Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Sino Thai

Mike recently passed on a copy of "The Intimate Economies of Bangkok," by Ara Wilson to me. The academic book focuses on the "moral" economy of Thailand, that is the informal economy of exchange that happens between peers, and kins. She highlights working girls, the Central shopping plaza, Toms and dees in the MBK area etc. I think "moral economy" is a pretty poor term for her definition of non market exchange. She makes use of the term "gift economy" which is a bit more suitable although still not quite on the mark as the "gift economy" is oft tied up with regular capitalist economies.

I've read two sections of the novel. The first and more spectacular was about sex workers. She doesn't bring to light anything new for me. She explains that many sex workers come from Thailand's poorest region, Isaan. They are convinced to do sex work due to the ability to earn good wages thus fulfilling the girls desire to support their family at home (a cultural demand). Usually a girl will bring another girl into the job site rather than the bar hiring from an ad. Thus the girls create an informal peer network. Most of the bar girls come from the same villages, or regions in Isaan and encourage each other to work at specific bars. Wilson notes some of the rites that the girls go through, attempting to make merit and some of the tribulations (shame andpublic scorn for their occupation). I found that the chapter lacked backbone and insight instead was a cursory look at the spectacularized world of sex work here in thailand. I think its worth noting that most frequenters of sex workers are not westerners, but that relationship between the westerner and thai sex worker is the most highlighted.

The first section of the book which I read second describes the rise of the Central mall. The Central business corporation is part of a father-son business. The father was a chinese immigrant who worked in a rice store then moved into a house from which he sold his wares. The father was prosperous having over 20 children and three wives. The son then went on to develop department stores in Bangkok. The most noteworthy parts are about the fixing of prices and thus the shift from street side haggling and the shift from integrated business homes to a seperate locales for both.

"Fixing the prices of goods radically changes the interactions between sellers and buyers and requires less market 'intelligence' from each. The shopper need not be familiar with current prices and reputations or be skilled at negotions... This shift reduced the skill required of the female consumer, or 'housewife' and changed the aesthetics and experience of shopping. It also changed the work of selling, because the salesperson need not continually calculate profit margins (p.55)."

"The family's move away from the shophouse to a compound marked a shift from an old style of combined business and residence to a modern style that spatially separated home and work (p.59)."

"The point was to give shopping space its own unique identity as a place for consumption and nothing else." (william Leach writing of Macy's)

Thailand is made of a multitude of ethnic groups. Bangkok attests to this. Riding the BTS, walking the streets of On Nut, window shopping at Nana plaza, buying pad thai by the royal palace attests to the varying ethnic backgrounds of Thai people. Thailand is composed of a mix of Lao, Burmese, Cambodian, Indian, Malayasian and Chinese people, along with people who were originally in the area now known as Thailand.
This section of the book highlights the Sino-Thai of Thailand. The ethnic group made of Chinese Thai has migrated south from China for generations. Today they are associated with a burgeoning middle and upper middle class (Thaksin the bane of traffic goers in BKK is Sino-Thai) When I read about the growth of Central, I was reminded of "Letters from Thailand" by Botan, and translated by Berkeley's Susan Kepner. The novel is composed of letters from a chinese immigrant to thailand to his mother back home. The letter writer comes to Thailand as a young man and sets up a shop out here. Through his hard work and business savvy his business expands and his family grows. It is a story of masculinity, immigration, conflict of culture, of being chinese, and of being Thai. It is an excellent piece and one of the best pieces of literature available in English in and about Thailand.

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