Saturday, June 30, 2007

Thunder of good fortune


Booming sales of Jatukham amulets is helping fuel the Thai economy, which otherwise would be at a standstill, say believers.

AT 4am, thunder roused a 40-something Thai businesswoman from sleep. As the sky thundered four times, Sujira Khovitoongij became frightened because when she looked out from her Bangkok apartment there was no rain or lightning.

She calmed down after realising that “Jatukham Rammathep had spoken” to her.

“At first I was very scared, but then I remembered that my business partner told me when there was such thunder it meant Jatukham was giving his blessing to my business venture,” relates Sujira of her experience that June 9 morning.

She and her business partners were to launch a store selling the Jatukham Rammathep amulet later that day.

They are among thousands of Thais cashing in on the Jatukham craze in Thailand that began last year. “In this business, these is no risk, only high returns. (On launch day), your company can make 60 million baht (RM6.3mil). I'm not exaggerating,” she declares.

She was not exaggerating. The Kasikorn Research Centre, a leading Bangkok-based economic think tank, estimates that since late last year Jatukham fever has generated more than 20 billion baht (RM2.1bil).

Jatukham, which is commonly worn in a plastic case around the neck, is so popular that recently a woman was trampled to death in a scramble to buy the amulet.

To explain the Jatukham phenomenon, Sujira narrates her own experience. When she enquired about a vacant store in the Nation Tower in Bangkok, she was told that it was booked. So she prayed to Jatukham.

And when she called the building management again, she was informed the store was available, as the person who booked it had cancelled his booking. “Jatukham performs miracles for those who ask his blessing,” she explains.

Sujira also relates a story about a Thai actor who was involved in a car accident. “He should have died, but he survived because he was wearing the Jatukham amulet,” she says.

Thais are also buying the amulet as a collector's item. “It is not only sacred, but its designs are also artistic,” she explains, adding that she planned to purchase amulets made of gold for her two young sons for them to use as dowry in the future.

When asked why Thailand is in turmoil although Thais believe in Jatukham, Sujira responded: “The sales of amulets is helping the economy. If there was no Jatukham business, our economy would be at a standstill.”

According to a report in The Nation, there are many legends regarding Jatukham Rammathep. The most credible account is that Jatukham Rammathep are “the aliases” of brother princes Inthara Sairen and Inthara Khao Kheo, sons of King Jantharaphanu, who ruled the Sri Thammasoke realm, the capital of the Krung Srivijaya Kingdom (757-1257) in southern Thailand, after their father founded it.

“The Sri Thammasoke realm began to degenerate as a result of their father’s absence of 20 years during which he expanded his dominion to as far as eastern India. The brothers founded a new capital at Chang Khom Sirithammarat (present-day Nakhon Si Thammarat), and renamed the realm Srivijaya Suvarnabhumi,” The Nation reported.

“(Even) long after their deaths, the two princes continued to be idolised by succeeding generations, and today are remembered by their preferred names of Jatukham and Rammathep.”

In 1987, Jatukham amulets priced at 39 baht (RM4.10), were created in Nakhon Si Thammarat to raise funds to build a Holy Pillar Shrine.

Today, the price has skyrocketed. For example, Sujira's company, Maharajmaharuay, sells amulets at between 199 baht or RM21 (for those made of clay) and 134,000 baht or RM14,100 (gold).

For the record, the most expensive Jatukham was one of the first ever minted, in 1987, which was sold for 1.2 million baht (RM126,000).

In a few months, Maharajmaharuay will export Jatukham amulets to Malaysia. “Apart from Thailand, Malaysia is a big market for Thai amulets as Malaysians, especially Buddhists, believe in them,” notes Sujira.

On the day Sujira launches her product in Malaysia, she hopes to be awakened by drum rolls of thunder.

(Published in The Star on June 30, 2007 and The Brunei Times on July 3, 2007)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Winds of change blow again


IN BANGKOK, along a bend on the Chao Phraya River, an area occupying less than 2 sq km is the most densely populated community in Thailand. Sampheng, as the area is known, is also distinctively Chinese.

“When you walk into Chinatown, you immediately hear Chinese spoken and see Chinese signs, Chinese shops, and encounter Chinese mannerisms,” says Edward Van Roy, the author of Sampheng: Bangkok’s Chinatown Inside Out.

“Sampheng is one of the oldest, largest and most prosperous of overseas Chinese outposts,” wrote the American, who is a visiting fellow at Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Asian Studies.

“It is among the most successful in having adapted to the host culture while protecting and preserving its own ethnic integrity.”

Sampheng was established in 1782. And in that year Bangkok was founded upon the overthrow of King Taksin, who was the son of a Chinese man and a Thai woman.

“The new king (the first of Thailand’s Chakri dynasty) decided to relocate the Thai capital from Thonburi on the west bank of the river (Chao Phraya) to Rattanokosin (Bangkok) on the east bank,” Van Roy wrote.

“That move required the Teochew community to vacate their settlement.

“They were assigned, as their new home, the remote, underdeveloped downriver tract at Sampheng.”

In 1782, Chinatown was a place of exile. “It was pretty dirty and swampy,” the economic anthropologist says.

But the Teochews, who were merchants, created a thriving settlement specialising in maritime trade between Siam and China.

“The area prospered in the 19th century, and in the 20th century it prospered even further,” says the 69-year-old American, who is married to a Thai with Chinese blood. “Many of Thailand’s present day commercial empire (owned by Thais of Chinese blood) started in Sampheng.”

Today, Bangkok’s Chinatown, according to the author, is the hollowed-out shell of its former self as Bangkok’s commercial hub.

“Paradoxically, Sampheng’s long history of economic progress – rising above periodic slumps and financial crises – ultimately led to its decline as Bangkok’s commercial hub,” he wrote.

“From early in the 12th century the overcrowding of the district’s docks, warehouses and tenements prompted a swelling exodus. (The Chinese-owned companies moved their headquarters) to new financial, industrial, wholesale and retail zones springing up along the urban perimeter).”

But Sampheng remains as a tenement residence area for Chinese who want to maintain their roots.

“It is a place where Chinese is spoken, and Chinese food of the best quality and Chinese shrines are available,” Van Roy explains, adding that despite its demise as a commercial hub, Sampheng is still Bangkok’s centre for other businesses such as Chinese embroidery and goldsmithing.

In fact, the American’s former favourite place in Chinatown is the Tang To Kang Gold Shop, which was established before 1875 and is the oldest gold shop still operating in Sampheng.

“It is very picturesque,” says Van Roy, who has been acquainted with Chinatown since the 1970s.

Now, the author of the book (which he describes as “in a sense a walking tour of Sampheng but from a thinking man’s point of view”) favours the Chinese shrines.

Every shrine, he explains, looks like every other shrine until you start examining it and discover that there are differences.

The differences are in the shrine keepers who are usually retirees. For Van Roy, some of them are interesting because the keepers are very unpleasant.

“They are sick of – and bored with – visitors, as they deal with them every day.

“And when you ask them a question they would say they don’t know, although they know the answer,” he explains.

“But some are extremely generous with their knowledge (of the shrine) and they will offer you tea and speak to you in broken Thai, as their first language is Chinese.”

On the future of Chinatown, what is planned underneath the district may affect it.

Many Chinese living in Chinatown, he says, are resisting a plan to build an underground rail system in Sampheng as they fear that a station right in the middle of the district would bring in non-Chinese culture.

However, leading merchants in Chinatown support the proposal as they see tourism as the future of Sampheng.

As for Van Roy, he envisages Chinatown continuing to modernise. “So much is changing that Sampheng is losing its ancient flavour,” he says, with great regret.

(Published in The Star on June 23, 2006)

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Mystery of the west-facing ubosot

Thai Takes

Using modern technology and maps that detailed more than two centuries of Bangkok Chinatown's physiography, an American economic anthropologist solved a 180-year-old anomaly.

ZOOMING in on Wat Chakrawat in Bangkok’s Chinatown in his PC-based mapping software, an American discovered that a certain building layout in the Wat Chakrawat temple did not make sense.

The ubosot (ordination hall) that was built in 1827-1829 faced west, contrary to the conventional eastward orientation of such a building.

“It was a strange anomaly,” said Edward Van Roy, a visiting fellow at Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Asian Studies, recalling his discovery about a decade ago. “Usually the monks would sit at the east side so that they could face the Buddha image at the west.”

Intrigued, Van Roy studied the temple records, which were written in the Thai language, to try to unravel the mystery of the west-facing ubosot.

“It (solving the mystery) was like doing a very difficult crossword puzzle. And it was frustrating as I’m not fluent in reading Thai,” he said.

With information gathered from the temple records and other sources, he placed on his mapping software, layer after layer, maps of the physiography of Wat Chakrawat and its surrounding area. Eventually, he had ten layers of what the area looked like: from the present to the reign of King Taksin who ruled Siam from 1767 to 1782.

After months of frustrating historical detective work on physical entities, Van Roy saw the light. The American found that the ubosot was directly in line with a massive Khmer-styled royal tower (prang) and the Emerald Buddha (Phra Kaew Morakot) in the Grand Palace.

“The ubosot’s westward direction faces the (Emerald Buddha) and that testifies to the devotion of Chaophraya Bodindecha, the builder of Wat Chakrawat, to King Rama III,” Van Roy wrote in Sampheng: Bangkok’s Chinatown Inside Out.

The maps that detailed more than two centuries of Sampheng’s physiography, the American admits, were like a compass helping to direct him to solving the historical mystery. “I would not have been able to orient myself otherwise. It is very difficult from the ground level to see directions,” he explained.

At Starbucks in Bangkok’s Central Chitlom, a department store that originated from Chinatown, the author explained that a Thai-language compendium, Sampheng: History of a Chinese Community in Bangkok, published in January 2006, was the inspiration for his book.

Although he found the compendium inspiring, Van Roy did not think it warranted an English translation.

“It contained many mistakes and there were other things about Sampheng which were not covered. With the editor’s permission, I translated, revised and expanded the compendium,” said Van Roy.

And the book, which was published in January 2007, became “in a sense a walking tour of Sampheng, but from a thinking man’s point of view,” said the author. For each site mentioned in the book, such as World’s Largest Solid-Gold Dragon or Best Coffee in Town, the author explains its significance over some six pages.

If his father had his way, the 69-year-old author probably would not have written an anthropological book on Chinatown, which Van Roy became fascinated with because of his father-in-law’s Thai-Chinese background.

From young, Van Roy had yearned to be an anthropologist. In a bid to dissuade him from such a calling, his father arranged for him to visit an anthropologist at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, which was close to where they lived.

The anthropologist told the 12-year-old boy: “I understand from your father that you want to be an anthropologist.

“Do you see these boxes (big crates filled with broken pieces of potteries) next to me? The next few years I am going to sit here and try to reconstruct the pots.

“It is a terrible job. Not only that, I get a low salary. Don’t be an anthropologist!”

“My father, who wanted me to follow his footsteps as a merchant, forced me to study economics. But I ended up doing a PhD in economic anthropology,” Van Roy said, chuckling at the “little trick” he played on his dad.

Eventually, Van Roy ended up in Thailand working with the United Nations as a social economist. Since 1975, he has lived in the country of his Thai wife, who has Chinese blood.

When he retired in 1997, Van Roy learned to use a mapping software that allowed him to do an in-depth historical analysis of Bangkok from a physiographic point of view.

And in his analysis, the economic anthropologist uncovered historical mysteries such as the west-facing ubosot.

(Published in The Star on June 16, 2006)

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Good morning ... Thailand!

Thai Takes

IT IS 8.07am and for an expatriate clicking through Thailand’s television channels, it is refreshing to see a French woman with blonde hair talking about all things Thai in English.

The woman is Dr Valerie McKenzie, who is the anchor and lead presenter of Morning Talk, which is the only English-language talk show in the kingdom where almost all local television programmes are in Thai.

In early 1992, McKenzie, a former journalist with British dailies The Times and the Financial Times, was headhunted to be a co-presenter in the programme, which is shown on state-run Channel 11. She subsequently took over the programme in January 2000.

When Morning Talk was launched 15 years ago, it was shown twice a week. The producer wanted it to go on air every weekday but, at that time, there were not many potential Thai guests who could speak English.

For example, McKenzie recalls, in 1992, when she rang up a ministry to request an interview with the minister, she was told that he did not speak English.

“Then when we tried to get the deputy minister, we were told that he, too, did not speak English. And when we asked if the head of department spoke English, they answered nit noi (Thai for a little bit),” says the woman who looks nit noi like Barbara Walters.

“If the top officials of a ministry could not speak English, basically we could not cover a particular story (related to the ministry) because they (the officials) were not happy to have an interpreter as that would not make them look good.”

On why English was not widely spoken at that time, McKenzie explains that Thailand did not have a second language as it was never colonised, unlike Malaysia, Singapore or Hong Kong. And Thais thought that speaking their mother tongue was sufficient.

In 1998, Morning Talk was finally shown every weekday. McKenzie partially attributes this to the East Asian financial crisis, which led to Thais “loosening” their tongue to English.

After the economic crisis in 1997, Thais realised that if they wanted to be part of the big picture (globalisation) they needed to speak the global language, McKenzie explains, adding that during that time more English-speaking Thais graduates were returning from overseas, too.

Morning Talk, which attracts 2.8 million viewers per show, remains the only English-language talk show on Thai televisions because advertisers would rather advertise in a Thai-language programme with mass appeal.

McKenzie’s dream guest besides the obvious choice of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej is his majesty’s second daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. She admires the princess for following in her father’s footsteps, by giving herself to Thailand.

According to the anchor, Morning Talk is popular with viewers because it answers the unanswered questions in Thailand. In the last month, based on viewers’ phone calls and e-mails, the most popular unanswered questions were on Thai politics.

Questions such as “Do you think that Thailand will have another recession as a result of the difficulties we are facing now with the government?” and “What do you think about the fact that the Democrats have been cleared (of election fraud) while the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) has been dissolved?”

One unanswered question that McKenzie cannot answer is who the next Prime Minister of Thailand will be, because the country’s political situation is volatile.

“We do not know what will happen to the 111 TRT executives (who include deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) who have been banned from politics for five years,” she points out.

For the coming Thai elections, Morning Talk plans to give its viewers balanced coverage. “We will invite politicians from all political parties,” she says, “as long as they speak English.”

(Published in The Star on June 9, 2007)

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Not the end of the road for TRT


The dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai party, founded by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, may not signal its end as former members plan a new registration of the party maintaining its original name.

EVERYTHING that comes from the barrel of the gun is always right,” a dejected Thai Rak Thai (TRT) caretaker leader Chaturon Chaisang defiantly declared to party supporters soon after Thailand’s Constitutional Tribunal ordered TRT’s dissolution.

The decision by the nine-judge tribunal gunned down the only party in Thai history to win an absolute majority in parliament. It also barred 111 TRT executives – including party founder Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted from power in a coup – from participating in politics for five years.

The close to midnight verdict was the climax of a Wednesday where millions of Thais were glued to the television to watch the tribunal’s landmark rulings on the electoral fraud cases against the country’s largest political parties, TRT and Democrat.

It was also a day when the Council for National Security (CNS), as the coup makers who grabbed power on Sept 19, 2006, calls itself, tightened security in areas in Bangkok that were likely to be flashpoints for violence. And learning from previous protests, the CNS barred elephants (which can cause a massive traffic jam) from the city.

Thais woke up to The Nation's banner headline that breathlessly stated “Country Holds its Breath”.

And the country held its breath from 1.30pm when the tribunal judges took turns to read out the verdicts on the Democrat, Thailand’s oldest political party.

However, its script for the televised proceedings was not made-for-television.

The tribunal bored the viewers with its elaborate explanation on the background of the Democrat case, their grounds for defence and their pre-election activities.

After four hours, it finally announced that the 61-year-old party, with about four million members, was not guilty.

The immediate analysis of The Nation’s political desk was: the “road ahead looks rosy for Abhisit Vejjajiva to lead the Democrat Party into the next general election and become the next prime minister of Thailand.”

If the TRT was found guilty, the desk speculated, there would only be a few major political parties left – the Democrat, Chat Thai and Mahachon – and that could pave the way for 43-year-old Abhisit to become the youngest Thai prime minister in the post-war period.

At 6.30pm, the judges read their rulings on the TRT (which in Thai means “Thais love Thais”), a political party that was loved by Thais as evident by its 14 million members.

It was another marathon session and at 8pm, the joke was the tribunal had timed its rulings for midnight so as to bore TRT supporters so that they would not react violently to an unfavourable verdict.

Then at around 9.40pm, the first hint that TRT could be banned came when the tribunal ruled that the party’s former executives, Pongsak Raktapongpisal and Thamarak Isarangura, were guilty of bankrolling small parties to field candidates in the April 2, 2006 elections that was boycotted by the Democrat.

TRT’s fate worsened an hour later when the tribunal declared that the party was aware of Pongsak’s and Thamarak’s illegal actions. It said the party was desperate to overcome an electoral rule for a single candidate running unopposed to garner more than 20% of the votes in order to secure victory.

The subsequent rulings were like a barrage of bullets fired at the party. And at around 11.20pm, the tribunal announced the inevitable.

At the TRT headquarters in Bangkok, television footage showed party leaders and supporters crying and consoling each other.

And in London, in response to the ruling against his party, Thaksin said: “We have to respect the rule of the game. That is, the rule of the law.”

On Thursday afternoon, about 3,000 pro-TRT demonstrators gathered in Bangkok, demanding the removal of the CNS, which some of the speakers alleged had interfered with the tribunal’s rulings.

Meanwhile, Chaturon, who was among those banned from politics, told reporters that followers of the defunct party would call themselves klum Thai Rak Thai (or TRT group).

He said the TRT group had the support of 200 former MPs who were not banned from politics.

As the Thai Election Commission allowed a dissolved party to seek a new registration under its old name, Chaturon and the party die-hards announced they were aiming for the revival of TRT.

(Published in The Star on June 2, 2007)