Chiang Mai is a UNESCO Creative City…Now What?

If you really want to go back to the beginning then it dates to 1993 when our faculty was asked by Luang Prabang in Laos to help them achieve UNESCO World Heritage status.

By | Fri 1 Dec 2017

Chiang Mai has a spring to its step now that the high season has arrived along with the (slightly) cooler weather. With the year-long period of mourning for our beloved late King over, we are beginning and tentatively, looking towards the future. So there could be no better time for our city to receive the designation as a UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art, which was announced on the 31st October 2017 by Director-General, Irina Bokova. We are now one of 116 cities in 54 countries labeled a Creative City with the aim to “create a network at the frontline of UNESCO’s efforts to foster innovation and creativity as key drivers for a more sustainable and inclusive urban development”.

If you have been following the various efforts over the past years by Chiang Mai to be recognised by UNESCO, you may be confused as to how we got to this point and what it all means to us. Citylife reached out to Woralun Boonyasurat, Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Chiang Mai University, the woman who has been the relentless force behind the scenes to put Chiang Mai on UNESCO’s map over the past few decades.

Citylife: Can you give us a timeline of how we got here and explain the relationship between the recently designated Creative City and the still-in-the-pipework efforts to get Chiang Mai designated a World Heritage Site.

Woralun: If you really want to go back to the beginning then it dates to 1993 when our faculty was asked by Luang Prabang in Laos to help them achieve UNESCO World Heritage status. Because Luang Prabang used to be a part of the Lanna Kingdom and our cultures are so very similar, our faculty had a lot of experts who were well-suited to help. Through that process we gained invaluable experience of the requirements of the organisation. But I don’t remember anyone mentioning Chiang Mai as a possible candidate then. It wasn’t until after the turn of the millennia that people started raising the possibility of Chiang Mai becoming a World Heritage Site.

At some point over the past few years Lamphun’s Fine Arts Department began to approach us with the idea of applying for World Heritage Site, but we soon realised that they simply weren’t ready as a city, as a submission of this scale requires active participation of relevant government organisations at all levels as well as a team of hardworking people who understand the aims, all of which was simply lacking in that province. This was when we began to realise that Chiang Mai actually had a lot of these resources and so we are now in the process of lining up everything so that we can at some point make a submission. This is a slow marathon, not a sprint. I have been involved with this UNESCO issue since I first joined the faculty in ’93, today I am the Dean and we are still working on it!

Citylife: So what is our status now regarding the World Heritage Site?

Woralun: To be a UNESCO World Heritage Site you need to show real strength in what you believe the world finds you interesting. I have talked directly to UNESCO many times and they have said that it would be a very hard status for our city to achieve. I often hear people say that they wished we had applied ten or twenty years ago when our city was less developed and I think to myself that I don’t want to look back in twenty years’ time and regret the fact that we did nothing now. I hear from so many locals that they want to sell their land and move out of the city as they don’t recognise this as their city anymore. This is depressing to me. But I say to myself, OK, if we don’t do anything it will all go even faster, so at least we can help stem the tide of so-called progress. I chose to do something rather than to give up. Yes, Chiang Mai has no self-control, but even if the process of applying to UNESCO achieves nothing but makes us slow down and take a look at ourselves, then it can be seen as successful. We are also continuing the great works of others who have come before us and hope to one day pass the baton to those who will continue the fight after we have become exhausted.

At this point we have decided to submit three areas for UNESCO’s World Heritage Site consideration; the old city moat along with a buffer zone of the communities surrounding it to the east and south, the small Wieng Suan Dok historical site and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. We have so much research and knowledge about Chiang Mai, what we need to do now is put it into the proposal. But this is no simple matter. For instance, we say that Chiang Mai was founded in 1296…but where’s the proof? There is some written evidence, but nothing firm and solid. That is why we are excavating in the old city prison right now, digging up artefacts to send abroad for carbon dating. Each and every claim we make, each sentence, has to be backed up with evidence and this is a massive task. But also one that is very good for us, as it forces us to find evidence to support our many claims. There is also very little budget for this, so we are doing a lot of work in our spare time and often out of our own pockets. Chiang Mai has been on the tentative list of UNESCO since 2015, but it could be another decade, if ever, that we attain our goal.

Areas being nominated for World Heritage Site consideration

Citylife: Why are you doing all the work and who else is involved?

Woralun: This is a very complex matter. The university council began toying with this idea three years ago which coincided with the intention of the Ministry of Culture to promote Lanna to the world. They then told the Provincial Administrative Organisation (PAO) to take charge, but they really didn’t know what to do so they passed it on to us.

We have a small budget but a massive network of people behind us. Apart from the working committee, which I chair, we have community, zoning, architecture, design and many other committees working towards this one goal which will hopefully be accepted on the world stage. The Mae Kha Canal cleanup initiative, for instance, was born from the need to reclaim and clean the historic canal and that is just one of so many great things happening right now.

Many people ask what we will gain from it all. I tell them that we are already getting it! The process is something that can melt our walls and focus our efforts for the betterment of the city. Just in the past few years you can see that our communities are stronger and the city is in the process of regeneration.

Citylife: So how does the recent designation tie in to all this?

Woralun: You can clearly see the exciting revival in arts and crafts. People like to feel as though they are part of something good and I believe that the pride in UNESCO’s recognition will do wonders in getting people to become more involved.

Citylife: How did Chiang Mai arrive at the decision to apply for the Creative City’s Crafts and Folk Arts section?

Woralun: It was around 2011 when Governor Panadda Diskul first mentioned the Creative City aspect of UNESCO for our city. But with political upheavals, nothing much happened for a few years. Eventually the matter was picked up by the Ministry of Interior who again appointed the PAO to take charge, as their responsibility was to make sure that our citizens have jobs, prosperity and good lifestyles. But again they then promptly asked us to take the helm.

We started from zero, but with the vast resources of decades of research behind us. We had to show UNESCO that we were a city which truly supported the arts and crafts. So, for instance if we found an old lady who used to handcraft bamboo and mulberry paper peacocks but now was making them in plastic, we had to realise that though she had the skills, she no longer had the resources, putting her at the end of the line. What we would then do would be to go to the Forest Restoration Research Unit (FORRU) and talk to them about bamboo and mulberry saplings, then we’d talk to local communities and remind them that these plants used to be grown in all backyards, encouraging community planting activities. We would then organise workshops and training on how to use these raw material so newer generations then maybe work with designer groups to encourage and inspire the newer generations to use these traditional materials. By doing this, we created long term sustainability in support of the crafts.
We realised that the world doesn’t know Lanna, so we began working on our brand imaging which should help add value to our exports. When big companies suddenly notice that they are selling 20-50% more on the international market, things get interesting for them.

We offer prizes and incentives to inspire and encourage, but what we do is basically support, we are the foundation from which we hope the crafts and arts scene can regenerate. Hipsters are great, but let’s not replace our craftspeople with them, but have both! It has been very revealing to see representatives of other cities come here and be so impressed with what we have preserved. Even though we may see it all as dying, others think we are doing a good job, so that is something to take comfort in and strength from.

Citylife: Now that we’ve got it, what next?

Woralun: There are short and long term goals. In the short term we are running, supporting, or connecting many many projects to revive the arts and crafts of our city. But in the long term it is all about sustainability. And don’t forget that crafts and folk art also encompasses music and food, these are all facets we are working on. This isn’t just a gift we have received, but a starting point from which to work. We need to make sure that we all benefit from this designation.

Citylife: What are the challenges?

Woralun: In many cities we have talked to, the Creative City designation is a huge deal and the government will jump in and start issuing order and setting policies on a wide scale. We don’t have that here. But the positive is that we have incredible people. Our city is filled with strong, creative and passionate people. If we harness their collective power, we can benefit greatly from being a creative city.

Whether or not being a part of UNESCO’s network will be of any use to us is entirely up to us now. It has been proven time and again that if managed correctly, a city can reap great rewards from such an accolade. But for Woralun it comes down to seeing the big picture, but getting everyone to take small but sure steps, “The world seems to be walking down the wrong path, I just hope that we can veer it back, if just a little bit, the direction change can prove to have massive impact.”