Thailand is a country that is very dear to my heart, since it is the second Asian country that I visited (and have returned to many times) since adopting Japan as my second home (and has served as a contrasting mirror from which to understand Japanese culture). Phillip Cornwel-Smith's book Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture (2005) is a great resource in which to understand Thai culture. The book also acts asa a coffee table book with lively colorful pictures from Cornwel-Smith and main photographer John Gross. Alex Kerr, who has written books both about Japanese culture (Lost Japan) and in recent times on Thailand (Bangkok Found) has written the preface and is quoted throughout by Cornwel-Smith. Much of my observations of Thai society are also filtered by years living in Japan. These are two distinct societies, but as Asian cultures there is some overlap and there are rich opportunities for comparing and contrasting the two. Cornwel-Smith's informative Introduction: "What makes something very Thai?" highlights some cultural traits and historical truths about Thailand. Cornwel-Smith likens the attempt to get information about the society that is guarded by seniors and issued bit by bit and influenced by Buddhism, hierarchy, and spirit beliefs. Indirectness avoids confrontation and can lead to mai pen rai (a favorite Thai expression meaning never mind). He uses the anthropological term "bricolage"-the way that an animist society arranges the objects of life in a self-contained logic that bewilders outsiders. And the science of bricolge 'reads' objects as signs to understand a society-which is what Cornwel-Smith is attempting with this book. Then there is the fact that many activities have public, private and spiritual sides, in whihc the concept of sanuk ('the fun seinsiblity') infuses these. He notes that cross-cultural business books emphasize how sanuk helps Thais get work done, thus, a very important aspect of Thai culture missing from Japanese culture.
The book is divided into four main sections: "Street," "Personal," "Ritual," and "Sanuk." Each of these sections have sub-sections on various aspects of the general heading. In "Street" there are the following subcategories: Dinner on a Stick, Drink in a Bag, Sugar, Tiny Pink Tissues, Insect Treats, vendors, Longtail Boats & Barges, Truck & Bus Art, Motorcycle Taxi Jackets, Tuk-tuk, Fairy Lights, Greco-Roman Architecture, Gates & Grilles, Blind Bands, Soi Animals, Blue Pipes & Hanging Wires, and Trash recyclers. Cornwel-Smith reveals some interesting points, for example, the Japanese invented the first man-powered rickshaw in 1833 and came to Siam by 1872. In addition, they made the first motorized rickshaws and imported them across South and Southeast Asia. The Thais have incorporated them into their own transport culture, however, they are on the decline. In the section, Blind Bands, it is revealed that most handicapped people languish as rural recluses because of belief in bad karma makes imperfect bodies something shameful to be hidden. They are banned from inheriting land redistributed to the poor and don't get any farming subsidies. Japan also has the same problem as Thailand with Blue Pipes and Hanging Wires, that Alex Kerr addresses in Dogs and Demons. I learned that in 1893 Bangkok became the first Asian city to have electrified trams and that Japan would not switch until 1903. The exposes wires and pipes stem from a 20th century 'developerment mindset' in which the race for modernization that resulted in a country less rather than more sophisticated-much like Japan. Kerr is quoted here as saying: "People who are born and live in such an environment know of no alternative. The result is that the public, as well as the planners and architects,think this kind of look is an inherent part of modernization." In trash recyclers, Cornwel-Smith talks about the Thai proverb, 'hiding an elephant corpse beneath a lotus leaf' and bureaucracies tend ot do that by by being fixed on development not the costs seen in pollution and garbage. Thus, attitudes like riab roi, cleanliness and unblemished beauty mutate so that materials are discarded for shiny new replacements-one measure of wealth is what you can afford to throw away.
The second section is "Personal": Uniforms, Hi-so, Nicknames & Namecards, Female Grooming, Male Grooming, Katoey & Tom-Dee, Massage, Inhalers, Sniff Kiss, Village Home Decor, Furniture for Fun, Alphabet Tables, Potted Gardens, Poodle Bushes, Cute, The Thai Dream. There are certain similarities with Japanese culture in this section like Uniforms, namecards, grooming, and cute ("kawaii"), but there are more that are distinct to Thailand and their culture. For example, in Katoey & Tom Dee their ambivalent attitudes towards gay and transsexual culture which has seen it become the place to get sex reassignment surgery. Furthermore, the same ambivalence and mostly acceptance of sex is discussed in relation to the two types of massage available in Thailand; one taught in temples, the other ending happily.
The third section is "Ritual": Royal Portraits, Garuda, Day Themes, Monk Baskets, Amulet Collectors, Taxi Altars, Magical Tattoos, Palad Khik, Trade Talismans, Nag Kwak, Lucky Number, Fortune Tellers, Mediums & Shamans, Ghost Stories, Modern Shrines. Some of these seems very Thai-specific, like those things related to superstition and mystical protection (tattoos and amulets), but some of these are also true of the Japanese (ghost stories and fortune tellers). It was interesting to learn that 'Nag Kwak' predates the Japanese maneki-neko: both with a similar come hither hand gesture for attracting customers.
The final section is "Sanuk": Temple Fairs, Festivals, Gambling, Animal Contests, Muay Thai, Beauty Queens, Lyyk Thung & Mor Lam, Comedy Cafes, Whisky Mixer Tables, Red Bull, Yaa Dong, Sanuk-on-Sea, Multi-Purpose Celebrities, Soap Operas, Songs For Life, T-Pop Goes Indy. Some very Thai things going on here with gambling, cock fights, Thai folk music, slapstick comedy, Muay Tahi and communal drinking. In fact, Whisky Mixer Tables is a platform to discuss go go bars and other drinking establishments and customs seen throughout the country which revolve around communal drinking from bottles (usually whisky) and buckets at clubs. Others have their version in other Asian cultures like Japan: temple fairs (festivals), Japanese folk music (enka), celebrities, gambling (pachinko), Japanese-style slapstick comedy, and pop culture.
Overall, the book is extremely informative, in general, about popular Thai culture with great photos throughout. However, some subjects interest me more than others and for those I would have liked to have read more in-depth analyses, but an excellent overview.