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From ‘Sawadee’ to ‘Pad Thai’

The Thaiger

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by Dan Brook

Thai culture is ancient and one can even see evidence of its beautiful bronze-age civilisation in Ban Chiang, near Udon Thani in Isaan, Thailand’s least-visited north-east region.

But not everything in Thai culture is quite so old. In fact, some major things closely associated with Thailand are relatively recent — and all of them are related to Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram.

Phibun — as he is often called in the West, though he is better known as Chomphon Por in Thailand — was one of the leaders of the coup that overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932, creating the constitutional monarchy that Thailand has had since. He also exerted more state control over the economy through nationalisation.

Culturally, however, Phibun may have had even more influence. As Thailand’s longest serving prime minister, he supported fascism (though he later de-emphasised this and embraced a form of democracy), extreme nationalism, and a cult of personality focused on himself. His photos were ubiquitous and his quotes were regularly in the newspapers. He mandated that Thais salute the flag, know the national anthem, and speak Thai.

Phibun changed the country’s name from Siam to Thailand in 1939, changed the new year from the traditional Thai one on April 13 to the European Gregorian one on January 1, and codified, promoted, and possibly created Thailand’s signature eponymous dish, pad thai, by adapting a Chinese noodle dish. His law requiring Thais to wear hats in public, however, clearly did not endure.

Shortly after he simplified the Thai script, Phibun adopted the word sawadee (from svasti, the Sanskrit word for blessing or wellbeing) from a Chulalongkorn University professor and made it the “official” Thai greeting, starting in 1943, still so commonly said.

Any one of these changes is huge. Combined, Phibun helped create modern Thai culture as we know it!

Dan Brook, Ph.D. teaches sociology at San Jose State University, from where he organizes the annual Hands on Thailand (HoT) program. Dan has free ebooks on Smashwords. 

If you have story ideas, a restaurant to review, an event to cover or an issue to discuss, contact The Thaiger editorial staff.

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Entertainment

A very Asian tale “Crazy Rich Asians” opens

The Thaiger & The Nation

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“The last high-profile Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast was The Joy Luck Club released in 1993.”

By The Star, Asia News Network, Kuala Lumpur

It was a sweltering night in Singapore and the production of Crazy Rich Asians was in the last leg of filming. Director Jon M. Chu was sweating buckets and it’s not entirely because of the humid weather.

Chu, who has worked on big budget Hollywood sequels like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Now You See Me 2, said Crazy Rich Asians presented a whole new set of challenges for him.

Check out the Hollywood premiere of Crazy Rich Asians.

“Sometimes dressing people up for a wedding takes a lot more effort than filming ninjas on a mountain,” Chu shared briefly on the set of Crazy Rich Asians, before rushing back to finish another scene.

Members of the media were observing the filming of an emotionally-charged moment featuring Rachel (Constance Wu, TV’s Fresh Off The Boat) screaming into the night. In the scene with her were Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh and veteran actress Lisa Lu.

Some context: The ladies were all dressed to the nines for a high society wedding. At a later interview, Wu did not want to talk about how she prepared for that screaming scene.

“It’s just actor stuff. If I have to tell you, it would be like I’m telling you how to fix a car, it’s just boring,” 36 year old Wu said with a laugh. Mind you, she had to do that scene over and over again just to get it right.

The truth is, there is nothing boring about what her character Rachel goes through in Crazy Rich Asians.

For the love of money

Rachel is an Asian-American economics professor living in New York with her charming boyfriend Nicholas Young (Henry Golding). One day, Nicholas invites her back to his country, Singapore, to attend his best friend’s wedding.

It is only then that she finds out that her boyfriend is from a wealthy and well-connected family. Just how wealthy is this guy? Think crazy rich.

Based on the book by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians is said to be inspired by real families and wealthy personalities in Asia. Kwan goes into specific details on what the rich do when they have too much money. From buying a hotel just to get rid of a snobby manager to hiring the Vienna Boys’ Choir for a wedding, nothing is off-limits for the ultra-wealthy characters in the book.

However, Kwan won’t divulge who these actual crazy rich Asians are.

“Nicholas is from this old money family. Wealth is passed through generations. He is very acutely aware that he is the heir to the riches that his family holds,” Golding, 31, said about his character.

It’s one thing to be rich but to be dating someone who is not from the same exclusive social circle? Oh, the madness.

Financial security

56 year old Yeoh steps in as Eleanor, Nicholas’ mother and respected (think feared) matriach of the Young family. Eleanor makes it clear that she does not approve of Rachel. To be fair, she’s just like most mothers with an only child who is set to inherit the family fortunes; tiger mum becomes (over)protective.

So, Eleanor hatches a plan to sabotage the relationship between Rachel and Nicholas.

“Eleanor would do anything for her son. She would die for him. And the thing is, she’s not afraid to tell him all that,” Yeoh laughed while explaining her character’s motivation.

But that’s not the craziest thing about Crazy Rich Asians. The fact that Hollywood is making a contemporary romantic comedy featuring Asians in leading roles is something unheard of.

Wu noted: “We’ve never had a studio movie with an all-Asian cast that was not a period piece.”

Rich in diversity

The last high-profile Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast was The Joy Luck Club released in 1993. Wu lamented that Asians don’t often get to be seen in a Hollywood film with a modern setting.

“Like, why don’t we see Asians using cellphones? It’s a way to include Asians in the current conversation by showing them in a contemporary context. We are here. Our stories matter and that to me is really groundbreaking,” she said.

Other Hollywood cast members in Crazy Rich Asians include Ken Jeong (The Hangover), Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8), Gemma Chan (Transformers: The Last Knight) and Sonoya Mizuno (La La Land).

From this region, expect to see the likes of Ronny Chieng, Pierre Png, Carmen Soo, Tan Keng Hua and Fiona Xie on screen. Hollywood newbie Golding described filming for Crazy Rich Asians as “insane” (his pun, not ours). Producer Nina Jacobson said they were looking for someone like Cary Grant to play Nicholas.

“There’s a sense of class and elegance to Nicholas. At the same time, he’s also down to earth. It was hard to find all those things.”

“Henry did amazingly well on his screen test and he had all those qualities that we were looking for,” Jacobson explained why the studio went with a newcomer.

While Golding has made Malaysia proud, his casting also stirred some controversy. There were those who noted how Golding was not “Asian enough” for the role seeing that he is part European.

Instead of dwelling on the backlash, Golding said he is proud to represent a part of South-East Asia that is mostly unknown to his Western counterparts.

“We have such a melting pot of identities in South-East Asia and that is something to be proud of. It’s really important that we make this film. We’re breaking boundaries and that is the most important takeaway,” he said.

Value for money

Despite its very specific setting, Jacobson believes Crazy Rich Asians has stories that will resonate globally.

“We have a great universal story for anyone who has been rejected by their in-laws or people who have their foot in two different cultures,” she said.

She also identified with Rachel as someone who is fascinated by a strange yet familiar new world.

“When I first read the book, I couldn’t put it down. The expectations on Nick from his family was relatable. The story felt fresh and new. It took me to somewhere that I wanted to go,” Jacobson said.

Will Nicholas’ love for Rachel triumph over his family money?

Yeoh said you can’t live on love alone: “When you’re in love, you say you don’t need money or you don’t need anything (else). When love cools down and reality sets in, then what? Love is not bread and butter. You have to be sensible.”

Yeoh saw Crazy Rich Asians as more than just a story about unimaginable wealth.

“It’s also about the responsibilities of a family. Many people depend on them (Nicholas’ family) for their livelihood. It’s not just about them getting rich, it’s also about the community.

“It’s good to have money but it’s what you do with it that really counts,” she concluded.

And that token of wisdom is priceless.

STORY: The Nation

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Krabi

Fern helps her mum sell food in Krabi. She also speaks four languages fluently.

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PHOTO: A five year old Thai girl, who can speak three foreign languages, helps her mother to sell food along the beach in Krabi.

A young beach vendor who sells food along Klong Heng Beach in Krabi, is carrying two baskets with fruits and snacks. She can speak Thai but also Chinese, English and Bahasa Malay languages. She is seen daily communicating fluently with tourists and providing the correct change when tourists buy food from her.

The girl’s name is Warassaya ‘Fern’ Patin. She’s the daughter of 45 year old Sunee Patimin.

Khun Sunee say, “I have a fruit juice shop nearby here. My daughter carries the baskets along the beach. She greets tourists before she informs them what she has in her baskets. Many tourists like her and buy her food.”

“She studies in a kindergarten at Kitiwaitayanusorn School in Krabi. At her school they are also teaching three foreign languages – English, Chinese and Bahasa Malay. She is a talkative girl. She always followed me to sell food since she was very young. She loves listening when I talk with customers and is a very quick learner.”

“She asks to help me sell food even if I think she is still very young. She should be playing with her friends like other children do but she enjoys doing this. She has never told me that she is tired. She helps me sell food after school and during weekend. She also makes sure she always does her homework.”

Fern says, “I tell tourists that my food is delicious. If they don’t like it I promise to refund their money, but most of them buy food from me. I earn about 500-700 baht per day. I enjoy walking and speaking to tourists.”

If you see Fern or her mum selling their food along Klong Heng Beach in Krabi make sure you try their food.

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Bangkok

Observations of a working expat couple, and their 9.5 kilogram cat ‘George’

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All expats have a story of how they ended up in the Land of Smiles. Few are just ‘I got a job here’. It usually happens the other way around where people visit Thailand and find a reason to stay. John Read, writing for the Financial Times, and his husband German, have lived and worked in many of the world’s cities and hot-spots but currently live in the Big Mango with their own take on ‘nouveau expat’ life…

“We both like hot weather, and were happy to push our winter clothes to the back of the closet. In the “cold” season (December to January) Thais melodramatically put on scarves, hats and down jackets, but the temperature rarely falls below 20C — nicer than cold, rainy Jerusalem, where it can dip below zero.”

In this case the pair have settled into life in Bangkok working as foreign correspondents, along with their 9.5 kilogram cat ‘George’. Having lived around the world they say they’re always evaluating their new homes rated on the climate, food and social life.

“Bangkok delivers on all three counts. It has 8m people and can accurately call itself a world city. It pulls in foreigners from the region and overseas, whether Burmese builders, Australian restaurateurs or “ladyboys” from the Philippines who work at the clubs off Silom Road (fluent English is a plus when impersonating Beyoncé or Britney Spears). We have made more friends and acquaintances here in less than a year than we did in Jerusalem in nearly five.”

Read about their adventures and observations of life in Bangkok, ‘Building a new life in Bangkok, Thailand’s world city’ courtesy of Financial Times, HERE.

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