The Lanna Drama: Cutural revival following hit TV soap
A young woman with long black hair lies supine on the ground. The body of a man is sprawled in the background. The camera zooms in on her tear-stained face, drained of colour, as she tries to open her eyes, her bloodied lips whispering in a clear Kam Muang accent, “Ai Sup, ai yu tee dai?” (Where are you, Sup?). The scene immediately ends, flashing back to the dark interior of the same abandoned barn. A man silently enters the building, quietly crawling up to a girl as she sleeps. She wakes up to him attempting to rape her, ripping off her clothes and straddling her. As the two fight, she manages to grab a piece of torn material, strangles him to death, and pushes his dead body off her.
This was the gripping opening of the mega hit TV series, Klin Kasalong, a drama which recently ended and which featured Kham Muang, the northern Thai dialect, throughout the entire series. In fact, for its many young northern fans — and there are armies of them — it’s the first drama of its kind to pay homage to all things Lanna, from the accent to the clothes and the culture to its history.
The Klin Kasalong novel was written by Pisit Sreeprasert, the Assistant Dean of Student Development and Head of the Academic Branch of Newspaper and Prints at the Faculty of Mass Communication, Chiang Mai University. “Most first-time authors write based on their interests,” Pisit told Citylife. “I am a lover of reading. I read until I wanted to write my own book. I’m also interested in Thai culture, and since I am from Chiang Mai, Lanna culture is what I am most familiar with,” he explained of how his novel came about.
“The plot covers three incarnations: the past, the present and the future. The past was set in 1924 and since I was unfamiliar with that era, I had to do a lot of research,” he continued. “I gathered historical data from many interviews, but for accuracy I relied on the vast collection of photographs taken by Boonserm Satrabhaya, a Chiang Mai historical photographer at the Wat Ket Karam Community museum, whom I also interviewed a few times before his death. Even though the majority of the novel came from my imagination, the historical accuracy had to come from these details, so that readers can sense the integrity of its times when compared with their own knowledge of the local culture.”
The Roaring 20s
The audience was quickly drawn into the colourful world of Chiang Mai in the 1920s. “This was quite an exciting time, when the city was flooded with new arrivals, many of whom lived around the docks of Wat Gate where many scenes were filmed,” explained Pisit. “Chiang Mai society in 1924 was changing into a multicultural society. The Chinese were the largest new group then, with many merchants and labourers, as well as tax collectors sent from Bangkok, they were therefore a very unpopular people at the time. The American Presbyterian missionaries had just founded the Chiang Mai First Church and the Sikhs from India had also begun to arrive, bearing exotic fabrics or working in husbandry in fields along Chang Klan and Chang Moi. The Japanese were mainly business people with one family owning a large photography studio, then there were the English teak wallahs. Details such as these bring life to the TV drama.”
Speaking Kam Muang, the characters in the drama went about their daily business in traditional clothes (though careful of Bangkok sensibilities, tops were left on). They travelled from location to location by foot, boat, cart and bicycle. The scenes with women mainly featured them cooking or weaving inside the home, whereas the scenes with men were of them going out and about, which may grate today, but was true of its time. But it wasn’t the gender roles people came to see, or stayed for. It was the exquisite costumes worn by the actors and actresses that grabbed and kept peoples’ attention. The complex pa sin teen jok by the famous weavers of Mae Chaem, was worn by upper and lower classes alike, with gold and silver silk threads added to those worn by the upper class, yet another historically accurate detail. “I give the design costume team credit for the fabulous costumes,” added Pisit. “I didn’t write these details, but they brought it alive through their research and design.”
The Arts of Lanna Culture
Traditions are also woven into the fabric of the drama. The heroine, Kasalong, is admired from afar, as she dances the traditional fingernail dance at the Songkran festival parade by the Ping River. Her hair is tied up in the Lanna bun, her elongated golden nails reflecting the sunlight, her body gently moving to the slow rhythm of northern Thai music.
In another scene, the hero, Sup, and a supposed contender for Kasalong’s affection, Mun Fah, faced one another in a traditional Lanna sword dance. The fight was the result of a misunderstanding over twins – the go-to of so many TV soaps worldwide – which featured a beautiful sword dance as well as the exquisite silversmithing which followed when the loser, Mun Fah, decided to craft a silver flower hairpin for his lady love. The scene which showed Mun Fah working diligently on the hair pin was so moving it reportedly led to a spike in sales of silverware along Wua Lai Road, a spike that has yet to wane.
Once released, it was Kham Muang that was the first hero of the show. “People from other regions began to try to learn how to speak it, seeing it as a cute language,” said Pisit. “Many Chiang Mai people themselves, especially the younger generation, who had for the most part rejected it for being embarrassingly old fashioned, have begun to show an interest.” Academics have warned in recent years of the imminent death of Kam Muang, yet Klin Kasalong appears to have singlehandedly given it a breath of life. “The actors and actresses, who are central Thai, spoke Kham Mueang well in spite of their limited time and challenges. Even though their accent wasn’t perfect, it was still adequate, and it wasn’t a big deal if a few mistakes were made,” explained the author.
“The feedback on traditional clothes was also great. While the TV drama was on air this past July, the demand for Mae Chaem’s pa sin tin jok increased significantly,” said Tanpitcha Lartsri Jupkajang, the owner of Jupkajang shop in Mae Cham.
“We saw many central Thai customers come into our shops, and others all along Wua Lai,” said Kanyarat Sukontawet, owner of Chom Chuen silver shop. “They were quite shocked to find the real price of silver to be quite high and I didn’t have the Indian cork silver hairpin that was featured in the drama in my shop then, but I am making some now in order to supply the demands I have had from customers.”
Tourism has also seen a direct increase, thanks to Klin Kasalong, with Thai tourists coming up to Chiang Mai to visit locations featured in the drama, such as Wat Lok Molee, Wat Ton Kwaen, Wat Jed Yod and the Iron Bridge. In fact, Ch3Thailand and Tourism Authority of Thailand, invited fans and the press, Citylife included, to join a two day tour of Kasalong hotpots recently, and we were all pretty star-struck when the actors turned up. “Chiang Mai’s historical and cultural tourist attractions will be promoted and the images of Chiang Mai province, such as costumes, communications, traditions and culture will become known among more people,” said Pakkanan Winijchai, the Director General of Tourism Authority Thailand Chiang Mai Office.
Flash in a Pan
While fans oohed and ahhed, academics yawned. “Fads come and fads go,” said Vithi Phanichphant, acclaimed historian and authority on all things Lanna. “You forgot we had this with TV dramas two, three decades ago, each time everyone said that this was going to be the revival of Lanna, people get excited, then they forget.”
Prof. Dr. Thanet Charoenmuang, author of ‘When the Young Cannot Speak their Own Mother Tongue’ which predicts the demise of Kham Muang within 30-50 years concurs. “This show had all the winning components: it was exciting, it had ghosts, everyone was dressed exquisitely and it charmed with all of the ‘jao’ spoken. But until the language is actually part of the syllabus, it will only keep fading away, as will our culture.”
At the end of the day, Klin Kasalong doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a jolly good TV show. If it helps silversmiths in Wualai, weavers in Mae Chaem, TAT directors’ numbers and some kids to turn to Kam Muang, then all the more power to it, we say.
“People love nostalgia,” added author Pisit, “People have found so much that they can relate to and admire; from actors eating old fashioned ice-creams, scenes of old markets, fashionwear from the olden days to the language. I feel proud and happy that my novel has become a part of promoting and preserving the Lanna culture.”
By Piyarat Duangmala