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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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Polished Indigo from Zhaoxing

Zhaoxing is about the size of Bishop’s Castle – half way between a big village and a small town. The people here belong to a clan called the Dong and are famous for their beautiful textiles, lovely architecture and great singing. It’s almost unbelievably picturesque but also unbelievably for China – it seems real. Money has been spent on preserving it but it hasn’t been tarted up to resemble a Disneyesque version of rural China – it just is one.

Getting here was a strange and rather surreal journey. From Kaili the bus goes straight out onto the toll way – a smooth and fast road with hardly any traffic on it for 3 hours.

This expressway soars high above deep valleys on long, long flyovers – incredible feats of civil engineering. Any one of them would be something to marvel at in the UK – only this is China so we drive over at least twenty of them. Far, far below are rice fields and rivers and villages – looking down is not a good idea for anyone who doesn’t like heights.

Interspersed with the flyovers are tunnels burying into the mountainsides – again at least twenty tunnels of between 1 and 3 kilometres each. It seems as if the Chinese road planners just drew a straight line on the map and built the road there, no matter what stood in its way.

If the expressway is surreal, getting off it is even more so. Suddenly within a few yards, we are on an un-tarmacked dirt track, rutted with potholes, rocks, and stones. What I imagined could only be a temporary diversion is in fact the road. What on earth is going on? It would cost a tiny fraction of the cost of one of those bridges to tarmac this road but instead we are treated to a couple of hours of wild rocking and bumping along. At the wheel of the bus is a madman who drives as if he’s at the rodeo, with one hand on the wheel and the other lighting a fag or opening the window to spit out of it – preceded by copious amounts of “hawking” (I’m sitting right behind so I can see and hear it all!)

After one night in a crummy small town hotel we get on a country bus through villages and the expressway once again appears, but this time we are the ones below. We walk the last 7 kms with beautiful rice fields on either side of us but the detritus of the construction industry is never far away. Big apartment blocks stand on the horizon, and there are sand and gravel extraction quarries, tunnels and huge concrete flyover pillars waiting for the next road to join them up.

A group of women have set up their indigo vats and drying racks near a stream. Judging by the blue dyed pathway, it’s a place which they have always used. It’s a charming timeless scene (sorry to get a little sentimental) if you ignore the cement factory, flyover, and construction work in the background. Their surroundings are resolutely 21st century.

It comes as quite a surprise then to walk into Zhaoxing and find that it is not full of high rise 5*hotels, and nor is it being ripped apart and put back together again only “better”. Tourism is important here (it just couldn’t get away with being this ridiculously pretty without it) but there is a real thriving community too.

In fact it’s all so interesting that it’s hard to tear yourself away from gazing out from our balcony and just watching all the stuff going on. Old chaps play cards together or sit and smoke on the covered bridges, kids make mud pies and little girls play “elastic” (and to the same rules as the playground in Cov I played in the 1960s) Clothes and veggies are washed in the river and hung up to dry, bamboo is split and stripped and baskets woven, cement is mixed for building, and wood is sawn into planks, rice is threshed, you name it, it’s all going on in this incredibly industrious little place!

And one thing you notice immediately in the village is the amazing amount of deep dark blue cotton lengths hanging down from almost every house. Outside almost every home there’s a wooden vat or two of indigo.

Wherever you look its Indigo Central!

The weather is good and the rice has been harvested so the women are mostly engaged in dyeing and hammering their indigo. The sound of the big wooden hammers beating down on the folded indigo is the first sound I hear in the morning and the last at night.

I love indigo as much as the next textile freak, but even I have to say “That’s enough ladies, thank you”.

So here’s something about indigo for those you may be interested…

The freshly cut leaves and stalks of plants which contain indigo are steeped in a big barrel of water for a day or two. When the  water turns a dirty yellowish colour, the leaves are taken out of the vat. The water is aerated by repeatedly stirring and pouring and it gradually changes to a deep blue colour and develops a nice light blue froth.

The sediment from this vat makes a lovely sludgy deep blue paste which can be sold at market or kept to make a vat of dye when you need it. So indigo dyeing can be done throughout the year, not just when the leaves are fresh. An indigo vat is usually kept on the go pretty permanently and can be revived with more paste and wood ash. That distinctively pungent whiff is everywhere and almost every house in Zhaoxing has a vat or two of indigo outside.

If the weather is fine, each cloth will get about 3 dips a day – and this may be repeated for up to 7 days. Each time the cloth comes out of the dye, it gets beaten with a stick to allow the dye to really penetrate into the cloth. It’s then hung out to dry in between each dip and that is how you get the really deep, deep blue colour. There’s a tree root which may also be added to make the dye almost black and I’ve heard they add bull’s blood too, but cannot confirm!

But all this is not enough for the good ladies of Zhaoxing – they want their indigo cloth to shine! So next they coat it with a sticky gluey stuff made from what looks like dried fish eggs. They do this three times and after each coat they hammer it with their incredibly heavy wooden mallets. I had a go at it – those mallets weigh about 3kgs!

This lovely polished cloth is finally ready to be made up into jackets or the lovely finely pleated skirts the Dong and Miao women wear at festival times.

What a wonderful place and what an incredible textile tradition! The Dong people have been living in villages like this for something like 2,000 years. Their terraced fields cut into the mountainsides, their irrigation systems and their self-sufficient community life is beautifully adapted for this part of the world.

But this is 21st century China and what will happen to them in the next twenty is anybody’s guess!

P.S.

I had heard that coats of egg white are also used to waterproof the indigo but could never catch anyone actually doing it – until we went to another village (Basha) where everyone was at it!

A father and young son on their way to a ceremony in the early morning mountain mists.

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We are here in Guizhou which is apparently the poorest province in China, and “without 3 acres of flat land, 3 days of good weather or 3 yuan to rub together”. Hmmm… well as with most things in China, things are never as you expect.

For a start Kaili was supposed to be a “sleepy little town” – as far as I know there is nowhere on earth where the amount of building sites and sky scrapers on view here could possibly constitute a “sleepy little town”!

Just like everywhere else we’ve been in this country, billions of yuan are being spent on construction. The “old town” is being repaved, restored and made into one hell of a mess while all around and below people shop in the markets and go about their business. Wheelbarrows full of bricks are hoisted aloft while babies sleep and toddlers play below, sellers set up stall amongst the cement mixers and shoppers dodge the loose pavement slabs and potholes.

On the southern edge of Kaili City, a whole new town is being built and on local TV and advertising hoardings, there are exhortations to invest in property. Communism is Dead! Long Live Capitalism! The restrictions have finally come off and just as in everything else, the Chinese are going full tilt.

In China, the Han are about 92% of the population and the other 8% are called the “minorities” – we’ve already been through the Uyghur and Tibetan minority regions and now we’re in amongst the “hill-tribes”. Around Kaili, about 80% of the population belong to a minority group – mostly Miao or Dong.

To the untrained eye the minority people here seem more integrated into the mainstream, at least in the towns and cities. In many cases it’s the women’s head gear or hairstyles which give them away – strange little bonnets, squares of deep blue cotton, fringed hand towels, polished red turbans, and especially bunnage of various descriptions usually augmented by artificial roses, plastic combs, vicious looking silver chopsticks, metal wire hair pins and what have you.. But more often than not hill tribe folk are indistinguishable from anybody else.

There seems to be a propensity for inappropriate leather shorts (the young and not so young women) and elaborately styled and dyed “emo” haircuts (the young men) but that may just be the fashion everywhere!

But clan costume is still very important around these parts and it’s something not easy for us to relate to – but imagine if everyone from Scotland still wore their own tartan no matter where they were, especially on high days and holidays (Burns Night, New Year’s Eve, Bank Holiday pissups etc.) They would quickly recognise anyone else from their Clan whether they were in Edinburgh, London or Sydney. It’s just the same when the various tribal people here get into their gear –they are instantly recognisable.

But that’s not the end of it – there are numerous sub branches of each nationality – and this is especially true of the Miao. For example in South East Guizhou there are 37 different Miao groups – and they each have their own dialect and costume. If this was South west Shropshire there would be the Clun Clan, the Bishop’s Castle Brigade, the Mainstone Posse, the Brockton  Lot, the Chirbury Crew and so on (feel free to substitute your own local villages here) and we would all be able to distinguish each other by our different accents and our very different  costumes.

We women would spend most of our spare time getting these amazing costumes together for our village “dos” (Michaelmas Fair, Green Man day, Carnival, the Village Show or whatever) because we’d need a new one every year. I suppose that just like here, folk from off would travel for miles to see our ceremonies and take photos, write books and make documentaries about us.

The young people would be very happy to get out and go into the big city (Shrewsbury!) for their education, a job or some entertainment and the old folk would be terrified to leave the village –couldn’t read the writing and wouldn’t know where to get the bus back.

But even more so than in the UK, things are changing at a rapid pace. Not so long ago, at the time of the Cultural Revolution, all minority culture was severely suppressed and ceremonies and ethnic costumes were made illegal. Even the remotest villages had their Party members who made sure that the latest edicts on “eliminating the old ways” were adhered to. That changed in 1980 and since then there has been a total turn around in minority consciousness. Gradually the old traditions, dress and ceremonies have become re-established, and nowadays they are positively encouraged.

“Minority tourism” is big business these days and money is being poured into rebuilding traditional village structures like the drum towers and the covered “wind and rain” bridges, not forgetting the open performance area.

Here tourist groups are treated to daily music and dancing shows from the lovely tribal girls all dressed up in their finery.

About 20 years ago, all the villages got electricity and this led to television being available. Then all the villages had to get themselves a road and if that couldn’t be achieved, they had to move nearer to the road and this led to motorbikes and easier access to transport. Then there were mobile phones and the internet and now there’s mass tourism and the expressway.

But whatever the changes, the amazing ethnic mix of south-western China is still a joy. The splendid costumes and the techniques and the incredible skills used to make them are just gobsmacking. It would take a couple of lifetimes just to understand all the traditional textile techniques of this province alone. So I am just going to let it all wash over me and see what sticks.

That said, we arrived just in time to see a huge Miao New Year ceremony involving six or seven different groups in highly impressive full regalia.

Almost all those costumes relied heavily on machine embroidery and there are plenty on sale in the shops.

But the good thing about not having to embroider a new costume every year is that you have more time to devote to your cross stitch kit!

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