The interest of Thailand to writers and intellectuals who work from a variety of perspectives is hardly a secret, questions of what is permissible within the country notwithstanding, yet the range and depth of contemporary writing about, or just inspired by, Thai culture can seem surprisingly unnoticed amidst the literature that is promoted within the region. Lawrence Chua is a cultural critic, novelist and academic who has drawn on Thailand throughout his career but his profile here remains somewhat minor. After being raised for his early years in Southeast Asia he grew up in North America and emerged during the late 80s as a writer of note in that part of the world. His output is diverse but underlined by a sense of directness and an exceptional capacity for translating insights and ideas from different traditions into accessible and widely relevant text. With essays such as "Speaking Parts: Silence, Language and the Postcolonial Faggot" Chua explored the power of language and the challenge of silence for disempowered groups, citing Khun Noi Chantawipa Apisuk of sex-workers' rights group EMPOWER on the necessity of language to gain control and avoid exploitation. Or, with 'Blood and Business: The Sweet Science of Thailand's Boxing World’ he builds a commentary on capitalism with highly evocative descriptions of the history and spectacle of Muay Thai. Fiction such as the short story 'Love in a Cold Climate' examines the dynamics of gender, desire and gay male identity for a young Thai couple. With so much divisive theorizing and argumentation over the cultural impact of globalization Chua effortlessly moves across or melds the forms of difference that can trap other writers.
He is currently a Fellow in the History and Theory of Architecture at Cornell University, where he is researching the conjoined genealogies of modernity and the sports stadium.Here Lawrence is concerned with the ways that contemporary experience is, I quote, "mediated by a scopic regime that was historically shaped in such arenas". Wembley Stadium is the particular object of this interest but as a lateral thinker and prolific writer he moves in many directions and was in Chiang Mai during December to present his paper titled (disarmingly enough) 'A Chink in the Works: Building, Dwelling and Translating the Penang Mansion of Zhang Bishi' at the 10th anniversary conference of SEASREP: the Southeast Asian Studies Regional Exchange Program.The conference was titled Southeast Asia, A Global Crossroads and Chua's paper traces the conjunction of modernity and tradition in the construction and design of the so-called Blue Mansion (Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion) in Penang, built by Hakka migrant Zhang Bishi in the late 19th century and subject to a UNESCO conservation award in 2000. Bishi has been described as China's first capitalist and last mandarin; he became a millionaire through various means (plantations, opium syndicates, trading with the Dutch army and navy) and held consular appointments in Singapore and Penang as well as being appointed a supreme mandarin by the Q'ing court. Chua is concerned with how Bishi's national, regional and global interests came to be represented by the Blue Mansion - which includes Gothic, Art Nouveau, Cantonese and Hokkien elements - at the historical juncture when Imperial China was approaching its death and European empires were expanding in Southeast Asia.He explained, "I'm interested in the ways that our lives are effected by and effect the built environment. We're the children, or grandchildren more likely, of a radical process of territorialization that created sovereign nations and colonies in the 19th century. Today we're experiencing another radical spatializing process: globalization. I'm interested in the relationship between these two historical moments. In short, I'm interested in the ways that the built environment conditions our habits and in how those habits, in turn, come to shape our lives".
Thailand has also been a notable source for such considerations and we met to discuss the significance this country holds for him. His 1998 novel Gold by the Inch, for example, entwined stunning descriptionsof Bangkok with accounts of an Asian-American man's return to sites of formative memories, meditations on the nature of migration and academic and popular discourses on colonialism and postcolonialism. The descriptions include 'the city as bitch, a sonorous lullaby of hungry flies', 'a sloppy patchwork of unassimilable stories' and, my personal favorite, the more prosaic 'ugly cities have great futures'. He told me, the most accurate and most simple thing to say is my relationship with Thailand is complicated. I was born in the region, so there's already that very complicated family genealogy. Although I went back a few times as a child, it wasn't until I was in my 20s that I really returned in a conscious way to the region. It was the 1980s and the cultural scene in the U.S. was immersed in the politics of identity. It was eye-opening to me to see the ways that a broad spectrum of Thai society (from artists to minor royalty; from sex workers to young professionals) dealt, and had been dealing, with similar issues of identity in a much more engaging and empowering way. It was an exciting time and for almost every time I was made to feel completely at home, there were moments where I was reminded of the tentative quality of that term. One of my interests in writing Gold by the Inch was how I could construct a novel that would somehow be true to the experience of someone returning 'home' in a way that revealed the many layers involved in the fantasy that there is a 'home' itself".
Chua has said elsewhere, "my background of growing up inside and outside of things, living between continents, nations, cities, houses, language and customs, is hardly remarkable but perhaps it has made [me] more ambivalent about identity, the tidiness of its spaces and the promises of empire". He expanded, "when I arrived in Bangkok in my twenties I fell into a place where I was made to feel empowered and, this sounds weird, liberated. I was struck by the ease with which people moved across boundaries of class and gender.The facility with which people from diverse backgrounds conversed. Possibly this wasn't the way itwas. Possibly I was drunk or high at the time, but I felt as if I was welcome into a discourse that was culturally empowering. Here I was, in a culture that appeared almost continuous with New York in terms of popular culture and yet it was being produced by black people. Nothing about it was marginal. Everyone I met, from noodle stall owners to princelings to bar owners to drag queens to magazine publishers knew that they were the producers of culture, they were at the center of it all. Not only that, they were descended from a long trajectory of cultural producers. Part of it is very simple, I suppose, and has to do with being in a culture where you suddenly realize you form part of the majority. Things weren't being defined for me in relationship to a hegemonic culture. You experience things differently in such a space. For one, you own your language instead of just using it (for better or worse). That was my initial, adoles-cent and mostly uninformed, impression of the place. Later I was exposed to Ajarn Sulak and other intellectuals. They really gave me the language to articulate my experience of conventions of identity. I think Ajarn Chah says it best, a convention is something that appears to be there but really isn't. It may be useful in some situations and even necessary, but it’s not a good idea to get too attached to it".
The comparison between Bangkok and New York would affirm many peoples' view and experience of the former. ‘Globalization has made this continuum obvious. I just read something Thongchai Winichakul wrote about post-Westernization in Thailand. He made the point that there can be no globalization without localization. Many interesting things can happen in that localization that recast the relationship of the local as being a merely passive space'.This is a point that has great pertinence for Thailand, the US academic Brian McGrath gave a university lecture last year and pointed out how Thai people can bring their lifestyles to all those new suburban estates popping up in places like Rangsit. So now Greek columns share space with spirit houses and food vendors and colors and decorations emerge on the houses in a way that wouldn't be allowed in most Western contexts."This is something that also interests a lot of Thai intellectuals. The invention of Thailand is inextricably linked with the invention of modernity and the instrumentality of classical forms to legitimize both nationhood and colonialism. During his tour of Europe, King Rama V wasn't that impressed with the modern architecture he saw but he was wowed by the baroque and rococo, all those things the moderns wanted to sweep under the rug. When he visited a casino in Monte Carlo he wrote a letter back home saying how beautiful it was and that 'it should have been a palace'. It's interesting to consider how the 19th century growth of Britain as both a nation and an empire are entwined and the ways that the classical was used by the British to establish both their own legitimacy as imperial rulers and as national subjects. I think a similar thing was happening in Siam at the time".
Finally, as a reviewer of Asian art and film since long before such a practice became fashionable, I ask Chua his view of Thai artists. His preoccupations remain consistent, "I'm inspired by Apichatpong Weerasathakul?s work and his architectural approaches to narrative. The experience of watching his films, even Iron Pussy, is a bit like navigating spaces in Bangkok or other Southeast Asian cities.The distinctions between inside and outside are sharp, sudden, and yet seem so ambiguous. It's like walking down a very busy, tight soi and suddenly turning into a gate and finding yourself in the middle of a garden and then moving into a dark, cool sala. I'm also a great admirer of the editing in his films, which is the work of another fine young filmmaker, Lee Chatametikool".