For the artistically inclined among you, the opening of a new art gallery in Bangkok can only come as good news in this artistically dormant city. Don’t get me wrong, the Thais are a very artistic race, but they lack the liberalism inherent in Western culture. There are, occasionally, some impressive works of graffiti, one or two galleries, and a few urbane places to hang out. But that’s nothing compared to places like New York, where modern graffiti as we know it first started, or cities like Paris, with art galleries in abundance.
Thailand – at present – seems to be going through a period of social evolution. Considering that until 1932, Thailand was still under an absolute monarchy, the rate of change since that time has been phenomenal, and there are now some 10,000,000 inhabitants in this sprawling metropolis, compared to only 890,000 in the 30s. The new generation is becoming increasingly liberal, and they are taking elements of their unique culture, and blending it with Western influences. What I personally hope is that in doing this, they don’t lose their heritage; I can imagine nothing more boring than a uniform, homogeneous world, where culture in Thailand is the same as it is in America. Variety is the spice of life!
Many tourists and residents of Bangkok will be familiar with the striking art work found in Chatuchak Weekend Market. Now these artists have collaborated to open a unique art studio/gallery on Chaengwattana, Soi 1. V64 is housed within a disused factory building and offers 4,800 m2 of studio space, a dedicated gallery with monthly exhibitions by Thai and international artists, workshops, an art academy, café bar, and sculpture garden. More than 60 artists reside within the studio complex, some of whom can be seen at work while you walk around.
The V64 team are very welcoming and I was personally greeted by the PR & Marketing Manager, Kalisha Pim Jariyapaiboon, who gave me useful information about the artists and services provided. V64 also runs an art academy for children from 3-15 years of age, which is a great service to the community and a place to foster the next generation of Thai artists. I was very enthused by the communal vibe at V64 and see it as a potential gathering place for artistic minds who are looking for an inspiring location to rendezvous. The café bar sells both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and is open until 10:00 p.m. everyday, making it the perfect place for a get together.
If you’re looking to meet like-minded people in Bangkok, V64 is throwing a Grand Opening Party on November 11, 2011, and anyone with a passion for art, music, culture – or just making new friends – is invited. In the meantime, follow the links below to learn more about V64’s whereabouts and take a visit to their fascinating studio.
143/19 Chaengwattana Soi 1 Yaek 6, Bhangkhen Laksi, Bangkok 10210, Thailand
+66 8 9143 0986 (Mobile)
02 973 2681-2
Could this be the dawn of Asia? The coming of a new global superpower? With all the troubles happening in the West at the moment, it seems as if Asia is the place to be. As more and more Westerners flock to the East to find a sense of purpose, in our ever-purposeless lives, a new kind of story is emerging, a new pilgrimage. But this time it ought to be all the more difficult. For, unlike the discovery of America, where we were the superior power, taking by force, this time, we come on humble terms: we are simply the tolerated visitor.
And so, for the pampered Westerner, it can come as quite a shock when we have to get used to the Asian concept of lowering ourselves to our superiors. We want things “our way” and get highly annoyed by people pushing into queues, or drivers turning without indicating. But here in Thailand, they have a different kind of politeness: everyone is free to get in first if they can, but no one is free to lose their temper.
But all this is positive change, though it may not be easy to understand why at first. We have had life far too comfortable in the West, far too pampered, far too spoon-fed. When we arrive on Asian soil, we have to learn to be resourceful if we’re going to survive this mass exodus. And so, an increasing majority of pilgrims in Asia are looking for new ways to better and improve themselves. Many of them become teachers, but ultimately, they look to new pastures for a sense of achievement. For many people, writing is becoming the best way of expressing their myriad feelings about adapting to an entirely new culture.
“Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.” — Arnold Bennett
I can’t speak for the whole of Asia, but my experience in Bangkok has shown me that people who spend more than a few years here tend to start a blog about some aspect of Thai life. These bloggers range from the pro to amateur, but all of them have a unique story to tell, all of them offer a glimpse of life in the “Land of Smiles.” Many of these bloggers then aspire to write a book, or work for a local newspaper; it’s a tempting option, and in many instances, a basic level of English is considered as valuable as gold dust in this linguistically-challenged country. Of course, some Thais speak excellent English, but the vast majority still speak “Tinglish”, an amusing mixture of the two languages: “I go with you.” “I love you mak mak.”
And so it was, on my very own version of this story, that I came across New Asian Writing (NAW). The NAW project was begun on January 1, 2010, by a group of like-minded individuals whose aim was to bring high quality short stories to readers, and the opportunity for aspiring new writers to have their works published. Their first book, The Rage of a New Ancestor, was released at the end of 2010, and since then, word has spread, and many more writers have submitted their work for the 2011 anthology; one of them is me!
When I first discovered NAW, I thought it too good to be true. I immediately set to work on writing a short story, hoping that it would be good enough to make the anthology. After about three months of work, I felt confident that my story was ready to be sent off to the team at NAW, albeit needing a few minor edits. When they got back to me telling me that my story had been accepted and only needed a few changes, I was ecstatic! My story, Lifelines will be published in the 2011 anthology at the end of the year. It’s not the first time I have had works published, but it is the first time I’ve been featured in a book; my last work was written for the iPhone, Bangkok in the 1930s, a walking tour that harnesses the power of archival imagery, storytelling, and GPS technology. The tour can be downloaded through Rama, the augmented reality app that brings history to life in a way never before imagined. I’m eagerly looking forward to the release of the book. In the meantime, you can read the story on NAW’s website, here.
Mark jumped off the Skytrain at Siam station – weaved between the crowds of people, all heading selfishly in their own direction – and crossed the platform to catch the connecting train to Mochit. At the edge of the platform, a puzzled-looking man was glancing up and down the tracks. He seemed to be lost, as though he wasn’t sure where to catch his train. Mark walked to the edge of the platform and chose his place to wait for the train.
“Excuse me,” said the man, he appeared to be of Middle-Eastern descent. “Is this where I catch the train to Nana?”
“Erm, I think it is,” said Mark. “Let me just check my ticket.” He pulled his ticket out of his wallet, which had all the stops on it, and looked for Nana. “Ahh, no, it’s not here. You have to go downstairs.”
“Ahh, downstairs,” said the man. “Thanks.” As he walked away, another man approached Mark:
“Was he looking for Nana?” He asked. He was an American, well dressed, and polite.
“Yes,” said Mark.
“It’s the one downstairs. You have to head for On Nut.”
“Yes, that’s where I sent him.” Mark smiled and turned away. He felt as though the man wanted a conversation with him, but he didn’t know what to say.
The train arrived and everyone boarded in that selfish way that people do in big cities: ready to elbow each other out of the way for a seat on the train. Mark got on and went to stand by the doors at the opposite side of the train. He usually left the seats free for others. The man stood next to him. Mark didn’t want to be rude so he changed the hand he was holding onto the bars with so that he was facing the American. He must have sensed the opening:
“So, do you live here?” He asked. He was tall, casual, and looked like the type who couldn’t help being friendly.
“Yes,” said Mark. “How about you?”
“Oh, I’m just here on vacation. What do you do out here?”
“The same as most foreigners here: teach.”
“Oh yeah? Is it good money?”
“Not really, but I’ve just been interviewed for a new job. It’s a music teaching job, which would be right up my street as I trained in music.”
“Cool! I’m a teacher also but I wasn’t able to find any work out here. I have a degree in psychology, and I work at a school in America, but I couldn’t find anything that matches the perks I have in my job back home.”
“I see,” said Mark. “Because it’s easy to find work here, it’s just not that easy to get a high-paying job.”
“I hear you. I just come here on long vacations. I love the place but it’s nice to have the option to go back home.”
“Yeah. Honestly I think that’s the best way: enjoy a long holiday here, then go back and earn more money in the West. I would probably do the same if I could.”
A Chinese-looking man sat watching them, probably listening to their English, seeing if he could understand the natives at play.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, me I’m from London.”
“Not much to go back for at the moment then; except the riots and looters.”
“Yeah! Or beating up some innocent kid! Where are you from?”
“I see. Whereabouts?
“Ahh, I’ve always wanted to visit New York.”
“Yeah, it’s a cool place. A lotta history.”
“I was always into the New York graffiti, thought it was cool.”
“Yeah? I used to do some when I was a kid.”
“So are you like a famous graffiti artist or something?”
“Naa, just did it because everybody else did.”
The train stopped, and Mark was about to continue the conversation when he sensed the man moving away from him:
“Anyway, this is my stop.”
“Nice to meet you.” Mark reached out his hand and they exchanged a curt hand shake.
As the train sped off, Mark felt glad for his brief encounter. It was good to know there were still some friendly people in the world. He realized about a minute too late that he never asked the guy’s name. He cursed himself for missing the opportunity to extend his circle of friends in this lonely city. He looked out the windows at the concrete mass of Bangkok and knew there’d be other times.
Learning to speak Thai can be a difficult task for Westerners who are not accustomed to tonal languages. But there is one obstacle that will get in the way of your learning that is not mentioned in any language books: Thais do not want you to speak Thai. Okay, this may seem rather severe, in fact, it is. The truth is, some Thais will be very flattering when it comes to speaking Thai: pood Thai keng (you speak good Thai), pood Thai chaat (you speak Thai clearly). But there is –despite this – a bit of a taboo regarding Westerners speaking Thai. It does not extend to Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Malaysians or any other inhabitants of Asia; only white-skinned Westerners. If you are white, you simply cannot speak Thai, it’s beyond you; you are too sophisticated for this base language.
If you teach English in a school, you will more than likely be forbidden from speaking Thai. This can be a frustration when you have gone to great lengths to learn the language, impressed yourself with remembering tones, only to have it thrown right back in your face: DO NOT SPEAK THAI. This rule does not extend to Chinese teachers, who clearly have the grace to speak this tonal language; only the dumb farang should be forbidden from speaking Thai. I believe there are several reasons for this:
Firstly, Thais believe that English is the most important language in the world right now; quite rightly so, it is the international language of business. But the Thai parents have no concept of balance: it’s all or nothing with them. If there was a spectrum showing how enthusiastic a parent was about his or her child’s education, Thai parents would be at the far end of obsessive. I once tried to explain to a Thai father, who couldn’t understand why his seven-year-old daughter didn’t speak English as well as his fourteen-year-old son, that you need a balance: don’t push your child too hard, but don’t be completely blasé about their education, either. You need a middle ground, I tried telling him, where you care about their progress, but accept their shortcomings. I don’t know if he really heeded me, and besides, let’s face it; most seven-year-old girls are more interested in Barbie and playing with their friends than learning a foreign language.
Secondly, the Thais have gotten onto the band wagon of total immersion, and believe it’s absolutely necessary that the teacher should speak English at all times if their children are to learn the language. To some extent, they’re right. But once again, Thais show themselves to have a culture of extremes: there’s no middle ground; no Thai, not one word, not even outside the classroom, not even in the school grounds. Speaking Thai in a lesson can often be necessary to get a word across, and although there are sometimes Thai helpers in many English classrooms, even they sometimes don’t know the translations, though this is rare. The prevailing thought is that, if we speak Thai, they will not make any effort to speak English to us and just resort to Thai. There is some sense in this second point.
The third reason why farangs speaking Thai is taboo is that foreigners have a historically bad reputation for being able to speak it. It seems that until recently, relatively few farangs could speak Thai. It’s only now that a more progressive generation of visitors are flocking to the country that people are really eager to learn Thai. It seems to be more popular among the younger generation, though no doubt, there are older farangs who speak perfect Thai. Conversely, there are older farangs who have lived in Thailand for ten/twenty years and claim to speak not a word of this exotic lingo. Because of this reputation, Thais often make the assumption that you can’t speak Thai before you even open your mouth, which can be highly frustrating when you understand what they’re saying: farang pood pasa Thai mai dai (the foreigner can’t speak Thai), I’ve been known to walk away from shops that have given me that treatment.
If you’re applying for a job as an English teacher in Thailand, just beware that your proud claim to speaking Thai might actually be an impediment to you getting the job. Sometimes, they prefer to confirm their stereotypes and meet the big, dumb, white farang, who can’t speak Thai, and is easy to gossip about right in front of his face. They don’t always like you to be smart enough to understand them. The Thais want us in their country, but only on their conditions: remain dumb, white, and farang, then leave after you’ve taught my little angel to Speak English!
Thai people love their food. That’s a fact. It’s one of the few certainties in this “Land of Smiles.” And it’s this love of food which has given rise to the propensity of food vendors found on the streets of Thailand. Eating out is often as cheap, and as convenient, as eating at home, which is why so many Thais opt for this way of eating. Nearly all streets in Thailand are lined with vendors, who brave the stifling heat to bring good, cheap food to the hungry at all hours of the day and night. From sticky rice and papaya salad, steak and fries, noodle soup, and fried chicken that puts KFC to shame, Thailand has it all.
In Western countries, the food industry is almost entirely dominated by big franchises and supermarkets. No matter where you go, you will undoubtedly have to eat in a big, modern-looking cafe or restaurant. Rare is the sight of the humble street vendor, working to feed the locals. It would be almost an impossibility in today’s world to see such small-scale food vendors: their business could never compete with the money-hungry, market-savvy franchises. And so, it seems a sad fact that, with capitalism, comes the denigration of the individual, who once strove to make a living through his or her produce.
Of course, Thailand has its fair share of franchises: from McDonalds, with a wai-ing Ronald, to Tesco Lotus, known simply as “Lotus,” by the locals. But the difference here is that the large franchises and small street vendors still exist side-by-side in relative harmony. People still choose the street vendors for convenience and affordability. With big supermarkets and fast-food joints usually located far away from residential areas, they remain the choice of the weekend getaway, or the meal of the increasingly rich (and increasingly fat) middle-class. But the staple diet comes from food made by cool-headed chefs, who seem capable of remembering multiple orders, without writing a word down, and without even looking at the person who ordered.
The typical street in Thailand is alive with the hustle and bustle of people heading out to buy food, motorcycle taxis weaving in and out of cars, and the erroneous stray dogs, that usually sleep on the threshold of 7-Eleven; no one bothers to move them. The average Thai person dreams of travelling to the West, as though arriving there will instantly bring affluence and a better standard of living. What they often don’t realize is that, in chasing the plastic dreams of the Westerner, they leave behind a little bit of that soul and character exuded by the daily lives of the Thai people. More importantly, when they realise how difficult it is to buy good, cheap food in places like England and America, they may be looking, with starry eyes, towards that mythical eastern world they’ve heard so much about.
Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 3 – Pra Preecha: Despotic Madman or Innocent Victim?)Posted: June 26, 2011
The story of Pra Preecha is a complicated one, and – like many other things in the orient – shrouded in a mysterious web of lies and treachery, that the westerner can scarcely comprehend. In a country where the truth often amounts to the same thing as a lie, it hardly seems surprising that there is no singular, concrete account of what happened to this middle-ranking Siamese official. Some say he was innocent of all charges, and cruelly framed by the rival Bunnag family, who were afraid that Pra Preecha’s own Amatayakun family would steal their thunder, and knock them off the top spot as Siam’s number one influential family of rank. Others say that Pra Preecha was a despotic madman, who murdered numerous prisoners working at the Kabin gold mine, while embezzling large sums of money to enrich himself and his family.
On March 11, 1879, Pra Preecha married Fanny Knox, the daughter of the British Consul Thomas George Knox and his Siamese wife, Prang Yen. Some believe that he married Fanny as a way to avoid punishment from the Siamese government. Pra Preecha, sensing the brewing storm, put all of his assets in his wife’s name. Not long after the wedding, he was arrested and put on trial for his alleged crimes.
Meanwhile, Fanny was pregnant with her new husband’s child, which inspired her father to intervene and try to save Pra Preecha. He took his case to King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) asking him to help his friend, who he believed was being wrongly framed by the Bunnag family. King Chulalongkorn was a personal friend of Pra Preecha, and made it clear that he had no wish to see him punished if he was not guilty of the alleged crimes. During this time, more scandalous rumours of Pra Preecha’s malfeasances were surfaced and a number of his family members were also put under arrest.
Knox’s intervention in the affair cost him his post as Consul and he was recalled to London, where he was later given the title Sir Thomas George Knox.
Pra Preecha’s trial got underway in mid-1879. An article in The New York Times of April 12, 1880, said that “[the] trial is admitted by all intelligent persons to have been a complete farce, since he was not allowed to cross-question witnesses who accused him of murder, nor was he permitted to refer to his books when called upon to account for sums drawn by him as expenses for the gold mine.” Although Pra Preecha eventually admitted to stealing gold from the King’s mines, some believe he made the confession in the hope that he would be spared the cruel torture that so many criminals of the time suffered until they confessed. He was found guilty, and his execution date was set for November 24, 1879. Not long before the execution took place, Fanny departed to England along with her newly-born baby and two of Pra Preecha’s children from another marriage.
Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 2 – Kan: The Hapless Desperado.)Posted: June 24, 2011
This is the second in a three-part series of gritty true-life stories of public execution in Siam. Today’s story follows the last moments of Kan, the hapless desperado who robbed and murdered a nobleman to feed his starving family; and lost his head under the executioner’s sword. . . .
April 2, 1903 Samrong Province
Kan still didn’t know why he’d let himself get into this, but his family were hard up, and he needed the money. He held the knife in his hand, afraid of the killing power that lay dormant in its steel shaft. There was no turning back now; if he tried to walk away, his companions would kill him. His heart raced, and thoughts of fleeing ran through his mind. Just at that moment, Khun Prawit – the rich landowner of Samrong’s most productive rice fields – came into view. He was heading back to his dwellings after collecting payment for a recent rice crop. He was escorted by two sturdy guards. As they passed the patch of trees where Kan and his companions lay in ambush, two of the other bandits leapt out of their hiding place, easily slitting the throats of the guards. Kan jumped out, right on cue, holding the knife to Khun Prawit’s chest, and demanded the money. Khun Prawit was bold, and flatly refused, deftly sidestepping as though he might make a dash for escape. Instantly, another robber jumped on his back and held him down; he screamed to Kan: “Kill him!” Kan ran forward, searching Khun Prawit’s body for the money; he found it, threw it to one side, then – before he knew what had happened – thrust the cold steel blade deep into Khun Prawit’s chest; his accessory finished him off by slitting his throat; the blood streaming out onto the grassy path.
May 9, 1905 Bangkok
The jangle of the jailer’s keys cut through the darkness, arousing Kan’s dulled senses. The heavy key was thrust into the lock and turned with a decisive twist, opening the door to the cell where Kan had spent the last two years of his life. He didn’t stir, just remained staring at the floor. Two sturdy guards entered the cell and picked him up by the arms; he had no power to resist; he allowed them to push him to the exit like a ragdoll. They walked purposefully down a long, dimly-lit corridor; Kan being dragged by the guards; his bare feet trailing on the floor.
They came to a large wooden door; one guard stepped forward with a key and opened it. As the door opened, the brilliant rays of the rising sun flooded into the corridor where Kan was standing, he screwed up his eyes and tried to cover his face; it was the first time he had seen full sunlight in two years. It would be the last.
Kan was flung on the ground in heavy shackles and handcuffs while the guards discussed things among themselves. They could have left him unchained; he would not have been able to get away. All his strength had been withered away by two years of meager rations and cruel beatings. Suddenly, he was being dragged to his feet again, but the whole scene felt like a dream to him. The guards took Kan a short distance away to a small port where a boat sat waiting, and numerous state officials stood around, looking irritated and flustered at having to be awake at so early an hour for the execution of such an insignificant prisoner.
Kan must have drifted to sleep, because the next thing he knew, he was sat on the boat, floating downriver at quite a pace; guards and officials sat around; saying nothing. A deathly silence pervaded the boat. He began to feel more aware of his surroundings, and his eyes focused on the houses on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. He could see river people going about their lives: just another day for them; how lucky they were to be alive; in the thick of things. Presently, a guard sat next to him began smoking. Kan asked the guard for a smoke, but he just stared at him through slanted eyes, and blew smoke in his face.
Wat Samrong 7 a.m.
They arrived at Wat Samrong, and the guards and officials went onshore to make preparations for the execution. Kan was left on board the boat, where numerous Buddhist monks came to visit him and prepare him for the afterlife. One of them was preaching to him about cause and effect: “. . . you were deluded into believing material wealth was the key to happiness, but now look where your hunger for gold has got you,” said the handsome young monk “They’re going to execute you, and you’re none-the-better for your actions.” Kan did not reply, only stared across the boat at the area that was being cordoned off with flimsy blue cloth; his final resting place.
“. . . so you must find peace within yourself before you go. Understand that what you did was the ripening of bad karma, it could not be avoided.” The monk carried on in his languid tone for the best part of an hour; Kan didn’t mind, he wasn’t interested, but it wasn’t so bad to be alive, listening to the drivel of a newly-ordained monk. Someone passed him a cigarette and he smoked it with his handcuffs on: raising two hands to take a pull; chains rattling with every movement. By and by, the executioners finished their preparations and two of the guards came to collect Kan. The dreaded moment was drawing near.
Kan was placed on the ground on a square of freshly-cut plantain leaves. His shackles were removed and he was firmly strapped to a T-shaped bamboo stake. They filled his ears with clay and marked a line across his neck. The executioners took long drafts of an alcoholic beverage to calm their nerves. They knelt down in front of him, asking his pardon. When everything was ready; all of the onlookers, guards and executioners stepped away from the small square of plantain leaves, and watched from a distance.
One of the executioners began dancing a set of intricate steps, staring intently at Kan, who became absorbed by the enchanting display. Just behind Kan, another executioner was posturing in a similar fashion. He briefly made a wai to the state officials then, with the stealthy silence of a cat, he took two graceful steps towards the prisoner, leapt in the air, arms outstretched, all the features of his face contorted in the most horrific manner, like some Chinese dragon. The curved blade flashed through the air like a beam of light, severing Kan’s head in a single blow; a jet of crimson shot two feet in the air; the severed head rolled limply across the ground, coming to a stop several feet away from the body; sightless eyes looking out across the Chao Phraya River, where an old woman spat blood-red betel juice into the fast flowing water.