Friday, June 29, 2018

A Religion of Fusion—Vietnam’s Cao Đài Faith

                                            by Jim Goodman
noon prayers at the Cao Đài Cathedral in Toà Thánh
A popular day-trip for tourists out of H Ch Minh City takes them to Tây Ninh, 90 km northwest, to the Cao Đài Cathedral.  They will arrive just before the noon worship services, stay less than half an hour, leave for lunch in a roadside restaurant and then head for a walk through the C Chi Tunnels used in the American War.  The main impression they will have of their Tây Ninh excursion will be the unique architecture of the cathedral, with tall twin towers in front and an long vestibule, the rows of white clad devotees at prayer and, in particular, the great, All-Seeing Eye over the interior altar, on the windows and above the entrance.    
       This eye, the left eye of God (left being the yang side), the iconic symbol of the Cao Đài religion, first appeared in a vision of Ngô Văn Chiêu, a Vietnamese working as a colonial official on Phú Quc Island in 1921.  In his free time he studied about Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, as well as spiritism—the belief humans could contact the deceased and other spirits.  He attended séances and in one of these he claimed messages from Đức Cao Đài, Lord of the High Stage (or Tower), or God, according to his interpretation, that were instructions on the tenets of a new religion for a new epoch.
Cao Đài symbols on the cathedral ceiling
       Moving to Saigon soon after, he was joined by other séance practitioners with similar experiences, particularly Lê Văn Trung and Phm Công Tc.  By 1926 these men had molded the massages of the séances into a specific creed of principles and rules and applied to the French colonial government for recognition as a new religion.  The French approved.  Ngô Văn Chiêu having decided to retire to a life of meditation by then, Le Văn Trung became the first Giáo Tông, or Leader of a Religious Group. 
       The central Cao Đài tenet is that the current age is the Third Period of revelation and salvation.  In the First Period God transmitted his messages through Dipankara Buddha (a previous incarnation of Buddha dating back 100,000 years), Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism, and other ancient Chinese sages.   In the Second Period, God’s agents were Shakyamuni Buddha, Moses, Confucius, Jesus and Mohammed.  But these truths were limited to their historical periods and geographical conditions and have been distorted since their introduction.
the Left Eye of God, cathedral windows
Cao Đài pantheon
       The Cao Đài creed aims to become the Universal Religion of the Third Period and draws upon existing religions for its articles of faith.  From Buddhism it adopted the notion of reincarnation and the five taboos against killing, lying, licentious behavior, stealing and intoxication.  From Confucianism it incorporated its social order and code of behavior.  From Taoism it took the yin-yang concept and from Catholicism it got its organizational structure.
Cao Đài temple in Trà Vinh
       The Cao Đài religion assigns nearly equal importance to men and women.  They pray separately during the services, and women enter from the left side, while the men enter from the right.  But the women line up in ranks opposite the men and they can be members of the clergy.  Because the order of the clergy so resembles that of Catholicism, outsiders describe them as priest, bishop, cardinal and pope.  Actually, there are more ranks than these and more words used to identify them.  And the use of ’pope’ to identify the giáo tong is inaccurate, for the Vietnamese word for ‘pope’ in the Catholic sense is actually giáo hoàng. 
      The only position a woman cannot hold is giáo tông.  According to Taoism (or perhaps a Confucian prejudice), yin cannot rule over yang, lest chaos ensue.  Taoist influence also established the veneration of the Queen Mother of the West, a Chinese goddess, as the celestial representative of yin. 
       The binding element in this fusion of beliefs in the years of its formation and growth, distinguishing it from established religions, was spiritism.  The preferred method of contacting spirits was the séance, during which famous personalities, as various as Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, the Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, other Vietnamese personalities, Sun Yat-sen and even William Shakespeare and Vladimir Lenin.  They sent messages regarding finer points of doctrine and organization, sometimes transmitted via automatic writing.  And sometimes blank sheets of paper were locked up in a box and opened after some time, containing messages allegedly written by spirits.
Cao Đài priest
the Covenant with God
       Three of these personalities became important Cao Đài saints:  Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, Victor Hugo and Sun Yat-sen.  Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm was a famous 16th century scholar and poet during the turbulent time of the usurping Mạc Dynasty, with a reputation as a political prophet.  Victor Hugo, the French novelist whose works Les Misérables and Toilers of the Sea expressed much sympathy for the poor and downtrodden, also was a believer in spiritism.  Sun Yat-sen founded the Chinese Republic in 1911, an event Cao Đài adherents believed helped set the stage for the Third Period.  A painting in a ground floor room of the cathedral in Toà Thánh, reproduced at other Cao Đài sites, shows the three of them signing a Covenant with God.  Nguyễn Bỉng Khiêm holds an ink stone, while Victor Hugo writes with a quill pen and Sun Yat-sen with a brush the words “God and Humanity, Love and Justice” in French and Chinese.
Cao Đài clergy leaving the cathedral
devotee at prayer
       The newly recognized religion set up its Holy See in Toà Thánh, a few kilometers east of Tây Ninh city.  Its membership grew quickly, especially among the peasantry.  But it also became troubled by doctrinal disputes.  Since the principles of the religion came from séances, some new adherents began searching for these messages through their own informal séances.  The leadership decided to officially restrict the practice to two recognized mediums, one male, one female, in the Holy See.  Eventually it published The Compilation of Divine Messages, as well as a Religious Constitution.
devotee with offerings
Cao Đài priest representing the Taoist element
In trying to restrict the séances, the Cao Đài leadership cited the problems of auto-suggestion, message manipulation and interference by evil spirits.  This was already a problem for a newly formed religious organization that promoted the idea of letting God speak to you in your heart.  By the time Lê Văn Trung died in 1934 (or according to the Cao Đài interpretation ‘became dis-incarnated’), eleven small splinter groups had set up their own organizations.  The government eventually banned séances, even in Tây Ninh.
Cao Đài Cathedral in Toà Thánh
       The Tây Ninh-run branch remained by far the largest Cao Đài organization.  Phạm Công Tắc assumed leadership, though not the office of giáo tong.  The Cao Đài message began evolving from then on, taking on a more nationalistic flavor.  Southwest Vietnam at that time witnessed several new Buddhist sects that emphasized temporal works more than spiritual; i.e. involving oneself in improving the world rather than withdrawing from it.  Cao Đài advocated self-cultivation, but also promoted equality and opposed exploitation, factors which spurred peasant conversion.
       Cao Đài had always opposed colonialism as a matter of religious doctrine, but tempered this by calling for increasing dialog with the colonial authorities.  Under Phạm Công Tắc the notion of dialog was all but muted and the religion took on a more openly nationalist stand as the messages revealed by the mediums started criticizing colonialism and its hardships.  At the same time he oversaw the construction of the great cathedral in Toà Thánh, which elevated the Cao Đài prestige and influence. 
cathedral interior
       In 1941 widespread revolts against French rule broke out over much of Vietnam.  In the course of the crackdown, French authorities seized the Holy See at Tây Ninh, temporarily forbade religious services and hustled Phạm Công Tắc and other Cao Đài dignitaries off to exile in Madagascar.  Cao Đài leaders then formed an army, which eventually grew to 25,000, to protect its believers and, hopefully, ally with the Japanese to overthrow French rule.  But the alliance never materialized, Japan lost the war and the French returned.
       However, the re-installed colonial government immediately faced a Việt Minh-led insurgency.  Seeking local allies, the French reversed their attitude about Cao Đài, brought the leaders back from exile and enlisted them as allies against the Việt Minh.  Phạm Công Tắc agreed, but others didn’t and the Cao Đài army was not an effective French ally. 
cathedral garden
       When the war ended and the country was split in two, Cao Đài leaders initially supported Ngô Đình Diệm, but in 1955, after a government raid on the Holy See, opposed him.  They remained just as opposed to the Communists, though, so after re-unification in 1975 the Hanoi government disbanded their army, confiscated their lands and closed their temples.  This was similar to what the government did to all private religious armies (Hòa Hào being another) and establishments—Buddhist, Taoist, Catholic and Protestant included.  Only in the late 80s did the government return the confiscated lands and in 1997, with a far more tolerant policy in place, lifted prohibitions on Cao Đài religious expression.
       In the 21st century religion in Vietnam began enjoying a period of rejuvenation.  Temples and churches drew crowds again and festivals revived.  How much religious sentiment influenced daily behavior again after decades of secular propaganda and the onset of the century’s materialism is debatable.  Yet the revival of piety and respect for tradition is certainly sincere.  For Cao Đài adherents, following the moral precepts and cultivating a personal relationship with God are still the essence of the faith.  As part of their reverence for all life, they are supposed to eat vegetarian food ten days a month and the clergy must abstain from meat entirely.
the other Cao Đài temple in Toà Thánh
       Today, estimates of the number of Cao Đài followers ranges from six to eight million, making it Vietnam’s third largest religion.  Most of them are in the Mekong Delta and travelers can spot Cao Đài temples in most Delta provinces, recognized by their tall twin front towers and the All-Seeing Eye mounted on the front façade.  They also exist further north, as far as Hội An, Đà Nẵng and Huế.  The congregations there are much smaller, though.  Basically the further southwest you go in Vietnam, the greater the number of Cao Đài devotees and temples.
       Tây Ninh is still the Cao Đài heartland and the ostentatious cathedral at Toà Thánh its most splendid house of worship and the model for most of the others in the Mekong Delta.  The front features two tall towers, the entrance between them leading to a long hallway, supported by thick, dragon-entwined pillars, at the end of which sits a huge globe with the Left Eye of God prominent in the center.  The same Eye, inside a triangle, is on the rows of window grilles at either side.  Smaller towers stand on the roof at the halfway point and at the rear.
       A large garden park, with a few towers and other buildings, lies adjacent and a path past statues of other Cao Đài saints and message-bearers leads to another Cao Đài temple in the same compound.  It has just one front tower, but an equally long hallway behind it and is used to accommodate the spillover from the cathedral during services.
Cao Đài priest representing the Confucian element
Cao Đài clergy at Toà Thánh
       Prayer time for Cao Đài devotees begins daily at 6:00 and 12:00, a.m. and p.m.  Services are the same each time, Sunday is no different and there are no special holy days or festivals.  Attendance is not mandatory, but on an ordinary day devotees fill the Tòa Thánh cathedral, at least at noon, dressed in white.  The clergy, who sit in front, wear robes of different colors, symbolizing the three main elements of the faith—yellow for Buddhism, Blue for Taoism, red for Confucianism.
       The offerings they might bring are simple—flowers, incense, candles and water.  Devotees pray while kneeling erect and kowtow at intervals while a priest raps a gong or a large bronze bowl at the altar.  The rituals, which altogether last about an hour, include music and singing, performed on the indoor balcony above the hallway. 
Cao Đài Cathedral services
leading the Cao Đài prayers at Đà Nẵng
       The ground floor is off-limits to non-worshipers during prayer sessions.  Tourists can watch the rituals, but only from the second floor balcony.  This prevents them from disturbing the devotees by coming in to take close-up photographs while people are trying to privately communicate with God. 
       As for the future, the question is how long can the revival of Cao Đài faith continue?  The attraction of religion is decreasing among each younger generation.  Yet a large percentage of the daily congregation at Toà Thánh is young, especially the females, who in any religion are more involved than the men.  Compared to other religions in Vietnam, Cao Đài is the only one with a strong nationalist identity.  It is uniquely Vietnamese and considers itself the universal religion of the future.  Cao Đài devotees associate keeping their faith with retaining their Vietnamese identity in a globalized world.  Perhaps these convictions will insure its survival in the ever more secular-minded times to come.

musicians and singers accompanying the Cao Đài prayers
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Saturday, June 16, 2018

Hanoi’s Roving Vendors

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

roving vendor making a sale
       When first-time visitors to Hanoi begin exploring the city center, they soon become aware of one of Hanoi’s special characteristics, one that distinguishes it from every other city in the country—its roving vendors.  This becomes more recognizable when sitting down for refreshment at one of the sidewalk cafes or street corner bia hơi shops.  As you sip your drink, on the congested street in front of you, besides cars, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians, pass members of the city’s army of mobile merchants.
       A few are men, but most are village women, wearing the iconic Vietnamese conical cap, often carrying their goods in trays or shallow baskets balanced at each end of a shoulder pole, just as they would in their villages.  These may contain flowers, fruits, vegetables, snacks, or even cooked food and dishes in one and stools for customers in the other.  The poles are slightly flexible and as the vendor walks along the trays seem to bounce evenly up and down, but never overturn while on the move.
bringing in the fruit
vendors on the move
       Besides using shoulder poles to transport their goods, the vendors may mount the items on racks tied to a bicycle, such as sunglasses, cell phones, mirrors, brushes and combs, small brooms, feather dusters and clothing, which they take on foot around their routes.  They could load things like ceramic cups, saucers, plates, bowls, ladles and teapots, or several kinds of fruits and vegetables, in a wheeled cart and push it around.  They could place small items in a tray suspended at the waist.  Or they could bundle their goods on top of their heads as they search for a place to stop and lay them out.
flower vendor on her route
flower vendor stopping for a sale
       Most look for a spot along the street where they can at least temporarily set up.  They may have to move on if the place suddenly gets too jammed so that customers can’t even stop to look at what they have, or if business becomes too slow, or if police are approaching.  They might end up at several locations for the day.  Others, like those pushing carts or carrying goods in a tray, may not stop anywhere, just slowly wander over a specific route.  Besides residents and pedestrians in the area, potential customers could be passing by on motorbike and stop to make a purchase.
Hanoi market in the Lê Dynasty
       How ancient the roving vendor tradition may be is difficult to guess.  Commerce was different centuries ago.  The city had streets specializing in specific items and regular market days.  One could assume there were morning markets of some sort, at least for food and perhaps wandering vendors selling essential everyday items.  Except for the bicycle, people transported their goods through the city like they do today, using shoulder poles, pushing them in carts or carrying them on their heads.  Old engravings and drawings and photographs from the colonial period are the evidence.
       After Vietnam’s independence in 1954 the nature of life and commerce in Hanoi changed dramatically.  The new socialist government nationalized land, resources and industry and took over the administration of production and distribution.  However, the ‘subsidized economy’ also included the notion that the state was responsible for the welfare of the people.  The state also subsidized schools, hospitals and other social institutions.
vendors (left) setting up in the French Concession, 1870s
       A decade later the system began feeling the strains with the beginning of the American War.  After victory and unification came conflicts with Cambodia and China, followed by years of international isolation.  Not only was poverty widespread, especially in the countryside, so was hunger.  Faced with such a dire situation, in late 1986 the Party decided on a drastic overhaul of the system.  Called đôi mới (renovation), the policy abolished both subsidies and control over most of the economy, distributed land and long-term leases of it to the farmers and permitted them to sell their surpluses.  It also allowed individual businesses to set up and the private employment of people as well as self-employment.
hawking feather dusters and  brooms
vendor on her route
       The freedom to decide on their own land use and the right to sell surpluses certainly provided the initiative to produce those surpluses.  Agricultural output rose, as did farmers’ incomes, poverty began diminishing and hunger became rare.  As Vietnam’s national development began taking off, the government was able to improve the infrastructure, extending electricity and new roads to the rural areas.  Villagers in the vicinity of Hanoi could now reach the city markets easier.
cooked food vendor and customer
       While the lives of rural folks improved much after the đôi mới reforms, the end of the subsidized economy also meant that the responsibility for the people’s welfare was no longer the state’s but that of the people themselves.  This was all the more reason to take advantage of the new economic liberty.  They had more responsibilities to bear, and risks, but it was better than the basic, minimum, bottom-line government guarantee of the pre-đôi mới days that they had come to believe they would never get past.
       One consequence of the reforms was the prices of goods and commodities were not determined by a socialist bureaucrat anymore, but by the laws of supply and demand.  They were higher than the ration card days, but more and more of everything was available, especially in Hanoi.  The economy started booming.  Opportunities of all kinds popped up constantly.
       In the countryside, villagers were better off after the reforms, but they were still poor in comparison with Hanoi people.  Even if they were self-sufficient in food production, the cost of everything they needed that they couldn’t make themselves was always rising.  Besides their own domestic expenses, school fees and health care costs, they had social obligations with kin and neighbors within the village, such as weddings, funerals and other events to attend, requiring monetary gifts.  In a money-based economy they needed a supplemental income.  The village didn’t offer any employment.  The only choice was Hanoi.
vendors on an unoccupied sidewalk
stopping to make a sale
       Because most villagers don’t get beyond a middle-school education, they cannot qualify for any kind of office work in Hanoi.  Their only skills were farming and animal husbandry, both useless in the city.  Men could sometimes get part-time jobs in construction work in the village vicinity, close enough to enable them to return home after work.  But for women, the sole option was self-employment as a roving vendor.  It wouldn’t be full-time, for they would return home at important times in the planting cycle and for all-but-obligatory family or village ceremonies.  Some who came from villages close to Hanoi would travel back and forth every day, but most came from further off and worked and slept in the city most days of the year.
       Debt is a prime factor in making the decision to migrate, whether it’s formal indebtedness to a lending institution or informal debt to villagers or relatives.  Nearly always they have to be paid in cash, so a cash income is necessary.  But other reasons can motivate the move, like the desire to build a new house, to finance their children’s higher education, to prepare for wedding expenses or simply to earn money to buy things to improve their home life and impress their neighbors.
roving with a basket of sweets
broom vendor on the move
       When the decision comes to migrate, it is usually the woman who goes.  If she is still nursing children, the husband will go instead.  When she does go, the husband may also go, provided there are enough relatives around to take care of the household.  But that’s rare.  And the work is not very financially rewarding and after a hard day of tramping the city streets, men are more likely to squander their profits on alcohol and tobacco than their abstemious wives and mothers.  A majority of Hanoi’s roving vendors are women who do not intend to have any more children, though there are some who still do and younger ones who are as yet childless. 
mobile buyer, mobile seller
       Roving vendors have been part of the Hanoi scene for three decades now, so standard procedures are in place for getting involved.  The aspiring roving vendor will depart from her village with a few others at the same time and they will join a group of fellow villagers already established in the city.  They will stay at the same place, either in a boarding house or in rented floor space in Hanoi people’s houses.  They’ll sleep side by side, with no real privacy, and be subject to the landlord’s restrictions on the use of water and electricity.  This will also be their support group while in the city and the veterans of this group will instruct the newcomers in the tricks and tasks of the trade.
       They’re already aware that it’s not going to be an easy life.  They did not come here because they were bored with village life and needed something to do, but only reluctantly, out of economic necessity.  They know they will not get rich, but if they are careful, budget-conscious, diligent and lucky, they can save enough to alleviate past debts or cover future expenses.
       The first decision the woman has to make is what product to sell.  Roving vendors sell a bewildering variety of items.  Some are edible and/or perishable like fruits, vegetables and flowers.  Others are not, such as brushes, feather dusters, sunglasses and clothing.  Her support group will have some recommendations, as well as advice on where and how to purchase the items.  The items with the best turnover are fruits and flowers; fruits because Vietnamese like to have fruit after a meal and flowers for their ritual, gift and decorative use.  A lot of competition exists for selling these, however.
fruit vendor waiting for business
vendor with small packaged goods
       The biggest source for wholesale goods is Long Biên market, next to the iron bridge of the same name.  It opens in the wee hours of the morning and roving vendors often get up at 2 a.m. to beat the crowds and get the best selections.  Newcomers quickly learn that among the tricks of the trade are those the Long Biên merchants play on them—short-weighting and concealing spoiled, unsellable fruits in containers the customers are not permitted to inspect.  Even flowers have to be checked, to ensure they are all fresh and not mixed with some cut a week ago that are already beginning to wilt.
       The vendors take their time examining their purchases, comparing prices at different stalls and finally making a selection.  By daybreak they are ready to prepare their loads, determine the prices they will charge and set out for the day.  Veteran vendors will advise the newcomers on how to select a route, based on competition for certain items, space accessibility to lay out their goods, and offer tips like hanging out near restaurants to sell fruits and sweet snacks and how to negotiate through thick moving traffic when crossing busy main streets.
making and selling a meal
       Setting prices is key to whether the day is successful or not.  Potential city customers assume that prices offered by roving vendors have to be lower than prices at shops or permanent market stalls.  The vendor has to add on something, and in the case of fruits purchased by the crate or carton, make up for the spoiled fruits inevitably hidden in the lower layers, but it cannot be as much as retail sellers, who might not mark up the items very much anyway.  Always number-conscious, she will know the cheapest places along her route to have a meal, and will not indulge in any extras.
       She must also be on guard against petty theft, usually by addicts and juvenile delinquents.  Yet even the well-off can play mean tricks on occasion, like taking something in their hands to examine and then driving off on their motorbikes without paying.  This is not a continuous daily hazard, but it does happen.
       The biggest danger comes from the police and their periodic raids on vendors, often involving the confiscation of goods.  City laws forbid roving vendors on a number of downtown streets, yet the vendors often take their chances, for the raids are not a daily occurrence and these streets are the best for their kind of business.
       Hanoi seems to be ambivalent about the roving vendors.  With its plethora of narrow busy streets and exponentially growing congestion, the authorities view roving vendors as impediments to traffic and outdated as a phenomenon in a modern city.  When Hanoi hosts important international events, like the SEA Games some years back, police launch campaigns far in advance to clear all roving vendors out of the city, lest visiting dignitaries view Hanoi as still backward.
vegetable vendor on her route
vendor with conical caps and basketry
       No one has come up with an alternative source of employment for the vendors, however.  Hanoi residents still view their presence as part of the city’s unique culture.  The Women’s Museum has a special exhibit about them.  And no doubt the Tourism Department doesn’t want them to disappear.
       The roving vendors certainly don’t want to give it up.  Hard as that lifestyle is, at the end of their time here they will have earned enough to make it worth it.  Other village women, beset by similar economic problems and inspired by their example, will come to Hanoi to replace them.

roving vendor crossing a busy street

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Monday, June 4, 2018

Keeping Their Identity: the Shan in Chiang Mai

                                        by Jim Goodman

Por Sang Long procession at Wat Ku Tao
       The Kingdom of Lanna ruled over most of northern Thailand from the late 13th century to the middle of the 16th century.  Its ruling family and inhabitants were mainly Tai Yuan.  But during its heyday the capital Chiang Mai was the most important city in the region, enjoying trade connections with neighbors in all directions.  As a result, many foreigners also came to reside permanently or temporarily in the capital and Chiang Mai became known as ‘the city of twelve languages.’
       One of these was Shan, or Tai Yai, a dialect close to that spoken by the Tai Yuan, with a very similar alphabet, by a people largely populating northeast Burma.  Some of the Shan immigrants ran businesses in Chiang Mai.  Others were involved in the caravan trade, transporting goods back to the Shan States or north to China. 
       They were never very numerous but as a community they remained through the period of Burmese occupation, from the conquest of Chiang Mai in 1558 until their expulsion in 1774.  But by then the city was deserted.  Not only were all the Shans gone, so were all the Tai Yuan, who had fled to isolated spots of rural refuge during the long campaign by King Kawila of Lampang and his Siamese allies to drive out the Burmese.   
traditional Shan style--male
traditional Shan style--female
       To repopulate Chiang Mai and other northern cities Kawila next led raids into northeast Burma, particularly Kengtung and Mong Pong, to capture people and take them back to Chiang Mai.  By early 19th century the Burmese presence and threat had been eliminated and life returned to normal.  Lanna was not an independent kingdom like before, but this time a vassal of Siam.  Over the course of the century Lanna gradually lost most of its autonomy as the government in Bangkok, worried about imperialist encroachment on all sides, sought to extend its authority over everything within its boundaries.
       However, Siam did not attempt to insulate itself against the Western colonialists.  It sought to engage with them commercially in hopes that would curb their voracious territorial appetite.  After Great Britain annexed southern Burma, Siam made a deal—the Bowring Treaty of 1852--that allowed the British to sell their products inside Siam and granted them concessions to exploit the teakwood business, as well as to bring in some of their colonial subjects to work in it. 
the main chedi at Wat Pa Pao
Burmese-style roofs over a shrine at Wat Pa Pao
       Burmese and Mon immigrants were already working the border area forests since 1840.  From the 1850s Shans also came, not only to the border provinces of Mae Sarieng and Mae Hong Sin, but to legging depots like Chiang Mai, Phrae and Lampang.  In Chiang Mai they settled in the neighborhoods opposite the moat on the northeast side of the old city. 
       The Shan are also followers of Theravada Buddhism and easily fit into Chiang Mai society, even at the upper levels.  Shan aristocrats felt an affinity with their counterparts in Lanna’s upper class and one high-ranking Shan lady, Mom Bua Lai, became the consort of Lanna’s King Inthawichayanonda.   In 1883 she sponsored the construction of Wat Pa Pao on Maneenoparat Road to service the Shan community.
Buddha images, Wat Pa Pao
Shan guardian at the viharn entrance
       Instead of following the Lanna style of the dozens of temples in the city, Wat Pa Pao’s designers created a compound in which every element, from buildings to sculptures, reflects the Burmese Shan tradition of religious art.  The original wooden main viharn has been replaced by a more recent structure of brick and plaster, with red, corrugated iron roofs.   Statues of a pair of armed Shan guards flank the staircase.  Portraits of local Shan personalities and historical events hang from the front interior walls.  At the end of the capacious assembly hall sit two Buddha statues, a large one behind a smaller one, both in the Burmese style.
the chedi at Wat Ku Tao
Universal Ruler Buddha, Wat Ku Tao
       Everything else in the compound is from the original construction and very different from those of Thai temples.  It’s more crowded, for one thing, with not too much space between the structures.  The narrow, four-tiered entrance gate is unique to the city, but similar to those in the Shan States.  Even more typically Burmese-Shan are the multi-tiered roofs over the smaller viharn and the little shrine next to it.  Both are heavily embellished with carvings along the edges of the roofs.   Such roof towers are quite common in Myanmar, but in Chiang Mai they only exist in Wat Pa Pao.
       The yard to the right of the viharns is filled with chedis, columns and sculptures.  The tallest chedi, shaped like an inverted bell, the usual type in Thai temples, was modeled on those of Pegu, as replicated in the Shan States.  At the four corners of the base stand the mythical creatures called kilin, with a dragon’s head over a lion’s body. 
Shan woman at Wat Ku Tao
Khao Phansa ritual at Wat Ku Tao
       A couple smaller chedis stand in the yard, in between skinny trees, and a tall white column rises topped by the same multi-tiered type of roof that ascends over the shrine next to the small viharn.  A very different chedi stands between the viharns and the big, bell-shaped chedi.  It rises above a cubic stone shrine with the same multi-tiered roofs, also topped by a golden spire. 
Shan students at the Wat Pa Pao school
       In the late 19th century the concept of nationality began assuming importance.  The Shan migrants, as British subjects, were supposed to be exempt from corvée labor or labor tax imposed on Siamese.  But at the end of the century the Bangkok government promulgated land reform laws that took away most of Lanna nobles’ rights and laid a labor tax, in lieu of corvée labor, on all commoners, Shans included.
       Theoretically, Shans were exempt from the tax if they could provide documentary proof they were from Burma.  Most didn’t have such evidence.  Most were former poor farmers who migrated to Thailand to seek a better life—the usual immigrant motive.  They didn’t anticipate needing documents to stay.  Borders were looser in those days.  People came and went easily.
       Shan resentment boiled over into violence in the 1902 Shan Uprising.  It was not a very righteous campaign, though, not one involving those in the logging trade or urban commerce, and characterized by massacres and wanton destruction.  Shan bandit gangs in Phrae province started the rebellion, backed by Lanna nobles who hoped to retrieve their lost privileges.  The uprising spread to other northern provinces, though not Chiang Mai.
Por Sang Long at Wat Pa Pao
Shan girls at Wat Pa Pao
Bangkok dispatched troops to quell the uprising and from then on accelerated the rate of assimilation and integration of the north with the rest of Siam.  It appointed its own administrators, whittled away at the Lanna king’s authority and required school lessons to be taught in the central Thai dialect with the very different central Thai alphabet.  When the last king of Kawila’s dynasty died in 1937, no one succeeded him.   By then Siam was Thailand and the assimilation process was in high gear.
Por Sang Long procession in Wat Ku Tao courtyard
       Wat Pa Pao continued as the main religious center of Chiang Mai’s Shan community.  Specific aspects of Shan culture fell into desuetude, but the language remained in use domestically.  As the community grew in the last half of the 20th century, they expanded north of their original neighborhood and Wat Ku Tao, a couple blocks beyond Chang Puak bus station, became another focus of Shan religious activities.  Unlike Wat Pa Pao, where the monks wear yellow robes, like the Thais, at Wat Ku Tao they wear red robes, like in Myanmar and the Shan States.
       The unusual chedi at Wat Ku Tao was built in 1613 to enshrine the ashes of Nawrahta Minsaw, the first Burmese-born governor of conquered Lanna, (1579-1608).  It rises in five diminishing spheres, representing five historical and future Buddhas.  The large, two-story viharn next to it is in typical modern Thai style, but the main image inside is of the Buddha as Universal Ruler, a depiction commoner in the Shan States than in Thailand. 
       Dressed in royal costume and lots of jewelry, he rules over a future world when the Buddhist Dharma has triumphed everywhere.  On holidays like Khao Phansa, the beginning of the Buddhist retreat season, a network of strings stretches out from the image.  Devotees grab one of them to receive the blessing a monk has imparted into it. 
novice in the Por Sang Long procession
women in the Por Sang Long procession
       The main activity at this festival, though, is out in the courtyard.  A few commercial stalls go up, hawking food, textiles and other items.  Some people listen to monks’ lectures, others paste gold leaf stickers on a Buddha image and lay offerings at shrines, while a few men may do an impromptu music show with the ‘elephant-leg drum’ and a rack of cymbals.   Some folks come primarily just to meet and talk with each other, for festivals are social occasions as well as religious ones.  And both men and women dress in traditional Shan attire.
       Like Thai women, Shan women wear blouses with ankle-length sarongs, but the stripe patterns and embroidered sections differ somewhat from Lanna designs.  They may also wear headscarves with the flaps tied up over each ear, a particularly Shan custom.   It’s a Shan festival, so they want to look very Shan celebrating it.
through the Wat Ku Tao neighborhood streets
       The Shan in Chiang Mai never really lost their identity, but in the last few decades they have become more inclined to demonstrate it.  The official attitude towards Tai sub-groups and other minorities has also changed over the years.  Rather than continuing to subsume all sub-groups into a pan-Thai identity, Thailand, in this age of tourism, now advertises its diversity, giving more scope to cultural revivalism among the Shan, Tai Lue, Tai Dam and others.
       In 1997 Wat Pa Pao’s abbot set up the Pa Pao Foundation to Support Education, Art and Culture.  The following year the temple opened a school in the compound, first for adults and later for children.  The language of instruction is Thai and the courses are those taught in Thai schools.  In addition, it teaches children the Shan language and alphabet.  Books and magazines in the Shan language are also on sale at the temple.  The students wear traditional Shan clothing rather than Thai school uniforms.
       Wat Pa Pao also sponsored the revival of an old Shan festival called Por Sang Long, held for three days in late March or early April.  It marks the occasion boys temporarily enroll in the monastery as novices, a Theravada Buddhist tradition.  The Thai have the same custom, for every male is supposed to ordain once at some point in life, but with them it is a private affair, carried out any time of year, usually at the start of the retreat season.  With the Shan, it is done collectively, with sometimes dozens of boys all at the same time, making it a community event.
Wat Ku Tao abbot in the procession
novices carried in the Por Sang Long procession
       The Shan also add another aspect to the occasion.  Por San Long mimics an important event in the life of the Buddha, when he gives up his luxurious life in the palace to become an ascetic in search of spiritual salvation.  Shan families dress their boys in something resembling royal garments, jewels and crown and feed them special food, fit for a prince.  Fathers, uncles and older brothers hoist the boys on their shoulders and take them on a procession to and around the temple.  Afterwards, the boys stay in specially decorated cubicles for two or three nights. 
       Though its revival began at Wat Pa Pao, the celebrations there nowadays are rather small; this year, for example, involving about ten novices.  The Por Sang Long focus has shifted to Wat Ku Tao, held twelve days earlier this year, where over sixty boys and a few young men took part.  On the first day families prepared the cubicles in the temple compound and the novices had their heads shaved.  For three successive mornings relatives carried the splendidly costumed boys in a grand procession several times around the temple and on the third morning through the streets of the neighborhood as well.
Shan girls at Por Sang Long
novice in the procession
       Groups of two to five boys paraded, preceded by lines of devotees in traditional Shan attire, bearing money trees, banners on tall poles, trays of flowers and other offerings, and men playing ‘elephant leg drums’ and racks of cymbals.  Fully-grown young men sat in rickshaws or other mobile platforms or in a chair hefted by several bearers.  The abbot also rode a chair in the procession.  The atmosphere was both festive and polite.  Nobody pushed their way around or tried to stop any action to get a photo.  After the processions, many participants went to the market beside the eastern gate to shop for Shan textiles or dine at one of the restaurants.
       The crowd was almost entirely Shan.  Despite official publicity about this being a prime tourist attraction, only a handful of foreigners and perhaps a dozen Thai tourists from Bangkok came to observe.   Obviously tourism was not a factor in the festival’s revival.  The prime motive was ethnic pride.  In a fast-changing and homogenizing world, the Shan cling to their separate history and identity and with Por Sang Long celebrate the art of being Shan.

assembling before the procession at Wat Ku Tao
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