The Engineer of Xam Tai

The cover of our upcoming publication, available October 1.

[This story was written to be in our up-coming publication, Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos (Thrums Books, available October 1, 2017) in a section on the future of the independent silk weavers of Xam Tai in Laos’s Houaphan Province. Although the book’s focus and length led to its deletion, but it is still a tale worth telling – a tale emblematic of the rapid modernization occurring in this long-isolated region.]

We were in the NE corner of Laos, in the town of Xam Tai (well-known for its quality naturally-dyed silks), enjoying a wedding reception celebrating the union of the town’s pharmacist’s daughter to a handsome young gentleman. As in much of Lao, the pharmacist is the first medical care option, and as regular visitors to Xam Tai, both Maren and  I had asked her advice several times for treating our minor ailments. Hence the invitation.

Perhaps 250 people – a good portion of the town – were present at the outdoor event, held under temporary white tents in a large field close to the new marketplace. The dinner of water buffalo meat and stomach, fresh bamboo shoots, three types of sausage, boiled greens and sticky rice had long been eaten, and the master of ceremonies was alternating between introducing important guests and singing modern pop songs and traditional melodies on an over-amplified electric keyboard.

The bride and groom share a toast with two seated guests.

An abundance of ushers, friends of the young bride and groom, strolled past the tables, making sure that no one lacked food or beverage. The Beer Lao and Pepsi flowed; voices and laughs were loud. The evening air felt cool; the atmosphere was light and joyous.

Maren had been invited to dance and I could see her, a head taller than almost everyone, as she promenaded with her partner in a group circle, waving her hands first to the left, and then the right like a slow-motion hula, only with the women wearing elegant silk sinh (skirts) instead of grass skirts.

Malaithong, our translator (and good friend for nearly 10 years), nudged me on the shoulder; she shouted to be heard over the din.

Three of our best friends in Laos: Phout, Souk, and Malaithong. All three grew up in Xam Tai as friends. Malaithong learned English and is our translator as well. They are enjoying a wedding party in this photo.

“This man coming over. Ve-ery big man. Big boss…” She paused and made sure she had my full attention. “He is a good man. Everybody likes him, and he works ve-ery, ve-ery hard.” The “ve-ery ve-ery” came out slowly and in a higher tone.

The gentleman she nodded toward sat at the next table and held his empty glass to the side, tilted towards us so that his current guest could not again refill it.

Malaithong straightened her posture. “He has many good ideas for what to do for tourism and economy in Xam Tai.” She again paused, and then she leaned close and whispered: “He is like the boss’s boss’s boss,“ and she nodded slowly.

The gentleman sat on the edge of the folding chair, swaying a bit back and forth, eyes squinting and with a wide smile of perfect teeth. His face glowed with perspiration. His shirt was untucked. But in all fairness, it was near the end of a wedding celebration.

The rural Xam Tai valley looks much the same as in centuries past. Wait – are those electric lines?!

Suddenly he turned and held out his hand. “Sabaidee-ee,” (Good health), he said, and he pulled himself up from his chair and plopped himself onto another next to me. His squint and smile maintained the open easy lilt of person who had been celebrating for many hours; however, his voice was sure and direct. We pumped our hands up and down two or three times; then he set his glass on the table and brought his other hand to rest on top of our shake. His moist, warm hands held onto mine gently but firmly.

“Sabaidee,” I returned with a smile and nod.

Mailathong didn’t wait a moment. “Mr. Josh, this is Mr _____, district vice governor of Xam Tai.” She then said a few words in Lao, “Josh” being one of them. He continued to hold my hand as Malaithong spoke, his squint, smile and glow looking directly into my eyes.

“I am…uh… so hap-py to…uh… to meet you, Mr. Josh,” he said in deliberate, careful English. He had to nearly yell to be heard over the pounding keyboards and other nearby conversations. His English was thick and slow-paced, but, with a bit of focus, quite clear. Malaithong reached for an open bottle of Beer Lao and filled our short glasses.

Modern guesthouses are a recent development in Xam Tai.

He held up his beer with a warm smile, and we each drained our share. His hand returned to the top of our handshake. He then said some more words to me, which I could not decipher in the din, but I continued to shake his pumping hands and nod. If nothing else, I thought, we can share squinty eyes, crooked smiles, and radiant complexions.

“I … uh … I show you,” he said brightly, as if having a sudden epiphany. Removing his moist right hand from our shake he reached into his shirt pocket for his iPhone. “I am engineer,” he said as he tried to open an application with the same hand that held the phone.

“Very good,” I replied. “An engineer.” Part of me wished to be rescued from the conversation. Trying to follow an engineering-themed thread led by a thick-accented celebrator in the cacophony of a Lao wedding was, perhaps, more culturally immersed than I particularly wished to be at that moment.

Weaving provides a solid income for the majority of families in the region.

The vice governor sat up squarely, let go of my hand and moved his fingers quickly on the phone. “I want … uh … to show you…” and his words dropped off as he poked at his phone. His eyes opened wider and his sway stopped. “I show you … uh … idea. My idea.” I laughed for no reason, and glanced at Malaithong. She was nodding with her eyebrows raised, urging that I share my full attention.

“Here,” he said finally. “This is … uh … what I think … for Xam Tai.” On the iPhone’s screen spun a shape in slow motion that looked like the blueprint of a house. The spinning house grew larger and all I could think of was Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz as it spun downward and landed on the Wicked Witch. He continued with more words, but I couldn’t make them out in the noise.

“For Xam Tai…” he said emphatically, pointing at the screen. “I think … uh … like engineer … I think to help Xam Tai to make … uh … for park for Xam Tai.” The iPhone’s vision stopped spinning, and then the short demonstration on the iPhone started to replay itself.

Two weavers display their recently woven sinh (skirts).

I looked to Malaithong, who had just refilled the governor’s and my glass. She smiled and said loudly: “Mr. ____ is a ve-rry smart man. He wants a new park in Xam Tai, where the old market used to be. You know, across from the new bank.” I nodded. Our family had loved that old, low-ceilinged, dilapidated market, but its recent replacement certainly was cleaner, safer, and had room for expansion.

The vice governor watching me intently while Malaithong continued: “He has plans to build a central park for Xam Tai – a nice place for tourists and business. Like in the big city – only in Xam Tai it would be smaller, of course.”

I looked again at the iPhone, and I suddenly understood the graphic. Mr. ____ had programmed a phone app to show a 3-dimensional layout of a park-plan he had developed. The graphic on the phone was a spinning view of the imagined center park, as if the viewer were a slow-moving bird coming toward it in a narrowing circle. Yes – there was the open field, and a pavilion-like building. The center-point of the park layout spun in closer and the viewer finally landed in the park next to the handsome building – only to be jolted back to the beginning of the animated loop.

Malaithong with an armload of freshly processed silk. The silk worms are raised locally.

Malaithong explained that the vice governor wanted to make Xam Tai an important town and increase tourism and help promote the local silk weavers. “The center building could have a tourist office,” Malaithong cheered. “For explaining the weaving,”

I looked up at the vice governor. He sat steadily, straight-faced, almost solemn now. I reached out with my left hand and gently clenched his right shoulder; with my right hand, I presented a confident thumbs-up. “What an excellent idea,” I said, and the vice governor burst into a wide smile. I nodded largely, up and down, assuming that a bigger “yes” was a better “yes.”   He started a gentle nod in the rhythm of my nod.

Maren just then returned from the dance floor, and, after introductions, we showed Maren the animation. Maren watched intently for a moment, and then, after a brief explanation, her face lit up. “That would be wonderful!”

She then insisted that the vice governor, now sober as a judge, show and explain to her the details of his presentation.

Malaithong sat and watched, a small smile on her face. As they say, all politics is local.

Cotton Spinning in a Lanten Village, NW Laos

The Kim Mun Lanten people plant their cotton in the forests and alongside their rice paddies. Our week-long visit in summer, unfortunately, did not coincide with the harvest and ginning season (December and January), but cotton spinning and textile dyeing and weaving are year-round activities in some local villages, and we were eager to explore what we could of the local textile traditions. After all, seeking out people making traditional, village-use items nearly always leads to an adventure.

Josh and Maren pose with a Lanten mother and daughter a NW Laos.

Josh and Maren pose with a Lanten mother and daughter a NW Laos.

The day after our Akha spinning lesson, Tui guided us to a village of the Kim Mun Lanten ethnic group, a people renowned for their cotton spinning and weaving. The locals of the village were very surprised to see Western visitors, and perhaps thirty or forty women and children crowded closely (the men were working in the rice fields). It took a few minutes to get used to the closeness of the people and the seeming infringement on what we feel is our “personal space.” However, the shared smiles and nods and Tui’s cheerful demeanor and explanation quickly melted any awkwardness.

The women of the Lanten village wore loose-fitting handspun cotton tunics that wrapped and tied across the chest and loose-legged knee-length pants, all dyed to a rich, deep blue with locally harvested indigo. The outfits were modest and, from a distance, unadorned. Upon closer inspection, however, each jacket had a thin strip of color at the collar, cuff, or edging. From a frog closure on her neck, each adult woman wore white or pink streamers of silk (or acrylic), which they constantly threw over their shoulders when doing handwork, and a shorter tassel of silk on each end of a thin woven-cotton waist-belt. Several wore handmade earrings and hair clips of silver or “white bronze,” an inexpensive alloy made of copper, tin and zinc.

A Lanten woman sews the edging onto her indigo-dyed handspun cotton outfit.

A Lanten woman sews the edging onto her indigo-dyed handspun cotton outfit.

When Tui explained that we were searching for local textile traditions, one forward woman grabbed Maren tightly around her arm and marched the whole parade of us through the village to her home. She opened up a fast conversation with Maren as if Maren could understand every word. Tui gave up trying to interrupt with a translation. However, Maren, undaunted, smiled and eventually responded with equal enthusiasm, albeit in English, about our desire to see their art. Neither understood the other’s vocabulary, but they shared a sense of curiosity and opportunity. They both laughed and leaned on each other as they walked up the dirt slope.

Her village-built spinning wheel was in the breezeway of her modest wood home. Maren gestured for the woman to sit on the low stool and demonstrate her technique. The woman sat down and picked out a 6-inch (15 cm) tube of clean unspun cotton. In a previous process, Tui translated, the ginned, fluffed cotton had been gently rolled onto bamboo sticks, and then the smooth stick had been extracted to leave these snakelike cocoons tubes of cotton.

A Lanten woman spins cotton.

A Lanten woman spins cotton.

Holding the soft cotton in her left hand, the woman cranked the wooden spinning wheel deftly with her right. The cotton fiber was hooked onto the end of a horizontal spindle, and as the bobbin spun, she smoothly pulled back her left hand, letting the spindle efficiently twist the fiber. When the twisting yarn reached an arm’s length, she leaned forward and the fiber dropped from the hook; the spindle then hungrily zipped up the length of yarn onto the shaft. The smooth-motioned dance of creating a fine yarn was repeated, repeated, and repeated again, her bobbin growing with a small pulse following each inward reach.DSC03551

Maren smiled and nodded emphatically as the woman demonstrated her efficient motions with the handbuilt device (which could also function as a skein winder, hence the wide Ferris wheel shape). The spinner looked at Maren and then pointed to a plastic bag full of cotton rolls. Maren laughed and stretched out her arms to indicate the amount of cotton and length of time the present project would require. The woman smiled broadly, then squared her shoulders and turned back to again demonstrate the process.

Soon, Maren took a turn with the spinning, and then Tui wanted to try—Hah! A man spinning cotton! Tui posed as a pompous spinner and flippantly spun the wheel. The women, the kids, and Maren and I laughed so hard we nearly fell over.

Hah! A man spinning cotton!!

Hah! A man spinning cotton!!

Five minutes later we were at a neighbor’s home, around in the back under a tin roof. Here sat a full floor loom, complete with a handmade bamboo comb in a teak frame, a substantial timeworn shuttle, and what seemed like an acre of half-meter-wide handspun cotton cloth rolled onto the loom’s front bar. A woman sat at the loom and worked the two wooden treadles. Tui translated her explanation of the Lanten weaving technique. She then allowed us to photograph the loom; she herself, like many others, asked not to be photographed.

Two plastic pitchers of water appeared. A nine- or ten-year-old girl, presumably a daughter or niece, filled the single glass and offered it first to Maren, who thanked her and then raised the glass to the surrounding community. “Kop chai lai lai,” Maren said in Lao. “Thank you very much.” She finished the glass quickly and passed it back, and then we each in turn had a moment with the glass and a chance to share a word or nod.

Hand-spun cotton being handwoven. Look at the patina on that huge shuttle!

Hand-spun cotton being handwoven. Look at the patina on that huge shuttle!

Before we left, several women brought to us cotton yardage they wished to sell, some plain white and some deeply dyed in their traditional indigo. As in most of rural Laos, prices were set; these savvy spinners and dyers were not in the least naïve about the quality or value of their time, effort, and product.

As for us—we could not have had a richer day.

 

(This article has been published in Spin-Off Magazine, Summer 2016)

The Traditional Silk Artists of Xam Tai, Laos

Souksakone, Xam Tai's leading master-dyer, template designer, and weaver.

Souksakone, Xam Tai’s leading master-dyer, template designer, and weaver.

The Traditional Silk Artists of Xam Tai, Laos

In the remote Annamite Mountains of NE Laos, and most notably in the Xam Tai District of Houaphon Province, the rich, cooperative, silk-weaving traditions of the Lao Loum and Tai Daeng ethnic groups still thrives, much in the way it has for millennia. Our family (mom, dad, and our now 22 and 19 year-old sons) has had the great privilege and opportunity to nurture friendships and forge textile-based business relationships with Xam Tai’s artists for the last 10 years. Their art, traditions and warmth have nourished us and opened up worlds of personal insight.

The silk weaving arts of the region are born from both Buddhist (the Lao Loum ethnic group) and animist (Tai Daeng and other Tai groups) traditions that are focused on healing and maintaining the strength of both the individuals and the community itself. The silk-raising and textile-creation processes have been central to beliefs and spiritual health and have also provided an economic foundation for countless generations. Not to diminish the essential building and farming roles of the men (all villagers participate with planting and harvesting), the women’s historical central role in textile creation has supported both core cultural beliefs and access to the cash-based trade-economy of the outside world. Because of this, women have been, on the whole, equally empowered and valued within the culture.

A weaver models her newly-woven shaman's shawl.  The silk is locally-raised and naturally-dyed.

A weaver models her newly-woven shaman’s shawl. The silk is locally-raised and naturally-dyed.

Local tradition holds that these complex weavings grant healers access to the spirits that affect health, both of the individual and of the community. Ancient motifs are woven into the textiles forming the geometric complexity; river-serpents (ngeuk) emblematic of female power, elephants (saang) that uphold political power, “hong” birds that represent male power, ancestor spirits, and fierce giant spirits (phii nak). These spirits can be invoked by shamans to heal a person from an injury or fever, protect an infant, revitalize an underperforming rice-field, or generate luck for a business venture.

An 8-year old silk weaver with a "sample-sized" silk, affectionately called a "love token."

An 8-year old silk weaver with a “sample-sized” silk, affectionately called a “love token.”

Even today in the shade of the thatched-roof homes in Xam Tai, silk shaman, healing and other ritual and household textiles are still woven for economic support as well as actual village use. However, the textile’s role of accessing spiritual and ancestral power for healing is diminishing as their world increasingly overlaps the modern 21st century.

The traditional silk-weaving process in Xam Tai has six distinct roles:

  • The seri-culturist, who raises the worms from tiny egg to fuzzy cocoon, all in the shade of their village home, taking great care to avoid disease and predators.
  • The reeler, who nurtures the warmed silk strands through her fingertips, pull by pull, pacing her work to match the cooling rate of the silk’s sticky seracin.

    A weaver works at her village-made loom.

    A weaver works at her village-made loom.

  • The dye-master, who pride herself on using only natural dyes created from what the jungle provides. A scale-bugs secretion, lac, forms the traditional foundation of red that is integral to so many of their textiles, but nearly every hue can be generated and fixed to silk.

    A young weaver (and her baby) models her temple-cloth.  Both Buddhists and animists in this region create and use textiles in their traditional ceremonies.

    A young weaver (and her baby) models her temple-cloth. Both Buddhists and animists in this region create and use textiles in their traditional ceremonies.

  • The pattern-template maker, who is likely also an expert weaver with highly-developed visual skills. The floor loom’s pattern-template (khao ti dai) contains the instructions for the weaver for the textile’s line-by-line creation as the weaver concentrates on her weaving precision and effective use of supplemental colors. A khao ti dai is saved for re-use, allowing certain effective, desirable patterns to be re-woven through the generations.
  • The weaver (of whom there are several hundred in the Xam Tai region, age 7 to 80), who sit at their large floor looms and deftly and miraculously create the most intricate and vibrant traditional silks in the world.   The region is most famous for its discontinuous supplemental weft patterns, but one also finds superb samples of tapestry weave, ikat and supplemental warp patterning. A singe large masterpiece shaman’s cloth (phaa phii mon) may take a woman 4 months to create at the loom. For many families, weaving is the sole source of income, keeping a high level of interest among women with the skill, patience and talent.

    A 13-year-old weaver works on a silk healing cloth.

    A 13-year-old weaver works on a silk healing cloth.

  • The businessperson, who gets the silk to the marketplace (assuming that’s its destination). This vital role, which requires both economic savvy and outside contacts, is often managed by the dyer.

    The design of the template-pattern can be clearly seen on this loom.  After each horizontal memory-thread, which represents a line of pattern in the weft, is used, it is moved from the template's top to the bottom; later, the memory threads will be moved from bottom to top, creating the traditional mirror-image motifs in the design-work.

    The design of the template-pattern can be clearly seen on this loom. After each horizontal memory-thread, which represents a line of pattern in the weft, is used, it is moved from the template’s top to the bottom; later, the memory threads will be moved from bottom to top, creating the traditional mirror-image motifs in the design-work.

While factory-spun silk, analine dyes and synthetic fibers are all readily available in local markets in Laos, the ethic of the silk-artist community of Xam Tai demands that the traditional processes be maintained. This cultural ethic has, for hundreds of generations, supported a cooperative and healthy lifestyle and economy that has allowed their traditional way of life to endure into the 21st Century. Their recent efforts to reach larger outside markets, as through our business, will be essential if these traditions are to continue to remain vital and attractive to future generations of Xam Tai’s cultural silk artists.

The beautiful and remote Xam Tai valley in Houaphon Province in NE Laos.

The beautiful and remote Xam Tai valley in Houaphon Province in NE Laos.

Maren and Josh study a textile with the Xam Tai weavers.

Maren and Josh study a textile with the Xam Tai weavers.

Jarai Gravesite Guardian Spirit-Posts

 

Jarai Gravesite Guardian Spirit-Posts, Or

 What You Won’t Find At Our Sale

They were hardly visible – just an aged, gray stump sticking up amid the tall grass, on the shadow’s edge of a lush and untended grove of trees.

A Jarai guardian of a grave peers over the grass.

A Jarai guardian of a grave peers over the grass.

Our guide, clad in a black business suit – daily business wear for office owners in Kontum, Vietnam – caught his breath.  “And this…” he puffed, “This is where some of my ancestors are buried.”  He took a white handkerchief from his rear pocket and wiped the beads of sweat from his face.

There was no breeze; some insect droned from the still trees. The sun felt heavy. Our guide tipped his hand to usher us forward. We slipped through the natural hedge on a thin path and a small village of haunting wood-carved spirits leaned in.

A Jarai gravesite that is still being tended.

A Jarai gravesite that is still being tended.

Traditional Jarai tombs are small huts that hold the possessions of the deceased and some offerings to appease the spirits. Wooden pillars topped by haunting carvings, representative of spiritual guardians, overlook each grave site. Traditional Jarai burial ceremonies are extremely expensive (involving many water buffalos and cows), and it may take a family many years to afford the proper burial rites for a loved one.  The graves are well-tended until the ceremonies are competed. After the final ceremonies, and after enough time has passed, the tombs are abandoned. The final abandonment ceremony marks the point where death becomes final and the deceased spirit is released. Nature then runs its course with the carvings.

A very old Jarai guardian spirit watches over its long-abandoned grave.

Teak wood, like cedar, takes long to decay, but the regular rains and heat of the region etches its influence upon the site. Each guardian is for each ancestor, and they to continue to be shaped by time and memory. A soul and a teak log can each take generations to dissolve.

A spirit guard tends its duties.

A spirit guard tends its duties.

But here, now, in this Jarai village of spirits with our guide and the sun is a moment of timelessness (and it’s just a moment).  Are the spirits  still here?  Can there really be a hundred years between a yesterday and a tomorrow? What is of our memories…

We have seen these posts for sale in tourist-focused shops that seek “western-sized” pockets.  The posts often still have a rotted, earthen stump, proof of being uprooted from its vigilant role.  Stacked in a corner of a shop, they look lost – and even older. The more shaped by time, the more valuable.  The more determined the features, the “better.”  The bigger, the more.

Each guardian in the shop leans: defeated, exiled. How could one remove such a treasure of time and memory, upsetting the order of decay?  Such items command the respect inherent in their purpose.

A newer guard.

A newer guard.

Some things are not meant to be traded or owned.

Maren at the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum’s Symposium in Bangkok & The Amazing History of SE Asia’s Silk Trade

Maren at the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum’s Symposium in Bangkok & The Amazing History of SE Asia’s Silk Trade

Last November, I had the chance to attend The Queen Sirikit Textile Museum sponsored Symposium “Weaving Royal Traditions Through Time” in Bangkok, Thailand.  What a blast!  I met textile enthusiasts from all over the world, all of whom were enthusiastic about textiles and eager to share their knowledge and connections.   Additionally, we were truly given the royal treatment, being shuttled to museums and private collections in police-escorted, air-conditioned buses, and fed delicious food and drink.  As the kickoff event for the Queen’s Museum, this was an event to see!

1.In Bangkok, at private showing of collection of Tilekke & Gibbons Collection textiles – Maren at back left of audience. Photo courtesy of John Ang, Samyama Co., Ltd., Taipei, a fellow conference attendee.

1. In Bangkok, at private showing of collection of Tilekke & Gibbons Collection textiles – Maren at back left of audience. Photo courtesy of John Ang, Samyama Co., Ltd., Taipei, a fellow conference attendee.

Aside from the pampering and meeting fellow participants (including the renown authors of our most used and treasured books on Laos textiles!), was an incredible 4-day orgy of information on and viewing of SE Asian textiles, with the primary focus on Thailand, but also extending to Indonesia, Laos, Japan, India, Malaysia, and even to England!

I had not grasped, until this symposium, the impact of politics and trade on the location of and production of textiles in SE Asia.  I often think of culture and clothing as being static from the point I first see them, but reality is constant change due to trade and imitating others’ work.  I also tend to categorize, for comfort and reference, a particular pattern/material/color as belonging to one person/place/time, but the truth is more flexible.

The front of the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum in Bangkok. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

The front of the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum in Bangkok. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

Now, some of the fascinating history:

400+ years ago, the predominant silk textiles in Thailand were saris woven in India delivered via sailing ships.  These ships sailed south and east in one season and north and west in the other, following the prevailing trade winds.  Due to the long trips, the merchants brought their religious advisors with them.  Thus, India exported not only their textiles, but also their religion and culture to Indonesia, Thailand, and surrounding areas.  Later, with steamer ships, came the ability to sail against the wind, speeding up trade throughout SE Asia.

Two of the Laos funeral banners from the Tilekke & Gibbons Collection. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

Two of the Laos funeral banners from the Tilekke & Gibbons Collection. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

One of the women being dressed for the Khong performance in the brand new gold and red tapestries woven specifically for the dancers. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

One of the women being dressed for the Khong performance in the brand new gold and red tapestries woven specifically for the dancers. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

Royal court textiles in Siam (now Thailand) were made of saris and shawls worn in the Thai tradition.  That is why 7 meters of cloth (sari size) are used each for the traditional Thai skirt and pants.  The cloth was greatly valued in the royal courts, and certain fabric was given as payment to those doing service to the King, after which it was required that those textiles were used exclusively in court appearances.  Certain patterns and colors were restricted to royal use, and were forbidden to be used by the common people.  These restrictions are no longer enforced.  (Throughout this time period, local villagers continued to weave textiles, but without the direct support of the royal courts, wove only for themselves for their own clothing and religious purposes.)

A textile preservationist and her assistant at the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum showing one of the Queen’s dresses – made of   gold-wrapped silk thread – gorgeous!  Photo courtesy of John Ang.

A textile preservationist and her assistant at the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum showing one of the Queen’s dresses – made of gold-wrapped silk thread – gorgeous! Photo courtesy of John Ang.

The culture exported from India most predominantly seen in Thailand and other SE Asian countries due to this trade is the royal dance and costume from the Ramayama.  Thus, while Thailand is a Buddhist country, the royal dance and theater is based on the battles between Hanuman and Garuda, and other Hindu Gods.   I had always wondered why predominantly Buddhist and Muslim countries had such similarity of religious costume and dance expression to India – now I know!

A male dancer being dressed in his Khong performance clothing – the dancers are sewn into their clothing to ensure the textiles stay in place during the athletic performances. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

A male dancer being dressed in his Khong performance clothing – the dancers are sewn into their clothing to ensure the textiles stay in place during the athletic performances. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

As a result of this trade, Japan was importing a great deal of the Indian sari fabric from Siam in the 1600’s, leading Japan to believe that the textiles were Siamese in origin.  By the mid-1600’s, due to an influx of unwanted missionaries, Japan closed its borders to all but Dutch merchant ships.  Thus, the Japanese never learned that the silk saris were made in India, resulting in the name given to them of Sayama, indicating an origin in Siam.  The Japanese treasured these textiles, again for portions of royal court dress, and also used the saris to make covers for teapots, to cover boxes holding tea implements, and other culturally important wrappings.  The Japanese also tried to duplicate these saris, but, as the Japanese were painting the silk, and the Indians were dying it, the Indian made saris retained their color much longer and so were preferred.

Textile production is also greatly impacted by economic/political decisions.  For example, in the 1850s, Siam made a trade agreement to provide rice in exchange for textiles, and from that point on, the people in the center of Siam switched from weaving to solely agriculture.  Even now, other than some people who have migrated into the center of Thailand, the area has a distinct lack of textile production.  Again, economic drivers trumped cultural norms, though the long-range impact of the shift to solely agricultural production cited here amazes me.

One of the antique Laos textile ends from a shaman cloth which is part of the Tilekke & Gibbons Collection textile collection. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

One of the antique Laos textile ends from a shaman cloth which is part of the Tilekke & Gibbons Collection textile collection. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

Also, during much of this time, regions of Laos were under the auspices of Siam or China, paying respective tribute to their King or Emperor.  Local rulers paid homage in return for the court clothing and protection of their respective royal patrons.  This is yet another example of how fashion and textile motifs and designs spread.

Now, for the more modern influences that caused silk to rise as an economic and cultural phenomenon in Thailand.

When the current Queen Sirikit came to her position, the royal dress of Thailand was western – it had been mandated as such since 1941.  When she traveled to NE Thailand in Isan when she was 23, she saw locals wearing skirts of their own weaving, and she commissioned them to weave her some of the stunning textiles.  This was the beginning of her ongoing support of weaving in Thailand.

One of Queen Sirikit’s dressed worn on her European tour with the King in the 1960s – stunning cloths representing the best of Thai textile weaving and design. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

One of Queen Sirikit’s dressed worn on her European tour with the King in the 1960s – stunning cloths representing the best of Thai textile weaving and design. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

When she and King Rama IX toured Europe in 1969, She designed her entire wardrobe, half western and half her own design using traditional Thai clothing styles as an influence, with the assistance of several French and British designers.  Her wardrobe became a worldwide sensation, landing her at the top of the best dressed woman list in 1965, the first Asian woman to ever make the list.

Due to the Queen’s efforts, and the ensuing efforts of Jim Thompson, who started the Thai Silk Company in 1960, Thailand is now famous for, to the point of being synonymous with, silk.

Thanks for reading, and for your continued interest in learning more about the people behind the textiles of SE Asia.

SE Asian Tribal and Ritual Art: The Inevitability of Change

SE Asian Tribal and Ritual Art: The Inevitability of Change

A Yao Shaman mask, from the early 20th century, acquired on our latest trip.

A Yao Shaman mask, from the early 20th century, acquired on our latest trip.

Older tribal and ritual artifacts – those dating from the mid-20th century and back – have nearly disappeared from the local markets. It’s not just a matter of prices inflating (and, in the robust, Chinese-fueled economy, they are), but the limited number of items originally created and used for ceremony that are still village-owned may be diminishing. A good example of this would be the wooden masks used in the Taoist ceremonies of the Yao (Yao-Mun subgroup) people of northern Vietnam and southern China.

When the region began to open to international business in the late 1970s following a generation of war and isolation, many of the older tribal artifacts were snapped up by international art and antique entrepreneurs and collectors. We’ve been told this is not a problem in itself for the Shaman and Taoist Priests; older, ritual items had their power ritually transferred to a new replacement – apparently, patina does not affect power. But much of the older, financially-valuable art was sold.

Our friend Phut (the “h” is silent), master-dyer and designer, modeling two of her shoulder cloths in her home. Notice the dichotomy between the turquoise Chinese refrigerator, plastic laundry basket, vinyl floor, and posters, and the traditional wooden stool with the hand- woven pillows and door curtain. This is one of the finest homes in Xam Tai.

Our friend Phut (the “h” is silent), master-dyer and designer, modeling two of her shoulder cloths in her home. Notice the dichotomy between the turquoise Chinese refrigerator, plastic laundry basket, vinyl floor, and posters, and the traditional wooden stool with the hand- woven pillows and door curtain. This is one of the finest homes in Xam Tai.

Also, the mid-20th century hill-tribe elders were the last to be relatively unaffected by powerful global forces. Today the Yao and many other hill- tribe groups broadly support efforts to be literate and savvy in western ways. Like us, they yearn for their children get a good education and live healthy, productive lives. Refrigerators, motorcycles, eye-glasses, television, ice cream, medical clinics, Pepsi, power tools, political representation…. What’s not to like?

A Red Yao woman and children, with a mix of traditional and western clothing sit on Chinese plastic chairs next to the road.

A Red Yao woman and children, with a mix of traditional and western clothing sit on Chinese plastic chairs next to the road.

This seductively convenient, modern world does not lend itself to investing time and talent into ritual protection and ceremony that supported a life that now, to many, may seem distant from modern realities. Three generations after Vietnam gained its independence, and two generations after a war killed millions and established a communist government eager to unify its people, the ancient village traditions that uphold the importance of certain beliefs are changing.

A young Lao man in western clothing playing pool with his friends while still wearing his hand-forged machete with a wooden hilt and handwoven rattan scabbard.

A young Lao man in western clothing playing pool with his friends while still wearing his hand-forged machete with a wooden hilt and handwoven rattan scabbard.

For those of us with our feet planted firmly in 21st century Western ways, a normal gut-reaction is to bewail what we might interpret as a loss of cultural innocence in an increasingly complex, competitive world. Indeed, many of these traditional hilltribe people are on the edge of a cultural precipice. How can the desire for health, comfort, stability and convenience be integrated into a world imbued with traditional beliefs? How can healing traditions maintain meaning in a world where Neosporin cures the infection?

The beauty, honesty, and expression inherent in the hilltribe people’s traditions inevitably must adapt to be meaningful in the modern world (as with Tai Daeng weaving), or else they will be buried in the sands of time as have our own ancestors’ ways

The Akha People and Their Ornaments

The Akha People and Their Ornaments

The most striking characteristic of the Akha people are the ornate headdresses worn daily by the women you see in the photos. The many different sub-groups of the Akha maintain different shapes and adornment traditions; in Laos, the Akha Puli are the largest sub-group and are represented in these photos.

Akha woman weaving a carrying bag.

Akha woman weaving a carrying bag.

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An Akha woman we visited with on her front porch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Akha headdress shown from behind.

An Akha headdress shown from behind.

The headdress begins with a strip of bamboo that is molded into a ring that encircles the head; a black cotton cloth is then carefully wrapped around the ring and head.  Most of the headdresses weight is older silver coins, minted by the French for Indochina in the early 20th century (some are Indian rupees as well).  Local silversmiths also fashion bells, buttons, half-shells, chains and other “bling” to adorn the headdress. Books tell us about how the power inherent in the headdress appeases the spirits and protects the woman, and also that the head is considered a bodies’ sacred vessel and is not to be touched by others.  Despite this, we never sensed any fear or embarrassment if the headdress was not yet in place or was in the laundry (and we often saw women washing the ornaments or hanging them out to dry).  A certain pragmatism seems to permeate their daily living routines.

An Akha silversmith showing his workbench and techniques.

An Akha silversmith showing his workbench and techniques.

A girl’s first headdress, as a young adolescent, would more likely feature less expensive, non-silver ornamentation. The Akha Puli leave the back head-panel void of decoration until marriage, when a dowry then affords the recognition.  Certainly, a woman’s status is related to the quality and weight of the adornments.  Many Akha, for financial reasons, use aluminum or nickel-bronze in place of silver; women may, over time, trade up to higher quality ornaments when economics allows.  A full silver headdress costs well over a thousand dollars even in the local economy!

The same silversmith showing the water buffalo horn forms for silver spheres and half moons.

The same silversmith showing the water buffalo horn forms for silver spheres and half moons.

Above the Fray does not usually seek to obtain silver ornamentation, and we do carry some beautiful and unique authentic earrings and accessories made of other metals.  If, however, you are interested in silver tribal arts, please introduce your desires.  We certainly do enjoy personal shopping!

Beat This Rong House Drum

Beat This Rong House Drum

By virtue of being at the right place at the right time, Above the Fray is privileged to have acquired a huge, museum-quality, window-rumbling, Jarai Rong House drum. Over each end of this drum stretches a taut, thick water buffalo hide – one side is from the hide of a male, the other a female. The hide was originally tacked on using only bamboo pegs, although a few nails were applied some years (generations?) back to hold one section of hide tightly to the frame. Under the hides and hidden from view – save a 2 inch wide strip in the middle from which the drum hung – is an ancient hollowed tree trunk giving the meter-wide drum its frame, and echo.

Josh wakes the neighbors on the Jarai Rong House drum.

Josh wakes the neighbors on the Jarai Rong House drum.

The 200 lb. drum (carefully shipped home in a custom-made, 1.5 m3 padded wooden crate) is thought to be 150 or more years old.  We were told it was obtained when two villages merged, and the extra drum was sold to help develop the newly expanded village.  We continue to search for any knowledgeable articles and research on Rong Houses, and specifically Rong House drums.

A close-up of the center of the drum, where the decades of wear on the wood have brought out the grain, and the holes in the water buffalo hide, some pegged by bamboo “nails,” are visible.

A close-up of the center of the drum, where the decades of wear on the wood have brought out the grain, and the holes in the water buffalo hide, some pegged by bamboo “nails,” are visible.

Mun Masks

Mun Masks

The Mun people, a sub-group of the Yao living primarily in northern Vietnam and southern China, are one of the few SE Asian tribal peoples who use masks in their ceremonies.  The masks are worn only by the Shi Gong priests in ceremonies designed to protect hunters and people going on long trips (including going into the afterlife) and are often decorated with animal hair and colored paper strips for each ceremony.

Mask still covered by the paper from its previous ceremony.

Mask still covered by the paper from its previous ceremony.

According to Jess Pouret in The Yao (Art Media Resources, Chicago, 2002), very little research has been done on the pre-Taoist millennia-old traditions from which these masks were born, and he bemoans the fact that their usage is being abandoned as this part of the world modernizes.

Mun mask with Buddha spike, goat fur facial hair and aluminum foil eyes.

Mun mask with Buddha spike, goat fur facial hair and aluminum foil eyes.

“Above the Fray” is fortunate to have collected a unique sample of mid-20th century Mun Masks; several are still decorated with animal hair and/or colored paper from their last ceremonial use.  They are powerful and haunting reminders of the need for spiritual protection in this complex and desultory world.

What are Phaa Sabai Healing Cloths?

What are Phaa Sabai Healing Cloths?

Healing cloths, or in Lao “phaa sabai,” are – and here I quote from www.hilltribeart.com – “used by both shaman and ordinary people, and use a combination of color and design for their powerful healing protection.  These hand-woven, naturally-dyed silk shawls, usually woven with a bright-red background, have complex supplemental weft details woven on either end of the cloth, with a center area of a single, undecorated color…  Healing cloths are used in healing ceremonies, and are also used in ceremony to foster a healthy future for the village or crops.  They may be worn by the healer, or the ill person, or even laid in the garden depending on the unique traditions of that village and the type of healing that is being sought.  Each ethnic group, sub-group, valley, and even individual villages often have unique styles of weaving and ritual to express their spiritual lives and needs; even individual weavers have input as to a healing cloths’ design elements and color.”

Weaver modeling her recently woven Phaa Sabai.

Weaver modeling her recently woven Phaa Sabai.

Phaa sabai take up to two months to weave, not including the time spent raising, harvesting, processing and dying the locally-grown silk.  Additional photos (in color!) of phaa sabai and some of the weavers of Ban N—– can be found on our website gallery.