In early 2003 there was a flurry of interest in history in Baan Tiam, a small village in northern Thailand. Partly this was a result of the newly elected headman’s interest in initiating new projects that would raise the profile and prestige of the village. There were also central government initiatives aimed at promoting local culture. I attended a long meeting at the district office which discussed the possible establishment of cultural centres in selected villages throughout the district. In meetings like this culture equals tradition which equals the past. The meeting was followed by a visit to the district high school where a dark and dusty room was filled with old farming tools and other pieces of domestic paraphernalia. It was a district museum in the making.
Baan Tiam’s new headman was appropriately impressed. Perhaps the village itself could develop a museum. There were plenty of old people. There were sufficient old farm tools that hadn’t yet been sold off to antique dealers or interior decorators in Chiang Mai. And there was a planned handicraft centre where under-employed old people could demonstrate traditional skills. But, to get things off to a solid start, the headman felt that there was a need to compile a record of the village’s history. Pictures? Photos? A brochure? Perhaps even a book.
History is elusive, and there was work to be done in order to capture it. My research assistant was quickly recruited to compile a brief account of key events in the village’s past. Interviews with grandmothers and grandfathers – living repositories of tradition – were readily arranged. There were some good stories of early settlers, of forest sprits, floods, elephant camps and even a “postal dog” that British timber workers used to send messages down river to the old district centre. I was excited. But as more and more historical detail was collected the project started to unravel.
I discussed this with Ning, a young woman who was a keen supporter of the headman and who was keen to collaborate with his various projects. For Ning, the headman represented a “new generation” of “democratic” leadership. A new generation needed a solid grounding in tradition. However there was a problem. Ning told me that the different stories collected from the old people did not fit together. They were inconsistent. Some appeared to be wrong. Some of the old people didn’t remember so well any more. They were just too old to be historically reliable. How could they be checked? What if the village ended up writing a history that wasn’t true? It could end up in embarrassment rather than prestige.
In an attempt to counter these anxieties of authenticity, I attempted a rather lame explanation of a more narrative approach to history. It was a half-hearted attempt assisted by some locally brewed medicinal fortification. The aim of the project (and it is amazing how quickly in Thailand activities can become “projects”) should be to collect different stories. Grandmother Noot’s claim that the original village name came from a nearby mountain stream could be set alongside Uncle Maa’s memory that the village was given its name by a minor chief from Chiang Mai. Historical interest lay in diversity rather than consistency.
It was a hard message to sell. I needed a metaphor…
A good Thai dinner, I suggested, didn’t involve blending all the dishes together into a single serving. A meal relied for its interest on the contrasting textures and flavours of the different dishes. In the same way, the Baan Tiam History Project (now it had a name!) should aim to present different people’s stories, setting them alongside each other so that readers – or visitors to the vaguely imagined village museum – could savour the different perspectives. I didn’t even think about trying to translate “hybridity” but I was rather pleased about my culinary metaphor.
But a good meal and a good history are two quite different things. The project soon ran out of steam.
Local politics played a part. There was plenty of the usual gossip and dissent about the headman wasting time and money on history and culture. He had even used some of the village committee’s precious budget to buy a camera to document traditional activities. Things got a bit ugly when a roll of film was seized by one of the candidates for the provincial assembly election, convinced that the headman’s photography had captured illegal electoral canvassing at a village festival by a rival candidate.
The handicraft centre, where the museum was to be located, was eventually constructed. But it was tainted by a bitter dispute when the “public” land on which it was built was seized from one of the village elders (the uncle of the village abbot!) who considered the land to be his own private property. It wasn’t long before the empty handicraft centre was converted to the community shop.
History was soon forgotten and the headman’s developmental attention was diverted to one of the Thai state’s more contemporary preoccupations – compost.
But I was not so readily put off. With the help of some persistent research assistants I have continued to collect fragments of Baan Tiam’s unreliable history. I plan to present these, with some commentary and analysis, in a series of New Mandala “Anthroblog” posts over the coming months.
Perhaps I will start with landscape.