Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Little Bear Sells CDs and AI Theng Drinks Coke: Sacred Clowning and the Politics of Regionalism in South Thailand (1)

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Little Bear Sells CDs and AI Theng Drinks Coke: Sacred Clowning and the Politics of Regionalism in South Thailand (1)

Article excerpt

During my visit to the southern Thai province of Nakhon Sri Thammarat in 1999, Maengmum (The Spider) was one of the largest music stores in the town centre. Located in the heart of Nakhon Sri Thammarat's bustling commercial district, Maengmum exuded a feel of youthful and vibrant modernity--thumping pop music, neon lights, and a young uniformed sales staff. The store attracted a constant stream of mostly teenage patrons, many still clad in their high school uniforms, who browsed through the racks of audio and digital cassettes for the latest in Euro-American and Thai sound and movies. Amongst this hodgepodge of colourful symbols of economic and cultural cosmopolitanism stood a little black figure. Resting on the store's cluttered check out counter and juxtaposed in front of a poster of Whimey Houston was a statuette of Luuk Mii (Little Bear), one of the clowns in southern Thai shadow plays (hang talung). (2) So named after his bear cub-like facial features, Luuk Mii's raised arm magically beckoned customers into Maengmum's sonic and visual environment. (3) Unlike in the shadow play where he was often traditionally portrayed with nothing on but a pair of shorts, Maengmum's image was one of a new Luuk Mii who wore a short-sleeved shirt and long pants. The heavy-set bald-headed clown was decorated with gold chains and arlands of sweet smelling jasmine flowers--offerings placed there by the store's employees. Maengmum, like many other music stores in this part of Thailand, carried with it a large selection of shadow play VCDs, CDs, and cassettes, attesting to the popularity of the entertainment genre with southern Thai audiences.

Across the street from Maengmum, Coca Cola in collaboration with its southern Thai marketing agent, Haad Thip, had erected a large banner celebrating more than twenty years of the drink's share in the local beverage sector. The banner featured another clown from the southern Thai shadow play. Here Ai Theng, in his trademark red and green checkered phaa kaamaa (short sarong) clutched a bottle of Coca Cola. In bold blue letters set against a clean white backdrop the banner's Thai script read, "Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Beautiful City of the Righteous King. Coke and Haad Thip: Existing Side by Side with the Southern Thai People for More than Twenty Years." The advertisement was part of Coca Colas campaign at employing indigenous cultural symbols in marketing what was otherwise a global product. But Coca Cola and Maengmum were not the only capitalist ventures to engage traditional clowns from the shadow play as their marketing strategists. On a smaller but no less obvious public platform, commercial stickers featuring southern Thai singing sensation Ekachai Sriwichai had been plastered on the sides of refrigerators and across the peeling walls of dingy eating houses and convenience stores throughout Nakhon Sri Thammarat in 1999. They advertised Birdie, Nescafe's newest canned coffee concoction. Looming as a shadowy silhouette behind the image of the smiling singer was the clown Nunui, Ai Theng's hilarious partner in the shadow play, clutching a can of Birdie. Once a hang talung puppeteer, Ekachai Sriwichai's performances were well-known for their humour, much of which involved the crazy antics of Nunui.

Luuk Mii selling CDs, Ai Theng advertising Coke and Nunui's love of Nescafe's iced coffee concoction point to the structural ambiguities inherent in the nature of clowning in the southern Thai shadow play. In this article, I explore how the Thai nation-state, its various cultural auxiliaries, and southern Thai shadow play performers and audiences have jostled in their attempts to domesticate the clowns from being sacred symbols of tradition to humorous representatives of modernity. At the same time clowning provides a space for audiences and performers alike to reflect on and critique dominant hegemonies as well as to reproduce conservative discourses about the nature of the state and cultural order. …

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