Saturday, 28 January 2017

Monsters of God

Pramuan Burusphat’s accidental vision of an exorcism, from ‘Eroded Memories’series

Bangkok Love Letter
Monsters of God

Thursday 26 January 2017, Bangkok

Dear Foreign Friend,

An obviously compulsive occult fact-checker gave me a hard time over my last letter to you. “The lightning-struck tower is the symbol for 2016, the year for toppling creaky structures,” she says. “That’s last year; that’s done. Now we’re in the year of karma: extreme imbalances are now propelling themselves towards correction.”

Well, sorry about that.

The occult fact-checker was not the only one upset with me. A local stoner god said the law permitting ‘hemp’ cultivation was already passed. Why did I write that it was “being discussed”? Truthfully, I did know, but the law as passed is so confusing and strange, permitting only certain Northern provinces to grow ‘hemp’. Why is Chiangmai so privileged and Bangkok not? I followed this trail of clues & found too many awkward implications that require great courage to explore. (If one were writing a book, its reach might stretch from Air America all the way to the destruction of watershed mountain forests.) That’s best left alone, I decided, consoling myself with the fact that hemp is better for the soil than either cabbage or opium. That story is still unfolding & we should perhaps not rock the boat that’s at least heading in the right direction.

Still in black after 100 days: tattoo girl at ‘Destination: Still Unknown’ at BACC

The 100th day ceremony for King Rama IX fell on Trump’s inauguration day. I switched channels back and forth between local & international news, saturating my retina with archetypal images straight out of fairy tales. The Prince of Darkness with his lacquered golden hair emerging from a tunnel. Ivanka & Melania in Star Treky costumes, like visitors from another world, come to take over this one.

‘Khao Mor-Mythical Escapism’, labyrinth of mirrored cubes at Chula, by Sanitas Pradittasnee

It’s fascinating to watch someone go through the processes & ceremony of becoming the centre of power and, theoretically at least, the unifying focus for his or her society. Why is it so obvious when this alchemy doesn’t occur? Trump looked terrified despite or because of his bravado. He still looks terrified. People inadequate to the role look scared, as if they’re aware what a fraud they are. Instead of growing in stature, they seem diminished somehow, as if dwarfed by the size of the chair they’ve fought so hard to fill.

We meanwhile get scared anticipating our rulers’ responses to their own insecurity, exacerbated by, say, celebrities’ refusal to sing at their inauguration; the pepper spray & tear gas the police fired at protesters a couple of blocks away as the Trumps waited with the Obamas to travel from the White House to the swearing-in; the thinnest cheering crowds in recent memory; or the obvious fact that everyone on that terrace loathes him. Despite the Greco-Roman grandeur & the national anthem, no unifying transference occurred; the Donald remained a real estate developer & reality TV host, clearly out of his depth & lashing out. The I Ching (hexagramme 16, ‘Enthusiasm’) has this to say on these national rituals:

“Rulers have made use of this natural taste for music.. Music was looked upon as something serious and holy, designed to purify the feelings of men. It fell to music to glorify the virtues of heroes and thus to construct a bridge to the world of the unseen. In the temple men drew near to God with music and pantomimes (out of this later the theatre [then cinema!] developed.) Religious feeling for the Creator of the world was united with the most sacred of human feelings, that of reverence for the ancestors. The ancestors were invited to these divine services as guests of the Ruler of Heaven and as representatives of humanity in the higher regions. This uniting of the human past with the Divinity in solemn moments of religious inspiration established the bond between God and man. The ruler who revered the Divinity in revering his ancestors became thereby the Son of Heaven, in whom the heavenly and the earthly world met in mystical contact.
These ideas are the final summation of Chinese culture. Confucius has said of the great sacrifice at which these rites were performed: ‘He who could wholly comprehend this sacrifice could rule the world as though it were spinning on his hand.’

The Richard Wilhelm translation of the I Ching (rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes, Foreword C.G. Jung, publisher Routledge & Kegan Paul) having been my family’s bible, I was struck early in life by this enigmatic passage. I was fascinated by it but knew I couldn’t understand it, at all, until I had the privilege to attend the last week of Queen Rambhai’s cremation rites in the open air at Sanam Luang at the height of the equatorial summer in April 1985.  

When her royal husband, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), the last absolute King of Siam, died in his 40’s of influenza while in exile in England, there was no pomp & ceremony. Unlike today, Siam was then in monarchy-bashing mode.

Today it’s illegal or even lethal, in some circles, to criticise the royal family, but back then it was flavour of the month, positively encouraged as good citizenship by the government, to the extent that whatever the King did or said was given the worst possible spin (though who would scoff now at his great anxiety that real democracy wouldn’t be possible without good universal education to prevent Thai people from becoming easy prey to dishonest politicians & the military; this was interpreted as contempt for the people & look what’s happened since). He duly abdicated 2 years after the military coup d’etat that ended absolute monarchy; the constitutional crown then fell upon his dead younger brother’s eldest son, Ananda, who as a school boy in Switzerland became King Rama VIII. A study of modern Thai history without dogma or preconceptions would reveal that King Prajadhipok was a conscientious but luckless man who had inherited an impossible situation: a near-bankrupt treasury, a fattened bureaucracy that resented having its fat trimmed (his mistake was not in telling skinny little people to eat cake, but in telling big fat people to eat bread because we were broke), and the worldwide Great Depression.

There was no purpose-built golden pavilion for his remains; just a no-frills cremation at Golders Green Crematorium in wartime North London in 1941, with his tough young widow and a few sad relatives standing by. It would be years later, after the war, before my mother’s father who was his last-standing royal guard & brother-in-law, eventually carried the ashes home to Siam in a tiny urn.

(You see why the forbidden history is so alive to me despite being omitted from our school history books. Like many of his contemporaries, this grandfather was pretty luckless too. He was a soldier who just wanted to serve under men he could respect. His first boss was the last absolute king; his last boss was the first democrat Pridi Banomyong, whom he became close to in the Free Thai during the war. Both his beloved bosses, the most decent of men, suffered slander & died in exile after helpless years of watching their country fall into the fascist abyss. He himself became a farmer & died bankrupt in internal exile. These men’s lives ended in their prime, their gloomy destinies discouraging people of like mind from public service for at least a generation.)

When Queen Rambhai died peacefully in Bangkok in 1984, no royal funeral of such magnitude had taken place for many years. They had to seek out & resuscitate the proper craftsmen and other experts of tradition to conduct the rites & build the cremation pavilion on the royal ground in front of the Grand Palace, like the one they’re building now for King Bhumibol. Her funeral was also the last time when the body was actually placed inside the golden royal urn like an embryo back in the womb, seemingly ready for rebirth, according to ancient custom for royal ceremonies. Now the urn is empty; the coffin is lying behind the curtain.

King Rama IX shrine for the public to sign book of condolences, National Stadium station

On the last evening as the people filed in to pay their last respects, the atmosphere was indescribable, electric. Queen Rambhai was a sincere, gentle & unpretentious royal, a kind woman happily at home on her farm in Chantaburi for many years. She had lovely charisma and was loved, but you knew that people came to say goodbye not just to her but to her husband. In my memory the massive crowds, the rising sandalwood smoke, the overcast evening sky, the eerie ancient music, the Brahmin priest blowing the conch shell to summon the cosmos and the ancestors, have intermingled, become inextricably one. I remember thinking: these people are really good at this; they know exactly what they are doing; I know now how it works, how everyone becomes one entity. Finally I thought I understood the I Ching’s description of this transference.

Change of Picture: the Royal Anthem for King Rama X in the cinema

One week after the 100th day ceremonies for King Rama IX, people continue to wear black. Some office girls may never stop. Repeatedly I hear the words “It’s easy for work. I don’t have to match anything & black always looks smart.” Many people actually seem to be in deeper mourning than before. “We went nowhere & did nothing for the holidays, & we’ll go nowhere for Chinese New Year either,” said a local furniture shop owner, a young family man of Chinese descent, “Not in the mood.”

Depression has a foul psychic odour, as unhealthy as any other toxic emission. An inward retreat, neither fight nor flight. Into this passive aggressive cauldron the government has just thrown in the R word: (National) Reconciliation. Knowing from bitter experience how closely allied with A for Amnesty this is, the grieving Beast has cracked open an eyelid; its gloom has acquired a nervous edge. Anyone would be insane to remotely contemplate the resurrection of the Amnesty Bill in any guise. In the presence of unresolved & unacknowledged injustice, amnesty perpetuates injustice and leads to war, not peace. National reconciliation is impossible without a reckoning on the basis of truth. This is common sense.

Durian head on TV: Guess the ID of the celeb behind the prickly, stinky mask.

When the noose tightens, hypersensitive Thai society reacts immediately. TV news showed PM Prayut berating newspapers for reporting that the new King Rama X had asked for a change in the impending new constitution, which as it stands says the Privy Council President (currently Gen. Prem Tinsulanond) automatically becomes the Regent when the King is overseas or is otherwise indisposed. His Majesty did not ask the government to change the constitution, the PM said; the Privy Council had made the recommendation. Stop making such a fuss; this didn’t affect the people’s rights in any way, as it only concerns royal powers.

As Kevin Kirk of the Devawongse Varopakarn Institute of Foreign Affairs writes in his letter to the Bangkok Post (18 Jan 2017): “Much is being made of the Privy Council’s observation as concurred by His Majesty the King of the need for some minor changes in the draft constitution. The changes, which have no bearing on the rights and privileges of the people, are all about the powers ascribed to the monarch and are, on the whole, mainly procedural, for instance: under whose auspices a regent’s appointment falls or whether the Constitutional Court or the monarch is the final arbiter in times of political strife.”

Framed pictures of the new King for sale

In the Thai art world it’s the end of an era too—let’s say the end of Chapter 2 of Thai contemporary art (Bhirasri Institute having been Chapter 1), with the imminent closure of Chulalongkorn University Art Center, which held its last opening party on January 19 for its last exhibition, ‘Acknowledgement’, a group show of 50 artists who have displayed there since its founding in 1995.  The Art Center manager, Ajarn Suebsang Sangwachirapiban, giggled to me, “I wasted time worrying over your work [portrait of Chit Singhaseni’s widow]—turns out the only problem we’ve had was with Ajarn Apinan’s.” He meant Apinan Poshyananda, the founding director of the Art Center himself, and newly retired Permanent Secretary (#1 bureaucrat) of the Ministry of Culture. Alas it wasn’t the ministry that has blacked out words that form a part of his work, but self-censorship by university eminences.

Apinan Poshyananda’s censored work at Chula Art Center’s swansong

 Two days later at another exhibition opening, of pioneering Thai photo-artist Pramuan Burusphat’s retrospective, ‘Destination: Still Unknown’ at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre, I came face to face with a stunningly simple image: a black & white photograph of a hand grabbing the seat of a chair backlit by a curtained window. Here was the whole of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ condensed into a single vision. After watching Trump’s ascension to the Imperial Throne, I suppose I was in a receptive frame of mind.

The Chair’ (1977), part of Pramuan Burusphat’s ‘Destination: Still Unknown’ at BACC

Through such a prism, my focus having been recalibrated by Pramuan’s ‘The Chair’ (1977), I see these larger-than-life, archetypal creatures for what they are: Monsters of God. This is how villagers in the Sundarbans perceive man-eating tigers, the sacred ride of the blood-thirsty Goddess. Trump, Duterte, Thaksin, Mao, Hitler, Mussolini: by their fateful impact these are no ordinary humans like you & me but irresistible forces of destiny, acquiring their exquisitely appropriate form from the emanations of the masses’ secret fears & desires. They have been woven by us from our nightmares to embody our darkest self, which can then be exorcised. As anyone knows who’s ever seen an exorcism movie, you can’t expel the demon until you know its true name.

Strange ball of floating light, claimed to be a ‘phee grasue’, spotted by a forest scavenger
in Isan on 26 Jan at 6 pm. 
“I’ve seen her often, a head with long hair & long fangs.”
No mention of flying intestines. (Nation TV)

Like many filmmakers who’ve nursed the fantasy of making an exorcism movie, I’ve done some research for such a script. All sources & traditions seem to agree: Rule #1: Never be tempted to argue or debate with the demon, especially on abstractions & philosophy. He is the master of deception who will weaken & confound you. Rule #2: Focus all your will on forcing the demon to reveal its true face & name. Rule #3: Expel the demon in the name of something sacred, never arrogantly rely on your own powers or make it personal, otherwise disaster strikes. (Let’s see what the obsessive occult fact-checker says about that.)

The cock is crowing. Awake, arise & shine, my friend. Happy Chinese New Year of the Rooster to you, though it might turn out to be an entirely different animal. I overheard a talking head on TV call it the Year of the Fire Swan (“Hongse Fai”). The heedless man might lick his lips, anticipating a delicious outcome, ie. Gai Yang barbecued chicken. But the talking head explained this meant the Phoenix, when long-buried & apparently dead people, stories, secrets & cold cases rise from the ashes. Good luck with that, my dear. Here’s to hoping you haven’t buried anyone or anything that’s still alive.

With Love from Bangkok,
Ing Kanjanavanit


A pioneer of environmental investigative reporting, Ing Kanjanavanit is a filmmaker, painter & bilingual writer, best known in Thai for the cult classic travelogue/handbook for environmental activism, ‘Khang Lhang Postcard’ (‘Behind the Postcard’) under the nom de guerre Lharn Seri Thai (136)—‘Free Thai Descendent/Force 136’, to evoke the Free Thai Movement against fascist forces during World War 2, which fought for the Allies then after the war was betrayed by the Allies. Sadly, she no longer attends Free Thai merit-making rites, not since Thaksin’s redshirts appropriated the name & equated Thaksin with Free Thai leader Pridi Banomyong, which is a travesty & a sacrilege.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

End Times with Subtitles

Pigeon crushed by a car on my street. New Year omen?

Bangkok Love Letter
End Times with Subtitles

Tuesday 3 January 2017, Bangkok

Dear Foreign Friend,

Was your Christmas merry? Sorry I sent no card & even missed my self-imposed December deadline. I was finishing a film & then my Right Hand Woman, who posts these blogs for me, went to her mum’s off-grid organic farm for the holidays.

By now you may have heard how stoners up & down the country are furtively lamenting the elevation of General Paiboon Koomchaya, fearless & sane champion of legislation to decriminalise ganja, from Justice Minister to Privy Councillor, just as new drug laws are being discussed. Obviously royal advisers cannot campaign to liberalise drug laws, and no one else is likely to have the guts and the clout to push this through. But the tide of history (& commerce) are on our side, so you never know.

Budding organic Siamese weed

In both the mainstream & social media, year-end displays of hatred for 2016 & apocalyptic fears for 2017 seem inescapable. Assorted oracles see more drastic changes; all numerologists & tarot-readers would agree that 17 is the number of The Lightning-Struck Tower, the card that portrays the shattering of false ideas and idols. Those who read omens, meaning all Thai people, wonder what 3 crocodile attacks, two during so-routine-they’re-boring tourist shows on crocodile farms & one on a French hiker in Khaoyai national park who stepped past a ‘Beware Crocodiles’ sign to take a daring selfie (“Big Mountain Croc bites French Lady’s Leg”- Daily News), might portend.

To my bedside Dream Dictionary, the crocodile is treachery. But here in Siam he is a symbol of our primeval soul, as embodied by the myth of Kraitong the crocodile shaman & Chalawan the crocodile prince presiding over the resplendent palace beneath the river. Kraitong’s superhero wardrobe with its gold armlets has sadly become a parody of gay costume, but he was able to breathe under water with no artificial aid other than his shakti, diving into the mud brown water to wrestle with his shadow. Though I’ve never seen one & have been too lazy to go looking, I’ve read of potent shrines to the Crocodile God along the upper reaches of the Chao Phraya, and they were not considered places of evil but of respect.

2016 newsclippings

Among the clippings I collected from 2016 newspapers, there are many pictures of deformed microcephaly babies. Then out of the box came a single item from AP about “Solar Kids” in Pakistan: 2 children who are perfectly normal during the day but go completely limp at nightfall. According to Javed Akram, professor of medicine of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, “Once the sun goes down, they lapse into a vegetative state, unable to move or walk.” Some horror writer is surely going to be inspired. We might soon see a monster movie starring our own small-headed children. How apt that mosquitoes, which easily represent bad thoughts & evil intent, should be the Mother’s instrument of choice for dragging us back to the stone age.
A born-again Christian I know believes these are End Times, as manifested by the great rupture between Servants of the Lord and Slaves of Satan. These days it’s not so easy to laugh at his biblical fears, especially when we see ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’, a reality show of tiny tot beauty queens, being hyped on TV. There’s no question that a chasm has cracked open between the aforementioned servants & slaves, and now we find ourselves standing on our respective side of the precipice, gazing in awe into the bottomless abyss & never at each other except to shout abuse or watch in horror. My view of it is probably not unlike yours, ie. a black hole, except mine would have English subtitles: white for dialogue, yellow for written words & pink for singing. That’s how it looks after 5 days spent subtitling a film. You try it and see.
Subtitling is strange work: it requires a very high level of skill, care & understanding, but the work itself is extremely tedious, not unlike a factory assembly line. Yes, people farm it out, which results in horrible subtitles that merely add to the world’s store of confusion, misunderstanding & disharmony. Good subtitles can render great service to humanity. If it’s done well, you wouldn’t even remember it, let alone be aware of the work involved.
I seriously considered not subtitling this last film, before my ridiculous decision was voted down by the gang & my own conscience. When an English-speaking film is done, it’s done. But we’re not done. Not until we have English subtitles, which ruin our picture as well as being a tremendous slog. For “foreign language” filmmakers, subtitles can be symbolic of imperial oppression and the unmovable fact of our own powerlessness.

The film in question, Bangkok Joyride 2: Shutdown Bangkok, has far fewer subtitles than Part 1. There are long stretches with no subtitles at all, just thousands of whistles & screams. Still, it’s a complicated business, with the screen full of ant-like activity & protest signs, the soundtrack full of threats, curses, marching songs & the occasional breathless TV reporter. I had to make the terrible decision to have a black border around the screen on which to put the damned subtitles, colour-coded as above for clarity, meaning we had to shrink our image to make room for the said black frame. This gives the viewer the choice not to look at the subtitles, and people who need subtitles would see them clearly. Such decisions remind me how small & powerless my country is, and who’s the boss. There is no arguing with that. I’m writing to you in English, after all. If I want you to understand us & stop hurting us, I have to tell you our stories in your language.

“Ignorant hungry ghosts.”

Empathetic & conscientious translators are magical people. Theirs is literally a labour of love. If you do it right, there will be less discord & more clarity, even if the words you’re translating mean “Get out!”, “Evil cops!” or “Ignorant hungry ghosts!” (“Phee Prate mai rub suan boon”). If you truly convey the rage behind such words, you can accurately convey the sense of outrage & injustice that causes such rage. This is not hate speech, quite the reverse. By conveying feelings honestly, we begin an honest dialogue & start building a bridge across the chasm.

The epidemic handwringing over “fake news” & how to tell what’s fake (“double-check if the reputable mainstream media also run the story blah blah”) ignores the chilling fact that journalism is seriously broken, that decades of pervasive manipulation of half-truths in the reputable mainstream media have led us to this pass; that its pseudo-liberal tyranny of political correctness is responsible for provoking & spawning this present gleeful celebration of hate. 

Greeting cards featuring the late King, among Christmas angels.

Newsclipping shamans may view the plague of small-headed babies as graphic manifestation of human decline. I have the eerie feeling that infected mosquitoes didn’t begin this head-shrinking process; it’s merely the outward projection of our headlong determination to dumb down the masses & distort all meaningful exchange and experience. What the I Ching calls “the abuse of human freedom”—the abuse of free enterprise and democracy.

Happy 2017! May we live in interesting times!!

With Love from Bangkok,
Ing Kanjanavanit

A pioneer of environmental investigative reporting, Ing Kanjanavanit is a filmmaker, painter & bilingual writer, best known in Thai for the cult classic travelogue/handbook for environmental activism, ‘Khang Lhang Postcard’ (‘Behind the Postcard’) under the nom de guerre Lharn Seri Thai (136)—‘Free Thai Descendent/Force 136’, to evoke the Free Thai Movement against fascist forces during World War 2, which fought for the Allies then after the war was betrayed by the Allies. Sadly, she no longer attends Free Thai merit-making rites, not since Thaksin’s redshirts appropriated the name & equated Thaksin with Free Thai leader Pridi Banomyong, which is a travesty & a sacrilege.