Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: https://scholarbank.nus.edu.sg/handle/10635/128862
Title: An ambiguous intimacy: Farang as siamese occidentalism
Authors: Kitiarsa, P. 
Issue Date: 2010
Citation: Kitiarsa, P. (2010). An ambiguous intimacy: Farang as siamese occidentalism. Ambiguous Allure of the West, The: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand : 57-74. ScholarBank@NUS Repository.
Abstract: In a recently released film, Thawiphop (The Siam Renaissance, dir. Surapong Pinijkhar, 2004), Manee, a young Thai woman from the early twenty-first century who has grown up and been educated in France, travels back and forth between Thailand's postmodern present and Siam's early modern past.1 In a scene set in the nineteenth century, she responds to questions from two nobles at the court of King Mongkut (r. 1851-1868) by offering harsh criticism of the Western influences in modern Thailand, Our country is very modern. There are many skyscrapers. Everything has changed. We have cars, electricity, movie theatres. We dress in a Western style. We accept Westerners more than we accept one another [rao nap-theu farang mak kwa phuak-diaw-kan]. We have everything the Westerners have. We are everything that they are and we eat everything that they eat . . . We want to be them and refuse to be ourselves.2 Manee uses the terms farang (Westerners) and tawan-tok (the West) interchangeably to mark Siam's powerful outsiders, whom she blames for threatening the kingdom's independence and for destroying genuine Siamese cultural identities.3 Her view reflects dominant nationalist discourses in Thailand, which hold that since the second half of the nineteenth century the country's path to modernity has been under the dominating influence of the West. Wright (2004, 32-3) argues that blaming farang for causing Thailand's economic, political and cultural woes has become a trend as well as a method for a number of Thailand's public intellectuals, including Nidhi Aeosriwongse, Prawet Wasi, Sulak Sivaraksa and Thirayuth Boonmi. Farang are often pictured as the wicked Other of the Thai and in some versions of Thai history the West has been represented as a giant, tricky wolf and Siam as a helpless innocent lamb (see Copeland 1993; Tuck 1995; and the introduction to this volume). The idiom tam kon farang ("kissing the asses of the farang") has been used by Thais of all ideological stances and backgrounds to criticize blind imitation of the West. In this chapter I trace the historical constructions of farang in Thai thought in order to outline the influence of this notion on the historical project of the making and remaking of Thai national and cultural identities. Working primarily from Thai-language sources on history, literature and ethnography, I seek to answer the following questions: Who are the farang in Thai constructions of knowledge? How have farang become part of the discourse of Thainess? And what are the effects of farang on Thai national and cultural identities? I argue that farang is much more than an ethnocultural reference of Western Otherness. Drawing on Said's thesis on Orientalism (1978), I propose in a somewhat converse fashion that farang is an Occidentalizing project conceived and conducted through Siam's constantly changing historical and cultural experiences with and against the West. Said defines Orientalism as a Western mode of thought that is based upon ontological and epistemological distinctions between "the Orient" and "the Occident" and which has been used historically for "dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (1978, 2-3). (See also the introduction to this volume.) Following a similar line of reasoning, I conceive farang as an expression of Siamese/Thai Occidentalism, that is, an historically and culturally constructed way of knowing, dealing with, criticizing, condemning, consuming and imagining the West as a powerful and suspicious Other. Some of the principles of Siamese Occidentalism are similar to those involved in the West's Orientalist project, but the power relations in each case are markedly different. Siam's rulers have never seen farang as objects of their colonial intent and conquest, and since the middle of the nineteenth century, Siam/Thailand has been acutely aware that farang are immensely more powerful and that the country has needed a way to contend with them. In Occidentalism in Novels of Malaysia and Singapore, 1819-2004, Tamara Wagner takes Occidentalism as the re-representation of the West. She reminds us that "[Occidentalism] can . . . function as an expression of desire that relegates objects of longing elsewhere through its stereotyping of the 'other'" (Wagner 2005, 6). Farang is both a form of re-presentation and an expression of the Western Other in the Siamese/Thai contexts. I suggest that the most productive way to understand the discourses of farang in the making of Thai identities is to read the term as a Thai production system of power/knowledge concerning the West and as a reflexively tactical method to produce a Thai-ized version of the West imagined as a superior but suspicious Other. Farang is not a matter-of-fact representation of the West but rather represents an ethnocultural mirror that measures the imagined hierarchical distance between the Thai 'We-Self' and the constructed Western "Other". Siamese Occidentalism is not simply a reversal of Western Orientalist logics and power/knowledge relations. It is the historically and culturally rooted system of epistemological tactics employed by Siam's rulers and intellectual elites to turn the Otherness of farang into ambiguous objects of those elites' desires to be modern and civilized. Of all Siam's cultural Others-including jek (mainland and overseas Chinese, Sino-Thai), khaek (Persian, Indo-Malay, South Asian and Middle-Eastern and most Asian Muslims) and Lao-farang has emerged as the most powerful marker of Siamese/Thai cosmopolitan modernism. This Occidentalizing project was initiated by Siam's royal elites in the nineteenth century, continued by military dictators and bureaucrats through the twentieth century, and is now driven by middle-class consumers and the mass media. Farang should be understood as an elite-led but now media-saturated popular Occidentalizing project. In contrast to Manee's simplistic anti-Westernism, expressed in the quotation from the film script in the opening of the chapter, this study reveals that farang has a far deeper historical relationship to the construction of Thainess than her claim that Thais "want to be them [farang] and refuse to be ourselves". Davisakd Puaksom (1997, 1998, 2003a, 2003b) is one of the first Thai historians to have dealt with Occidentalism as a complex power/knowledge relation between the Siamese elite and their Western ethnocultural Others. Drawing on notions of Orientalism, he argues that Siam's elites have historically constructed images of their non-Siamese Others in order to "self-consciously insist that We-Siam are not uncivilized or barbaric" (Davisakd 2003a, 137; 2003b, 104). In this chapter I demonstrate how, over the span of four centuries, farang have been embraced and normalized into Siam's historical consciousness. As an Occidentalist construct, Siam's elites have used farang as a tactical method to open the country's horizons to the modern cosmopolitan world. Looking outward through a Siamese/Thai lens, farang have been employed as a method to counter the powerful West by progressively stripping them of their foreignness and making them part of modern Thai selves. In short, the modern makeup of Thainess can only be understood as an outcome of the cultural project of the Siamese Occidentalization of farang. Siam/Thailand's Occidentalizing project and Occidentalized self have not come from the far-away lands of the West. Rather, they have been nurtured at home in the cultural borderlands of local Thai/Western "contact zones" (Saldivar 1997, 13-4).4 In this reading I draw on Thongchai Winichakul's arguments on the "Other Within" (2000a, 38-62) and Thanet Aphornsuvan's account of "American Orientalism" (2004a; see also Thanet 2004b, 96-107, 2004c). In particular, this study responds to Thongchai's (2000a, 57) call to rethink the ways that this "Western Other", in the form of the Occidentalizing project launched by Siam's rulers in the nineteenth century, has profoundly redefined Siam/Thailand's national and cultural selves. In the past two decades, debates in Thai historiography have focused on the relative influence of external and internal factors (patjai phai-nork, patjai phai-nai) in the making of modern Siam. Nidhi (2000, 19-21) has argued against mainstream Thai history's emphasis on external farang influences, contending that established history fails to explain why the "New Siam" that emerged after the reforms initiated by King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn (see below) resembled neither the "Old Siam" of the early Bangkok period nor the West. © 2010 by Hong Kong University Press, HKU. All rights reserved.
Source Title: Ambiguous Allure of the West, The: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand
URI: http://scholarbank.nus.edu.sg/handle/10635/128862
ISBN: 9789622091214
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