- The Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand
For so long, practitioners of Thai studies found it almost impossible to critically study and assess the real characteristics of Thai society and history. An often-heard saying is that Siam/Thailand can't be compared with any other country. This leads to another claim of being unique and, finally, being Thai, in which Thai-ness has become the means and ends of this process of inquiry. It's the beginning and end of Thai studies.
Nevertheless, a few of the Thai specialists do not believe in this myth-history of Thailand and began to re-study and re-search the hidden and opaque sides of Thai history and society, resulting in a volume of eight critical and provoking essays by prominent well-known specialists of Thai studies with the title The Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand. Given the topics and insights which the authors display, one must graciously commend the effort and labour, physical and intellectual, that the two editors, Rachel Harrison and Peter Jackson, put into the making of this excellent book.
Harrison, in her superb introduction, discusses at great length details of multifarious aspects of relations between Siam/Thailand and the West, the most important group of foreigners Siam has encountered from the seventeenth century to the present. The problematic relations stem from the political relations between the two unequal states, resulting in the state of 'semicolony', 'auto-colony' and 'crypto-colony' depending on various analyses of individual authors. Thus the focus of the book on Thai encounter with the farang, and all that it constitutes, generates an emphasis on 'convergence, assimilation, transculturation, trans-mediation'. Gone are the monolithic, single and pure, and unique characteristics of the country. Instead, the emphasis is on one's hybrid and heterogeneity.
Clearly, the approach of this book is postcolonial history, which prompts the question of how one can study the legacy of colonialism as evident elsewhere in the region when Siam has never been a colony. Peter Jackson, in 'The Ambiguities of Semicolonial Power in Thailand', admits the ambiguous colonial history in Thailand but firmly believes in the use of postcolonial study in the case of Thai history. The positive outcome of such an approach is that it makes a comparative study of Thai history a reality. Semicolonial analysis, he concludes, 'entails a double form of analysis that both critiques local essentialisms and also resists the potentially hegemonic universalism of theory'.
Pattana Kitiarsa, in 'An Ambiguous Intimacy: Farang as Siamese Occidentalism', traces the historical construction of farang in Thai thought in order to see the influence of this notion in the process of identity making in Thai culture and society. [End Page 111] Pattana conceives farang as 'an expression of Siamese/Thai Occidentalism, that is, an historically and culturally constructed way of knowing, dealing with, criticizing, condemning, consuming and imagining the West as a powerful and suspicious Other'. For Thai, the West is the powerful Other. Initiated by the Royal elites in the nineteenth century, the farang concept was repeated and 'continued by military dictators and bureaucrats through the twentieth century, and is now driven by middle-class consumers and the mass media'. The chapter gives very informative and challenging development of the notion in each historical period. Beginning with the farang as 'suspicious strangers' in the empire of Ayutthaya to farang as 'Distant Others' in the early Bangkok period to the Imperialist farang in the reign of King Mongkut and finally, in the late nineteenth century, farang as agent of civilization and modernization.
Two splendid chapters are on the most modern and influential signifier of popular imagination, the cinema. Rachel Harrison's 'Mind the Gap: (En)countering the West and the Making of Thai Identities on Film' carefully analyses the new mode of Thai movies which exploit the West in their imagination of the identity of Thai nation and people. The...