Finding Bangkok’s Creative Edge

A Very Thai live event in Bangkok’s ‘new’ old town.
by Philip Cornwel-Smith

Finding Bangkok’s Creative Edge

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.

Bangkok Manifesto

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’.

Veeraporn Jung Chang_1

SEAWrite Award-winning author Veeraporn Nitiprapha, and Jung Chang, bestselling author of ‘Wild Swans’

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.

Bangkok Leading Edge_1

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.”

HugoPalmy

Pop stars Hugo and Palmy headlined at Bangkok Edge

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.

Burma Cookbook

Morrison Polkinghorne and Robert Carmack of Globetrotting Gourmet food tours demonstrated recipes from ‘The Burma Cookbook’

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.

 

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Tags: #Bangkok #culture #e-magazine #events #exhibitions #music #popularculture 

Exhibiting the Overlooked

 

Embracing Thai Popular Culture as Heritage

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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.

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Tags: #academic #culture #events #musuems #popularculture #talks #Thailand 

Talk to IDEA Group

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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’.

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Tags: #academic #culture #popularculture #talks #Thailand 

Will Bangkok’s cable nests get untangled and buried?

Oh no, I’ll have to rewrite the chapter on tangled wire installation art in Thailand if this ever actually happens…

http://bangkok.coconuts.co/2015/01/20/tangled-cable-nightmare-nests-all-disappear-bangkok

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Tags: #Bangkok #popularculture #streetlife 

The Diplomat

Very Thai: Street, Style and Society in the Kingdom

How a book by a Bangkok-based British author came to embody a shift in Thai cultural consciousness.

By Jonathan DeHart

Thailand has faced a public relations crisis in recent months. The May 22 coup and the recent murder of two British tourists has cast a shadow over the sunny “Land of Smiles“ image of golden temples, graceful dances and saffron robed monks carrying alms bowls.

But neither political turmoil nor idealized cultural traditions reflect the reality of daily life as it is lived by ordinary Thai citizens. Discovering what really makes the nation tick was precisely the goal of veteran Bangkok-based British journalist Philip Cornwel-Smith when he set out to write his enlightening, encyclopedic and entertaining book, Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture, now in its second edition.

Drawing on a wealth of insight from experts on history, anthropology, sociology and design; and generously illustrated with colorful photographs taken by Cornwel-Smith and American photographer John Goss, the book examines everything from aesthetics to folk arts.

Most significantly, it does so without succumbing to clichés or dwelling on the seedier side of life in Thailand, as exaggerated by media and bar-girl fiction. “The aim of my book was specifically to avoid those sensationalist things and to focus on topics that didn’t get looked at seriously,” Cornwel-Smith told The Diplomat. “I wanted to give a refreshing look at Thailand, to explain ‘low status’ or ‘realistic’ aspects of Thai culture. Not wholly modern, not wholly traditional – these are the criteria for things in the book.”

While a book that shuns hackneyed ideas about the kingdom’s beguiling culture would unsurprisingly be of interest to foreigners, Very Thai struck a chord with the Thai public as well. In the years following the release of its first edition in 2004, the book came to symbolize a shift in Thai society, which was on the cusp of a cultural awakening.

“The book came out at a time when the popular culture just started to become legitimized within the broader culture,” Cornwel-Smith says. “It wasn’t counted as ‘culture’ until that point. Ideas of ‘righteousness’ and ‘prestige’ were part of the official culture. Street life didn’t really fit into that. But it’s unambiguously a form of culture.”

Indeed, street food stalls, motorcycle taxi drivers in multi-hued jackets, cats nibbling on fruit offerings at a shrine, a dog panting in the shade next to a pile of coconut shells, a jumble of power lines sagging above a man dozing on a concrete bench just a few feet from the road where hot pink taxis and tuk-tuks (auto-rickshaws) zip by – these are the common street vignettes that Very Thai accounts for, in impressive detail.

And while the book begins on the street, it goes on to explore all facets of life in Thailand. It is divided into five sections: Street, Personal, Ritual, Sanuk (“fun” in Thai), and Thainess. (It is notable that an entire section is devoted to fun.) The eclectic approach was a natural choice for Cornwel-Smith who says, “I had already been looking at the culture in a pixelated way…doing a city listings magazine and putting together Time Out Bangkok guide.”

Through this “pixelated” view, the book manages to explore the cultural soul of the nation by examining the minutia of daily life: food on sticks, taxi altars, temple fairs, ghost stories, soap operas, beauty pageants, energy drinks.

Other mysteries of the mundane that are explored include quirkily groomed “poodle bushes,” garishly decorated tuk-tuks and trucks, fairy lights, Greco-Roman building facades, the tiny pink napkins found on restaurant tables nationwide, and meticulously coiffed “hi-society” socialites who “actively seek face, invent face, even leverage borrowed face (by borrowing gems),” Cornwel-Smith writes. The book also offers insights on beliefs close to the heart of the nation, from ever-present royal family portraits and the astrological importance of colors to magic tattoos and fortune telling.

Some folk beliefs explored in the book – certain aspects of amulet culture, mediumship and shamanic practices to name a few – still carry a whiff of taboo. But attitudes around these topics are softening, at an alarming speed in some cases.

“The transition of popular culture being accepted within Thailand happened very quickly,” Cornwel-Smith says. An example can be seen in the way tattoos have achieved a higher degree of acceptance in society within a short period. “The social context around tattoos has really changed since the first edition of the book (launched in 2004),” Cornwel-Smith says. “Tattoos are now much more acceptable, partially due to Angelina Jolie getting one.”

Thanks to its diversity of topics, street cred, and striking design, Very Thai has “gone beyond its creators,” Cornwel- Smith says. “It became a source book for those working in design, products, events, theater, among other kinds of work.”

Yet, the book’s reach does not end with the creative class. “They at the cutting edge put it out into culture, which has gradually made it mainstream.”

In a testament to the explosion in soi culture’s popularity, it now forms the basis of a popular theme park, Ploen Wan, which opened in a resort town in recent years. Geared towards Thai visitors, Ploen Wan “includes things like local transportation, old barbershops, general stores, pharmacies…        ‘retro’ stuff,” Cornwel-Smith explains. This form of “retro heritage” even carries a widely known slang epithet now – “Thai Thai” – coined by Suveeranont, who points to Very Thai as an emblem of this sensibility.

Ploen Wan is a physical manifestation of the Thai Thai boom, but a wider following has formed around the book online, where fans are exploring its themes further. “The Internet is a major part of the national discussion around culture taking place in Thailand now,” Cornwel-Smith says.

The Very Thai website serves as a portal on the topic. It features a blog and streams social media postings that use the #verythai hashtag in Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook. “These are posted not just by me but by fans of the book’s subject and aesthetic. These hashtags were actually started by fans of the book.”

In some cases, the book itself has been used as a cultural artifact, having appeared in several art exhibitions in Bangkok, Chiang mai, Brussels and Barcelona. It has also been turned into a video installation, formed the basis of a mime production and has even been physically performed with as a puppet on stage, Cornwel-Smith explains. “There are so many ways in which Very Thai has become a cultural phenomenon in its own right.”

How could a book exploring such simple aspects of a culture have such a far-reaching impact in such a short time? Suveeranont sums it up best He wrote in the afterword to the second edition of the book: “The reason is that it reflects a mood, appearing at a time when Thai society began to debate the nature of ‘Thainess’… Cornwel-Smith’s book thus operates at the much wider level of a phi meuang, or Zeitgeist – the ‘spirit of the age’… This book enabled Thais to appreciate that ‘very Thai’ things, which were seen as low-brow, had been part of Thainess all along.”

Very Thai — The Diplomat

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Tags: #book #e-magazine #features #interviews #popularculture #reviews #Thailand #website 

The Beauty of Banality

What an inspiring presentation. Thais, often from outside Bangkok, are increasingly turning to inspiration from the everyday popular culture around them. Pitupong ‘Jack’ Chaowakul, the founder of Supermachine Studio, gives this TEDx Chiang Mai talk about his firm’s solutions in architecture, events and civic design from Thailand’s vernacular culture.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZD3f94q_uO0

 

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Tags: #Bangkok #design #popularculture #streetlife #Thailand