Rachel V. Harrison and Peter A. Jackson, eds., The Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, with a foreword by Dipesh Chakrabarty.

Hong Kong and Ithaca: Hong Kong University Press and Cornell University Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2010. Pp. xxiv, 268; black and white figs., bib., index.

At the height of colonialism in the second half of the nineteenth century, European imperial forces conquered and occupied all but one territory in Mainland Southeast Asia. Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia were occupied by the French, while Burma was annexed to a British empire that extended well beyond the region. Only Thailand, or Siam as it was then known, escaped the fate of its neighbors and maintained its independence. This uniqueness of Siam’s non-colonial past constitutes the master narrative of the country’s history and dominates mainstream accounts of its encounter with Western empires. As the editors of and contributors to The Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand demonstrate, however, insistence on Siam’s uniqueness not only ignores the complexities in the country’s relationship with the West but also prevents its comparison with other countries. It has thus resulted in the intellectual isolation of the field of Thai studies. In an attempt to rectify this situation, Rachel Harrison and Peter Jackson have compiled a collection of essays focused on interactions between Siam/Thailand and the West. Spanning more than three centuries–from the mid-nineteenth century to the present–and drawing on a wide range of disciplinary perspectives–history, film studies, cultural studies, anthropology–the essays in this volume reject the simple binary oppositions between the West and the East, the colonizer and the colonized. They are instead committed to examining the complexities and ambiguities inherent in Siam/Thailand’s relationship with its Western Other. By drawing these essays together and creating a dialogue among them, the editors of the volume hope not only to dispel the myth of uniqueness that has plagued Thai studies but also to draw the study Siam/Thailand out of its scholarly isolation and into comparative debate with the broader study of Southeast Asia and beyond.

In one of the most engaging essays in the volume, Tamara Loos argues that Siam not only shared many characteristics with colonized states but also exhibited tendencies that were distinctly imperial in nature. This “split identity” of Siam is, according to Loos, most clearly visible in the administration of family law in what became Siam’s far-southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala. In an effort to compete with the British and to demonstrate that it too governed a modern state, one that could run a successful colonial administration, the Siamese elite employed the same methods used by the European imperial powers in their colonies. For example, it created the same kind of pluralistic legal system that colonial governments had set up in India, Africa, and other parts of Southeast Asia. This system involved the application of national law to all matters except those pertaining to family affairs. Such matters as marriage, divorce, adultery, and inheritance would be subject to local religious law, as adjudicated by Islamic family courts. The creation of these family courts by the Siamese elite might seem, at first, to signify that elite’s acknowledgement of the distinctive characteristics of Siam’s deepest South. Loos argues, however, that it actually served to ensure Bangkok’s imperial control over the area. For the Bangkok elite not only was able to appoint the region’s Islamic judges but also limited the parameters of Islamic law to the narrow confines of the family realm. This unequal relationship between the ethnically Thai and Buddhist elite in Bangkok and the Malay Muslim population of the South has persisted until the present day and has in recent years given rise to outbreaks of intense violence.

Shifting from the field of history to film studies, May Adadol Ingawanij and Richard Lowell MacDonald focus, in their chapter, on Aphichatphong Wirasethakun, one of Thailand’s most prominent directors and indeed the winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Charting Aphichatphong’s journey to the Art Institute of Chicago and back, May and MacDonald argue that the director’s “pilgrimage” not only exposed him to alternative film movements, such as the American avant-garde and the post-war European art cinema. But it also allowed for a reconceptualization of his provincial aesthetics in relation to these Western cinematic traditions. The result of this “contact” between a Thai director from a provincial town like Khon Kaen and the European and American traditions of modernism and the avant-garde is a cinema that is both “ultra-modern,” in the sense that it resists spectacle, and also marginal, in the sense that it represents an alternative sphere outside of the mass market. This type of film normally finds its audience among a small group of art film enthusiasts and receives little attention from the general movie-going public. In Aphichatphong’s case, however, endorsement by transnational institutions such as the Rotterdam Film Festival and the film journal Cahiers du Cinéma has led to an appropriation of his films by the Thai culture industry. This appropriation not only reveals an implicit desire on the part of the Thai bourgeoisie to project an image of an international self but also threatens to diminish the effect of the films’ provocative aspect. The films are, after all, being appropriated by the very people whom they are meant to provoke and even to criticize.

What May and MacDonald identify as the desire of the Thai bourgeoisie to project an image of an international self is, at its roots, a desire to be on par with the West. Thongchai Winichakul reveals in his chapter on “Intellectual Strategies of Bifurcation and Post-Westernism in Siam,” however, that this desire is never a simple and straightforward one that entails the worshipping of all things Western. It is instead a complicated matter that involves the paradoxes of wanting to be like the West but at the same time wanting to be different, of acknowledging the dominance of the West but at the same time asserting one’s own sense of equality if not superiority. Thais have employed several strategies to deal with these paradoxes and to come to terms with the West. One such strategy is the bifurcation of the world into the material and the spiritual spheres. The clear division between these two spheres, Thongchai argues, allows Thais to claim that, while the West is more advanced in the material domain, they are far superior in the spiritual realm. Another strategy for dealing with the West is the “post-Westernism” critique most often associated with the work of Thirayut Bunmi, a Thai scholar known for his role in the tumultuous events of October 1973. Thirayut claims to seek an end to Western intellectual domination and to call for recognition of the diversity of the world’s civilizations. Pointing out the many problems inherent in this strategy, Thongchai proposes that a true deconstruction of “Westernism” should entail not only a critical engagement with epistemological devices rooted in Western experiences but also a formulation of conceptual and methodological frameworks derived from non-Western, postcolonial experiences.

Using as his point of departure Thongchai’s suggestion that this deconstruction of Euro-American-centrism has yet to find an appropriate name, Dipesh Chakrabarty reflects in his foreword to the volume on the way in which European categories are appropriated in non-European contexts. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s thoughts on repetition, Chakrabarty argues that this appropriation takes place via the techniques of displacement and disguise. He cautions, however, that the strategy of disguising something new in a “borrowed language” of the West is not without problems of its own. He proposes that one should, as Thongchai suggests, therefore “wait for the proper names” (p. xvii) of postcolonial history. Also devoting his contribution to The Ambiguous Allure of the West to investigating the appropriation of foreign thought, Peter Jackson focuses on the reception of postcolonial theories by scholars of Thai studies. According to Jackson, most of these scholars have refrained from engaging with postcolonial studies and its theoretical approaches; the unfortunate result has been the intellectual isolation of the field of Thai studies. Jackson proposes that critical engagement with the notion of “semicolonialism” will allow these scholars to enter into dialogue with postcolonialism and thus to bring Thai studies out of its self-imposed isolation. Similarly focusing on the appropriation of Western knowledge in Thai academia, Thanes Wongyannava traces the reception and localization of Michel Foucault’s thought, particularly his notion of “discourse,” translated into Thai as “wathakam.” Thanes not only makes clear the popularity of Foucault among Thai social scientists but also offers a trenchant critique of the way in which that popularity has left the Frenchman’s work disengaged from its theoretical roots. Thailand’s scholarly consumers of Foucault have, that is, simply viewed his work as a store-house of positivistic models for the empirical study of Thai society.

In a chapter entitled, “The Conceptual Allure of the West: Dilemmas and Ambiguities of Crypto-Colonialism in Thailand,” Michael Herzfeld looks more broadly at the Thai localization of Western culture. Using wide-ranging examples such as eating habits and architectural styles, Herzfeld argues that, instead of viewing the changes in these areas as a result of Western influence or as an attempt to imitate the West, one should acknowledge the indeterminacy of their origins and the vagueness of their contemporary meanings. Pattana Kitiarsa’s chapter in The Ambiguous Allure of the West looks not at the ways in which Western culture or Western knowledge has been appropriated in Thailand but instead at the ways in which so called “farang,” or Westerners, have been constructed in the Thai imagination. Drawing on Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism, Pattana sees Thai conceptualizations of farang as an Occidentalizing project. Originally the exclusive domain of the Siamese elite, that project has become part of Thailand’s broader popular culture, and the ambiguous allure of the farang has long since become an inextricable part of Thai identity. Furthering the volume’s treatment of the issue of identity, Rachel Harrison’s chapter examines texts ranging from the journals of the first Siamese ambassador to Europe to such examples of contemporary Thai cinema as the popular films “Kumphaphan” and “Thawiphop.” Through close reading of these texts, Harrison shows that the West has long been a source of fascination for Thais but that this fascination is laced with anxieties about the porosity of Thai cultural and national identities.

Bringing together these wide-ranging and highly engaging essays, The Ambiguous Allure of the West successfully shatters the myth of uniqueness that has long plagued the study of Siam/Thailand. It thus paves the way for the kind of comparative work that would draw the country out of its isolation and into a broader, more global, context. Such comparative treatment is, in fact, undertaken by several contributors to the volume. Pattana alludes, for example, to the similarities between the function of Occidentalism in Siam/Thailand and in China. Thongchai also demonstrates that Siamese and Indian nationalists employed the same tactic of bifurcation in their negotiation with Western influences. Since these comparisons remain limited in scope and passing in nature, however, one is left to look forward to more extensive and critical comparative work, work that will truly draw Thai studies out of its intellectual isolation and into dialogue with other academic fields.

In addition to the relative lack of comparative treatment, The Ambiguous Allure of the West may also leave one wanting greater variety in disciplinary approach and wider scope in treatment of the relationship between Siam/Thailand and the West. While there are two chapters on Thai cinema, for example, no contribution to the book focuses on such creative forms as literature and architecture even though they offer equally fertile ground for the investigation of the themes of concern to this volume. There are also several essays in the book that investigate the influence of Western Europe and responses to this influence among the Siamese elite of the past and in the Thai academy of the present. But very few chapters examine the interactions between Siam/Thailand and the United States or popular perceptions of and responses to these interactions.

These limitations notwithstanding, The Ambiguous Allure of the West undoubtedly makes an important contribution to the field of Thai studies. It should be read by anyone interested in the relationship between Siam/Thailand and the West and the applicability of postcolonial theory to Thai or Southeast Asian studies.

Thosaeng Chaochuti
Faculty of Arts
Chulalongkorn University