Topless in Silom—the outrage
The recent scandal of three Thai girls dancing topless in Silom dominated much of Thai news and social media for days at the end of Songkran. Thai news largely covered the official outrage at the topless girls, while the tone of social media chattering and news commentaries were more mockery and criticisms of the reported outrage.
But if you happened to have been hiding under a rock and missed the whole brouhaha, these two pieces will bring you up to date.
New York Times: “Thais are shocked, shocked by topless dancers” Associated Press: “Authorities: No topless dancing please, we’re Thai” (via NPR)
Who was really ‘outraged’ by the ‘Songkran boobs’?
Was I missing something? Other than a handful of government officials and Thai culture watchdogs, were there anyone else jumping up and down, screaming outrage at the topless girls? From what I’ve seen the primary sources of the outrage in the Thai and foreign news were the culture minister Mr. Nipit Intarasombat, some minister or other, and some senior cops. Does the fact that Thai media reported these same sources repeating their outrage for days mean Thailand was outraged?
Foreigners not intimately familiar with Thailand can be forgiven to feel surprised by the reported outrage.
Newley Purnell (@newley)
FWIW: Family friends visiting from U.S. are astounded at kerfuffle over topless Songran dancers, given the country’s sex industry.
While no one, even those defending the topless girls, was saying what they did was a model teenage behavior or an appropriate cultural performance for the occasion, Thai officials were incensed. Instead of just reprimanding the girls for their age-inappropriate and risky behavior and sending them home, the Thai authorities were calling for their heads. The girls were “destroying the image of Thai culture”! The officials cried. One even encouraged a public lynching. “I demand that society come out and criticize them,” the minister of culture fumed for the Associated Press. (One can imagine him shaking his fist in the air, bubbles foaming at the corner of this mouth.) I actually was asked for my reaction about Mr. Nipit’s outburst, so I have said a thing or two about him, here.
How could anyone with any sense and critical faculty say something like that?, given the kinds of real problems Thailand has that are far more damaging to Thai culture and society’s well being. Child rape (often by someone in the family), teenage pregnancy, domestic violence. These are just a couple that spring to mind. Where is the outrage for that! (Two Thai journalists wrote passionate opinion pieces in the Bangkok Post pointing out these problems; see here and here.) And I didn’t even mention the p-word—prostitution and the countless pairs of bare Thai breasts routinely shown to the world.
The official hypocrisy was so painfully obvious that only the mushiest of minds would miss it. Hypocrisy was the running theme of most commentaries (see the list of reactions from Thai journalists and bloggers at the end of the post).
Bare boobs vs. bare hypocrisy
Which is more embarrassing? The latter, I guess, for most people, but Thai officials aren’t most people.
The three girls may have bared their breasts but as it turns out they weren’t the only ones widely exposed. What became stark naked for everyone to see besides girly breasts was the Culture Ministry’s hypocrisy—in its own “frontal exposure.” Three pairs of exquisite breasts of Nang Songkran (Songkran goddesses) were on prominent display on the top banner of its website.
Real boobs vs. celestial boobs
“But they aren’t the same!,” cried Thailand’s culture minister Mr. Nipit.
As you would expect, netizens had a field day. Much fun and hilarity ensued all over the web boards, Facebook and Twitter. At Pantip, the popular Thai web board, the Songkran goddess banner was photoshoped in all kinds of hilarious ways; see this page.
The web board discussion started with the obvious irony of the website banner. Then after the Mr. Nipit came out to appeal to people to view Nang Songkran’s toplessness as “art” the discussion expanded to the definition of art, standard of nudity, whether iconic work of art can be satirized, etc.
In short, I gather the chief ‘guardian’ of Thai Culture considers only this kind of toplessness art. Now I wonder, if Mr. Sompop the artist who painted the Songkran goddesses were to paint the three topless Songkran dancing girls and include the painting in one of his exhibitions, would Mr. Nipit then consider the girls’ bare boobs “art”? And if bare celestial boobs are culturally Thai, why aren’t real Thai boobs also culturally Thai?
Despite the celestial bare breasts were declared art and hence not an affront to Thai culture, the Culture Ministry decided to change its website banner anyway (and on Sunday too!). The mockery was probably a bit too much to take. Anyhow, the new banner is another quintessentially fantastical Thai-style painting packed with many more celestial figures, male and female. The figures are so small you can’t really see their faces or their breasts, let alone their nipples. But knowing that Thai angels rarely wear tops, I wager my lunch that they are bare-chested too. (Here’s before and after image.)
Real bare boobs “destroy” Thai culture
Or so Mr. Nipit said. The culture minister even speculated (before the three girls turned themselves in to police for their alleged crime) that the dancing girls might be hookers slipping out of a girly bar from the next street.
So how exactly did three pairs of bare nubile breasts destroy Thai culture? So far I haven’t heard any explanation. One kept hearing that it (the act of baring one’s breasts—if one is female) “goes against Thai culture,” that Thai culture was “deteriorating” and so on. I was also asked about this specifically by @Saksith on Asian Correspondent.
A recent public opinion poll in the aftermath of the controversy, a whopping 91 per cent said that Thai society has long deteriorated. Do you agree?
Deteriorated from what? Some fantasized golden place and time? I don’t know where or when that society was. Plus, the chance of 91% of poll respondents giving the same answer can only result from a set of push questions from the pollsters. I would not lend too much credence to that type of polls.
Need I say more?
The peculiar mammary delusion of Thai culturalists
The word “culturalist” doesn’t exist but it should. I’ll just make it up then. To me the word seems appropriate for Mr. Nipit and his fellow Thai culture watchdogs like Ms. Rabiabrat Pongpanich (whose name appeared in one or two of the reports).
Ms. Rabiabrat is a former senator, sometimes described as a “women’s rights activist.” She has been indeed active in concerning herself with women’s issues, but as to the rights part I am not really sure how to put it. If you’ve heard of her (if not, see here and here), you’d know that she is a paragon of Thai culture, a decorated veteran in the Thai cultural war against risqué youth of the new generation. She has raised many hackles over women’s issues, usually at the women and girls who (allegedly) damage or defame Thai culture. So now you can see why I would give her the honor of being among Thailand’s leading “culturalists.”
Anyway, in my way of thinking, Mr. Nipit, Ms. Rabiabrat and their fellow Thai culturalists are confused. They confuse boobs with culture, culture with boobs, and delude themselves that Thai culture has never had any bare boobs. I call this a “mammary delusion.” It is a psychological symptom of a peculiar kind, exhibited by those suffering from a grand delusion of “Thai CULTure.” Because this “Thai CULTure” is a form of delusion, a grand one as I just said, it is not the same variation of “Thai culture” that you and I may understand. For distinction, we may identify those afflicted with “Thai CULTure” as “Thai CULTuralists” but since the word is already weird-looking without the CULT being printed in caps, we’ll just go with “Thai culturalists.”
I have a theory, that all this mammary delusion suffered by Thai culturalists is in fact a rather recently developed mental illness. We’re talking about less than a century old.
But first, let’s have a look at some historical Thai breasts—the bare kind.
Bare boobs in Thai history
Anyone who have read a little bit of Thai history (and have not been afflicted by the said delusion) know that toplessness is nothing new in Thai culture (the non-delusional one—not the CULT variation). Here are some pictures of Siamese women in Ayutthaya and the early Rattanakosin periods.
As you can see, the cloth was there on the neck or the chest but Siamese women of yore gave an appearance that they had a rather careless attitude about covering their breasts…. But OK, I hear you protest, “But the ladies weren’t really topless!”
Here’s the real thing—photographs of fully bare-breasted Siamese ladies taken around the late 19th century. Admittedly these pictures appear to have been taken in a studio. It’s hard to say for certain whether these women were always bare breasted, but if the above images and the last photograph in the set are any indication, I’d think they also used the breast wrap (ผ้าแถบ /phâa thÈEp/) at least some of the time. You might cry, “B-but they were staged!” Alright, they might have been staged by the photographer (foreign, I believe). But they weren’t presented as nude shots featured on any antique centerfold that I know of. I haven’t hunted down the original publication of these photos, but as far as I remember they were presented as how Siamese women were in those days.
(The three photographs above and the drawing immediately before them were taken from Teakdoor Gallery. Thanks to Rural Surin the poster of these pictures and Jon Ungpakorn for introducing me to this fabulous treasure trove of old pictures.)
But there wasn’t any staging in the photograph below. Chiang Mai women were found invariably bare-chested in their daily lives less than a hundred years ago.
Since the modernization (Westernization) of the government administration system aggressively pursued during the reign of Rama V at the turn of the 20th century, Siamese men and women began wearing western style clothes, starting with those in the royal and noble classes. Here are some old photographs of women from that time.
While noble and well-to-do ladies were in vogue in western dresses, most women folks remained out of vogue, looking just as they were in traditional Thai attire as seen in the photograph above.
(The three photographs above were taken from a post on vcharkarn.com. More old photographs and drawings reflecting old Siamese lifestyles in the 19th and early 20th centuries can be found there.)
The making of “Thai CULTure”
Now that we’ve established there existed a fair amount of female toplessness in Siam, we can proceed to examine how the Thai culturalists acquired their strong view of Thai CULTure.
If you read his bio on wikipedia (in English, in Thai) you can appreciate that this was not an ordinary man. Even his name ‘Plaek” means “strange”; it was given to him because “he looked strange as a child.” Whether he really looked strange or not you can see for yourself, but it’d be fair to say that he did grow up to have some very strange ideas and, even stranger, he tried to make everyone go along with them. As you will see he would be quite successful, particularly in matters pertaining to the presentation of the Thai people and the formation of the new Thai cultural ideal.
Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram (often referred to by Thais as จอมพล ป.) was a man of great vision. He was a political and cultural force unmatched during 1930s and1950’s until he was toppled by his junior, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, and had to go into exile. He was a two-time prime minister (1938-1944, 1948-1957). A strong believer of “Greater Thailand” (and an admirer of Hitler), he plunged into the program to accelerate the pace of modernizing the country. He changed the country’s name from Siam to Thailand in 1939 and (zealously) fostered a new sense of nationalism within the statist model (รัฐนิยม) and was the grand designer of modern “Thailand” that, in his mind, would no longer be “underdeveloped and barbaric” in foreigners’ eyes. Thailand would leave the old (and embarrassing) Siam behind.
Central to Pibulsongkram’s program to propel old Siam into a new, proud nation, were his “Thai Cultural Mandates” that would create a modern, uniform and “civilized” Thai Culture. Twelve cultural edicts were issued during 1939-1942, dictating citizens’ behaviors concerning anything from nation building, national flag, national and royal anthems, to how to speak, read, write, eat, dress, work, sleep, and relate to one another. Many of the twelve State Decrees still remain in force today (see all of them here: in English, in Thai).
Possible source of modern Thai mammary delusion
The one Pibulsongkram’s mandate that has a direct mammary concern is Mandate No. 10 that involves Thai dress. It stated:
On Thai dress, issued 15 January 1941, consisted of two items:
1. “Thai people should not appear at public gatherings, in public places, or in city limits without being appropriately dressed. Inappropriate dress includes wearing only underpants, wearing no shirt, or wearing a wraparound cloth.”
2. “Appropriate dress for Thai people consists of:
1. “Uniforms, as position and opportunity permits;
2. “Polite international-style attire;
3. “Polite traditional attire.”
To make sure that people really understand how he wanted them to dress exactly, a poster with helpful drawings of prohibited dress and proper dress was distributed. For the benefit of those who don’t read Thai, the top of the poster reads:
_________________________________________________________ Dressed like this is not civilized Thai. Civilized Thai must dress like this.
If anyone still have any doubt that there wasn’t any toplessness in Thai history, this poster should settle it. The second woman from the left holding the naked child’s hand was clearly bare breasted. Basically, as you can see in the poster, “civilized” modern Thais were supposed to be covered up. No more baring of chests (for both male and female), or wearing distinctly ethnic or religious attire.
The left side gives description of prohibited dress as follows:
MALE: wear sarong, bare upper body,
shave head, wear Muslim hat or turban
FEMALE: bare upper body or use pha-thaep (breast wrap)
wear only undershirt or carry a load on the head
Whatever you might think about him, Pibulsongkram did believe in his ability to lead the new Thailand into greatness (and one of the ways to arrive at greatness in style was to wear hats—seriously he made people wear hats, and even had a slogan “Hats will lead Thailand to great power” because wearing hats was a symbol of civilization). Pibulsongkram abhorred the old style (the dress, bare chests, betel nut chewing, etc.) and considered it “backward” and “uncivilized.”
Mammary memory suppression
I have given much thought to how and why merely six or seven decades after Pibulsongkram’s Cultural Mandates many Thais, the Thai culturalists in particular, seem to have forgotten all about our topless history. Is this some kind of mammary amnesia, lack of mammary history education, or mammary memory suppression? The more I think about it, the more I think it’s the last, though there’s also considerable weight for the first two.
Here’s what I figured. The mammary memory suppression has caused Thai culturalists to genuinely believe that Pibulsongkram’s vision of modern Thai culture is the original, authentic Thai culture. This delusion, like most delusions, is so real. It has the stealth of the conviction of new converts—or cult members. For example, after the topless dancing incident the Culture Ministry responded with issuing handbooks to promote awareness among youngsters about “genuine value” of Songkran. (Somehow I don’t think the image of the Songkran goddesses previously on its website would be included in the handbooks. I could be wrong of course.)
You may say I’ve gone too far with the cult comparison, but consider this: Pibulsongkram is actually known—at least in academic circle—as something of a cult leader. He started a “leadership cult” as soon as he took office in 1938. It’s not clear whether he had great charisma to go with his carefully designed great plan, but if he didn’t, he certainly made up for it in other ways. His photographs were placed everywhere, and those of the abdicated king (Rama VII) were banned. According to Wikipedia, “his quotes appeared in newspapers, were plastered on billboards and were repeated over the radio.” He made sure that his ideas were inculcated into the new Thai psyche and implemented. It must have worked. Enough Thais bought his vision of Thai CULTure, evidently even now, more than half a century later.
Message to the Thai culturalists
Since I’m now exhausted, I’ll just end this long post with a message to our Thai culturalist friends. (If you know any, feel free to whisper the message in their ears.)
1. It’s OK to admit that our ancestors were once bare breasted. There’s no need to feel embarrassed of our topless past.
All women (and men) who have ever lived were all like that once. It’s quite natural. Women in many other cultures were also at one time walking around bare breasted like some of our foremothers. Really. Look here, the history of toplessness. But Thai ladies are all covered up now, so there’s no need to fear that we’ll lose face to foreigners as Pibulsongkram did 7 decades ago. (And if there’ll be a couple of stray girls baring their breasts once a year, shhhhhh… if we don’t make a big fuss, the foreigners wouldn’t even hear about it!)
2. We’ve made it into the modern, ‘civilized’ world, so we can loosen up again.
Yes, we’ve made it! We’ve joined the modern world—uh, at least where fashion is concerned. Mandate 10 has been fully accomplished! Pibulsongkram would be proud to know that three topless girls were paraded by police like hardened criminals…. So we can now relax and need not enforce his version so zealously. I’ll let you in on a secret <whisper> farangs actually don’t get so excited about bare skin anymore—Victorian morality went out of fashion in the last century. Think how many naked farang tourists Thai police arrest on the beaches each year. They don’t realize we don’t allow nudity on beaches or anywhere outside of private bedrooms or, er, in certain establishments. And see how we have to tell them to cover up when visiting temples and such. No, I’m not suggesting we go carefree with exposing boobs or other private body parts like farangs. I’m just saying they don’t really think naked boobs are such a big deal, so a couple pairs of bare breasts exposed every year (or even every month if it gets worse) aren’t going to damage our country’s image.
3. There are other things a lot more embarrassing and damaging to Thai culture than bare boobs.
Seriously, in this new century (no. 21st), people, especially Westerners (if you really care about what they think) have moved beyond the bare breasts (well, maybe except when they’re in one of our girly bars). Actually, many Thais are way past boobs as well. The new morality that’s really in vogue in the twenty-first century involves things like ‘rights’, ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’.
I can think of a few things that are really, way more embarrassing and damaging to our culture, not to mention our future, like these:
- Thai kids’ average IQ is 91 (and abysmal scores in math, science, English, pretty much all important subjects, compared to students from around the world – talk about embarrassing)
- Thailand ranks No. 1 in teenage pregnancy in Asia and No. 2 in the world (not the kind of distinction we are proud of, no? – but here’s the really uncivilized part; pregnant girls are kicked out of school!)
- Thailand ranks world’s 5th in youth violence (our school boys are more passionate about their school tribal wars, their machismo, guns and knives than education and we can’t or won’t do anything about it!)
Those are just a couple that involve young people. I’m not even talking adult problems like corruption that’s ingrained in all fabrics of our society, so much so that many foreigners and Thais say it’s “in Thai culture.” Is it? Do Thais cheat and extort from fellow Thais? Do Thais take advantage of foreigners new (or even old) to our country? Like this? Are we ashamed?! How shameful is that compared to a couple pair of bare breasts?
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Commentaries on the outrage at Songkran topless dancing girls:
“Thai dance of naked hypocrisy for all the world to see” (Pichai Cheunsuksawadi, Bangkok Post)
“Only taboo when it’s inconvenient!” (interview of Kaewmala by Saksith, Asian Correspondent)
“Bare breasted culture of hypocrisy” (Sanitsuda Ekachai, Bangkok Post)
“A society in denial over topless dancing” (Suranand Vejjajiva, Bangkok Post)
“Thailand: Outrage over topless teen dancing” (Global Voices, a collection of some blog reactions by Mong Palatino)
“Fined ‘topless girls’ deserve their rights to privacy, too” (Maja Cabarrubia, Prachatai)
สาวสีลม หน้าไหว้หลังหลอก (ทราย เจริญปุระ, มติชน)
เปิดนมสงกรานต์ มุมมองของหญิงรักหญิง (สุพีชา เบาทิพย์, ประชาไท)
การละเมิดสิทธิเด็กของสื่อมวลชน (ประสงค์ วิสุทธิ์, มติชน)
นมเด็กสาว 3 คน (สุจิตต์ วงษ์เทศ, มติชน/ประชาไท)
Some tweets by me on the #Songkranboobs (April 17-19)
3 หากสาวใดใจกล้าเปิดหราอก ต้องถูกด่าว่าลามกใจใฝ่ชั่ว ถูกตราหน้าว่าออหรี่ที่เมามัว
ไม่รักษ์ตัว รึไม่ก็เป็นกะเทย http://t.co/PHWL9oc
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