VERY THAI: Everyday Popular Culture, by Philip Cornwel-Smith, photographs by John Goss, preface by Alex Kerr. Bangkok: River Books, 2005, 257 pp., color illustrated, 995 baht (cloth).

All countries have something of their own, something the dictionary calls “a kind or sort, especially in regard to appearance or form.” We recognize it. It shows us where we are just as certainly as does the airport or the railway station. Robert Louis Stevenson came closest to defining it when he wrote: “A web then, or a pattern; a web at once sensuous and logical, an elegant and pregnant texture: that is style.”

Style, a way of doing things, defines, identifies. Among the various national styles of Asia — each one individual no matter what facets are borrowed from a neighbor — that of Thailand shines as one of the most apparent.

As Alex Kerr has written in his preface to this investigation into the style of Thailand’s popular culture, the country “seems an informal, free-wheeling place, even at times chaotic. But the more time you spend here you realize that there’s an internal logic and symbolism invisibly ordering everything.”

Stylistic imperatives underline even things seemingly most transient. Decorations on the cross-country truck, details on the latest techno-game, the roof line of the old temple, all share an imperative. “Dance, painting, sculpture, costume, architecture,” writes Cornwel-Smith, “all stylize natural forms into formulas. The visual language of traditional patterns abstracts the contours of flames and flora, gods and fauna, often in a manner to indicate a divine message.”

It is this message that lives on in the Thai style. It is particularly visible in popular culture, the subject of this book. It “goes way beyond entertainment, it embraces practical folk arts, updated traditions and pop culture, a product of mass media, commercialisation and the urban street.”

This is the way an animistic society arranges its objects into a self-contained logic — anthropologists called it “bricolage” and it usually bewilders those outside that society. Thai TV soap-opera, for example, can be seen as the new Ramayana in the way that fixed characters still conform to traditional moral roles; the tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled motor-rickshaw, but its Thai-ness comes through its application of Thai aesthetics, sometimes at the expense of comfort.

Thailand, famed as the “land of smiles,” is literally that. “Smiling is the Thai way to get things done — smiles beam from pencils, hair grips, microwave ovens, instruction manuals, warning signs.” This leads to a ubiquity of a quite empty good humor. As the author writes: “If Disney wrote the recipe of contemporary cute, and Japan baked it as a cupcake called ‘kawaii,’ Thailand iced it with pink sugar.”

This rests on a firm base — that sensibility for having a good time that is called “sanuk.” This quality is supposed to be balanced by its contrary “sa-ngon” (serenity), but sometimes it isn’t. A notorious example is the Songkran festival that, whatever its serene origins, is now a very difficult week where strangers drench each other using buckets, homemade water cannons and pump-action guns. Residents are known to leave town until it is over.

As one commentator wrote: “Songkran has come to increasingly signify violence, but we rarely complain because nobody wants to stand in the way of sanuk.”

The poet Montri Umavijani, writing of the Muay Thai, the local art of boxing, notices that necessary qualities are the grace of the dancer, the precision of the craftsman, and the dignity of the warrior and observes that “such a mixture of gentleness and violence is characteristic of the Thai people and their culture.”

Cornwel-Smith has isolated a large number of these evidences of Thai-ness and writes of them with astute animation — from talismans to potions, and from tattoos to the typical Thai domestic grilled gateway where ironwork solves the dilemma of “how to shield what you’ve got while also showing it off.” All of this is fully illustrated by a wealth of full color, lively photographs.

Illustrating style through the examples of popular culture is hard to do, but it is here pulled off in fine form. Indeed, the author has created his own bricolage. You will recognize a lot but you will learn even more.

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