Tuesday, 7 March 2017


Giant White Rabbit on the way into the forest

Bangkok Love Letter

Sunday 5 March 2017, Bangkok

Dear Foreign Friend,

The weather changed 2 days ago—it’s getting hot & humid again. Sometimes I think my mother Nunie Svasti chose to die at the height of the fire season on purpose. So that her children’s annual visit to her forest grave would force them never to forget the seriousness of the problem she set out to solve, through a project to revive a water catchment forest on a ridge above a once lush valley that had turned into a desert, complete with cacti.

Thanks to her impeccable timing & perhaps dark sense of humour, I always get a frontline look at the state of the source of our rivers, the Mae Ping and hence the Chao Phya, every year for the past decade.

On Chiangmai flights I always look out the plane’s window to try to count the fires as we fly over the Intanond Mountains where her project is located. This year I went there almost 3 weeks earlier than usual, finding some greenery still remaining in the dry benjapan forest, which sheds leaves in the dry season. There was no smoke other than from prevention burns to create firebreaks. Last year as early as January there were too many fires to count. By fire season proper, you couldn’t see Doi Suthep from the airport carpark at the foot of the mountain.

Still green stairway to heaven in Mae Soi Valley, end of February 2017

On the day we brought her ashes there, some of the village forest firefighters who’d worked alongside my mother told me, bluntly: “Don’t forget us na. We’re still fighting the fire.”

Over 30 years since it began, their life’s work is literally bearing fruit in orchards fed by small reservoirs & running streams—a trickle at this time of year, but still flowing unlike in other neighbouring valleys. It’s a precarious success, however; the monk who started it all, Phra Ajarn Pongsak Tejadhammo, also died a year ago. The fires still come every year & the original firefighters are getting old—some have passed on like my mother & Phra Ajarn. Even in this forest valley, now that life has improved, they worry that their phone-obsessed children do not know how hard they’ve had to fight to bring back the reviving streams of Mae Soi & Mae Pok. The big challenge is therefore how to get the kids to care.

I never discuss politics with the locals. As Northerners, they might still be Shinawatra fans, even if from social pressure alone. But we tacitly know that we share an unbreakable bond: our elders replanted the forest for us, but we have to protect the growing trees from the man-made conflagration that engulfs Southeast Asia every year from the Golden Triangle to Borneo, choking cities from Chiangrai to Singapore, sending asthmatics to early graves including much-loved Chinese pop diva Teresa Teng (Tian Mi Mi), who died in Chiangmai in May 1995 as mountain fires raged around the town.

Meanwhile a smog alert has just been issued for Lampang, just south of Chiangmai. People are advised to wear masks. So it begins.

We’ve all heard the Chinese counsel for the future survival of human civilization: plant trees to safeguard the next 50 years & teach your kids to ensure another century. On a tangent, my mother’s favourite Chinese saying advises a balance between ‘bread’ and ‘flower’ (rather than guns and butter), because one gives you life & the other gives you a reason for living. There are people who fight against dams & polluting power plants & people who fight to keep the pristine beauty of national parks; there are artists who make clothes & artists who make paintings.

Like witches released, at Maiiam’s ‘Mon Art du Style’

On the same trip at the opposite end to these forest scenes, at a gathering of Chiangmai’s high society at the opening of ‘Mon Art du Style’ at Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum, I found the same generational dynamics in the bond between museum founding director Jean-Michel Beurdeley & his son Eric Booth. The show is in memoriam of style icon & art patron Patsri Bunnag, Jean-Michel’s late wife & Eric’s mother, who was a motivational force behind the building of the museum but died shortly before it opened.

They decided to celebrate her cutting edge life by displaying her amazing clothes, works of art in themselves, alongside artworks from the collection she had amassed with her husband & son, all early patrons of Thai contemporary art. It’s a collection compiled by instinct & passion; the pairing of design with art is sensitive & lit with drama (curator: art writer & designer Pichayanund ‘Pring’ Chindahporn Bunnag/ scenography: superstar stylist Ampol ‘Yong’ Jiramahapoka) so that the clothes set off the art loved by the woman who had the nerve to wear the clothes, resulting in an exhibition of the gut decisions made by a gutsy woman.

Dreams of gold at Maiiam’s ‘Mon Art du Style’

The fact was, up to the mid 1970’s, ‘nice’ girls, middle or upper-class, didn’t model. As late as 1982, when I drifted into the Dirty Business of advertising, it was not easy to find girls willing to pose for advertising campaigns. In Patsri’s young days, one did not flaunt oneself on catwalks or even in fashion magazines. It was considered compromising for the girl’s perceived virginity & suitability for marriage. She and her gang of “Thailand’s first supermodels”, including theatre grande dame Lek Patravadi (then) Sritrairatna, blazed the way for ‘nice’ girls to feel free to show themselves off & express themselves through fashion in any way they wish. I may not want to sashay on a catwalk or be ogled, but I’m glad that other people can, if they want to. How much more fun the world has become in consequence. Alongside every woman I have to render my gratitude where it is due.

The moving interview in the museum auditorium, filmed in Paris at the end of her life, when she must’ve known that she was dying, conducted in French (with Thai & English subtitles) & set to Balinese music, reminded me that we never got to say goodbye to her, since she had willed that her funeral be private. I think she didn’t want her lifeless body to be on public display for the water-blessing rite. I totally get it even though I do admire the Buddhist teaching of the rite. How many times at funerals have you wondered how you yourself would look with the mortician’s Chinese opera pancake make-up & too orange lipstick pasted on your stiffening grey-green face as family,  friends & enemies pour holy water on your cold claw of a hand? This is not fitting for a trail-blazing bohemian supermodel.

The red & black pantsuit who danced for me at Maiiam’s ‘Mon Art du Style’

I sneaked off from the milling well-dressed crowd (yes, still in black & white), to enjoy the exhibition in peace before the floodgates opened. Given my gothic bent, I could swear she slipped invisibly inside the vampire pantsuit  hanging there in the first room to pose for me, turning & swaying from side to side to show it to best advantage. No one else was in the room to cause such movements to the empty clothes unless it’s the aircon current (that’s right, explain it away). The black & red pantsuit moved so eerily I felt compelled to film it, perhaps for later use in a dream sequence. The paintings behind are of the uterus.

Front page news March 3, 2017

Back in Bangkok, as various official entities go through the motions of Reconciliation, I had the occasion to venture among so-called mixed crowds, through parts (correctly or not) perceived as redshirt territory, including the French embassy residence’s riverside lawn, where a group of anti-Thaksin art & media types stood literally next to redshirt core leaders Mhor Weng Tojirakarn & Thida Thavornseth at the 160 years of French-Thai relations cocktail party.

While the media have dubbed the wife ‘Nok Saek’ (the Barn Owl or ‘bird of ill omen’, whose call nearby foretells death in the household), a nickname that has stuck, the husband’s ability to confound & confuse any debate has given Thais a new verb: ‘weng’, as in “Don’t you weng me, I know what’s what.”

Redshirt leader Mhor Weng seated next to Dusadee Banomyong on the French Embassy lawn.

He wandered off occasionally, but she stayed seated in one of two chairs possibly brought for her to rest her weary legs. Cocktail parties are not kind to older people. She was right behind me, barely 5 feet away, but I didn’t see her until a family friend, Dusadee Banomyong, went by to sit down beside her. They chatted away in a friendly manner.

Next to them, the loose huddle I was in included Petch Osathanugrah & Amarit Chusuwan (‘Pi Ho’), Dean of Silpakorn University of Fine Arts’ School of Painting & Sculpture, who had been an important mobiliser of the artistic community (artists, musicians, designers) in support of the Shutdown Bangkok protests, resulting in the outrageously entertaining Art Lane protest stage which occupied Ploenchit road in front of Central Chidlom Department Store, later moving inside Lumpini Park as the security situation deteriorated. Art Lane raised over 20 million baht for the cause through art auctions, protest t-shirts, souvenirs, designer products made from pakhaoma (hand-woven cloth brought from upcountry by farmers protesting the wreckage of Yingluck’s rice-pledging scheme, to earn some income while occupying Bangkok) & so on.

It was for the grievous sin of spray-painting t-shirts for Art Lane that artist Sutee Kunavichyanond was later slandered as anti-democratic by a group calling itself CAD (really), short for Cultural Activists for Democracy, which demanded that a major museum in South Korea remove his Art Lane-related work from an exhibition celebrating democratic struggle—that whole brouhaha that compelled me to start writing these love letters in the first place.

But as the ‘anti-democratic evil elite’ Art Laners stood there right beside Mhor Weng ‘the Master Debater’ & his ‘She-Owl’, no one said anything. Except for the odd passing waiter, no one stood between Us and Them. For the sake of their French friends, no one betrayed their assigned role as guest at the ‘160 years of French-Thai Relations’ soiree. (Why only 160? What about all that crazy stuff in Ayudhya?) No one moved away & all pretended the other side was not there. Remember these are not social, but mortal, enemies. Actual corpses & ruination lay piled up between.

Fortunately, I was not so discreet. It was dark & outdoors, bathed in the tri-coloured lights of liberty, equality & fraternity; but such a photo-op is unlikely ever to come again. In light of the redshirts’ usurpation of the name Seri Thai (Free Thai resistance against Japanese occupation in WW 2) and the Seri Thai’s deafening silence on the matter, I had to get a photo of Thida in friendly chat with a daughter of Free Thai leader Pridi Banomyong.

Redshirt leader Thida with Pridi Banomyong’s daughter Dusadee as France celebrates 160 years of relations with Thailand

This Art Lane/redshirt scenario was not actually unexpected. Western embassies have made no secret of their support for the Thaksinite side, which means that for the past few years some people have avoided going to diplomatic things, precisely to avoid such undesired close encounters with those they hate and despise.

Not only did we stand next to them throughout the ambassador’s speech & a school choir performance of the Marseillaise followed by the Thai royal anthem (instead of the Thai national anthem, whatever that may signify); as we left they were right on our heels, so that we ended up locked inside the glassed-in security holding pen together (to enter or leave the embassy compound you have to be briefly detained in this security bubble as they close one door & open another. We were breathing Mhor Weng’s & Thida’s exhaled carbon monoxide, for God’s sake. How much more intimate can you get?

Once past the gate & free to separate, we watched silently as they walked away in the direction of Charoenkrung road, perhaps towards their car: an elderly couple looking so feeble, so lost, so different from their aggressive persona, barking hatred like old films of Hitler. I had to work hard to hold on to my outrage. Forgiveness is divine but before we can forgive, ordinary people like us need to see & feel that justice has been done & the slate wiped clean of Trumpian alternative facts that prevent true understanding. For what it’s worth, I would surely have pitied them if I had been a better human-being. 

With Love from Bangkok,
Ing Kanjanavanit

Alternative fact?

All photographs by Ing K unless otherwise indicated.

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.