Talking for 30 Years: The Informal Northern Thai Group

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Talking for 30 Years: The Informal Northern Thai Group

And so it was in the early eighties that John and Hans frequently met up at the Alliance Francaise where they went for bi-weekly viewings of movies, one of the few social activities available in those days outside private residences. “We kept talking about resurrecting the talks, there were so many people doing fascinating research in those days,” said John. Southeast Asia was exploding with researchers, “anthropological, sociological, zoological, historical, epigraphic, botanical, linguistic, musical, archaeo- and paleontological, medical, political, literary, architectural, artistic and environmental, not to mention the hybrids among them.”

“The first meeting was a disaster,” continued John. “Some Thai gentleman insisted we formalised the group, registering it, appointing a patron, there was even talk of fingerprinting members at the police station. We listened politely and allowed it to die.”

“But we kept niggling at it over the years and finally we decided that the key was the word informal,” said Hans.

It was 1984 and my father had just spent the past year to-ing and fro-ing between our home and Tak, bubbling with excitement over a newly excavated burial site, and so he was volunteered to give the first talk. “There were about ten people,” my dad reminisced. “We put on some snacks, and drinks and it was a very pleasant evening. I would never imagined it to continue for another 30 years.”

The next few talks were given by academic giants including Lanna researcher Hans Penth; the only westerner to have survived imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge Francois Bizot, whose harrowing story is immortalised in John Swain’s classic novel River of Time; textile expert and owner of Studio Naenna Patricia Cheesman; recently departed historian Ron Renard and the great Major Hudson himself. These were giddy days, when research arrived fresh off the fields and straight into the hallowed lecture halls of the INTG. Grounds were being broken, mysteries solved, languages and peoples deciphered, papers published and the INTG was right in the middle of it all.

“We started off by holding talks at people’s houses,” explained John.

“I would bring my home made pate,” recalled Louis Gabaude, attendee of the first meeting and the group’s current secretary, “and Francois Bizot would bring a platter of French cheese.”

“It was all quite posh,” remembers John. “Ah…the smell of affluence, even someone else’s! But we soon ran out of nice houses and decided that it was best to return to somewhere reliable, the Alliance Fran?ais, where Thomas Baud, director and current French Honorary Consul, has now been in residence for well over 30 years.”

Soon after the inception of INTG, Major Roy Hudson handed over funds from the NTS which had been accumulating very nice interest for a decade. This allowed the committee some breathing space; the cost of mailing notifications and minutes were covered, and the necessary purchases of audio-visual aids (a projector, a computer, a sound system, etc.) could be made. The INTG is also in possession of the only complete set of the Siam Society’s Journals, since 1904, currently deposited at the Payap University Archives.

After a wobbly start, the INTG took off. Over the years there have been some spectacular talks. Bertil Lintner, past president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, author, journalist and expert on Burma issues, gave a standing room only talk on his harrowing one and a half year journey across northern Burma with his young wife and newborn infant, since published into the seminal book on recent Burmese history, Land of Jade. Our friend Hans Banziger gave an ode to his lifelong love affair, fluttery creatures in the jungle, seductively titled, “Deceit in the Forest Canopy: The Ravishing Lady Slipper Orchid and the Naive Hoverfly.” Giant of British expats past Dick Wood, whose father founded the Chiengmai Gymkhana Club in 1889 and who was himself a member since before The War until his death in 2002 (between them, members of the club for over a century) and linguist Donald Gibson who spoke, fluently, over 15 languages, including Swahili, gave a charming talk titled “Olde Chiang Mai Days.” There was the rather progressive talk for its time in the early 90s, “Transvestism, Transexuality and Sex-Change Operations.” Panit Bunyavatana’s questioning of whether Thai was a sexist language was a hit, and the memorable Dan Reid’s “HIV Does Not Cause AIDS” in 1986, was a particularly lively talk…or rather the question and answer session afterwards certainly was.

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In recent years, a few talks have hovered over rather sensitive issues such as president of the Philosophy and Religion Society of Thailand Mark Tamthai’s talk on teaching philosophy, where he questioned the impact of the patronage system, the impact of Buddhism and other taboos on the capacity for proper philosophical thought. But on the whole the INTG attempts to avoid controversy as can be seen when member and environmental warrior Ricky Ward wrote to the committee to suggest a Skyped talk by exiled political activist Ji Ungpakorn. Louis Gabaude’s lengthy reply explained the position of the INTG rather well by citing the success of the longstanding group due to its below-the-radar informality, freedom from administrative and official hassles as well as from political or military groups, with an aim to provide food for thought, beyond sectarianism, about northern Thailand and beyond.

Convenors have come and gone – all volunteers – over the years and many improvements have been made to the group. Now a mailing list of ten snail mails and more than a 1,000 emails go out to past and current members every month, with minutes of the last meeting as well as notices for upcoming ones.

“We are also getting a lot of returning lecturers,” said Rebecca Weldon, convenor for the past three years, museologist and long term resident of the region. “There are people whose research we have followed over the years who have returned to give us updates on their works. This is a community service in its purest form. We provide community resources, networkings and information.”

“The INTG has been an integral part of my life,” explained Louis, who also attended the first talk at our house all those years ago. “I have learned, I have made friends, I have joined a community.”

There have been, and continue to be, so many foreigners who have made a mark on Chiang Mai. In fact, the next talk on the 10th of February at INTG, the 387th, by Chiang Mai resident since 2002 and American researcher on ethnic minorities in the Mekong region David Lawitts, will be about one of the greatest expat giants of them all, Harold Young. The talk is titled “Statesman, Zoologist, Missionary, Spy: The Life of Harold Young in the Golden Triangle” and it promises to be a showstopper.

Here is a teaser: When the United States entered WWII, they lacked significant international intelligence networks from which to draw. Unlike the European colonial powers whose residents served for decades in Africa and Asia, the only Americans with on-the-ground experience and contacts abroad were missionaries. Harold Young, born and raised in the mountains of the Sino-Burma border, was one of dozens of these missionaries recruited by the OSS and early CIA to shed light on the darkest fringes of US national security.

Harold was the son of the pioneer missionary William Young, who preached for decades to the Wa and Lahu hill tribes of eastern Burma. Both the Wa and Lahu held traditions that foretold of a White Man, carrying a White Book, who would one day arrive to bring salvation to the lost souls of the mountains. When the light-skinned Baptist, William Young, raised up his white Bible, the Wa and Lahu immediately began converting by the tens of thousands.

To this day, many Wa and Lahu regard the Youngs as a dynasty of prophets. The Youngs, both Harold, and later his son Bill, commanded, trained and recruited on behalf of the CIA, during WWII, the Korean War as well as the Secret War in Laos. As his CIA cover, Harold worked for decades as a zoologist, and citizens of Chiang Mai remember him as the creator of the current Chiang Mai Zoo.

David Lawitts spent ten months interviewing Harold’s son, Bill, just before his death in 2011. Interestingly, Rebecca met Lawitts at Bill’s funeral and it was there that she approached him to give a talk. Rebecca’s parents were in fact friends of Harold Young’s and used to spend weekends at his house in Chiang Dao, “complaining about the marauding wild elephants,” she reminisces.

“I first met Harold in 1965,” said Hans, one-upping Rebecca. “We were both walking across a bridge and heard this squeaking noise. I mentioned that it was the noise of a snake eating a frog. I was surprised that this gentleman concurred. He too knew what that noise was. He then invited me to visit the zoo anytime to further my research into the study of tear-sucking moths as well as inviting me to visit his home in Chiang Dao.”

“I remember playing with Bill Young’s son Jerrick a few times,” I mentioned, weakly, not impressing anyone at all.

And so we sat for hours in the old Sandwich Bar, where generations of “Old Boys” hung out discussing Chiang Mai and enjoying as close a taste of home as you could get in this part of the world in those days.

The Informal Northern Thai Group is open to all potential members don’t forget your 20 baht! There are talks every second Tuesday of the month from 7.30pm onwards at the Alliance Francaise, 131 Charoen Prathet Road. For notices of upcoming meetings please subscribe to: www.intgcm.thehostserver.com.