To be Thai

by Chomwan Weeraworawit .

If couture is about bespoke and made-to-measure, then Thais at all strata of society have their own couturier. I remember countless times as a child waiting for my grandmother to select her fabrics from swatches of silk, and then watching her get measured and fitted.

The beginning: breaking myths

Standing on a street pavement in Bangkok for a long enough period will leave one slightly intoxicated. The movement, the smells, the sounds, and the colours - a collision of the senses in a city that captures at once, an ancient world and a futuristic utopia. A golden Buddhist temple faces a mirrored skyscraper, a sports car cruises by a packed avenue alongside a hand-painted tuk-tuk, a woman in a sarong sells a chain of jasmines to a businessman suited in grey. A first impression is that this is the convergence of East meets West is quickly crushed, as it becomes apparent that this is neither East nor West, but a heady mélange forming a unique identity, that of being 'Thai'. 

Thais pride themselves on never being colonised. After the 1997 economic crash, Thailand has remained a developing country stuck in a middle-income trap – but with much natural resources and a rich culture to boast about. Thai artists and filmmakers have come to be accepted as some of the most visionary artists on the international scene. However, describing their work simply as being 'Thai' is dismissive, casting these works in a box of stereotypes do not do their talent justice. These lowbrow clichés are further endorsed by Murray Head’s One Night in Bangkok and Hollywood blockbusters such as Hangover 2, which while promoting a 'good time in Thailand', simultaneously exposes the sleazy underbelly that many have come to associate with the country. This view is totally one-dimensional.

Contemporary fashion, art, film and culture in Thailand went quickly from non-existent to modern illustrious. It was not long ago, as recent as the beginning of the 20th century, that 'fashion' consisted of woven sarongs and bare breasts and when dress was required, women were covered by a strip of pleated silk wrapped around the body and left draped at the back (think Issey Miyake Pleats Please meets Lanvin). The period also saw an effort to usher in the Western concept of modernity; along with telecommunications, cars and electricity came lace, leather shoes and hats – and with the end of absolute monarchy came the start of a constitutional monarchy. The campaigning by General Pibulsongkram in the late 1930s and 1940s sought to haul Thailand into the modern age, and to convince the west that it was not an underdeveloped, barbaric place. As part of the campaign to become 'civilised', Thais were encouraged to replace their traditional garb with western dress, and to even take on the custom of wearing hats. No citizen could ignore the posters, placards and public announcements on the radio that condemned the way they dressed. Walking out without a hat even risked being fined on certain circumstances. This was a fashion dictatorship if there ever was one.

The traditional dress that General Pibulsongkram sought to destroy was not however lost, as the Queen of Thailand chose rare traditional silk creations to wear on her state visits in the 1950’s. Later on Pierre Balmain designed dresses from the rarest Thai silks for her. The images of the young Queen in these intricate creations woven by villagers in rural backwaters and made from skills inherited from previous generations - and designed by Balmain - came to symbolise traditional Thai beauty and fashion.

Finding a national identity soon became a matter of adopting certain codes of the west, rather than accepting a total 'invasion' in the form of colonisation, as experienced in Thailand’s neighbouring countries. Thailand welcomed western input where it could be to her advantage: the Navy was built upon the expertise of the Danish, buildings by German architects, the first art institution founded by a Florentine scholar and artist. What resulted was a hybrid of western-Thai aesthetic; where things that were adopted were then adapted to fit specific Thai needs. The high-neck Victorian lace blouse for example, was often paired with an Ikat sarong, and wooden long-tail boats would be installed with car engines. As a consequence, Thailand operates in a realm that is sometimes confused as to what it owns and what it borrows.

The bridge: Thailand reaches its cultural crossroads

In the 1970s, Thai versions of European fashion emerged when the Thai elite first brought home western ideas after education in the UK and the USA. Along with their homecoming came Elvis and The Beatles, Savile Row, bellbottoms and Biba. Once on home soil, these styles were adapted, copied and reproduced by local seamstresses for their clients. The dresses were always bespoke and made-to-order, not only as a matter of logistic (long-haul travel was neither simple nor frequent back then) and economic necessity, but also as an expression of individuality. If couture is about bespoke and made-to-measure, then Thais at all strata of society have their own couturier. Without a personal dressmaker one would have to go abroad or pay the 400% luxury tax incurred by foreign brands for something nice to wear. I remember countless times as a child waiting for my grandmother to select her fabrics from swatches of silk, and then watching her get measured and fitted. It is in these salons that the creation and adaptation process takes place; given the climate, the availability of fabric and body shape, western designs were reimagined by the Thais.

Until the first ready-to-wear labels were established in the 1980s, dressmakers were a household staple. Moving with the times, some of them created their own labels, such as Sirichai Daharanont’s Theatre.

Alongside fashion, the art world was breaking genres. Thai contemporary art can be traced to that period and attributed to the late Montien Boonma who from the late 1970s until his death in 2000 created sublime minimal sculptures and paintings reflecting upon Buddhist notions of life, death and transcendence. Boonma is considered the forefather of Thai contemporary art and mentor to prolific artists such as Navin Rawanchaikul who represented Thailand in the Venice Biennale in 2011.

A decade later in the 1990s, within the film industry, the New Wave of Thai directors emerged with Pen-ek Ratanarung and Wisit Sasanastien, who worked with the studio system but also independently. Sasanatieng’s Thai spaghetti western Tears of a Black Tiger was the first Thai film selected to be in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001 and where it won critical acclaim and became an international arthouse favourite. This was followed by Ratanarung’s Monrak Transistor in 2001, this too premiered at Cannes in Director’s Fortnight and is now considered a cult classic. The 1990s was also when the first independent record label was founded. The search for a true Thai identity not entrenched in clichés and assumptions became part of the dialectic.

Today: beyond East or West

In the way that almost a century ago, an army general sought to dispel the notion that Thais were barbaric and uncivilised, today, creatives seek to restore authenticity harmed by stock notions of exoticism and sleaziness that has been formed by years of exposure to The Beach, Khao San road and Thailand’s red light districts.

There is no dispute that most diverse cultural scenes in Asia can be found in Bangkok. Dudesweet, an underground party that has been going on for eight years, continues to break boundaries combining music, fashion, art and film and a really good time. My favourite Dudesweet moments have to be the electro party held in a traditional boxing rink and at another time, the 1990s disco in an old–school cinema. The DJ, Maft Sai’s Paradise Bangkok and Isan Dancehall, revived Thai funk and folk music  - without them these would be lost. Rirkrit’s VER Gallery has recently re-opened at the vintage train market, you’ll see art lovers making a pilgrimage there to see what is new and what is happening.

Fashion is developing at the quickest pace today. Couture might seem like an unnecessary extravagance to a developing country but its roots run deeper in a city with strong history in dressmaking and crafts. Young Thai designers are also making a name for themselves. Central Saint Martins graduate Disaya’s focus on fantasy and quality has turned her brand into something of a small empire in Bangkok. Issue’s Roj Singhakul's loyalty to his personal bohemian ethnic story, as well as his richly sourced ideas and fabrics from travels to India, Tibet and Brazil, have inspired a growing cult following. Many designers do not stay in Thailand, the market is broader, larger, more accepting in the rest of the world. Thakoon is a great example. On the other hand, old school couturiers like Nagara are constant inspirations for those who remain, creating designs that transcend Thai stereotypes. When younger generations try to reconnect with their roots, the results can be awe-inspiring; Pun Sarasas, Boat Khajeenikorn and Sorada Thawaranon captured attention in London last year with Remake Remodel, where they designed collections made from Thai silks and fabrics for the Queen of Thailand’s SUPPORT Foundation, presented at the Serpentine Gallery. The way traditional stiff fabrics were reinterpreted to each designer’s unique expression echoed the journey of Thailand itself.

Fashion aside, it is the merging of different disciplines from film to art to music that is producing novel ideas, and a meeting place for this convergence is what inspired me to create Film on the Rocks on Yao Noi, an island far away from Bangkok. My co-founder Nat Sarasas and I invited Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton to co-curate the festival, along with our friends from various disciplines to join us on this adventure. We engaged in collaborations with filmmakers, artists, designers and architects from around the world.  From Argentina, the filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, from the USA came Tom Sachs and Waris Ahluwalia and from Thailand were collaborators Rirkrit Tiravanija, Prachya Phinthong and young filmmaker Nontawat Numbenchapol. For those familiar with the art scene, Tiravanija will be no stranger. He often explores the notion of identity and co-existence by offering the world something that is local to him like 'phad thai' (Thai noodles) in a foreign context like a museum and allows the viewer to relate, in accordance to his or her own experiences. Tiravanija continues to make his installations but he also now makes films, his first feature, Lung Neaw Visits His Neighbours follows the life of Lung Neaw, a retired farmer in a small village in Chiang Mai. To many, this might seem foreign and exotic – an export from the East – yet Tiravanija’s practice defies these assumptions. Premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2011, his film is an observation of compassion and humility found in every man. At Film on the Rocks, Tiravanija continued his dialogue with film in an installation he created with Arto Lindsay called 'no fire no ash'. 'no fire no ash' was a quiet ceremony in front of a big ancient tree, Arto’s electric guitar and 10 reels of film shipped from MoMa, showing Andy Warhol’s Empire where the two men created their own 'film' with some cans of spray paint and an empty screen. Our curator Apichatpong Weerasethakul has created what critics refer to as his very own cinema, a primeval cinema that reflects our concerns with our origin, life and death. This was captured in his 2010 Palme d’Or winning oeuvre Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Even though the films are often in dialects from rural Thailand, the themes and notions are more universal, taking viewers on a transcendental journey of time and space. At the inaugural Film on the Rocks, we were very much guided by our co-curators and were interested in a creating a space where all worlds collide, and where stereotypes and boundaries are broken down. I hope to grow it annually and in time, to slowly define what it is that makes Thailand unique and also part of a larger global creative dialogue.

Despite Thailand’s relatively modern and socially progressive character today, the independent film industry, probably the most relevant and progressive of all the creative industries, do not have such an easy time. Thai censors do not react well to controversy – this means anything that is considered offensive to the status quo be it politics or the monarchy (Ing K’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Shakespeare Must Die was banned in Thailand by the Censorship Board for being divisive to the nation and for fear that the Thai population could not tell truth from fiction).  It is sad that the best Thai cinema will be found in festivals across the world, but not at home. One to watch is Lee Chatametikool and his film Concrete Clouds, expected to be released in early 2013. In exploring the paradox between what is Thai and what is not, Chatametikool’s film exposes and dispels the myths and stereotypes associated with Thailand – it could well be an anthem for the times.

In the constant struggle to hold onto a national identity, and to keep an open mind to new ideas, Thai creatives, inadvertently or not, are defining a certain characteristic for themselves. What this definition includes might only become clear in years to come. For now, it is this flux that is at the heart of what it is to be Thai, surpassing the notion of East vs West, forever.