Saturday, March 24, 2007

Highlighting the Isaan people through his cartoons


Cartoonist Padung Kraisri has made a name for himself for his character Noo Hin. Padung uses his creations to portray the people in Thailand's forgotten backyard, 19 provinces with a collective name of Isaan.

THE most famous maid in Thailand is Noo Hin, a 15-year-old girl who manages to perform her household chores while hunting down lizards to eat and rescuing her employer from an evil supermodel.

The naïve and cheeky maid en-thralls about a million Thais who follow her comical adventure toiling for her 19-year-old filthy-rich and busty employer, Khun Milk.

Noo Hin is a cartoon character created by Padung Kraisri, a 47-year-old cartoonist from Ubon Rat-chathani in Thailand. In 2006, the popular Thai comic strip, Noo Hin, was fleshed out into a blockbuster movie, Noo Hin: The Movie.

The cartoonist, like his creation, is from the northeast, which for many tourists, according to the travel guidebook Lonely Planet, is Thail-and’s forgotten backyard. The collective name for the 19 provinces that make up the northeast is Isaan.

For Padung, Noo Hin is the embodiment of Isaan. Her characteristics – honest, diligent and yet naïve in a positive way – reflect the Isaan people. And with her very square nose, and dark skin, she has the typical look of Isaan people, the cartoonist noted, adding: “But the Isaan people are cute in a certain way.”

Milk, her Bangkok-based employer, is beautiful and sexy, while Noo Hin is diminutive and plain.

“Most good-looking people come from Bangkok. But I did not have the intention to portray Isaan girls as not so good-looking.

“It is just the way I drew Noo Hin,” explained Padung.

Lonely Planet states that “this colossal corner of the country continues to live life on its own terms: slowly, steadily and with a profound respect for both heritage and history.”

Padung agrees, saying that despite Isaan’s unforgiving climate of persistent drought, its people have always remained in the region.

“And they have kept their way of life. That is why many people feel that the real Thailand is in Isaan,” he said.

The northeast also has its own distinctive celebrations such as the Bun Bung Fai (Rocket) Festival, were villagers construct large skyrockets of bamboo, which they then fire into the sky to bring rain for their rice fields.

Drought has made Isaan, where rice planting is the main economy, the poorest region in Thailand. The people's poverty is also compounded by a high birth rate. And their plight gets more difficult with each generation, as a family owns only one or two rai (1,600 sq m) of rice field to distribute among numerous children, explained Padung.

So, like Noo Hin, when the children get older they have to migrate to bigger towns, especially Bangkok, to earn money. And in general, Bangkokians have a negative perception of northeasterners such as most bargirls are from Isaan.

“Most Isaan people have very little education, so they get the dirty jobs (housemaid and construction work) that no one else wants to do. They’ve become the driving force that keeps things moving,” says Padung

There are positives coming from Isaan, he insisted. And these are reflected in a poster he designed for Coca Cola’s advertising campaign The Coke Side of Life which was launched in Thailand in January.

Padung was ecstatic when the beverage company approached him to illustrate the northeast region as it was an opportunity for him to show Isaan’s positive side.

His Coca Cola artwork, which is plastered in billboards all over the northeast, include the Rocket Festival, a little kid riding a buffalo in a rice field (this represents 80% of how the Isaan people live), people in ghost masks for the Phi Tha Khon Festival, khoon (cheerful yellow flower of Isaan) and Isaan musical instruments.

In the middle of the artwork is his most famous creation, Noo Hin, who he insists is not a maid but a house manager.

(Published in The Star on March 24, 2007)