Loy Krathong, the Thai festival of light: all over Thailand people flock to rivers and canals, kneel under the full moon by the water's edge, and launch little palm-leaf "boats" containing a flower, a candle, three sticks of incense, and a coin. The tiny craft carry bad thoughts and negativity away down the waterway, leaving their launchers cleansed and renewed.
In the northern city of Chiang Mai they do this one big: three days of crazy revelry that dies down a bit during the day and flares anew each evening. On the eve of the full moon there is to be a parade in the old city, so I set off through the crowds to observe. The city is delirious, the air heavy with smoke from firecrackers, candles, and paper lanterns that are carried into the night sky by a small pot of oil burning inside. People are drinking too much, and they yell, "hey you!" to me - politer in Thai, I know, than in this stilted English translation. I could answer them in their own language, be drawn into conversation, but I prefer not to be plied with cheap Mekhong whiskey and peppered with slurred questions ("Can you eat rice?" "Why you no marry?"). I'm in my comfortable outsider mode, moving amongst familiar strangers, in a country I've adopted and lived in for years but to which I will never really belong.
Downtown there are floats, fabulous golden creations in the shapes of lotus blossoms and dragons and mythical beasts like the naga, and seated on them are Thai beauty queens: Miss Kodak, Miss Chiang Mai, Miss Pepsi, Miss Loy Krathong, Miss Junior Loy Krathong, Miss Chiang Mai University, Miss Burger King Chiang Mai. I take a photo of Miss Loy Krathong seated on her golden chariot, perfectly coiffed and made up; she is in profile, her pert nose outlined against the Pepsi sign in the background. Her three acolytes are little girls about 6 or 7, lips reddened with lipstick and eyelashes stiff with mascara; one is distracted by the farang lady and looks at my camera. They make a lovely tableau, these four Thai beauty queens.
Beauty contests are extremely popular in Thailand. It seems every little country fair has one, every factory party, every neighbourhood get-together. There's a Miss This and a Miss That, a contest for grown-ups, another for teens, one for little girls, another for kathoey (transvestites). The outside observer may well wonder what's going on: Is this commodification gone mad? Cultural hegemony of the worst type? Sexism adapted, or maybe transmogrified, in the global context?
To an extent all of these are true; but recognizing the truth of these interpretations does not lead me to conclude that beauty contests have been imposed on the Thai by evil western capitalist sexist forces. Instead, I believe that Thai people have some agency in this process of adoption and adaptation of beauty contests, and that part of the reason they have seized on beauty contests is because the pageants resonate strongly with aspects of Thai culture. I believe that it is these resonances which allow a western-derived phenomenon - the beauty contest - to become a meaningful practice in a Thai cultural context.
The beauty queen is typically lacquered with lotions and potions, and the modern Thai beauty queen is no exception. Though the products themselves may be new, the idea that such things can be applied to the face, body, and hair is an old one: Thai women have been involved in the hand manufacture of cosmetics for centuries. Combining herbs with other ingredients according to formulae handed down from mother to daughter, women created unguents and salves which they used as indigenous medicines to cure illnesses as well as to preserve their beauty. In the past women probably sold their handmade goods in local markets; today they tend to buy manufactured cosmetics in markets and department stores. Consumer goods have replaced handmade goods, and women have lost the knowledge that was handed down to them from generations past.
Particularly popular these days are whitening creams - ground pearl a common addition - to lighten skin darkened by hard work in the rice paddies. In Thailand, as in much of the developing world, light skin is a sign of prestige and wealth; only in the west is a tanned hide prized as a mark of leisure. In the developing world it's the opposite: being dark just shows that you're poor, and have to engage in hard physical labour outdoors for a living.
The lips of the youthful beauty queens in my photo were reddened with lipstick borrowed from a mother or sister and produced in Thailand or Laos or China if their families are poor, Japan or France if well-off. Still, the application of creams and potions to beautify is not new in the Thai context, even if the unguents themselves have changed in form.
The emphasis on the surface - the physical appearance - rather than the internal feelings and intellect is not new either. My experiences with Thai people - and many other Asians - lead me to theorize that social interaction "there" (in Asia), rather more than "here" (in North America), occurs through surfaces rather than depths. Most westerners - of course I include myself here - are intent on expressing ourselves with words; we talk our interior feelings and emotions out into the world, sharing them with others, and we expect others to do the same with us. Thai people - and Japanese and Indonesians and other Asians I've had the pleasure of knowing - tend to keep their interior feelings and emotions to themselves; they don't have the compulsion we do to spill the beans, to get it out, to express everything in words. When interiority is expressed, it is communicated in ways that can be too subtle for westerners to catch; indeed, Thai communication patterns were often so subtle as to be almost unrecognizable to me, even after years' residence in the country.
In such an environment the surface can become the primary manifestation of self in a social world. Thai people told me again and again that you can't know what's in the hearts of others, you can only know what they show you on their faces. The conception is not unique to Thailand; many of us who have studied Asian cultures are familiar with the extraordinary preoccupation with "face". People are very concerned with maintaining their "face", and to insult another person is, in the Thai idiom, to break their face, and woe betide you if you do.
Thailand is famously promoted as "the land of smiles", and it is said that the Thai have a smile for every occasion. I found this to be largely true: Thai people tend to be charming, friendly and polite; they do indeed smile often, and those ready smiles are very pleasant. But Thai people are keenly aware that breaking the face of another person wipes that smile right off and lets potentially dangerous emotions out. The one with the broken face just might turn around and shoot you: and they do; it happens all the time. This lurking danger makes the maintenance of smooth, harmonious, and peaceful social relations all the more important. The beauty contest could be seen as a celebration of the soothing, shallow and safe surface, the surface that presents a pleasant face to the world and maintains social harmony. At the pageant, all is calm and beautiful, and danger and disaster are avoided.
Beauty has religious resonance as well. According to popular understandings of Theravada Buddhism (the religious persuasion of the majority of the Thai) appearance is a manifestation of karma. If one has accumulated sufficient merit in a past life, one will be born into an auspicious situation in this life - beautiful or rich or famous or powerful or, if you're really meritous, all of them at once. The ugly, the poor, the maimed, the powerless are bearing the brunt of lack of merit, or are living the consequences of some bad action in a past life. To be beautiful can thus be understood as the outward sign of a boon accumulated in a former life. According to popular (if not doctrinal) conceptions, being born female is a sign of lower merit than being born male, but it is more meritous to be born a beautiful woman than an ugly one, just as it is to be born a handsome rather than a homely man. The beauty contest thus celebrates and rewards the meritous woman, though the meritous man earns his rewards elsewhere.
In 1988, while I was living in Thailand, Porntip Nakhirunkanok was crowned Miss Universe. The country went wild for this 20-year-old beauty queen who had been raised in California and barely spoke Thai (but her English was fluent, which probably helped in the competition). Posters of Porntip, nicknamed Pui (POO-ey) or Bui, were everywhere, and people asked my opinion of her all the time: did I know who she was? had I seen her? did I think she was beautiful?
Pui was the second Thai woman to wear this crown - Apasara Hongsakula had held the same title in 1965 - and the Thai were ecstatic about this international confirmation of Thai female beauty. Simply by virtue of their title, these women gained star stature in Thailand itself, and were greeted with huge cheering crowds when they visited the kingdom. An estimated 150,000 people turned up at Apasara's homecoming, occasioning the biggest traffic jam in Bangkok's history - alas, a record broken many times since then - and Pui faced something similar. An instant celebrity, sponsors and bigwigs struggled to get near her in order to associate themselves with her triumph; her sister was knocked down in the stampede, and Pui later admitted, "I turned to my mother and told her now I know how the Beatles felt."
In 2002 Pui married Herb Simon, a twice-divorced American billionaire twenty years her senior, in Bangkok. The elite society event was reported in all the Thai papers; wedding gifts included a Porsche, diamond jewelry, gold bars, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. Not bad for a girl who grew up in a middle class American home.
Like many girls, Pui began entering beauty pageants while still young. She was first runner-up in Miss Teen California when she was 15, and over the next few years placed high in the local Thai community's Tida Dom and Miss Amnuaysilp pageants. The stage was set for her to compete in the Miss Thailand pageant, and from there she went on to Miss Universe.
After she was crowned she became Thailand's Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations, where she spoke in favour of the Rights of the Child bill (she had identified working for the betterment of poor children as her goal if she won the pageant); later she became the United Nations Population Fund Goodwill Ambassador. While Miss Universe she established a children's fund which raises money for underprivileged Thai children; in 1995 she starred in a ten-city concert tour across Thailand to raise money for the fund. She also serves as lead anchor for "60 Minutes II in Thailand" and campaign spokesperson for Face to Face International. In recognition for her philanthropic work, King Bhumibol Adulyadej presented her with a Royal Medal of Honour. But she hasn't neglected the entrepreneurial side either, and has promoted products such as Revlon, Pepsi, Vidal Sasoon and Christian Dior, been on over 90 magazine covers, and promoted tourism in Thailand.1
As Miss Universe, Pui was celebrated for her "Thai-style" beauty. To me she doesn't look much different from any other beauty queen: big hair, a teeth-baring smile, light skin, wide eyes; she's tall and slim, with the familiar bland good looks of the beauty pageant contestant. Is this what the Thai consider beautiful?
In past centuries, Thai women didn't look anything like Pui. Until the nineteenth century Siamese men and women dressed similarly in a simple sarong; they might toss another about their shoulders, but women were not concerned about covering their breasts. The Thai exhibit little sexual dimorphism (which means average heights and weights for men and women are quite similar), and this, coupled with the fact that both sexes dressed similarly and wore their hair cropped short, meant that European visitors could often not tell the sexes apart from the back. Women's lack of feminine attire and their betel-blackened teeth were deemed repugnant by Europeans, who routinely pronounced Thai women hideously ugly.
Nineteenth century kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn were the first Thai monarchs to speak English well enough to read travel accounts and learn how harshly Thai women were judged because of their non-conformity to western standards of femininity; they encouraged elite women to stop chewing betel in order to maintain white teeth and to grow their hair long. In the twentieth century Thai prime minister Phibul Songkram first encouraged, then legislated, that the Thai adopt western gendered modes of dress: public education posters exhorted men to wear pants, shirts, and hats and women to don skirts and dresses; people were admonished not to go out on the street with their upper bodies bare or in undergarments (for women sometimes wore only the newfangled bras with no blouses on top). Women were instructed to wear their hair long and not carry things on their heads.2 Though the campaign was much ridiculed at the time, it was a success, for today sumptuary custom in Thailand conforms to western standards.
Western models of beauty are often held up in Thailand as the ideal standard. I was pronounced beautiful by Thai people more times than I can remember - certainly many many more times than has happened here in Canada. It helps that I'm of average height - which makes me tall in Asia, but not freakishly so - and weight - which means I wasn't one of the "elephant women," as some of my students dubbed the hefty Americans who worked in the next building. Aspects which were complimented frequently were my nose - long, they said approvingly; my hair - golden, they hazarded, only to be shocked when I said it was red (they'd pictured tomato hair I think); my skin - white, of course, and considered most beautiful for that.
The Thai beauty queen's dark and silent other is the prostitute. Prostitution is a huge and thriving industry in Thailand in spite of being illegal. Thai police will move to stop child prostitution, but if the women are adults arrest and prosecution are rare. Sex tourism is the notorious international face of the Thai sex industry, but in fact the majority of Thai prostitutes serve a domestic clientele. The lives of these women are often miserable in the extreme. Some enter the work willingly - it's a rational option in a country where the majority live in poverty - but many are sold by their families to pay off debts. Such women and girls can find themselves locked inside brothels working for years, never able to get ahead because of usurious interest rates. They have no choice when it comes to clients - it's whoever will pay - and though Mr. Condom and others have pushed to have condoms used in all sexual encounters in brothels, women cannot enforce this with unwilling clients. AIDS and STDs are rampant in the domestic prostitution industry, and the human toll is high.
By contrast, women who work with foreigners are something of an elite. They are generally freelance entrepreneurs; pimps are rare, though women may have greedy boyfriends and parents pushing them to take more clients. No matter who's sharing their earnings, however, these women can pick and choose who to have sex with, negotiate their own fees, and insist on condom use. They often have regular foreign clients who come back year after year to spend a month or so with them, sending them money in the interim to help them live; five or six such "regulars" can support a woman and her family in relative comfort. Once they enter prostitution they are not there for life; with their earnings women might decide to buy a business, or go back to their villages and marry. Poor women who seek employment in the sex industry tend to be seen as being forced by poverty into working, and are considered to have gained merit if they used their money to help their families.3
Such is the strange and terrible intersection of desire, race, class, and gender. The beauty queen embodies the sanitized version of this encounter: the beautiful woman gets a crown, a sceptre, a car. The prostitute embodies the filthy flip side: the beautiful woman gets debased, diseased, dead. Beauty is a double-edged sword for women, especially in Thailand, it seems.
1Details about Pui's life from www.geocities.com/Wellesley/Veranda/7950/
2Some of these posters are reproduced in Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian's biography, Thailand's Durable Premier (1995). An unintended consequence of Phibul's sumptuary reforms is that Thai transvestitism was born, for transvestitism would not have been possible in the absence of gendered dress.
3See my write-up under Don't! Buy! Thai! for more on Thai prostitution.