Luk Kreung and the Construction of Thainess

Cultural studies have explored the relationship between farang and Thai national identities or Thainess. These studies put forward that since the 1950s and the beginning of the 21st century, foreign influences have intensified to intimate levels of cultural and physical hybridization. Thus, in the form of Thai-farang or luk kreung, foreign otherness seems to have become an object of cultural intimacy in Thailand.

Luk kreung & Thainess

We may say that as a post-Vietnam War era phenomenon, cultural intimacy between Thai and farang have increased, hence exceeding the forms of cultural contact in previous generations. Thus, interracial marriages have become a widespread social phenomenon since then, although these kind of unions, and hence luk kreung people, have been known since the Ayutthaya period.

Prince Chula & Elizabeth Hunter (photo credit: viola.bz)

The half-Thai Prince Chula Chakrabongse & his English wife Elizabeth Hunter (photo credit: viola.bz)

In earlier times, i.e. prior to the later decades of the 20th century, interracial marriages were generally limited to small groups of people. These were persons who were in the main cultural contact zones (e.g. Christians, Chinese) and who worked closely with Europeans.

Ekaterina Desnitska and Chakrabongse Bhuvanath (photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org)

Ekaterina Desnitskaya, Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath and son Chula (photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org)

Nevertheless, there were some rare cases in which Thai and European unions occurred among royals or the elite. For instance, think of Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath (Prince of Bisnulok) and his Ukranian wife Ekaterina ‘Katya’ Desnitskaya and their half-Thai son Prince Chula Chakrabongse.

Prince Rangsit, his wife Elizabeth and their three children (photo credit: songkran.eu)

Prince Rangsit, his wife Elisabeth and their three children (photo credit: songkran.eu)

Another prominent example is the racially mixed marriage between Prince Rangsit Prayurasakdi and the German lady Elisabeth Scharnberger. They had three children, two sons and a daughter called Princess Charulaksana Kalyani Rangsit.

Princess Charulaksana Kalyani Rangsit (born 7 August 1924) (photo credit: Seissenshi, wikimedia.org)

Princess Charulaksana Kalyani Rangsit (born 7 August 1924) (photo credit: Seissenshi, wikimedia.org)

In fact, there were a few Thai men of royal descent who married Western women at the beginning of the 20th century. For instance, there was Lady Ludmilla Ivanovna Barsukova from Russia who was married to General Mhomjao Thongtekhayu Thongyai. They had four children together and stayed in Hua Hin. Lady Ludmilla, who is probably of Russian royal lineage, lived in Thailand until she died in 1980 at the age of 90. Her Thai name was Mhom Mali.

Lady Ludmilla & Prince Thongyai with their four children in Hua Hin (photo credit: returnthai.com)

Lady Ludmilla & Mhomjao Thongtekhayu Thongyai with their four children in Hua Hin, 1921 (photo credit: returnthai.com)

Thai-farang relationships first became a common social practice since the 1960s when American GIs were stationed at the US military bases in upcountry Thailand. Hence, some of them formed relationships to Thai women who mostly stemmed from the countryside. As a consequence, a remarkable numer of half-Thai people were born who also became a prominent topic in novels, movies and TV series during the 1960s and 70s.

The most significant novels dealing with Thai attitudes to luk kreung were Sifa’s ‘Khao nork na’ (1976, Wild Rice or literally translated ‘Rice Outside the Paddy Field’) and Botan’s ‘Phuying khon nan cheu Bunrort’ (‘That Woman’s Name Is Bunrort’) which was published in 1981. You might recall my previous article about ‘Luk kreung and Concepts of Mixed Race in Thailand’, then you know that the luk kreung from the Vietnam War era were not regarded as desirable.

The Siam Renaissance (photo credit: viki.com)

The Siam Renaissance – luk kreung as representatives of Thainess (photo credit: viki.com)

However, this perception has changed since the 1980s. Generally, it seems that Thailand has discovered Thai-farang as representatives of a modern form of Thainess. For example, the movie ‘The Siam Renaissance’, starring Thai-French actress Florence Faivre, deals with this subject. The movie reveals how the concept of the powerful West is stripped of its foreignness in order to become part of modern Thai identity.

The Thai-ization of the farang (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

The Thai-ization of the farang in the Siam Renaissance (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

What is more, cultural anthropologist Jan R. Weisman argues that the luk kreung boom reveals the Thai fascination with half-Thai people, a phenomenon related to issues of modernity, sexuality and race. In this way, Thai-farang is presented as being cosmopolitan, thus being able to act on a global stage. Hence, the general popularity of Eurasian luk kreung have also strengthened the allure of farang in popular culture that manifested first in the late 19th century with the Siamese strive for ‘siwalai‘ or ‘civilized’ things.

Summing up, we may claim that the present popular cult of the European-Thai luk kreung shows that they are very important in constructing a modern Thai identity which is also referred to as Thainess.

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Rachel V. Harrison & Peter Jackson eds. The Ambiguous Allure of the West. Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, 2010)




Meanings of the Term ‘Farang’ (ฝรั่ง)

We’ve all come across the word ‘farang‘ (ฝรั่ง) in some context or other. We all know that in Thai it describes a European person. However, what are the origins and the meanings of this term? It is an assured fact that the word derives from ‘Frank’, a word that originally referred to a Germanic speaking people in the region of today’s France.

The Farang

Western tourists in Thailand (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram@knack66)

Western tourists in Thailand (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram@knack66)

Nevertheless, this term was also widely used in medieval Greece, Egypt and further Mediterranean areas attributing to West European people generally. In addition, similar expressions can be found in other languages as well. For instance, there is the Persian ‘farangg’, the Hindi ‘farengi/farangi’, the Tamil ‘pirangi’, the Arabic ‘frangi’ and the Polynesian ‘palangi’. These terms all sound very similar and point to a common origin.

Reminiscence of Portuguese in Siam: Bangkok Santa Cruz Catholic Church (photo credit: Sayompoo Setabhrahmana, wikimedia.org)

Reminiscence of the Portuguese in Siam: Bangkok Santa Cruz Catholic Church (photo credit: Sayompoo Setabhrahmana, wikimedia.org)

In fact, the Thai word ‘farang’ was borrowed from Muslim Persian and Indian traders during the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767). During that time this term referred to the Portuguese who were the first Europeans to visit Siam. Later, the term became a generic Thai word for other Europeans as well and finally to all Caucasians generally. What is more, ‘farang’ describes the West in general. Thailand’s neighbouring countries Cambodia (‘barang’) and Laos (‘falang’) also know this term.

Westerners in Thailand (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram@knack66)

Westerners in Thailand (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram@knack66)

Thus, we may say that ‘farang’ is a Thai word referring to ‘Otherness’ whereby there is no specification of culture, nationality, ethnicity and so on…Hence, this word is in fact neutral, even though it might be used as an insult in some contexts. There is for example the expression ‘farang khi nok’ to describe an ill-mannered European. Literally translated this term means ‘guava tree or fruit growing out of bird’s dropping’ since ‘farang’ also means guava which originally came from South America and was brought to Thailand by the Portuguese.

A farang temple guard at Wat Pho (photo credit: Ian Gratton, wikimedia.org)

A European-looking temple guard at Wat Pho (photo credit: Ian Gratton, wikimedia.org)

Nevertheless, ‘farang’ is also used as a classifying category to describe things that come from the West. These may be fruits, vegetables, animals, goods or inventions. For instance, think of ‘man farang’ (potato), ‘mak farang’ (chewing gum) and ‘nang farang’ (Western movie). In fact, we may say that things labelled as ‘farang’ sometimes not merely indicate their foreign character but also their alluring character or in other words, the allurance of ‘farangness’. This may be interpreted as signifing some superior qualities in comparison to the Thai counterparts.

In terms of 'farang', a European in Bangkok (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram@knack66)

In terms of ‘farang’, a European in Bangkok (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram@knack66)

Summing up, we may say that ‘farang’ is a cultural signifier of cosmopolitanism that also reflects how Thai people have dealt with Western Otherness and incorporated some foreign aspects into their own culture.

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Rachel V. Harrison & Peter Jackson eds. The Ambiguous Allure of the West. Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, 2010)




Kosa Pan – A Siamese Diplomat in France

Among the first Siamese visitors to Europe was an embassy of three ambassadors sent by pro-foreign King Narai (r. 1656-88) to the court of Louis XIV. Among them was the diplomat Kosa Pan who was also a minister and the great grandfather of the first King of the present ruling dynasty of Thailand, Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke. Formally, Pan was called by the noble title Chao Phraya Kosathibodi (เจ้าพระยาโกษาธิบดี; “Lord Minister of World Affairs”). In addition, his former title was Ok Phra Wisut Sunthon (“Count of Pure Amity”) which was the title for a skilled diplomat.

Kosa Pan

Thai ambassador to France Kosa Pan, 1686 French print, (wikimedia.org)

Thai ambassador to France Kosa Pan, 1686 French print, (wikimedia.org)

Arriving in Brest in June 1686, the ambassadors’ task was to study the language and customs of the French. During their three-week sojourn at the Brittany port, the diplomats took copious notes. Hence, the first ambassador Kosa Pan collected data with relish. He documented every detail he encountered, from the dimensions of navy vessels, flags, lances and crossbeams to those of his bedroom mirror. The main purpose of the Siamese to travel overseas was to record detailed information from the foreign encounter which in turn could be used to the greater good of Siam.

Siamese Embassy To Louis XIV, in 1686, Nicolas Larmessin, personal photograph at the Musee Cognacq, Ile de Re, France

Siamese Embassy To Louis XIV, in 1686, Nicolas Larmessin, personal photograph at the Musee Cognacq, Ile de Re, France (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

Therefore, the emphasis of Pan’s account was on monitoring objective truths rather than on conveying subjective impressions. Hence, he also took notes on his visit to Paris and Versailles which are broadly complementary. However, he also mentioned the filthiness of the streets and of French people in general. Thus he pointed out a difference to the Siamese.

Kosa Pan presents King Narai's letter to King Louis. From Smithies, Siam and the Vatican in the Seventeenth Century. Original credited to National Archives of Thailand, wikimedia.org

Kosa Pan presents King Narai’s letter to King Louis. From Smithies, Siam and the Vatican in the Seventeenth Century. Original credited to National Archives of Thailand, wikimedia.org

The ambassador’s observations on the poor standards of 17th century French hygiene further forged a national stereotype which has persisted for centuries and which is still present in contemporary Thai popular imagination. This is for instance exemplified by the common epithet given by Thai football commentators to the French national team, as the ‘thim nam-horm’. This is because the French come from a country renowned for its production of perfume which is called ‘nam-horm’ in Thai. In the past, to the Siamese it seemed that the French were always in need for perfume because they were unwilling to take regular baths 😉

The Siamese ambassador Pan, 1686 French print. Reproduction in Three military accounts of the 1688 revolution in Siam, wikimedia.org

The Siamese ambassador Pan, 1686 French print. Reproduction in Three military accounts of the 1688 revolution in Siam, wikimedia.org

What is more, in his accounts the Siamese diplomat inverts the modern stereotype of French femininity as the embodiment of farang elegance and beauty. In fact, according to Pan, French women are very unattractive and ugly both in behaviour and in appearance. He seems to be appalled by their large noses, pale skin and wanton behaviour. Similarly, Western travellers to Siam also described local women with equal distaste. In terms of cultural studies this can be interpreted as the foreign visitor shoring up a firm sense of his own identity by an acknowledgement of the difference of the ‘Other’.

Kosa Pan with Louis XIV, 1687 French almanach. Reproduction, wikimedia.org

Kosa Pan with Louis XIV, 1687 French almanach. Reproduction, wikimedia.org

Nonetheless, Pan’s embassy was generally met with a rapturous reception and caused a great sensation in the courts and society of Europe. In particular, the French were so enthralled with the amazing textiles worn by the Thai diplomats that they began to imitate the rich silk brocades calling them “Siamoise”. By the way, there is also a Jim Thompson print named in honour of the ambassador, showing a procession of Siamese nobles elegantly dressed in brocades and silk.

Kosa Pan fabric (photo credit: jimthompsonfabrics.com)

Kosa Pan fabric (photo credit: jimthompsonfabrics.com)

However, after returning to Siam, Pan became a strong advocate of Phetracha who was the ruler overthrowing King Narai and eliminating the French influence. This was the time of the Siamese revolution (1688) which led to Siam severing all ties with the West until they were renewed in the 19th century.

French depiction of King Narai, 18th century print. Reproduction in Les Missions Etrangeres Perrin, wikimedia.org

French depiction of King Narai, 18th century print. Reproduction in Les Missions Etrangeres Perrin, wikimedia.org

Under Phetracha’s rule, former diplomat Pan became Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. However, about a decade later in 1700 Pan was disgraced. It is said that King Phetracha cut off Pan’s nose so that the former diplomat committed suicide.

Summing up, we may say that Kosa Pan was a kind of pioneer being one of the first Siamese to visit Europe. Additionally, he was also the direct ancestor of King Rama I who founded the Chakri Dynasty.

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Rachel V. Harrison & Peter Jackson eds. The Ambiguous Allure of the West. Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, 2010)




Thainess, ‘Luk kreung’ & The Siam Renaissance

The Siam Renaissance (Thawiphop, dir. Surapong Pinijkhar, 2004) is a movie about a young Thai woman named Manee/Maneechan (Florence Vanida Faivre). She is from the early 21st century and educated in France but with the help of a mirror she is able to travel back and forth in time.

Hence, she visits Siam’s early modern past and then goes back to the present. The movie is adapted from the historical Thai novel “Tawipob” (Two Worlds) by Tamayanti which is also a love story. Thus, the movie can be classified as historical and romantic film because apart from time travelling, Manee finds valuable lessons in life and love along the way with soldier Dhep (Rangsiroj Panpeng).

The Siam Renaissance

The Siam Renaissance (photo credit: viki.com)

Scene from The Siam Renaissance, Manee & Dhep (photo credit: viki.com)

Being in 19th century Thailand at the court of King Mongkut (r. 1851-1868), Manee criticizes the Western influences in modern Thailand. When asked by two nobles at the court, she generally presents the ‘farang‘ (Westeners) and tawan-tok (the West) as a threat to Siamese cultural identity. Thus, it seems that her point of view is in accordance with Thai nationalist discourses.

Although we know that Thailand has never been colonized, there have nevertheless been strong Western influences. Hence, the movie also raises the question what Thainess is or rather what remains of it considering these influences. In addition, it also deals with the question of Thai national and cultural identities and points out ambiguities implied in a modern construction of Thainess which is devoid of Western contamination.

Here is a trailer to the movie. By the way, you may also watch the full movie with English subs here.

Florence V. Faivre in the part of Manee is interesting in the context of this film, since she is luk kreung (Thai-French), considering the fact that Thainess in brought into question by the threat of the farang Other. That is to say, it might appear weird that a half-Thai (who is herself partly farang) expresses nationalistic thoughts. However, we must also note that in the movie the protagonist Manee is supposed to be a full-Thai woman. Nonetheless, since the film dwells very much on her beauty and often focusses on her body and facial features, we may assume that she, Florence Faivre, as a luk kreung, represents the Thai beauty ideal of the day.

Focussing on Manee's beauty (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

Focussing on Manee’s beauty (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

Nonetheless, the half-Thai actress might also reiterate the message for the Thai need to accommodate and to move with the times but above all the movie is about a young woman’s quest for her identity.

Manee's transformation (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

Manee’s transformation (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

This is emphasized in the scene when Manee/Faivre is transformed from a traditionally dressed lady of the Siamese court to a kind of ‘farangized’ guest at the French diplomat’s residence. The film pays very much attention to Manee’s transformation. Thus, she is shown rotating behind a screen until her naked form is revealed. She is then bathed and massaged in a traditional and aestheticized Thai manner. Finally, she is dressed in a Victorian garb.

Manee farangized (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com

Manee is farangized (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com

However, despite her outer appearance, the protagonist Manee is and remains essentially Thai at heart. The point is that she may look and seem to be half-Thai and hence, all the prettier for being so in contemporary Thai viewers eyes. Nevertheless, her core and heart are completely Thai through her performance of the protagonist Manee. For this reason, we might be justified in claiming that the movie is not so much about the ‘farangization‘ of Thainess than it is about the ‘Thai-ization’ of the farang.

The Thai-ization of the farang (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

The Thai-ization of the farang (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

In other words, we may argue that the Siam Renaissance shows how the concept of the powerful West is stripped of its foreignness in order to become part of modern Thai selves. This might seem a controversial topic. What do you think about it?

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Rachel V. Harrison & Peter Jackson eds. The Ambiguous Allure of the West. Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, 2010)