Book on Bangkok gives fresh insights on its troubled relation with Isaan
Philip Cornwel-Smith’s latest book, Very Bangkok, might have been just another of the umpteen guide books on Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. Why another book on this egotistical and egocentric subject? But Cornwel-Smith is no typical guide. The very breadth of Very Bangkok provides a comprehensive and fresh take on the capital and its role within the country. It also gives us new insights into Isaan and its troubling relationship to the capital.
By David Streckfuss
It was not without some trepidation (and irritation) that I approached Very Bangkok : In the City of the Senses, yet another book seeming to celebrate the very place that already tirelessly marvels over itself and its own splendor. Would a book of this type even attempt to touch on the inequality and injustice that characterizes the relationship between Bangkok and the rest of the country? Would it dare to bring up those inconvenient facts that would tarnish the city’s image? Would it get at Bangkok’s role in wrecking democracy in Thailand, coercing non-Bangkokian Thai to bow down before dictatorship, and perpetuating a hierarchy of privilege that daily steals away the dignity of the majority of the population?
My initial fears were unfounded. Philip Cornwel-Smith has in Very Bangkok created a veritable masterpiece of the genre. But what exactly is its genre? It’s misleading and a disservice to the book for it to be reduced to the classification, “Travel literature” or “Bangkok Travel Guides.” It’s not about travel. It’s about a place and how to understand it. The author himself says, Very Bangkok is not a guide. But he’s wrong. It is a kind of guide but of a very different kind. Cornwel-Smith rightly labels himself a contemporary historian. He is more than that, though, because his subject, the complex nature and personality of a diverse city with a long history and a near-unfathomable present, has both an unresolved history and dynamic, ever-shifting present.
Philip Cornwel-Smith, Very Bangkok : In the City of the Senses (Bangkok: River Books, 2020), 260 p., ISBN 9786164510432, 995 baht. Philip Cornwell-Smith, Very Bangkok : In the City of the Senses (Bangkok: River Books, 2020), 260 p., ISBN 9786164510432, 995 baht.
Very Bangkok is a sophisticated treatment that gives ultimate respect to the reader. Cornwel-Smith lays out both what might sometimes seem as the most trivial aspects of life in Bangkok arranged in self-contained sections, along with easily digestible accounts of academic work on various topics. The author sets out to “present a comprehensive portrait of contemporary Bangkok.” The book is not an account of “Great Men” and dates, but rather an examination of a history that “is shaped by subtler trends that include popular culture and social circles.”
Cornwel-Smith has organized the book into “Senses,” “Heart,” and “Face.” In the first section, the author innovatively invites the reader to go beyond the primary senses and explore other senses such as color, balance, flow, and direction. It’s hard to organize a book covering so many topics. The author tells readers that the book is organized in such a way that a reader can dive in anywhere and start on a topic. A reader can also refer to credits, footnotes, and the excellent index to find how various parts of the book are interlinked. As much as a book can be, it is an assault on the eyes and can not be imagined without the adept use of color. The book is necessarily a hardback because it assumes correctly that a reader will be fingering through its pages again and again. Given the book’s quality in content and layout, 995 baht is a steal.
Thainess = Bangkok = Primate City = Privilege
There’s so many themes packed into this book. But let’s choose a central one: Thainess. Cornwel-Smith sees Thainess can be approached in many ways: the official ideology is just “one thread of historical thought among a tapestry of possible narratives.” But it is a dominant one. Best understood, says the author, Thainess demarcates what’s proper and what’s not, the tension between formality and informality. It’s not just that Bangkok is any big capital city: it is also the world’s most primate of primate cities. Bangkokness is hard to define because the city is “the epitome of Thainess.” Says Cornwel-Smith, what people view as Thainess is Bangkokness (Or is it the other way around?)
While there may be some non-Bangkok Thais who fulminate against Bangkok’s monopoly over everything, few can imagine an alternative to the status quo. This is not by chance. It is the outcome of century-long policy. Just as the majority of Thais can’t imagine a Thailand without a Bangkok whose size reduces everywhere else to Lilliputian status, even more so Bangkok cannot function without the droves of cheap labor that its primate city-ness requires to exist. Thailand’s model of “development” enfeebles the periphery, forcing migrants into Bangkok. The migrant is disarmed of the best of their intellectual and physical labor and then flung back into the hinterland.
For many in Bangkok, the city is a sacred construction that is not just the country’s main city but the “centre of the universe” that’s also universally exceptional. Bangkokians arrogate to themselves, at the sacred center, the status as the most pure Thais.
This “Bangkok-centricity” is not merely a conceit, but a model of massive economical, social, and spiritual inequality. As Cornwel-Smith comments in the book:
“Bangkokians often assert their exceptionalism within Thailand as being better than provincials in education, taste, success and discipline, not to mention political judgment. For nearly a quarter millennium, the country has revolved around what the capital wants. …The city’s sense of its own identity is cramped by how strongly Bangkokians identify with Nation. …Yet as the label of the national identity, ‘Thai’ is taken as an imperative to overcome those undisciplined traits and perform the gracious cultural ideal in line with social pressure and several lists of instructions by the state.”
Race not a factor?
Cornwel-Smith points out that “Bangkokians tend to say ethnicity is a non-issue, or that ‘all Thais are equal.’” One has to wonder what these Bangkokians think equality is, as it’s certainly not borne out by the numbers. In terms of government expenditure per capita, a Bangkokian receives an incredible 24 times more than a person in the Northeast. Bangkok gets almost three times more than the wealth that it produces.
[Caption:] Saksit Saiyasombut: “Many Bangkokians still think that there is some underdeveloped wild savage hinterland beyond the city borders, and look with weariness and condescension to the rest of the country. There really is belief that this city has its own set of rules and laws. A saying has it that Thailand has never been colonised by anybody, except by Bangkok” [p. 178]. The painting is “Country of Bangkok” by Prakit Kobkijwattana. Photo by Christopher Wise [p. 173].
It’s not surprising that Saksit Saiyasombut notes in the book that “the self-proclaimed heralds of whatever constitutes ‘Thainess’ are all from Bangkok, dictating to the rest of the country what ‘Thainess’ is supposed to be.” What is surprising is that some Bangkokians still suffer under the delusions of grandeur/impression that there is no racial/ethnic aspect to this monstrous inequality. Voranai Vanijaka exemplifies the confident and comfortable ethnocentricity of Bangkok Thais: “There’s no rivalry. It is understood that Bangkok is the center of the Thai universe.” The hyper-centralization forces any political movement to necessarily converge in Bangkok, and yet some Bangkokians feel put out when protesters come. Cornwel-Smith’s book is an effort to locate “Bangkokness.” It is telling (and pathetic) that the closest he’d seen of it was in the possessiveness Yellow Shirt felt in the Red Shirt “invasion of [their] urban icons” in 2010.
Where are the barbarians, exactly?
Within the larger context of urban studies, a tension commonly exists between liberal urban values and the conservative, nativist, and traditionalist values of rural populations who cling to uncomplicated notions of identity and morals.
While Cornwel-Smith admits that Bangkok is the “nexus of national confusion,” he seems to endorse this conventional view of liberal urbanites vs. conservative rurals. But in Thailand, this construct has been put on its head. It’s not the barbarians at the gates but behind the gates. It is the “uneducated,” “rural” red shirts who have championed democracy and human rights, and international value. It is the masters lording over Bangkok who insist on imposing their version of Thainess: xenophobic, authoritarian, and always ready to urge the military to carry out yet another coup to protect its interests.
Yet many Bangkokians are quick to assert exceptionalism in terms of race. Smugly notes Voranai Vanijaka:
“Unlike the West, where race and ethnicity can often result in a riots and lynching, and all sorts of discrimination, this isn’t really an issue. …There’s no Lao Pride Parade. No Malay Affirmation Action Group. The trouble in the Deep South is political, where ethnicity and religion are used as tools. But other than that, the central authority has done a great job through the years, of melting everyone into the Thai identity. The difference is in social class, divided by wealth rather than ethnicity.”
Much of Very Bangkok is dedicated to rich and nuanced accounts of Bangkok’s ethnic communities. It also goes to great lengths to challenge “the monoethnic view of Thailand.” The ethnic diversity of Thailand was only made apparent after Bangkok felt it had successfully inculcated the population with Thainess (and, of course, for tourism). Now, just like in other countries, Thais have complicated, hyphenated identities: Thai-Chinese, Thai-Isaan, Thai-Indian, etc.
Beneath Thainess there has always been the flow of subterranean ethnic identities that have now only been made clear politically and socially. The country, “Thailand,” is built on an imperial model where a sacred center has imposed a colonial-style rule over a periphery of non- or less Thai peoples. The inevitable hierarchy of privilege whose maintenance is the government’s primary function has entrenched a model of ethnic and class superiority.
Caption: “Ugly Bangkok,” a map of Bangkok biases by architect Rackchart Wongarthichart, showing “how ‘nationalistic education’ leads ‘half of inner Bangkokians’ (aka ‘Thailand’) to view other regions and neighbours” [p. 187]. (slightly censored)
In the past few decades, the internet has broken the state’s monopoly on information and allowed these submerged identities to learn more about the world and their own situations. Cornwel-Smith dedicates a section to Isaan and its contributions to Bangkok. He includes an account of an Isaan person comparing the situation of Isaan to American Blacks. The comparison is of course not exact, but the experiences of these two groups do share important similarity: the intellectual and physical labor of Isaan migrants has been central to the hyper-growth of the center, and it has been necessary to legitimize such unequal exploitation through the creation and maintenance of stereotypes that justify such exploitation in the first place.
Cornwel-Smith cites Benedict Anderson’s keen observation that: “So far as I know, Bangkok has yet to give birth to a great novelist, poet, playwright, philosopher, architect, or social thinker. It is Khon Kaen, not Bangkok, that gave birth to Apichatpong Weerasetthakul, who is internationally regarded as among the very top world directors.”
This system has unwittingly produced Isaan artists who have excelled on the world stage. It is true: extreme privilege rarely creates great art. Art is most often the prize and burden of the oppressed. Predictably, Bangkok (or is it Thailand?) does not deign to recognize or embrace the accomplishments of these Isaan people; it recognizes only the forgettable mediocrities who serve the power that be.
The drama of Bangkok becomes tiresome
In drawing close to the book, Cornwel-Smith points out that many have termed Thailand a “Theatre State.” The drama had always been a gawdy affair despite the pretensions of the one and only performer, Bangkok. It had always compelled its audience’s undivided attention. In the past few decades, though, the relentless performance has become a tawdry affair. The protagonist has been sinking where it stands, mired in greater and greater corruption. Sections of the audience have become rebellious and moved to mount their own performances in the shadows. Whatever art there may have been has been lost; a disenchanted audience’s compliance can now only come from the end of a gun.
Cornwel-Smith says that he designed the book to be event-proof: whatever might happen in or to Bangkok, it is all presaged somewhere in the book; no matter what happens it will not affect the book and even may have in a sense confirmed its observations.
Despite being published before this past outbreak of student protest, Cornwel-Smith was still cognizant enough to sense the rumblings of the Millennials in Thailand who are more frank and socially conscious. They are outraged at the crappy performance that’s being foisted upon them. Seen through eyes no longer susceptible to cheap artifice, the new generation has clarity: democracy has ever been denied to Thailand by tin pot despots whose claims to legitimacy turn to dust when exposed to reality.
This meticulous social history does make Bangkok accessible and the overall sensation that once gets from reading the book is a sense of familiarity. It is a kind of biography of a place and the people who have animated it in all its foibles, self-proclaimed grandeur, creativity, and conceits. Cornwel-Smith’s book is a celebration of a city that can be seen anew in its pages. It is also an honest look at the perverse distortions caused by this type of primate city.
The astonishing amount of what Cornwel-Smith has ferreted away all these years makes him an accomplice, a participant-observer in this biography of Bangkok. It is in a strange way as much the journey of the author as it is of the city he now calls home.
Very Bangkok will be the standard from which any future examination of Bangkok, if any dare attempt it, will be measured by.
The author makes it clear that the book is not a “guide” but in fact he is, but not of Bangkok but rather a way to be in the world. Any city that received such clear-eyed and piercing sensibility deserves such a guide who can help readers re-experience any place in the world.
David Streckfuss has worked with The Isaan Record Record since 2013. He has worked in international education for nearly three decades and, on the side, is an independent scholar who occasionally writes pieces for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Asian Nikkei Review, and Al Jazeera.
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