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Posts Tagged ‘Chiang Mai’

I’m still feeling a bit bruised and battered by the EU Referendum and its aftermath. Textile Traders would not be in business without the “free movement of people”, as I’ve been free to travel almost anywhere in the world ever since my teens when I worked as a chambermaid in France!
Like our friends and colleagues on World Textile Days we work closely with people all over the world. We trust them with our money, our stock, our kids, our security. Without these “foreigners” we would be nowhere.

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Some of the World Textile Day crew

Anyway, to cheer myself up I got thinking about some of the people who I rely on, who have grown up with me and who I call friends. So here goes …

 

First of all Turkey – always stuck between Europe and Asia, but at the moment getting the worst of both worlds – we don’t seem to want them in Europe, and IS bomb them because they don’t like them talking to the West.  I first went there in 1981 to teach english and fell in love with the country.
After a couple of years, I came back with a few rugs to try and sell. “Just take them, send me the money later”. I hardly knew the guy, he just trusted me to do the decent thing. Very Turkish! I’ve been going back regularly ever since.
It’s time I said “Thank You” to the innumerable women weavers in umpteen villages who have allowed me to sit in their living rooms and back yards taking photos and notes, to the dozens of carpet sellers in Istanbul, Ayvacik, Antalya, Izmir, Selcuk and Anamur who have shared afternoons and hundreds of glasses of tea with us as we slowly look through piles of stock – “Don’t ask the price, just enjoy”
Special thanks to Musa, Ramazan and Nazmiye who taught us about natural dyeing and self sufficiency, to the Bozyak brothers who enthused us with the Dobag Project and to Musa and Saliha in Anamur with whom we have shared so many laughs and so many meals around the “sofra”. 

 

And then in Indonesia – I’ve been going back for 33 years now, and parts of Java have the familiarity of home. It’s always the same – I start each visit appalled by the poverty and the degradation of the environment and end up charmed by the kindness and tolerance of the people, envious of the strength of their communities and entranced by the culture.
In Indonesia, I have to thank numerous men and women making incredible batik and ikat textiles who have smiled and answered my questions or just allowed me to sit and watch. Thanks to Hani, and Nia and Agus and all the guys at the “Indonesia” and the Duta.

But especially Tono, a becak (bicycle rickshaw) driver, our first “fixer”  who packed thousands of cantings into hundreds of boxes, talked Indonesian politics with us when it was not safe to do so, found lovely ladies to take care of our boys when they were little, came with us to puppet show “all-nighters” and introduced us to dozens of knowledgeable people. And then the inestimable Susi, his replacement, who lets me hang out at her house, lends me her bike, finds cake, sorts out my Indonesian sim card, takes me round the city on the back of her motorbike and performs a hundred little kindnesses and huge favours I couldn’t do without.

And finally Northern Thailand. I spend more and more time there nowadays and even then never want to leave. So many people to thank and appreciate: the women who give massages at the temple round the corner; Mr and Mrs Beer who hire us bikes, motorbikes and cars and stay cheerful in spite of having to deal with hundreds of us dumb foreigners every week; Panee and her family the best indigo dyers in Phrae; Ray in Chiang Mai who posts stuff to me when I run out; Nui who always makes sure I get a bed no matter what time I turn up; the girls at the Post Office who look after us every year, manage to clear a space for us in their tiny office, and stay cheerful in spite of having to answer the same dumb questions to a constant stream of us foreigners every week; H’mong headman Win and his wife who have made us welcome so many times in their village in the Mae Sa valley, and never forgetting Poo and her little group of tailors who make my garments and manage, no matter what I throw at them, to get them all finished on my very last day.

Of course we’re all different – I LOVE that we’re different. I make my living by talking about, learning about and trading in the things that make us different. It’s spine tingling to hear the call to prayer at daybreak or monks chanting through the night, to come across a group of tribal women in full regalia, or witness strange and exotic ceremonies.
What’s surprising is just how similar our hopes and dreams, fears and concerns are.
I think its time we in Britain got over ourselves and started thanking our Lucky Stars!
If we believe Britain is overcrowded, try Java (145 million on an island roughly the size of Britain). If we’re worried that our culture is being taken over, spend a couple of days in Bali or the old city in Chiang Mai, or on Phuket or Koh Samui, for goodness sake. If we’re concerned about refugees, try the camps in southern Turkey or the Thai-Burmese border.
What the referendum result has shown though, is that we live in a country of great inequalities. If anything comes out of this to address that, then there may be some good come of it!

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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 rajim at the marketil 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.H'mong women lineup

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 Little girl living in the marketdisturbed. 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 IMG_7975 (640x480)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 H'mong couple with sunshadegot 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 Lovely girlspartners 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!Hmong New Year Ball Tossing ceremony

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.Hmong old ladies enjoying New Year

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.

H'mong girlsHmong New year

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It’s easy to love northern Thailand and Chiang Mai in particular and many people do. It’s easy to relax and start feeling that you could stay a few months and maybe even join the many ex pats who have made their temporary or permanent home here.lots of textiles

Start to think about finding a way to make some money and getting a work permit (and you don’t need to earn much to live here) or getting a retirement visa if you’re old enough (and I am, hooray!) or even just joining the queues at the Burmese or Laos border every two weeks to renew your tourist visa. And of course getting yourself a Thai girlfriend which is what just about every middle aged single man is doing here. In the interests of sexual equality I must report that of course as a middle aged single woman you could come here for a Thai boyfriend too, but it’s just that you don’t see that in every bar or café and on every street.

Yes, Chiang Mai seems to have mastered the art of pandering to the needs of the farang (the foreigners) in every way. There are umpteen cafes selling cheap and delicious Thai food or huge English breakfasts or mango and bee pollen smoothies – whatever your particular penchant happens to be. And on top of that don’t forget the yoga sessions, the thai massage schools, the cooking classes, the trekking, rafting, elephant rides, meditation retreats, mountain biking, and what have you. And the Thai language courses  – which is how I’m spending my weekday mornings. Sitting in a classroom being given vocab lists and practicing the five tones and the long and short vowels may not be every one’s idea of a good time, but I am enjoying it very much, thank you.

man holding signBut it’s not all sweetness and light – most of the “farang” here are polite and cheerful but still the Thais must get fed up of us. My guesthouse landlord confided in a private rant to me the other evening – he began by expressing his amazement that we would come here on holiday and then pay good money to spend a day COOKING?! And then proceeded to a general rage at having to smile constantly and answer the same questions over and over from dumbass tourists. In the end I wrote a big sign for him and told him to just point!

So what am I doing here? Between my morning Thai class, my evening yoga sessions and regular Thai massage in my local temple, I am very busy whizzing around the alleyways and back streets on a bright orange rented pushbike. I have settled into a regular routine – usually first down to the “H’mong village” at Warorot market. This is the section of the market where the H’mong tribal people have set up homes, where they watch TV, play with their kids, make clothes and stitch and embroider and sleep amidst their huge piles of somewhat tatty hilltribe embroideries and pleated skirts. This has all been developing in the past 5 years or so into a full on neighbourhood, and now I join the other traders (Thai, Japanese, other westerners) who are there most days riffling through the piles to see if anything catches our eye.

After that I visit the market shops, to buy indigo and hemp fabrics and buttons or beads or just to market stallssee what’s in. Once I’ve bought about as much as I can stick onto the wobbling handlebars of my bike I’m off to Poo’s. place. Poo has a shop selling clothes like me and she has usually already been down to the H’mong village that morning. By the afternoon she is flaked out on her settee at the back of the shop watching day time soaps – which are frankly appalling but quite mesmerising (and good for Thai practice – they speak slowly and dramatically – you don’t love me – you left me alone – you killed my father etc! )

Poo’s tailors make clothes for me, so most days I am there with my fabrics and my bits of hilltribe embroidered scraps and my patterns and samples, working things out and ordering or collecting. We can compare notes on what we paid for stuff, how the price of cotton is going up and the quality of hemp weaving down, have a laugh at the soaps and my crap Thai and share some mangosteens or other exotic fruits.

At the weekends the shopping doesn’t end, it just changes location – at the end of the road where I’m staying, the famous Sunday “Walking Market” sets up. From 4pm onwards the traffic is stopped, the roads are lined with stalls, the temple courtyards are full of food stalls and the road is thronged with people enjoying the atmosphere and the shopping. If it all gets too much you can stop and get a foot or shoulder massage at one of the massage “parlours” which get set up on every corner.

little sweets

people getting massages

So that’s my particular version of Chiang Mai – but there are so many others… girly bars and pool tables, reggae bands and beer, meditation and massage, sausage and chips and Premier league football at the Irish pub, cocktails and candlelit dinners, ancient temples and golden Buddhas, tennis or a round of golf at the Gymkhana Club. You name it, Chiang mai has it all!

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