In the dappled sunlight of Wat Puak Taem, Lan sits cross-legged on a low plastic chair. In front of her is a chunky wooden chopping board on which rests a pile of golden leaves, Lan meditatively embosses each leaf with a decorative mark using a metal stamp and hammer. Lan is one decendent in a long line of brass crafts people living in the Puak Taem area down a soi off Singharat Road, behind Suan Buak Haad [map D4]. Making brass ornaments, or kua tong in Thai, has been a common local craft in the area of Puak Taem since Chiang Mai became a city hundreds of years ago.
Many homes in the local vicinity produce ornaments and decorations from pliable golden brass, their wares include golden nails for traditional Thai dancing, ornate flowers, religious decorative bodhi leaves, hair pins, clips and accessories, rings and jewellery. These crafts people also specialise in making the decorations for chad, a symbolic golden parasol found in Southeast Asian Buddhist temples. Making parts and decorations for the chad can only be done inside temple grounds. The Puak Taem community are suppliers of brass ornaments for other temples in Chiang Mai, throughout Thailand and in foreign countries, they’ve also been commissioned by Buddhist temples in America and Europe.
The local people buy the brass from a metal merchant in Chiang Mai and usually stick to a traditional method of production and decoration, which has been passed down through the generations.
This March, Wat Puak Taem, known locally for being a centre of arts and education, held an exhibition celebrating this age old craft performed in the area, called ‘Kon Puak Taem Rak Chum Chon’, meaning ‘Puak Taem people love their community’. The exhibition was headed by Dr. Woraluk Boonyasurat, the head of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Chiang Mai University and the chair person of The Little People in Conservation Group, and was facilitated by Tu Nade the temple’s abbot. Dr. Woraluk and her conservation group’s intention is to help individual communities in Chiang Mai to appreciate and preserve their art and culture.
In the exhibition, there was; a ‘Klong Jum Jai’ show which is a Lanna drum set performance, Wat Puak Taem is the only place where this religious act is still carried out, a photographic display of the Puak Taem community both in the past and present, a mini-museum showing information about kua tong and also a talk on the resident community.
Abbot Tu Nade told Citylife about his experience and work in the temple.
“I grew up around here, since being a boy I have watched locals making kua tong. It’s common around here, but we must remember it’s beautiful for outsiders, we want the younger generation to appreciate how special our traditional crafts are,” said the abbot.
“At Songkran time we tend to get more people coming to work in the temple. People want to save up some money for Thai new year, so they can buy a new necklace or go and celebrate with their friends. So during this time of year they come to the temple to do extra work making kua tong, then they have a bit more pocket money to spend,” he continues.
Although much of the exhibition has been taken down, some information and images of the production of kua tong remain on display. We are told on most days there are usually some crafts people in the temple making kua tong or other temple decorations, so it’s worth popping by to have a look at this time-honoured exquisite craft, which continues to thrive from past to present.