Finding Bangkok’s Creative Edge
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.
Pop Culture talk at Bangkok Edge Festival
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.
Bangkok Edge festival schedule
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:
Very Thai given by TCDC to speakers at Creativities Unfold 2014 symposium
Nine top design gurus receive the book as a welcome gift by TCDC (Thailand Creative & Design Centre) at the 2014 edition of its Annual Symposium Creativities Unfold on 30-31 August 2014. The speakers were:
Patricia Moore (Moore Design Associates),
Koichiro Tanaka (Uniqlo’s global digital campaign creative),
Jan Chipchase (Studio Radio Durans),
Jinhyun Jeon (senses design expert),
Daan Roosegaarde (Studio Roosegaarde),
Edward Barber (Barber Ogersby, designers of 2012 Olympic torch),
Koert van Mensvoort (Next Nature Network),
Krating Poonpol (Disrupt University),
Patrick Waterhouse (editor, Colors magazine)
“Out of all the conferences I’ve been to over 15 years this is the best, most useful welcome gift I’ve received,” remarked Jan Chipchase, who endorsed the book as “A must-read for any trend or research agency that wants their team to better understand Thailand.”
Very Thai has also been presented by TCDC to speakers at some earlier Creativities Unfolds symposiums.
verythai.com Website Goes Live
The interactive website verythai.com goes live, with full information about the book Very Thai and its many related events, talks, exhibitions, reviews, features, videos and documentary coverage.
Very Thai has had unprecedented involvement and loyalty by its readers for a book on Thailand. To repay that fanbase, now the author offers ways for the public to engage with the book online. You can interact with the VeryThai world in various ways, with live streaming from social media onto the ‘Social’ page of the website. You can post through the Very Thai fanpage on Facebook, tweet using the #verythai hashtag, and post pictures on Instagram using the #verythai tag. All these will stream live through verythai.com. Readers can also post reviews of Very Thai that will appear under Reader Reviews in the Reviews page of the website. You can also send in updates to the author, and suggest topics for future versions of Very Thai and related new books.
Rotary Talk: Very Thai Thai
Bangkok’s oldest Rotary Club hosted a talk by Philip Cornwel-Smith called ‘Very Thai Thai: How Pop Became Culture’. Held at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel in Bangkok, the after-lunch speech marked the first time in nearly a year that the author was spotted wearing a suit and tie.
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20 Bangkok Years Celebrated in Space
Philip Cornwel-Smith holds anniversary party in [Space] Bangkok
Philip (right) with Pepsi, Steven Pettifor and Craig Knowles in Silom Soi 4 in 1994
On 21 March 1994, Philip started a new job, with a new visa and a new home – and a new life. Exactly 2 decades after his first day as founding editor of Bangkok Metro magazine, he marked the occasion with a reunion party of friends. And colleagues from throughout the Intervening years.
He chose Space as the venue because the journalist-run volunteer event space has the kind of impromptu bohemian bars for which Bangkok was famous back in the 1990s. It overlooks the river from the floor above a 7/11 in Khlongsan Market. What could be more Thai Thai? Among the Space volunteers, Nym, Yvan and Scott helped manage the party, while Craig Knowles acted as a cheeky MC by delivering messages from absent friends, which ran to many pages and with plenty of rubbing and roasting of Philip.
Along the walls the party-goers spotted familiar faces (often their younger selves) in prints of party spreads from Metro magazine parties and the launch of Very Thai. Philip said a few words to thank all those present, and the many friends and colleagues who couldn’t be there. By the end of the night all were feeling the effects of the free yaa dong herbal whisky – or was it the shock of two decades of nostalgia?
Philip being roasted by Jennifer Gampell
2nd Edition Thailand Launch Party
Tradition & Innovation: New edition re-launches of Very Thai and Grand Palace & Old Bangkok
Chakrabongse Palace, Bangkok
Thailand launch of the 2nd Edition, as part of a joint event with the relaunch of the same publisher’s Grand Palace book as Grand Palace & Old Bangkok. It will include a talk by me about the changes between the two editions, along with other activities and festivities in the palace grounds.
1st Southeast Asian Arts Fest, London
Wolfson & Tay bookshop, beside Tate Modern, London
Interntional launch of the 2nd Edition, as part of the 1st Southeast Asian Arts Fest. Included me giving a talk called ‘Very Thai: How Thainess Went Pop’
Things to do in London – Alternative London Listings [Sleep Magazine] VERY THAI– EVERYDAY POPULAR CULTURE Tuesday 29 November 2005, 6.30-8.30pm Talk by Philip Cornwel-Smith followed by free Buffet of Thai Cuisine … www.sleepmagazine.co.uk/alternativelondonlistings.html – 81k
International Launch of 2nd Edition
1st Southeast Asian Arts Fest, London
Wolfson & Tay bookshop, beside Tate Modern, London
Tto mark the international launch the 2nd Edition of Very Thai, author Philip Cornwel-Smith gave a talk entitled‘Very Thai: How Thainess Went Pop’.