Chiang Mai Province, northern Thailand
Chiang Mai has a permanent market called Warorot – a market hall and the busy, traffic choked streets which surround it. Open every day of the year – or so it seems, it has temple offerings of incense, garlands and paper money, flowers, fruit and veg, plastic kitchen utensils, cheap clothes and much besides. It’s just like any other market in fact.
The H’mong Market
But go down one narrow side street just wide enough to squeeze a pick up truck between a rail of pleated skirts and narrow shelves of brightly coloured pom-poms, and you will come across the “Talat H’mong” a market run by H’mong hill-tribe people. Its just a small area between the fabric shops, a polluted canal and a busy city street – a few dozen stalls which now seem to have taken root here after years of being a temporary shanty. While I was doing my daily trawl through last week, I even saw a guide showing a group of tourists around, so I guess its here to stay. The reason I’m down here so often, is that it’s full, and I mean full of textiles and costume, old and new, some pretty wrecked but all bright (some may even say garish)
Who are the H’mong?
The H’mong are a hill-tribe who started making their homes in Thailand about 100 years ago coming from Vietnam, Laos and south western China. They made their way into Thailand for a variety of reasons, to escape oppression and discrimination, to look for more forest land and resources but also because they don’t bother with immigration posts and passports in the high mountains. The H’mong are part of the same nation as the Miao (it’s just that they are called H’mong once they leave China). There are over 150,000 of them in Thailand.
They live in the parts of the country which the Thais weren’t bothered about, usually high up mountainsides. They built homes in the dense forest practicing slash and burn agriculture and moved every dozen years or so once the surrounding forest land was exhausted. These days they stay put and the government has built schools in the villages so the youngsters read and write and speak Thai now. They’ve also got agriculture programmes so they can stop growing and selling opium and grow lychees and cabbages instead. In Thailand, the hill-tribes seem to have a better standard of living and face a bit less discrimination than in other Asian countries. They have a particular soft spot for the King and Queen, and I’ve yet to go into any H’mong home without a picture of the King on the wall. That’s not to say that life is rosy – it’s still hard and they are amongst the poorest people in Thailand.
Living with your stock
But back to the market. The stalls are piled high with various bits of embroidery and tribal clothing in more or less distressed, grubby and discarded states. They hoard mosquitoes which wake up and buzz around when disturbed. Amongst these piles live the stall holders – mostly young families with their belongings in plastic bags, with make-shift beds, TVs and bare bottomed babies. They speak to each other in a language incomprehensible to both Thais and foreigners alike. They are almost totally impervious to bargaining and state their prices with sure intent – joking, attempting to build a relationship or expecting them to recognise you are met with incomprehension or a no nonsense coolness. They are there because they have a commodity to sell and you have the money to buy- let’s leave it at that.
I’ve bought some traditional finely pleated skirts which I’ll get washed and made into jackets. They’ve gone up by 20% since last year and it’s harder to find really nice ones. So I make my way through the alleyway to the back where there are some old ladies selling dirty old bundles of costume offcuts. They cackle and chat together and when I gather a few things together, they make me understand that I must not mix up their piles – some belong to one and some to another. They have to be counted and paid for separately. Trouble is although they are pretty sharp about money they are basically innumerate and when it comes to counting my bits and adding it up they need the help of a younger woman.
Every morning the dealers – Thai, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish, whatever, come down to see what’s just come in. Hundreds of old skirts, hand embroidered apron straps, bits of appliquéd collars, and tattered velvet jackets are stuffed into huge white plastic sacks and brought in and sent out. The stuff comes in from all the H’mong groups of Thailand but also from Laos, Burma, Vietnam and even China. Bunchy hemp skirts with indigo batik and bright orange cross stitched panels from Thailand, purple silk cross stitch from Vietnam, or yellow and pink appliqué from southern China. And sometimes there are ornate embroidered trousers or long coats from the Yao people and jackets and shoulder bags from the Akha. It all gets washed, repaired, and transformed into soft furnishing, bags or garments and ends up on sale in posh shops all over the world – from Bangkok to Bishop’s Castle.
What’s going on?
Overwhelmingly however the trend is moving from old stuff to new and from hand made to machine made. Each year I am disappointed to find that some things which I took for granted have disappeared. The appliquéd “mandala” stars which adorn H’mong jackets were once all hand stitched but are now churned out by the thousand on embroidery machines. Much of the embroidery is now machine stitched and the indigo batik is often printed rather than wax dyed. The rolls of hemp cloth have lost their polished smooth sheen and have become loose and swiftly woven hessian with blotchy dyes. I fear that it will not be too many years before there is really nothing good left to buy, and the old stuff will be in antique shops and museums.
There’s no reason why I should be surprised or even upset at this. Modern 21st century life has hit the H’mong people like everyone else. The kids go to high school, have mobile phones, and motorbikes, mum and dad want electricity so they can watch the telly and a pick-up truck to get up the mountains to their village homes. These things require hard cash so they want their hours of hard work to have some reward, just like we do.
The reason there are still so many hand made textiles around is that every one has a new set of traditional clothes each New Year and the old ones get traded in. If you have invested hundreds of hours of work in indigo dyeing, batiking, hand stitching and appliquéing a couple of 7 yard long panels and then steaming and starching them into fine pleats to make a traditional H’mong skirt, you would be wanting some decent money for it.
New Year H’mong style
This year we got a chance to see the latest H’mong fashions at Mae Sa Mai village where the eleven H’mong villages of Chiang Mai province got together to celebrate New Year on January 15th. The date is not important, it’s different every year and is set whenever it’s convenient. These annual gatherings have a traditional role in getting the whole clan together. They do competitions (hemp spinning, hand made cart racing, throwing spinning tops), ceremonies, (speeches, the crowning of Miss H’mong 2013), entertainment, (dancing girls, singing girls, and young lads with electric guitars), eating, meeting up with old mates and getting pissed. But probably their most crucial role is in finding a marriageable partners for sons and daughters. In the days before concrete roads had been built you had to walk over the mountains to a village where more of your clan lived So these annual opportunities to size up possible mates would be very important.
At the 2013 New Year gathering, some things may have changed but the youngsters are still out on the pull. They are dressed up to the nines in spectacular outfits, wonderful hats, plenty of silver and highly unsuitable shoes and that’s just the boys! The costume is important for showing off your (or your mum’s) textile skills, and for showing off the family wealth and also because it shows at a glance which group or branch of the clan you belong to. Nowadays with mobile phones, good transport and high schools, young people can get together much more easily, but we still we saw the traditional ball throwing between rows of young men and women and plenty of couples wandering arm in arm together under a sunshade.
This strange ball throwing thing reminds me of the first time I saw it. We were in Laos, at Veng Vieng back in the day before it became a favourite haunt of the farang gap year brigade. Seamus and Sean were about 10 and 13.
I wanted to see some real, live hill tribe people so we went off on battered push bikes with the local English teacher. He spoke a very small amount of English very badly, which at that time was about as good as it got (and more than our non-existent Laos)
At the end of an exhausting, hot and gruelling ride over rutted, stony, and dusty roads we arrived at some piss poor village and were taken into a house for lunch. We sat on low stools with the men while the women served us sticky rice, bitter greens and hot chillies. Seamus just looked at me with a a look which said “Why? Why are we here? I hate you”.
Then we saw the ceremony – a few dressed up youth performing some desultory ball tossing. Seamus and Sean were invited to join in amidst much shy giggling from the girls. “Ah, bless!” I thought. That night I had a vivid dream. We had inadvertently betrothed the kids to a couple of poor Laos village girls and they would have to stay in the village. That’s what parental guilt does for you!
New Year, H’mong style is really just village Carnival Day in pretty costumes – the costumes however are spectacular. On close inspection many show the hours put in to make them but there is no denying that “bling” is taking over. Flimsy aluminium coins, plastic beads, machine embroidery, glitzy sequins, and printed fabrics are all much in evidence. But not as much as at the New Year ceremony we went to last December in south west China, where there was virtually no hand work on show.
The tyranny of all that costume making
But let’s face it, constantly spinning, weaving, dyeing, embroidering, and sewing could be a chore and a tyranny that not many of us would continue with once other options became available. These other options have now become available to H’mong women too. And I wouldn’t be surprised if every year many of them think “I really can’t be bothered with this any more, next year I’ll save up for some of that printed batik and buy some ready made embroidery instead of trying to get a new outfit made for everyone”.
So, they can pay someone else in the village to do it, or they can buy it ready made in the shops around Warorot market. It may be an imitation but it still looks pretty good.
I tell you, in the ethnic textile markets, as in every other walk of life, things are changing fast.