Thursday, August 23, 2007

Beyond the pale

One of the many cultural hurdles that Westerners have to cope with when coming to live in Thailand is the local attitude to race and ethnicity. It might be too harsh to suggest that Thai people are racist: it's just that their attitude to such matters can seem very peculiar, even (especially?) when they mean well. Here's an example provided by my friend Noel (whose book The Man Who Scared a Shark to Death and Other Tales of Drunken Debauchery will make teetotallers of you all):

Thai Toothpaste Ad


Rog said...

That's a tad weird!

I got the message "Look after your canines or you'll end up sleeping on a toothbrush".

Annie said...

Much "lolling" from me and TMBGITS at the mo.

Billy said...

That is absolutely bizarre, I can't decide if I should be offended or not.

Dr Ian Hocking said...

I just don't know what to say. The bit where the guy shimmies up the pole is breathtakingly offensive...and yet the whole 'appearances' thing at the end seems to redress the balance. I don't know what to think. I must buy a Guardian and re-orient.

Tim F said...

That's interesting. The shimmying passed me by: what shocked me was the way that he was being defined by his colour, as if he was a product, just like the toothpaste.

It leads on to a really convoluted question of morals and manners - to what extent is it acceptable to accuse people from a very different culture of being culturally insensitive or indeed racist?

Dick Headley said...

Nothing like Thailand to shake up the old preconceptions.

Anonymous said...

Have lived in Thailand for 12 years so I thought my comments might be of value.

The climbing the pole a la monkey collecting coconuts... in the south of Thailand they train monkeys to climb coconut trees, with a rope around their neck. The monkeys climb up, and using their feet and hands, spin the fruit
free, allowing the coconut, like the spherical balloon, to drop to the ground for its master to collect.... Once finished, the monkey will descend
to the ground to receive the reward of peanuts or bananas from its master... and usually a derisory kick in the arse, for good measure and to keep the
naughty monkey in its place. That place is subservient to the master of course. And the monkey is naughty because it wants to do what it wants to do, and doesn't like being tied to a shadeless tree for hours on end waiting
for the master to whip it into action again.
Common reference to black people here and common theme in whiteness ads... saw one once that had girls screaming with fear that a relative had turned into a gorilla after being in the Sun for an extended period: Enter the friendly, helpful, ethnically Chinese scientist in a white coat with one of thousands of skin-whitening products on the market.

There is also the infamous Darlie toothpaste (which until quite recently ... I should look this up...was called Darkie). Curiously, the furore over the name failed to spur the packaging people to take the minstrel in "blackface" - off the box or the tube. Blackface, one of the most hideous symbols of racism (white men dressing up as black men singing and dancing using some kind of white man imposed creole language, masser, straight off the plantation). Read Blackface entry in wikipedia... fascinating.

Just read in Wikipedia the following: "In Thailand, actors darken their faces to portray the The Negrito of Thailand in a popular play by King
Chulalongkorn (1868–1910), Ngo Pa (Thai: Ngoh Pa (Sakai), which has been turned into a musical and a movie.[29]"....Ref = Keyes, Charles F. (1995).
The golden peninsula: culture and adaptation in mainland Southeast Asia. Includes bibliographical references and index.. Honolulu: (SHAPS library of
Asian studies) University of Hawai'i Press, p. 34. ISBN 082481696x. ... of the ancient Mani (what the people call themselves) peoples of Southern
Thailand, in a tiny pocket in the mountains of Trang province.

Bevan: to me they look more like Polynesians or Papuans, but I just found a "funny" extract from another great racist, Rama II.... see also....
Sakai, Sakae, or Sakai-of-the-Jungle all mean "savage" in Thai. The terms carry negative implications as shown by a quotation from the Thai king Rama II (ruled 1809-1824) who wrote that "the Sakais, the subservient weird kind of people, with curling rough hair and scaled body like a tiger cat" and "he is afraid naught of anyone, with his hair disorderly entwin'd, makes his face looking like agog."

Prof. Duangjunt says that the term "Sakai" is mainly used by the Buddhist Thai and is derived from the term "Sakae" used by Muslims when referring to the Mani. Jitr Phoumisuk in his book on the sources of terms of Siam, Thai, Laos and Khom (Khmer) and the social aspects of names given to the tribes, says that "Sakai" in Malay means subservient people of a colony or people
under occupation. The Mani are the original people of the Malay peninsula, who, after Malays had come to occupy their lands, became their slaves. The Malays also use the term "Orang Sakai" which means "slaves" (ref. 1, p.454). The Encyclopaedia Britannica (ref. 25) defines the term as "a generic and pejorative Malay term for the various pagan peoples of the Malay peninsula, especially the Senoi and Jakun." The Senoi are Veddoids, the Jakun are Mongolids, i.e. not Negritos. Negrito groups are also very often
referred to as "Sakai" - for example, the original title of this article was "Sakai (Mani) ...".

Back to the video....

Thai-Chinese mother scooping up child in horror at precious daughter's proximity to the man (Ai Dum... Thai slang for black people ... a very
primitive insult that translates loosely as "fucking blacky") .... rejecting his kind and obviously strenuous efforts to rescue the toy, while dragging
off the child, her face contorted in disgust towards the man.

Then comes more bullshit ... and I could see the Thai-Chinese creative team patting themselves on the back ... for their attempt at ameliorating the
preceding, blatant racism in a sickly patronising way showing the audience how kind the black man had been in collecting all the balloons..... frankly
I don't give a flying fuck that they show how kind he is at this point ... it's like putting a crown on someone you've just beaten and thrown in a vat
of pig excrement. It's conceited for the producers to attempt to show the guy in a kind light at this stage, after calling him a monkey, showing rejection of an act of great kindness on his part, and showing that a gift from a black man is deserving of abject revulsion.

Finally, in another act seeming to soothe recent wrongs, the black man lies down on toothbrush bristles, for a well-earned rest, but in a manner of a Indian guru lying on a bed of white nails... at a stretch ... you could say he is being punished ... or he needs cleaning by the bristles ... which is
another well-known attitude to dark people in Thailand, that they are dirty, lesser, lacking good karma. Then, he turns into a portion or roll of - yes, it is herbal and this is pointed out - black toothpaste. He becomes a black log of faecal looking matter. GREAT! I feel much better about Thai people's attitudes to black people now that they turned him into a disgusting black log of shit. Call it herbal, and in the final insult, they put in subtitles:
"Appearance can be deceptive" or something like that and just as grammatically awkward and insulting to the English language. What the fuck does that mean you might ask? Well, he's black (read here as has been time and again pointed out to me by Thais and other long-term residents, and implied quite clearly in almost every second and square millimetre of television, radio, billboard, public transport, advertising that ... black - especially black skin is dirty, scary, evil, socially unacceptable, and something that must be eradicated by chemistry at every opportunity and at whatever cost by the use of creams, soaps, sunscreens, umbrellas at the slightest hint of sunlight) .. yes, he's black, and by implication therefore all those negative sterotypical things.... but... he's also agile like a monkey, he's kind because he collected so many balloons for so many children, he may look like a log of
shit, but he will clean your teeth, and make them white.... you won't have to see him, because he lives in dark, low-cost housing, with fibro walls
near what looks to be railway yards, but when you smile, your teeth will be white...

"Appearance can be deceptive"... it (toothpaste) or he ... might look like shit and be scary ... but it/he is actually quite good you know.... don't be afraid... it/he is not like the rest of the scary Nigerians, in the presence of whom Thai-Chinese mothers threaten their children to behave or be fed to.

Then those Thai-Chinese children grow up to be even more spoilt advertising brats, after a brief stint slumming at art school, and being cool, wearing excessive black garments, and carrying empty art cases with them in the Khao
Sarn/Prachuthit Road area of Bangkok.
So, if those preceding bloggers read this do you think they would still wonder if it was racist or not?


Bevan Powrie