Isaan’s pop-folk music has broken the barriers of class, language and ethnicity to become a staple of Bangkok arty parties and a ‘discovery’ on the international World Music scene.
I cover the cultural shift of morlam in Very Thai. Meanwhile, this infectiously rhythmic regional music has become the subject of a major new exhibition at the Jim Thompson Art Centre in Bangkok.
Here’s a major article about the exhibition in the Bangkok Post:
Morlam’s Mass Movement
Posted in: Blog,
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.
Posted in: Reviews,
With anger further fouling the city air and the streets a din of roars and whistles, this might not be the best time to be exploring the unknown alleys of Bangkok. But two terrific books that have just come out will have you dodging the slings and arrows of our unfortunate era to track down the history already written – as opposed to the kind that’s being written as you read this.
Kenneth Barrett’s “22 Walks in Bangkok” ranks as one of the most thorough guides yet to the city’s historically important areas – and the newly refurbished “Very Thai” can be its ideal companion in your travelling pack. The updated and extended second edition of Philip Cornwel-Smith’s popular and influential 2004 original is just as much a must-have resource, thanks to his encyclopaedic knowledge and charming explanations about all the sights and experiences you encounter in Thailand. Again, it’s replete with hundreds of great photos by John Goss, Cornwel-Smith and others.
Of course the current political demonstrations – anti-government and pro – have never come close to blanketing the metropolis. Barrett touches the fringes of a couple of hot spots, and both books allude in passing to Thaksin Shinawatra and his legacy, but there are still plenty of places free of discontent where you can poke around for evidence of Teochew civilisation (see Barrett) and perhaps a plastic bag of refreshing flavoured sugar-water with shaved ice (see Cornwel-Smith).
In fact the first few of the 22 Walks ramble through Thonburi, remote and relatively peaceful on the other side of the big water.
Barrett’s journey begins when Thonburi was anything but peaceful. Following the downfall of Ayutthaya’s King Narai in 1688, Siamese cannonballs hurled across the river to demolish the French fort he had allowed to be built in the swamp that grew up to be Bangkok. A century later Thonburi was Siam’s capital.
Three more centuries further on, you can still spot homes there that have four wooden pillars in the doorway – which can only be removed from the inside. That’s how the original Chinese immigrants “locked the door”, explains Barrett, a veteran journalist.
And completely hidden behind the Klong San District Office is a remnant of Pong Patchamit Fort, one of five that King Rama IV built to shield his capital from invaders. Still standing is a mast on which flags were once hoisted to indicate which trading vessels were present – and later to report the weather.
Not far away, down Soi Lat Ya 17, Barrett found a seven-metre-long stone sculpture of a Chinese boat called a yannawa perched among old timbered houses. With a bodhi tree as a mast, this is an ancient shrine recalling the arrival in Thailand of Buddhist monks from Japan and China.
One of the most intriguing of Bangkok’s many intriguing areas is Bang Krachao, the vast “pig’s stomach” of land around which the Chao Phraya River swirls, which continues to be a great green lung (to mix anatomical metaphors) despite covetous commercial intentions.
Barrett sets out from the Presbyterian Samray Church, a 1910 replacement for the 1862 original, chronicling the missionaries’ story as he goes, and then has a look for what’s left of venerable Chinese rice mills. He glimpses a gilded Captain Hook and David Beckham among the artwork at Wat Pariwat next to the Montien Riverside Hotel.
Just as interesting is the Mon community that since the fall of Ayutthaya has dominated this district, further down the Phra Pradaeng Peninsula. The Mon, fierce fighters in combat, came to man the forts that King Rama I built there.
To any Bangkok resident who’s never been there, it’s impossible to imagine, somewhere in among all this concrete, “a huge area of green countryside in which quiet villages snooze down peaceful lanes”. Barrett explores “orchards, jungle, mangrove swamps and hidden temples” – and with amusement comes across the more recently inaugurated Bang Nam Pheung Floating Market, a nod to tourists, but mainly Thai tourists.
“There is no police station. You will look hard to find an ATM … The modern city is only a ferryboat ride away, but there is no hurry to travel back across the water.”
In urban Thailand and in rural Thailand, you couldn’t have a better “dictionary” than “Very Thai”, and it’s easy to imagine Cornwel-Smith strolling alongside Barrett, quizzing the locals about what they’re up to. “I try to be the open-minded ‘flaneur’ – the wandering seeker of raw experience,” writes the chronically curious former editor of Bangkok Metro magazine.
“Very Thai” explains a great deal about amulets and magic tattoos, taxi altars, luk thung, beauty pageants, katoey life, ubiquitous uniforms, edible insects and the lore of the motorcycle-taxi stand. For farang, it’s magical in its own way – although, as Pracha Suveeranont, “an expert on visual culture”, points out in an afterword, the first edition of the book became a hit with Thais too, an aid in celebrating their culture for fun and profit.
But clearly it was badly in need of updating, Cornwel-Smith writes. Since 2004, Thai pop has “gone inter” and Apichatpong Weerasethakul triumphed at Cannes. Asean is about to blossom. We’ve got those plastic kitschy but undeniably purposeful hand-clappers and foot-clappers now (the whistles will have to wait for the next edition).
And virtually everyone in Thailand has “gone virtual”, not least the fashion-plate hero of Facebook, Mae Baan Mee Nuad (Housewife with a Moustache), who’s also featured here. The social media are rampant in Thailand. In 2012 there were more snapshots posted on Instagram from Suvarnabhumi Airport and Siam Paragon than from New York’s Times Square. “Digital media actually suit the Thai character,” the author says. “Local websites collide multiple diversions as discombobulating as their predecessor, the temple fair.”
Then, digging deeper, he adds, “The difference this new medium makes is that we can now see through the former taboos.” Cornwel-Smith displays a keen if subtle passion for the country’s politics, at least in the way it affects popular culture. In addressing the difficulties of nailing down the nature of Thainess, he says, “The recent politicisation of Thais at all social levels has made discussion more open, direct and heated. As censorship grows futile, we all now know so much more how this country works. The official version has lost its monopoly.”
In another informative chapter, on the rise of “Thai Thai” – which he calls “vernacular Thainess [with] a hint of both essence and exaggeration” – Cornwel-Smith tackles the vexing issue of Thai exceptionalism with his exquisite sense of balance. He cites the frequently heard insistence that foreigners can never fully understand Thai ways, and then demonstrates how “the accusation fires both ways”.
These two books serve to reassure readers, both Thai and farang, that there is nothing to fear, scorn or being ashamed about, in either stoic tradition – or in Bangkok’s immediate future.
Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture
By Philip Cornwel-Smith and John Goss
Published by River Books, Second Edition 2013
Available at Asia Books, Bt796
22 Walks in Bangkok: Exploring the City’s Historic Back Lanes and Byways
By Kenneth Barrett
Published by Tuttle / Periplus, 2013
Available at Asia Books, Bt396
Q: Please discuss any writing on Bangkok that has been of particular interest to you.
‘Philip Cornwel-Smith is writing in a way that I like, with an electric eye for the streets. I liked the first novel of John Burdett’s series, Bangkok 8, which is filled with interesting observations. Christopher Moore is a good writer. I haven’t read most of the other noir guys. There is a wonderful aul Bowles story called ‘you have Left Your Lotus Pods on the Bus’, which I guess was written in the 1960s. He planned to live here, but never made it.’
Posted in: Reviews,
Buried in the fashionable Sukhumvit district of this bustling city, amid the high-rise buildings, bumper-to-bumper traffic and pulsating nightlife, sit 1.5 acres from an earlier era.
Wood and stone paths lead over a big pond and through a virtual jungle of ferns, trees and orchids. Surrounded by ponds and gardens are nine hardwood houses, some on stilts, all bearing the soaring peaked roofs and extensive wooden decks that are Thailand’s cultural signature. With their impeccably polished dark wood, the houses look as if they’ve sprouted from the ground.
They’re also very rare. Commonplace a few decades ago, these contemplative, lushly landscaped plots of land that once housed the city’s elite have all but disappeared, replaced with sleek high-rises so upscale a couple of them offer a swimming pool for each unit. An official of the Siam Society, which keeps tabs on Thai history and culture, says the only other compound he knew of in the Sukhumvit district was recently sold and torn down after its owner died. (more…)
Posted in: Reviews,
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…)
Posted in: Reviews,
London has its black cabs, Venice its gondolas, and Bangkok its tuk-tuks, but Thailand’s iconic three-wheeled taxis are going global as foreigners scramble to pick up a piece of Thai culture.
The smoke-belching motorised rickshaws can now be seen plying Britain’s seaside towns, Canada’s golf courses and Tokyo’s neon-lit streets, and manufacturers have seen a surge in global sales and recognition.
“Japan they have Toyota, they have Nissan, so Thailand has a car also — a tuk-tuk,” says Anuwat Yuteeraprapa, owner of Expertise, a tuk-tuk manufacturer which exports 95 percent of its vehicles abroad. (more…)
Posted in: Reviews,
BANGKOK (AFP) – A little more than a week ago, Bangkok was at a standstill caused by daily political rallies. But judging by the crowds snaking through the Thai capital during the Songkran water festival, nothing could now be further from most people’s minds.
Bangkok seems to have effortlessly shifted gear from the political protests that forced out Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra into celebratory mood, with tens of thousands of people armed with water pistols taking to the streets for this year’s festival.
Songkran, which commemorates the Buddhist New Year, is traditionally a time of renewal and involves pouring water over shrines and other people as a sign of cleansing.
But recently the festival has become a free-for-all water fight, when total strangers douse each other with water and spread white paste on their faces. For three days in Bangkok, people take to the streets armed with water pistols. (more…)
Posted in: Reviews,
Once the playground of the rich or the hip, Thailand has staked a central claim in the British heart and stomach. Nearly every pub in England now offers chicken with lemongrass, not baskets, and Thai beaches have become – at least until the tragic events of last Christmas – the new Costa Brava. For most of us, however, our knowledge of the country is limited to temples, markets and luscious ladyboys. Very Thai (River Books, £16.95) is an attempt to capture the complex realities of Thai culture, a blend of finesse and fun which fuses folk tradition with hi-tech and bling. “In one dizzying spasm,” says author Philip Cornwel-Smith, “Thailand is experiencing the forces that took a century to transform the West.” Here are fascinating glimpses of high life, low life, street life and, er, Honda life (right).”
Posted in: Reviews,
By Donald Richie
This is a brilliant book-length photo-essay on Thai popular culture that gives hundreds of examples of the Thai way of doing things. As Alex Kerr says in his preface, this culture “seems an informal, free-wheeling place, even at times chaotic. But the more time you spend here, the more you realize that there is an internal logic and symbolism invisibly ordering everything.
Donald Richie was an authority on Japanese film and culture and Asian culture, lived partly in Chiang Mai, and is the late author of The Image Factory, The Inland Sea, and Tokyo: A View of the City
Posted in: Reviews,
When Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture was released last year, the book was a sweeping success. Tracing the origins of mundane items like the taxi dashboard, the menthol inhaler and pink tissues, Bangkok-based British writer Philip Cornwel-Smith explained many of the oddities and nuicances of Thai culture. Now the author will share some of his insight at the Siam Society in a talk aimed at building a more inclusive, up-to-date picture of Thai culture, society and history. Take this chance to look anew at the ordinary at the Siam Society.
Thai Day was an English-language Thai newspaper
Posted in: Reviews,
Superficially, Thailand may appear more Westernised than most other countries in Asia. Jeans, T-shirts, Coca-Cola and hamburger joints belong to the youth culture here, like English football and American pop music. But there’s something very Thai behind the façade not only in the indigenous culture but also in the way in which the Thais absorb outside influences. All those phenomena are explained splendidly in a new book, Very Thai: Everyday Popular Thai Culture by Philip Cornwel-Smith, a Bangkok-based English journalist. Beauty contests, astrology, taxi altars, belief in ghosts and spirits are all put in their proper context in this very readable book.
Svenska Dagbladet is a Swedish newspaper
Bertil Lintner is the author of Blood Brothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia;Burma in Revolt; Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea Under the Kim Clan
Posted in: Reviews,
ALL THE ANSWERS: Why do Thai truck drivers hang pictures of Al Pacino on their mud flaps? Where did the fume-belching tuk-tuk originate? What exactly is a sniff kiss? And why are Thais such terrible drivers? You’ll find the answers and much more in Very Thai (River Books, 2004) by long-time Bangkok resident Philip Cornwel-Smith. An absorbing guide to popular culture, Very Thai shines a loving light on the minutiae of everyday life. A chapter on names explains that Thais are often called Frog, Pig or Ant to confuse evil spirits, or choose memorable nicknames such as Man-U, Nokia, and even God. The book is equally fun and authoritative on subjects as diverse as bulletproof tattoos, high-society hairdos, beetle fighting, folk music, soap operas and the all-consuming Thai concept of sanuk – fun.
Andrew RC Marshall is a Pullitzer Prize-winning journalist for Reuters, who previously wrote for Time and is the author of The Trouser People.
Posted in: Reviews,
BANGKOK — What gives Thailand its groove–and will continue to do so despite the recent tsunami devastation–is never obvious from the photos of glittery temples and palm-treed beaches endemic to tourist brochures and coffee-table books. Nor does the sleazy bargirl lens through which the expatriate hack novelists perceive the country reflect a true image. Between these two mythic extremes lie all the fascinating quirks of everyday Thai life; the disparate yet omnipresent phenomena like street vendors, beauty pageants and 7-11 stores that are virtually invisible to guidebook writers. (more…)
Posted in: Reviews,
Thailand is full of unusual and mysterious sights, sounds and happenings, most of which we accept as the everyday glue of our lives. Want ice cream on a hot dog bun. Sure, why not? Make a right turn at that elephant. OK. Blind bands serenade the street; incongruous Greco-Roman balconies define the skyline; people stare into trees searching for lucky numbers. Has the novelty worn off?
Long-time expat Philip Cornwel-Smith has written a thrilling, trail-blazing book of cultural history that will help you see and understand Thailand afresh. In more than 60 essays complemented by over 250 colour photographs, Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture explicates the everyday mysteries and expressions of Thai culture. (more…)
Posted in: Reviews,