Sunday, July 14, 2019

Chiang Mai Craft Traditions

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

street in Bosang village
       As with any modern city, traditional handicrafts in Chiang Mai are no longer an essential part of people’s everyday lives.  Rather than store things in fancy ceramic pots or baskets of split bamboo, folks use containers of rubber-plastic made in big factories.  Looms are no longer part of a typical household’s furniture, for people don’t make their own clothes but buy them ready-made in the market.  And children play with plastic toys now instead of the traditional ones of wood or clay.
making umbrellas in Bosang
       Yet the craft traditions have not died out, nor are they likely to in the near future.  Chiang Mai people have a strong sense of cultural awareness and a small, but important percentage of the residents will continue to patronize traditional crafts for the sake of preserving local culture.  Moreover, tourism has provided a new market and every visitor’s itinerary includes excursions to nearby villages long famous for handicrafts production—Bosang for umbrellas, Hangdong for woodcrafts, Muang Kung for pottery.
       The most popular trip is to Sankamphaeng, about 15 km east of the city, along a road studded with craft factories and shops of all kinds—ceramics, lacquer ware, silver jewelry, silk, wood carvings and paper products.  Bosang village, just over halfway to Sankamphaeng, is the most attractive spot.  Residents produce their own saa paper, from mulberry bark, to make umbrellas, fans and paper lanterns.
painting a paper fan
extracting thread from a silk cocoon
       The village lies on the north side of the Sankamphaeng road.  Many shop houses on the main street sport decorations of colorful umbrellas and paper lanterns and umbrella gates mark the entrances to the side streets.  Just inside Bosang’s entry gate is its umbrella production center, the main destination for the tour buses.  It features a huge store selling products from Bosang and the vicinity, like fans and umbrellas of all sizes and the paper lanterns popular at Loy Krathong time, while back behind the merchandise stalls sit the workers at their crafts.
winding the thread into loops
       Both men and women work at putting the tops on the umbrella sticks, but the fan painters are all male.  They sit at small stalls in front of a couple dozen designs.  The tourist chooses a fan and a design and the painter then paints that design on the fan while the customer watches.  When finished, he dries it with a hair-drier and it’s ready for immediate use.
       In addition to Bosang, a proper Sankamphaeng tour will take people to one of the major silk production centers, such as the Shinawatra factory or, closer to the super highway, the Thai Silk Village.  For its feel and its luster, silk is the luxury fabric, the favorite of upper classes in Asia since ancient times.  Visitors can marvel at the showroom stocks of bolts of silk cloth in every conceivable color.  They can also observe some of the steps involved in making the cloth.
young weaver, Thai Silk Village
       The process has hardly changed in four thousand years.  It begins when a tiny black caterpillar emerges from a silkworm egg and begins eating mulberry leaves.  It soon gets bigger and bigger and then retires to spin a cocoon of silk thread around itself.  Workers take bunches of these cocoons, toss them in a pot of boiling water and use a stick to tease the thread from the cocoons, which is wound into a ball.  Then they convert the balls into loops with a winding wheel, so that they can be dyed.
       Nowadays they use chemical dyes, which besides providing a greater range of colors, are easier to use.  The dye dissolves in the dye bath, whereas with natural dyes there was always the problem of tiny pieces of plant material sticking to the threads.  Silk absorbs dyes much better than cotton, with stronger and brighter hues.
celadon ware, Mengrai Kilns
       The next stop is to wind out the warp threads to the intended length of the cloth.  When this is done every other thread has to be separated by heddles and the whole lot inserted through the row of openings in the reed, to keep them separate and untangled, and tied to the end stick.  This is the most laborious part of the work.  The rest of the warp threads are tied around a drum and the weaving can begin. 
       This is not a very quick operation, either.  Every other heddle is connected to one of the two foot pedals and the remainder to the other pedal.  The weaver depresses one pedal to create an opening in the warp threads, then tosses a shuttle of weft thread through it.  She then draws the reed towards her a few times to knock the weft thread into place, depresses the other foot pedal to create a new opening and repeats the process.  It’s slow work and sometimes threads break and have to be retied, but a diligent weaver could produce two meters or more in a day.
celadon worker, Sankamphaeng
       In the past weaving was much more common.  Nearly every house had a loom, for people produced cloth to make their own clothes.  With the availability of ready-made clothing that’s no longer true.  But there is still a market in northern Thailand for hand-woven materials and weaving communities still exist near Mae Wang, south of Chomthong and north of Mae Rim.  There will always be a market for silk, too and it’s encouraging that at least half of Thai Silk Village’s weavers are young women.  At least some in the younger generation are taking up the traditional skill.
pigs with wings and other images, Mengrai Kilns 
       Silk is produced in other parts of Thailand, but a type of glazed stoneware called celadon is a specialty of the Chiang Mai region.  Its production originated in China two thousand years ago.  Celadon workshops opened in Sankamphaeng in the 14th century, perhaps started by Chinese artisans who fled the Mongol invasion of China.  Production halted during the chaos of the late 18th century, when the Burmese occupation ended, but revived in the beginning of the 20th century.
       The basic ingredient for the celadon ware—cups, saucers, bowls, vases, statues, etc,--is a special local clay called “black earth.”  The artisan creates the shape of the item in the same way as other ceramics, building it up on a wheel, then allows it to dry naturally.  If there will be designs on the surface of the piece, another artist will apply these now and dry them before the first firing. 
antique lacquer ware, Wat Nantharam museum
       The “biscuit firing” comes next, at 800 degrees C. in a pot-shaped kiln.  Afterwards the artisans make a careful check for cracks and defects and then prepare the pieces to be dipped in the glaze.  Wood ash combined with rice field silt makes up the glaze.  When the pieces are all completely covered the workers then put them in a kiln and fire them at 1250-1300 degrees C., with a reduced amount of carbon dioxide.  This gives them a pale green color.  Depending upon how they are cooled and dried the surfaces will either be smooth or crackled with multiple tiny connected lines.
       Pale green is the natural celadon color, but with alterations in the process other colors are possible.  Allowing more oxygen during the second firing results in colors from olive green to yellow to brown.  Using the ashes of rice stalks, beanstalks or bamboo for the glaze instead of wood ash produces yet more colors.   All these colors are attractive and ’cool’—nothing bright or gaudy—and augment the elegance of the items.
wood crafts, Hangdong road
      Lacquer ware is another craft common around Chiang Mai, though not unique to the area.  Northern Thailand is in the tropical zone and therefore things made of wood, bamboo or rattan are vulnerable to insect attack, as well as dampness.  Coating an item with lacquer provided a protective, weatherproof finish that prolonged its life and use.  For large storage urns and bowls or for the cabinets holding a temple’s religious palm-leaf manuscripts, this was a critical factor.  Also, because of their final glossy sheen, lacquered artifacts always looked nicer that those that were not. 
shop in Ban Tawai
       Like celadon, the lacquer technique is quite ancient and began in China.  The lacquer here comes from the treated, dyed and dried sap of a type of lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) common in northern Thailand and Myanmar.  The sap is originally red, but with the addition of a little iron oxide can turn to black.  Several coats are applied, each one allowed to dry thoroughly.  The lacquer can also be a base for adding golden imagery, gilding the item or for inlaying designs in glass or mother-of-pearl. 
       Except for Bosang, craft production on the Sankamphaeng route takes place in the big commercial factory compounds.  South of Chiang Mai, however, are two villages that specialize in a single craft—Hangdong for woodcarving and Muang Kung for ceramics.
old kilns near Muang Kung
       About 15 km south of Chiang Mai’s old quarter a big sign in English marks the Hangdong intersection.  The new, wealthier residential neighborhoods lie to the west.  Upon turning east, typical old woodcarving shop houses begin nearly at once.  Further down the road are larger work compounds, their products displayed in the yards or shops in front.  Several km further on is the junction where a right turn south goes to Ban Tawai, the primary destination of the tour buses.
       Ban Tawai is Hangdong’s major production center, a warren of small workshops and their displays.  It was set up in the 1960s, when tourism was in its infancy and the customers were from the growing Chiang Mai middle class.  It’s larger now, of course, but makes a pleasant walk through shady lanes while passing a staggering variety of wood products, from furniture to sculptures.
entrance to Muang Kung village
       Boxes, cabinets, beds, tables, chairs and stools comprise the furniture products.  Carvings are both religious and secular and in all sizes.  The religious ones can be giant reproductions of famous Buddhist sculptures in the region or as small votive images suitable for family altars.  The secular carvings can be big sculptures of mythological heroes or dragons down to small images of frogs, birds and elephants.
     The frog has notches on its back and when a stick is rolled across it makes a sound like the ”rib-bid” of a frog on a summer night.  The birds, owls and elephants have a hole on top and when blown the carving sounds like a tweeting bird, hooting owl or trumpeting elephant.
Muang Kung shop display
       A few km north of Hangdong on the way back to Chiang Mai, next to the junction for the road to Samoeng, lies the pottery village of Muang Kung.  A huge sculpture of an earthen long-necked water pot stands beside the village entrance arch.  Some shops are in the field next to the arch, but one passes more while wandering through the village.  City tour agencies can even arrange pottery lessons for visitors.  While it has been a major ceramics center for over two centuries, Muang Kung did not even exist in classic Lanna times.
Baan Phor Liang Meun art
       In 1774 King Kawila of Lampang, assisted by Siamese allies, expelled the Burmese from Chiang Mai, which they had conquered in 1558.  But as a result of years of suppressed revolts, deportations and general chaos, Chiang Mai and other urban centers were deserted.  The city became the haunt of tigers and other beasts.  To reconstitute Lanna as a state, Kawila had to repopulate it.  And so he launched raids into northeast Burma to kidnap people and bring them to live and work in Lanna. 
      Mostly these were Tai Khoen people, a Tai sub-group culturally and linguistically close to the Tai Yuan who populated Lanna.   Priority was on those with special craft skills.  Muang Kung’s ancestors came from pottery villages near Kengtung and that city’s silversmiths and lacquer specialists were captured and resettled in the Haiya neighborhood just south of Chiang Mai Gate.  Wualai Road is full of silver shops and lacquer work still carries on in the lanes around Wat Nantharam, which also has a small museum of the wares and the condition of the antiques matches that of newly made items, evidence of lacquer’s durability.
terracotta heads, Baan Phor Liang Meun
       On the other side of the moat, in the southwest quarter of the old town, are two establishments catering to ceramic enthusiasts.  One is Mengrai Kilns, on a lane off Arak Road, with a stock of excellent celadon wares, as well as some unglazed items and a quiet garden in the back of the showrooms.  The items include all the crockery associated with domestic life, but also some imaginative sculptures like flying elephants and pigs with wings,
       The other is Baan Phor Liang Meun, around the corner from Chiang Mai Gate.  Its workshops are across the lane from the courtyard, with a coffee shop, that is the main display of its works.  These are terracotta sculptures replicating the styles of famous works of the region—Khmer, Thai, Javanese, Han Chinese and Indian.  All around are standing full body sculptures, half-body and heads, friezes and steles, making it altogether a wonderful place to have a drink and snack and appreciate an enduring skill of Chiang Mai’s crafts tradition.

sculptures in the garden of Baan Phor Liang Meun

                                                                        * * *            

No comments:

Post a Comment