Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Strong family, horrific lives

01.03.2000 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Books ::

First They Killed My Father
By Loung Ung

This book is a gripping tale about the experiences of a child who spent far too much of her childhood growing up under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. No human being, let alone a child, should have had to endure what somehow Loung managed to; this book is a testament to her amazing spirit.

And also to the spirit of the Cambodian people. As Loung writes in her author’s note: “Though these events constitute my experience, my story mirrors that of millions of Cambodians. If you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story, too.”

By the end of the book, you will be very glad that it isn’t.

When Loung Ung is just five-years-old the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh, and herd the population out into the surrounding countryside. Loung and her mother, father and six brothers and sisters, who have lived a very middle-class existence in Phnom Penh, are also forced to flee.

Loung’s father was a Cambodian Royal Secret Service officer under Prince Sihanouk, and despite eventually moving into business, he was conscripted into the service of the Lon Nol government. The family must therefore be vigilant in keeping their middle-class past a secret.

While moving from village to village in the earlier days they are successful at least in this endeavour. But eventually, like so many other men, her father is taken away by soldiers, ostensibly to help fix an ox cart. He never returns.

The book documents the rest of the family’s efforts simply to survive. Loung’s brother Kim risks his life to scour bountiful fields and steal corn destined for the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, or for China – but not for the stomachs of the Cambodian people. Loung’s mother eventually insists that her remaining children leave her hut and walk in different directions, pretending to be orphans when they find the next village or camp. She is afraid that soldiers will return to kill them all, as they have started to kill remaining survivors in other families. The regime fears that their anger could cause an uprising.

Loung first ends up in a camp for orphanages, and then one where children are trained as soldiers. She is here when the Vietnamese liberate Cambodia, but her battle is far from over. Loung, one of her brother’s and her sister-in-law risk death yet again to escape to Vietnam and then Thailand, where they are finally given passage to the US where they can begin to rebuild what’s left of their lives.

First They Killed My Father is not a literary materpiece – it’s foremost intention is to share with readers what happened under the regime in one of the provinces that was renowned for being the most harshly-run by the Khmer Rouge – but it is unputdownable and lyrical in a very unique way.

The style of writing is minimalist, and shocking in its almost dispassionate descriptions of unspeakable events. Just one example can be given when Loung is huddling next to her friend during Khmer Rouge bombing of the village they are staying in following the Vietnamese liberation.

A rocket hits their shelter: “I reach for Pithy’s arm, then jerk my hand back as my palm touches something wet and sticky. My stomach churns. I turn to see Pithy lying facedown on the ground, quiet and motionless. The top of her skull is caved in. A pool of blood slowly seeps into the dirt around her head.” A few more sentences and Pithy is hardly mentioned again. There is plenty of other horror to take her place.

This work could be the very welcome beginning of more personal works about survivors’ experiences under the regime. To date, most of the recommended texts for those interested in the history of the Khmer Rouge and the people who suffered under them have been academic and scholarly in nature. This book is an important addition to that body of work in that it is written by a survivor.

Loung’s narrative is made all the more powerful not only by the fact that it is a painfully true story, but that it recalls in great detail what a five-year-old child suffered at the hands of a bloodthirsty, ideologically- fanatical regime.

It is timely, given the current debate about whether a war crimes tribunal should be held in Cambodia, although the author doesn’t give any opinions on modern day Cambodian politics.

And it will be timeless by virtue of the fact that there will always wars, both civil and international, in far flung and not-so-far-flung places across the globe – and it will always be defenceless, innocent children who suffer immeasurably. This book gives them a voice.

Make sure you listen.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

01.03.2000 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Books ::

By Salman Rushdie

Rushdie’s latest novel is a sprawling yet finely-crafted tale of the love between the most famous rock’n’roll couple history has ever seen, Indian British then American expats Vina Aspara and Ormus Cama. Penned by photographer Rai, the second-fiddle lover of Vina, the novel simultaneously mocks and eulogises popular culture. Test your modern cultural history as Rushdie melds fact with fiction and weaves recognisable real-life characters into his prose. This creates a multi-layered book where you might know who the various cameos really are (for instance ‘Primo Uomo’ is perhaps a reference to Umberto Eco) but if you don’t , it won’t detract from your enjoyment of the rest of the show. Rushdie’s enthusiasm for the quirks and twists of language can be exhausting, and at times the plot takes a backseat to the wonders of English. The book is worth reading alone however for his brilliance at capturing any accent – particularly French – to perfection. This is the sort of tome you could take away with you every second holiday to reread with as much pleasure as the original.

Chanthaburi

01.03.2000 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

At only three hours drive out of Bangkok, Chantaburi makes a good weekend getaway if you’re keen on doing a bit of exploring. But let me be honest: none of the individual sites in Chantaburi are worth the trip alone.

Combine all the sites together in a two-day trip, however, and you have yourself a destination worthy of sending postcards back to Bangkok about. Or you would, if someone there would make some to sell you.

Famed for its gem-trading, noodles and fruits, Chantaburi province borders Cambodia and has been influenced variously by the French, Vietnamese and Chinese. If someone was to make a postcard to depict the symbol of Chantaburi, it may well be the Catholic cathedral, the largest church in Thailand, which towers over the eastern bank of the Chantaburi River.

Chantaburi might also win the prize for the biggest mangosteen in Thailand. Located at Oasis Seaworld 25 km south of town, the mangosteen has a big rambutan to keep it company (and paddleboats on the unnatural lake – you get the picture). We actually went to see the dolphins, for whom the huge park was originally established to encourage breeding. There’s also a neat butterfly enclosure, an aviary and a few other caged surprises.

While you’re out that way check out Kook Khee Kai, ‘Chicken Shit Building’, a relic from French colonial times (Chantaburi was occupied by the French from 1893 to 1904). The building, with a wire roof on which chickens were kept, was used to house what the French considered to be unsavoury Thai nationals.

Nam Tok Phliu, the fourth most popular waterfall in Thailand, is worth a peek for the loads of carp as well as the cool shade. Khao Phloi Waen, a hill a few kms north of town with a Sri Lankan-style chedi on top, gives a great view of surrounding orchards, and if you’re still into big, try the cannons at Khai Nern Wong, a preserved fort King Taksin retreated to after the fall of Ayutthaya.

A sundown stroll past the crumbling old shophouses by the river, maybe a beer at the unnamed bar next to the Chantra Hotel followed by dinner back at the Chanthron Pochana restaurant underneath Kasemsan 1 Hotel (where we stayed in immaculate rooms at 200 baht a night) is a relaxing end to a day.

Make that two beers. You won’t have any postcards to write.

Spinning a yarn

01.03.2000 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

Mention the name Jim Thompson to anyone living in Thailand and they’ll probably show you their JT silk tie or scarf, wax lyrical about how beautiful his Thai house museum is and then top that off with their theory about how the American ex-Office of Strategic Services man disappeared in Malaysian jungle in 1967. He’s a well-known man.

Thompson’s famed revival of Thailand’s silk industry alone would make – well, a good mini-series. Throw in the fascinating story behind the construction of his residence and top that off with the questions surrounding his disappearance and you have the bones to a really meaty mini-series. Which is exactly what the crew at production house Image and Montage, under contract to Nation Multimedia, claim to have created.

With its debut episode due to be screened on iTV on April 1, Silk Knot will chart Thompson’s life in full, and promises to reveal fresh information about his disappearance – although the production team isn’t letting out any secrets just yet.

Ten hours of 16 mm film have been shot for the 10 million baht series, which is a fictionalised account of a journalist who decides to investigate Thompson’s vanishing. Details of Thompson’s life in the series, however, are all based on fact. It’s in Thai with English subtitles, and the intent is to distribute it overseas.

Eric Bunnag-Booth, international marketing manager at JT Thai Silk and also the person responsible for the day-to-day running of the JW Thompson Foundation (a non-profit organisation under Royal patronage), explains that this isn’t the first time someone has sought to do a film about JT.

“When [iTV] contacted me about the mini-series, I thought that if anybody wanted to do something on Jim, they would be most fair,” he says. “We have been contacted throughout the years by producers from all over the world wanting to do a blockbuster on the life of JT – but they have all been more concerned about his CIA connections and disappearance than his revival of the silk industry in Thailand.”

Beverly Jangkamonkulchai, media relations manager for JT Thai Silk, says she’s been impressed by the amount of research the production crew has undertaken.

“They found out a lot more than we knew,” she says. “For instance, they found a restaurant he used to go to in the States, and an old issue of Vogue that mentioned him.” The crew also visited the site of his disappearance in the Cameron Highlands, but understandably enough found few people around who remembered anything about him.

The company assisted in providing props for the filming – ranging from the house itself, which involved juggling both tourists and the crew traipsing through the house simultaneously, to loads of silkworm cocoons.

“They asked for a lot!,” confesses Beverly. “But we liked their ideas. For the weaving village scenes they needed cocoons and this was a big request for us– the volumes they required were quite high.”

The screening of the mini-series will approximately coincide with the grand opening – an exact date is yet to be set – of the exquisite new building located at what insiders are now calling the Jim Thompson ‘complex’: the site that was originally Thompson’s former residence but now includes the separate extension.

The company bought the land at the end of 1998 to protect the entrance to the house.

“Over 110,000 people visited the Museum last year,” Eric says. “We were afraid that somebody would take advantage of the site and destroy the feeling appreciated by so many. We hope that the new structure is in tune with old.”

The new extension consists of a shop, an upstairs bar with electric fans – fan fans, that is – and a banquet hall which seats up to 100 people and also doubles as an exhibition space.

It appears that plenty of people think the space is sophisticated enough to start booking for their dos – the Finance Minister booked in to host a dinner during UNCTAD. Beverly says that groups can book to have a tour of the house, cocktails in the bar area , Thai entertainment and then dinner in the banquet hall. The Oriental is their caterer of choice – “they know where things are in the kitchen” – but you can BYO restaurant if you prefer.

The opening of the building caps what could be described as a two-year renaissance at the company. It has deliberately sought to become associated with young, hip designers and artists such as Nagara (who created the Nagara for JT line) and Montree Toemsombat (see box story) in order to revamp their image as a shop for well-to-do tourists.

The Nagara for JT line was launched during October 1998, and Nagara is now a permanent member of the team, creating three collections a year.

“JT was perceived as being conservative,” Eric says frankly. “Being part of the new generation at JT I wanted to introduce a new image to the public… Nagara has raised JT’s profile – but, please, visit our home furnishing showroom: you’ll see that our designs have always been unique.”

They’ve also diversified their product range to include items such as handbags and toys. “Even our neckties have changed,” says Beverly. “People used to complain about them being too wide for Western tastes [Ed: never!]. So we now have more looms at our factory to allow us to produce new styles.”

Seems like it won’t be long before you’ll be able to mention Jim Thompson to people living anywhere in the world and they are likely to know you are talking about a Thai silk label – and an intriguing man’s living legacy.