Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Paying Respects to the Princess

Pim and I dressed in black yesterday and went to pay our respects to HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana at the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall in the Grand Palace compound where her body is lying in state. The elder sister of King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) and King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) died on January 2 from cancer at the age of 84. The Princess was a scholar who taught French at Thammasat University, and she was the patron of many charities and music organizations. Born in London, she was the granddaughter of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). Promoted to the royal order of precedence by King (Rama VII) in 1927, she renounced her position just before the war to marry an officer in the army. Although that marriage ended in divorce, when her brother ascended to the throne she was reinstated. On her 72nd birthday she was given the noble title "Krom Luang Narathiwat Rajanagarindra" (loosely translated as "Princess of Narathiwat"), making her the only female member of the Chakri royal family in the reign of King Rama IX to have been bestowed this title. At her death, the King declared 100 days of mourning. Although this was official only for the royal family and government officials, it seems that all of Thailand is following their lead. The Princess's picture is everywhere you look in Bangkok, usually draped with black and white bunting. Commemorative books have been published and songs have been written in her honor (I have been trying to locate a copy of one haunting melody that I've heard played in shopping malls and on television). I was also unable to find a photo of the remarkable ornate scene inside the 18th century Throne Hall other than a postcard we were handed as we left, probably because photography is prohibited. After investing in a new black wardrobe, dressing up and riding through the 100-degree heat, we were only permitted a few minutes inside. There we sat on the floor and listened to the chanting of monks while government officers dressed in white uniforms sat on chairs. I had little opportunity to take notes. A special cremation structure is being constructed now in Sanam Luang, the park across from the Grand Palace. This site will also house the royal chariots and the funeral pyre to be used in the royal funeral procession later this year. The specially-designed structure will have a 7-tiered umbrella, instead of the normal 5, at the instruction of the King. Since it will be hand-built and hand-decorated, it will take 6-7 months to complete. A ceremony at Kuiburi National Park recently accompanied the felling of sandalwood trees to extract wood for the creation of the royal urn that will house the ashes of the Princess. According to one report, the province chief "assumed the role of royal household Brahman and conducted prayers to appease the tree spirits." These rituals surrounding the death of the Princess provide a fascinating peek into the culture of Thai monarchy, a small foretaste of what will take place here when the current monarch passes away.

A couple of days ago I received in the post a copy of Dana Frank's new book, Local Girl Makes History: Exploring Northern California's KITSCH MONUMENTS (City Lights Press). This was exciting, not only because Dana, a professor of history at UC Santa Cruz, is a respected public intellectual and a friend, but because I'm in her book. Too many years ago to remember clearly, she had come to me with an idea about a book of stories about sites in the Santa Cruz area she had encountered as a child growing up on the peninsula. Although intended for the general public, she wanted to recontextualize her memories to situate them within cultural and political history. These stories, she writes, from the "inventive landscape" of her childhood,
pulled me deep into reflections about the sobering politics of imperial ambition, racial projection, and subtle hierarchies of class and gender in the United States -- embedded deftly and thoroughly in the innocent landmarks of my childhood, and hence my own passage into adulthood as a Californian and as a citizen of the United States.
The first site that Dana picked was Big Basin Redwoods State Park which she had visited with her family and at summer camp as a Girl Scout. She remembered the park store where she and her sister would buy popcicles, the archaic practice of feeding the deer, and, the "most puzzling attraction" of all, a large slice of a redwood tree with dates pinned to the tree rings marking the tree's age: "1513 Balboa Discovers the Pacific Ocean," "1066 William the Conqueror Invades England," and, near the center of the 2,000-year-old giant, "Birth of Christ." Why commemorate those events?, Dana the historian asked me. Although I had spent many years researching the coast redwoods and the history of the social movement that preserved the old growth trees in Big Basin, that questione had never occurred to me. I found it fascinating, however, and encouraged her quest for an answer, loaning her books and research materials and introducing her to rangers at Big Basin. In the book she gives me a lovely description: "Silver-haired, with wire-rimmed glasses, Willie looks sort of like a tree sprite recently escaped from the forest."

What Dana discovered was the dissertation I never wrote, a persuasive argument that redwood trees were used metaphorically to further the goals of an imperialist and racist white American culture. Conquest and domination was the flip-side of preservation and conservation. Inscribed on the redwood rounds she found at Big Basin and other parks (even in England) was a "particular version of human history that recounts -- and celebrates -- a Eurocentric narrative of upward progress through European and U.S. imperialism." The big trees embodied Aryan purity and virility to admirers like poet Walt Whitman and Carrie Stevens Walter, one of the founders of the Sempervirens Club I lionized in my academic account of Big Basin. "The trees needed to be preserved as early as 1903 precisely because they were mostly dead and conquered already," Dana writes. Speaking of her inscribed redwood round, she realizes that "my beloved tree was not just dead, but forced after its death to symbolize, even celebrate the very conquest that felled it." The challenge, she concludes, "is whether we can separate our 'wonder and awe' at the sheer ancientness of these trees, from our narratives of imperialist conquest."

I've only had time to read the introduction and her chapter on Big Basin so far, but will soon see what new and interesting contexts Dana uses for her grown-up understanding of the Pulgas Water Temple, the statues of The Cats outside Los Gatos, and the Cave Train Ride at the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. Dana, whose previous books include studies of gender issues, labor history, and banana pickers in Central America, is an engaged intellectual, whose enthusiasm and curiosity is infectious. Many academics I've met (and I almost become one) are tainted with the virus of cynicism. They distance themselves from the strum und drang of the world they pretend to understand and feel superior to its victims. Dana, like my mentor Carolyn Merchant, breaks that mold.

The big news in Thailand this week is underage castration. A headline on the front page of the Bangkok Post claimed that young transvestites were having their testicles removed because they thought it would give them smoother skin and make them more feminine. A gay activist had charged that a 16-year-old boy had been castrated last year in Bangkok. The Thai Medical Council, the professional association that establishes standards of practice for Thai doctors, issued a warning that clinics performing castrations on boys under the age of 18 were breaking the law, if there is no parental approval, and practitioners could lose their license and have their clinics closed down for a year. It also warned that castration would not necessarily enhance ones femininity. Clinics are offering castrations on the internet for 4,000 baht (130 dollars) a chop. One clinic was raided by police but apparently no underage patients were discovered. Thailand, according to one news story, "is famously tolerant of transsexuals, known locally as 'kathoey,' or the third gender. While they have traditionally been allowed roles in festivals and cabarets, they have in recent years sought to make inroads into mainstream society." Many kathoeys, or "lady boys," can be spotted in my neighborhood, men with masculine features and feminine breasts. While the number who have gone all the way is unknown, there is clearly a large market for female hormones.

Mango madness! This is the first time in Asia for me during mango season. Suddenly there are mangoes everywhere. Here you can see yellow ones for 20 baht each on a pushcart. Last week we found three for 50 baht, and Pim brought him a pair the other day that cost 36 baht (a little over $1). At Foodland there are about a half dozen varieties (mostly yellow and green) which seem to cost from 50-80 baht a kilo. I used to find imported mangoes in Santa Cruz. And I studied the deft way that my mentor Noel King cut the fruit, first into halves and then sectioned with cross-crosses of the knife, after which he turned each half inside out to separate the sections from the skin. I tried to follow his example but usually made a mess of it. Now I have a pro in Pim who first skins the fruit and then slices it into two halves around the seed. Occasionally we've gotten a sour one, but even without the full sweetness it is still the goddess of fruit. I fully intend to pig out this mango season in Thailand.

I'm proud to announce that Jerry and George have voted me Farang Rookie of the Year, in recognition of my amiability and adaptability. No higher praise could be received from my trusted peers.

1 comment:

littlebang said...

According to Thais, Durien is the Emperor of fruits, and mangostein is the Empress.