang ‘Note’ Kunprasop the founder of Dudesweet nightlife theme party phenomenon will discuss changing fashion in the context of music.
Kongdej Jaturanrassmee, the film director of Tang Wong and Snap, among other acclaimed films, will look at the situation of art film in Thailand.
Alex Face, one of Thailand’s most prominent graffiti artists, gives his take on creating artistic space in public view.
Here is the full schedule of Bangkok Edge, Thailand’s first Ideas Festival.
Among all the talks and events, look out for Very Thai author Philip Cornwel-Smith, who will head a panel on the ‘leading edge’ of Bangkok’s popular culture on Sunday Feb 14 at 1-pm.
For details see:
Embracing Thai Popular Culture as Heritage
National Museum Volunteers Lecture series talk by Philip Cornwel-Smith about how popular culture artefacts have eventually come to be displayed, exhibited and treated as a serious aspect of Thai culture.
At the National Museum on Thursday morning of Nov 26, 2016, following a talk by Steve Van Beek on Thailand’s water culture.
‘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/
Talk about Thai beliefs in Hindu gods and the spirit world at Gaysorn, in a preview of the TBEX Asia Travel Bloggers Conference.
An advance party of travel bloggers from the US did a preview trip to Bangkok on Feb 22, 2015. The city will host the first Asian edition of the world’s biggest travel blogging conference, TBEX Asia on October 15-18, 2015. Philip gave a talk to the bloggers about the famous Hindu shrines located around the Ratchaprasong Intersection where Gaysorn is located. The bloggers later visited the shrines, now with some background knowledge to understand the dynamics of the shrines, which are an internationally-famous draw for tourists, especially Asians.
Philip will give further talks as part of the TBEX Asia conference.
Philip Cornwel-Smith gave a talk to the IDEA Group, an informal gathering of expatriates who regularly meet to discuss topics about Thailand with a guest speaker. Philip spoke on the topic ‘Very Thai, Very Volatile: 20 years of change in Popular Culture’.
Talk at Bangkok University’s International College on 5 Nov 2014, 12.30-2pm
Thailand’s ‘indy’ subculture now spans two decades. Its impact on film, music, fashion, media and the arts have been tracked throughout by writer/editor Philip Cornwel-Smith, in Bangkok Metro Magazine, Time Out Bangkok guidebook and his book Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture. The ‘From T-Pop to Indy’ chapter from Very Thai was reproduced in a book by MTV about Cool Asia; the chapter’s revision in Very Thai’s 2nd edition shows how indy has changed over time. In this talk, Philip addresses the status of Thai indy as a cultural movement, and questions whether it has declined or matured.
The talk is in Lecture Theatre 762, Top floor of building 7 above BUG (Bkk Uni Gallery), reached by the entrance off the intersection of Kluaynamthai with Rama IV Road.
It’s open to the public but within a fixed student time slot, so it’ll start promptly. See you indie fans there!
Very Thai Thai: How Pop Became Heritage
Philip Cornwel-Smith will speak at the Creative Bangkok international symposium on October 15.
His talk will look at how streetlife, everyday pop and even some cultural taboos have gone mainstream and even become regarded as heritage. The Creative Bangkok event runs Oct 12-17 with 50 talks, 10 workshops, 6 creative team challenges, and related events. Philip will speak on Oct 15, the day focusing on Creativity in Tourism and Heritage. So the talk will be held at MuseumSiam in the old town at 1.30pm.
Other speakers are from Google, Nasa, Walt Disney, Le Cordon Bleu, duPont, Cirque du Soleil and dozens of other Thai and international companies and organisations.
20 Years of Change in Popular Culture
Illustrated talk by Philip Cornwel-Smith,
author of Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture
at Bar Luna, below Casa Luna, Jalan Raya Ubud, Ubud, Bali +62-361-971 605
29 September, 7.30pm-9pm, free entry
Bangkok-based British writer Philip Cornwel-Smith will give an illustrated talk about the dramatic transformations in Thailand he has witnessed as author/editor of Bangkok Metro magazine, Time Out Bangkok guidebook, and the influential bestselling book Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture (www.verythai.com). Instead of the sensational oriental clichés, he views Thai ways through the lens of its hybrid pop, social tensions and quirky urban culture. There’ll be time at the end to discuss how Thailand’s transformation compares to Bali.
Recent upheavals in Thailand have brought world attention to new stories as ordinary people express themselves and as Bangkok went chic and became the most visited city on the planet. The tropical rural idyll has urbanized and globalised, and taboo things gone mainstream, from yaa dong tonic whisky to magical tattoos. Yet everyday life in Thailand continues to beguile with its wacky hybrids, sense of fun, and unexpected quirks.
A resident of 20-years, Philip Cornwel-Smith has had an insider vantage point to see these changes. His book Very Thai, now in an updated and expanded 2nd edition, has become to the go-to reference and style guide on Thai popular culture.
Very Thai is published by River Books. Copies will be on sale, which Philip can sign.
verythai.com has full details and streams social media by followers of the book using #verythai on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram.
Philip can be contacted via verythai.com , phone +62-821-4444 2022