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.
Cornwel-Smith was inspired to research Very Thai due to the many questions he got asked by foreign residents during the eight years he edited Bangkok Metro Magazine. Among the puzzles he found some answers to were: the reasons taxis keep round spangled cushions on its back shelf; why beauty queens sport enormous helmets of hair; and the preference for holding launches and openings on a Thursday.
Such phenomena didn’t occur at random, and the ways they arose are as fascinating as the origins of Thailand’s rural folk heritage. Cornwel-Smith explores the Thainess of these things, the way imports were adapted, the ancient roots of modern objects and behaviours, the enduring cultural traits that make contemporary things convey the Thainess more obviously seen in traditional arts.
The result is a portrait of an open, modern culture that keeps in touch with its past to an unusually tenacious degree. For instance, Thai soap opera roles retain the character traits found in traditional drama.
Headed by an introduction, the 65 chapters are separated between contexts in which Thai pop is experienced: street, personal, ritual, sanuk (fun).
In addition to the substantial text, nearly 500 photographs by John Goss and Cornwel-Smith transport the reader straight to the scenes where these topics arise. A book you can keep dipping into for reference, Very Thai serves as both a short-cut cultural primer and a behind-the-scenes
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