‘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/
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’.
Posted in: Blog,
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.”
These are slides from the Flickr flow ‘Very Thai Pool’ set up in 2010 that was inspired by the visual language of the book Very Thai. You can join the group and add photos of your own to the flow.
Posted in: Media,
A colourful, entertaining and surprisingly well-researched work which explains exactly what you are seeing on the streets of Bangkok in a serious of short, pithy and informative chapters. For a visitor who wants to know more but does not have much time, this is the best choice I have come across.
— John Burdett, author of Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo.
Posted in: Reviews,
The blogger Geek Juggler gave a positive response in his Thai-language blog to my talk ‘Very Thai: Cultural Filters’ at TCDC (Thailand Creative & Design Centre) in Bangkok on 8 March 2014. The 80-seat venue was booked out . The blogger took up aspects of the talk to expand upon with his own views, focusing on the cultural factors that make it socially difficult for Thai designers to filter out aspects of their culture that won’t appeal to outsiders, while foreign designers of Thai-style things have more social freedom to deconstruct and reinterpret Thai traits for contemporary designs.
Posted in: Blog,
John Burdett’s gripping characterization set against Bangkok’s edgy, seductive cityscapes make his series a thriller in every sense of the word. John Burdett was originally a lawyer with practices in London and Hong Kong. He has lived in France, Spain, Hong Kong, and the U.K. but currently makes his home in both Bangkok and Southwest France.
One of John Burdett’s favorite books about Bangkok is: “very Thai by Philip Cornwel-Smith An entertaining and provocative look at Thai culture.”
By Doc B on 6 Aug 2013
5.0 out of 5 stars
I really enjoyed this book. It gave bite sized cultural insights that really enhanced my trip. I have advised many friends to get it for their trips as I don’t want to lend and lose my copy!
By mauza on 9 April 2011
5.0 out of 5 stars
Having been to Thailand a couple of times I saw this book when leaving Thai international Airport but didn’t purchase it at the time. It is the best honest factual book on Thai culture I have ever seen. Do recommend it for a memento or as a insight to travelling there…
By N. Reith on 30 Dec 2006
5.0 out of 5 stars
I’m a student of Thai Studies and language at Leeds University, and have lived in Thailand previously for over 4 years as an English teacher, backpacker and a student.
If you have ever been in Thailand for a length of time and fallen in love with the country, like myself, then this book is perfect for you. The authors have lived and worked in Thailand for very long periods of time and have great insights into the nuances of Thai culture, from ladyboys to folded napkins, sniff kisses to Buddha amulets, the authors have compiled beautiful pictures with insightful writings.
Great for learning about Thai culture and bringing back great memories. The only negative is the price, however it is hardback, with beautifully printed pages full of photos.
If you’ve never been to Thailand, and you are thinking of buying this book, it will give you a much broader knowledge of Thai culture than many guide books provide, thus setting you up for your trip to Thailand with a greater idea about how Thais live and act, and why.
20 Nov 2012
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Mundo Exchange volunteers and interns in Thailand have created a list of books and reading about Thailand and Thai culture. Some of the works included are fiction, others are about history, the arts, and the cultural ways of this Thai society. Travelers, tourists and armchair anthropologists may enjoy some of these writings. Our goal is to include more, so if you want to recommend other Thai related readings let us know at email@example.com. Enjoy they reads! (*Other books and readings, not listed here, will be available for Mundo Exchange volunteers during your cross-cultural training and orientation.)
An endlessly entertaining book full of photo essays explaining the simple yet fascinating quirks of modern Thai culture: from toilet paper napkins to ghost stories, and from drinks in a plastic bag to temple carnivals, this book brilliantly sheds light on the everyday popular culture in Thailand that is so mystifying to its visitors.
Oom is a Thai-language lifestyle magazine. For the full article open the PDF file below:
Posted in: Reviews,
Forget Lonely Planet, Very Thai – Everyday Popular Culture takes readers on a far more in-depth foray into Thai culture, one you won’t see on the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s website.
This Technicolored book is packed with explanations of modern-day phenomena, ranging from the everyday to the cosmic. For foreigners, it answers a thousand puzzling curiosities, from why tangled webs of electrical wire are proudly displayed as symbols of modernity to how whisky tables reinforce social hierarchy. Thai people themselves seem to have a more bemused attitude to Very Thai, delighted that such recognizable objects are the subject of a best-seller.
Before casting cynicism over the English author of a book called Very Thai, consider the detached and non-judgmental approach the writer, Philip Cornwel-Smith, has adopted in presenting popular Thai culture. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see value in the simple things. What better perspective than a 12-year resident of Bangkok and founding editor of Metro magazine? We sat down with the British-born Philip to discuss sex, tattoos and rock ‘n roll… (more…)
Posted in: Reviews,
In terms of popular culture, important in a society that emphasizes the enjoyment of life, Philip Cornwell-Smith’s Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture (2006) is a delightful read and a wonderful roadmap to diverse elements of Thai Popular Culture.
Posted in: Reviews,
In the new book Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture, Philip Cornwel-Smith explores the pop things that people encounter in the street, in vehicles, in homes. He devotes whole chapters to such minutiae as buffalo cart furniture, auspiciously decorated trucks, and the Siamese delight in cute miniature objects.
These incidental things might not be the icons of high culture, but are every bit as authentic and immediately tell you you’re in Thailand. There is more to Thai pop than the tuk-tuk, though the book also reveals the unexpected origins of that symbolic vehicle. (more…)
Posted in: Reviews,
Was ist typisch Deutsch? Als Deutscher muss man da wahrscheinlich länger überlegen, weil das Typische so alltäglich um einen herum steht und stattfindet, dass man es für nicht mehr besonders erwähnenswert hält. Würde man einen Thailänder, der hier zu Besuch ist, dasselbe fragen, würde er sicher auf ganz viele Dinge zeigen.
In einen fremden Kulturkreis einzutauchen, heißt den Blick zu weiten. Der Autor Philip Cornwel-Smith und der Fotograf John Goss – beide Amerikaner – haben diesen Blick bei ihren ersten Besuchen in Thailand gehabt und nun das aus ihrer Sicht besonders Thailändische in Wort und Bild festgehalten. Herausgekommen ist ein buntes wie grandioses Kaleidoskop des Alltags im Land des Lächelns. (more…)
Posted in: Reviews,