There are dozens of important reliquaries and monasteries in Chiang Mai. It is a city that has one of the best preserved manuscript collections in all of Asia. Many sources in the city’s vast collection of inscriptions and chronicles have hardly been analyzed or translated. These sources reveal a culture fed by a complex mixture of ethnicities, languages, and architectural influences. The city is home to well-preserved artistic traditions and religious rituals. Despite these facts and the untapped historical and cultural resources available to him, Andrew Alan Johnson used his language skills and scholarly skills to write a book about failing shopping malls and abandoned gated communities in the Chiang Mai suburbs. Sigh. However, anybody that closely reads this book will thank him for it. He has brought a fresh perspective and provocative new questions to the study of Chiang Mai.
In his highly engaging book on an unlikely subject, Ghosts of the New City: Spirits, Urbanity, and the Ruins of Progress in Chiang Mai, Johnson attempts to provide an ethnographic account of changes in the so-called “Capital of Northern Thailand” that questions the very way Chiang Mai is presented to tourists (both domestic and foreign). It is not a study of modernity in Northern Thailand (historically known as “Lanna”), but a study of the contested nature of modernity expressed locally. Through participant observation and a series of interviews with shop-owners, architects, artists, urban planners, and scholars, Johnson’s keen eye and attention to detail offers the reader much to ponder.
There is much to celebrate about this book. There are several subjects briefly described by Johnson which have been overlooked by other scholars. For example, he mentions the understudied protective figures of [End Page 351] Grandfather and Grandmother Sae (44); the concept of “khuet” (146–150), a difficult word to translate which invokes the idea of sacred places and events that both protect and curse the city; and “thaksa” (142–145), a series of sacred boundary points in the city. Moreover, he brings together the ideas of several theorists who are not often discussed in the same book. He looks at the work of Eric Harms, Raymond Williams, and Kasian Tejapira. He brings up Freud’s concept of unheimlich and even touches upon the important work of Lucien Hanks. The reader moves from one provocative concept and cultural observation to the other. It is quite a whirlwind.
In many ways the greatest weakness of this book can be seen as its greatest strength—it packs a lot into very few pages. On the one hand, Johnson seems very comfortable moving quickly from one interesting topic to the next. One the other hand, the reader is left wanting certain topics explored in more depth. The writing sparkles with energy and a sense of urgency. Johnson touches upon so many theories and cites a number of important theorists both in Southeast Asian Studies and in the social sciences more broadly. Several subsections of the book call out for more sustained focus and elaboration: for example, Johnson’s own views of Geertz’s theatre state, Tambiah’s mandala, and Condomindas’s theory of “systems à emboîtement.” I often wanted Johnson to stop invoking others and just plainly tell the readers what he thought of Southeast, or even just Northern Thai, contributions to urban studies. What can Chiang Mai as a city teach those interested in urbanity more broadly? Do the development of gated communities, shopping malls, high-end coffee shops, and fashionable boutiques mark a distinct break with the past or are there pre-modern patterns and parameters that still shape development? Johnson contemplates these questions for sure, but rarely offers direct answers. Instead of trying to cover so many topics, I would have liked to have seen a more sustained focus on certain key questions. Johnson has much to say I think, but his own ideas often get lost within the cacophony of social science theories telling us how to understand Thai culture. Below I will...