Saturday, February 02, 2008

Steamy soap riles trolley dollies


ON a recent Monday, a flight attendant who is no fan of Thai soap operas was nevertheless stirred to watch the pilot episode of Songkram Nang Fah (The Air Hostess War) because it revolved around her profession.

The first episode told of how a sweet-looking woman became a flight attendant with Air Mekhala, which has “Fly With Love” for its slogan. Except for the stewardess’ extremely short skirt, Thai Airways flight attendant manager Pichitra Taveerat was neutral about the lakorn (Thai for soap opera).

The next day, the 49-year-old woman watched the second episode, as she was curious about how the story would develop. It showed a stewardess entangled in a love triangle with a bitchy colleague over a dashing pilot.

In episode four, a catfight breaks out between the shrieking trolley dollies fighting for the affection of the two-timing pilot.

“The girls were slapping each other while wearing their uniform. The scene was ridiculous, as in real life it never happens,” complained Pichitra, a flight attendant for 27 years.

“I felt like my reputation, my dignity and my profession have been tarnished.”

To make matters worse, her 14-year-old daughter asked if it was usual for cabin crew to fight while in uniform or to beat another woman in a toilet.

“It is not real. Have you ever heard me talk about my colleagues fighting over a man?” she replied. Her daughter accepted the explanation.

However, returning from school the next day, her daughter said: “Mum, all my friends are asking about your career, and they want to know why cabin crew behave in a way that is not typical of a beautiful Thai lady.”

Pichitra’s 23-year-old daughter, who is going to be a stewardess, was more understanding. Although she found the series nasty, as a fan of Thai soap operas she understood that scenes of violence are standard fare to attract an audience.

Pichitra’s colleagues exploded at the lakorn’s ridiculous portrayal of their profession and the sexy skirt – six inches above the knee and with a slit that's too high. They decided to go public to vent their fury.

On Jan 21, Pichitra and flight attendant representatives of Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways demonstrated their anger. They also complained to the Culture Ministry, urging it to axe the primetime programme.

The media attention turned the saucy soap opera into a roeung ron (Thai for hot story) which drew international attention, with foreign media such as Guardian, The New York Times and CNN getting all steamed up.

The cabin crew’s decision to go public also attracted criticism. Some thought it helped boost the soap opera’s rating, while others found the protest frivolous.

“This is not a documentary about the life of an air hostess. It is a fictitious TV series, prone to a bit of exaggeration that teases the imagination,” wrote Outraged Taxpayer in a letter to The Nation.

In a press conference the following day, Exact, which produced the show, apologised for creating ill feelings, but insisted it did not intend to tarnish the image of flight crew.

Still, the damage had been done; the public associated the popular soap with Thai Airways.

Why? “The story is based on my senior,” explains Pichitra.

A former Thai Airways stewardess – using the pseudonym Airky (a combination of “air” and “ky”, which sounds like the Thai word for “old”) – wrote about her husband’s infidelity on the Internet a few years ago.

Airky’s husband, who is a Thai Airways pilot, had an affair with a Thai Airways stewardess.

“She did fight with her husband’s lover, but it was over the phone. There was no catfight. What the soap opera did was add spice to a true story,” Pichitra said.

On Jan 25, in peace talks hosted by the Culture Ministry, Exact agreed to remove fight scenes of characters in uniform, to make the skirts two inches longer and to include scenes showing flight attendants working hard serving passengers.

Like all Thai soap operas, The Air Hostess War controversy has a happy ending.

(Published in The Star on Feb 2, 2008)