Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Backwards and brilliant

27.07.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

Memento

Remember the twists in both The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense? How you had to cast your mind back to rewrite the narrative you had thought was true, armed with your new piece of information? Multiply that twist by a few dozen times, and you begin to approach the heart of the fantastic, wholly-original and compelling Memento.

Memento starts at the end: that is, the story’s final chronological scene is the film’s first. The second scene is the one that leads to the beginning of the first, and so on, with the connections smoothed over by cutting to black and white scenes of the protagonist somewhere else in the story altogether, and earlier on in his life during a period related to his current condition. Each new scene throws out a number of clues and hints that means you’ll have to reconstruct what it is you’ve already seen along different lines. It’s a kind of ongoing palimpsest of the mind.

The concept is disarmingly simple really, and in the hands of director Christopher Nolan, it engages the viewer entirely. This would be an easy technique to turn into a messy gimmick, but in Memento it’s intrinsically connected to the substance of the story itself – a cinematic onomatopoeia, perhaps – with the audience’s constant uncertainty of the truth allowing a complete empathy with what the protagonist is going through.

For former insurance investigator Leonard Shelby (Australian actor Guy Pearce) has lost his memory, or at least the ability to form short-term memories. He can remember his life up until the rape and murder of his wife (Jorja Fox), but events after that just don’t stick in his mind. He can’t remember people he’s met since then, or any facts about his wife’s death that he’s managed to uncover (he even keeps forgetting that she’s actually dead).

This is a serious hindrance towards his mission of finding her attacker in order to exact revenge, so to deal with his affliction, Leonard relies upon annotated Polaroid photographs. He has to pull them out and shuffle through them whenever he meets someone or is confronted with something he feels he should know about; and when he discovers a fact he thinks is integral to finding the murderer, he has it tattooed on his body. Through the skilful presentation of some medical information, Leonard’s situation is real enough to be believable, but still strange enough to be fascinating.

Guy Pearce received plenty of acclaim for LA Confidential but his role was restrained and fairly undemanding. In Memento, however, he’s perfectly cast, and mesmerising to watch as he transforms from upset and vulnerable victim to raging vigilante and then confused medical patient in seconds. ("Am I supposed to be chasing him?" he asks during one chase scene. "Nope, he’s chasing me," he adds when the guy turns on him.) He’s well supported by Joe Palantonio as his friend – or perhaps foe – Teddy, and Carrie-Ann Moss as Natalie, a complicated bartender who may or may not be helping him in his quest.

For audiences, the constant struggle to remember what it is you were just remembering is tiring, but the plot twists aren’t so ridiculous as to frustrate. Rather, they prompt a desire to sit through multiple viewings, which I suspect would be as enjoyable as the first. Clever, understated humour punctuate the ongoing tenseness with welcome relief at intervals, while the existential questions that losing one’s short term memory pose are prodded and explored just enough to get you thinking along tangents you probably haven’t travelled along before. This is an original, refreshing thriller that demands its viewers meet it halfway. It amply rewards them for their efforts.

Go see Memento on the big screen, then go take out The Usual Suspects on video one more time. Because once Memento hits the video shelves, it ‘ll be your new Friday night standard.

Which way home?

19.07.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Expat tales ::

When should I go home? Is it goodbye when I no longer appreciate the feeling of personal safety here, the affordable public transport, the laid-back national attitude? When I tire of the cheap massages, manicures and mangos? Maybe it will it be the prevalance of sleazy bars, being seated next to one too many dumb girlfriends at dinner, or the barking soi dogs that finally get to me.

The longer I wait the easier it is to postpone the decision. Home itself is gradually taking on a different meaning; it?s not exactly equated with a nation anymore. My Man spent several years growing up in each of Italy, South Korea and Japan; why is it he should feel a particular allegiance to the country of his birth? And now I?ve spent five years outside Australia; except for family, why would I want to go back?

I could happily shift to Italy next or I could find a well-paying job in Hong Kong. I don?t read the online Sydney Morning Herald as often as I used to, and many of my friends are now scattered around the globe, shooting emails off and seeing each other probably just as frequently as if we were all living in the same city.

We?re cast adrift: not quite aimless, but with the magnetic pull of ?home? weakening month by month.

?If you wait until you retire to go back to Australia,? some holidaying Kiwi-English friends cried, ?You won?t have any friends when you go back!? That may be; but if I leave now I?ll leave friends behind, and if I stay, many of those friends will simply leave me behind instead.

In his recent book The Global Soul Pico Iyer captures an idea I?ve been inarticulately mulling over for some time: that more and more of us aren?t slotting in to traditional notions of what it means ?to be from? somewhere. Iyer is Indian-born, UK-educated and now divides his time between the US and Japan.

Of himself (and me) he writes: ?A person like me can?t really call himself an exile (who traditionally looked back to a home now lost), or an expatriate (who?s generally posted abroad for a living); I?m not really a nomad (whose patterns are guided by the seasons and tradition); and I?ve never been subject to the refugee?s violent disruptions: the Global Soul is best characterised by the fact of falling between all categories??

Being from multicultural Sydney, I?ve long known that a face doesn?t necessarily reveal where a body is from, or whether that body is Australian. Whether you?re born in Greece, Vietnam, Tonga or Latvia, if you?ve made it through the tortuous application process to become a migrant or a refugee to Australia, official policy welcomes you with open arms to join in being an Australian too. Australia ? or at least urban Australia ? is by definition a multicultural place today.

The opposite situation exists in Thailand. It?s not difficult for most nationalities to get a 15-or 30-day tourist visa. But if you want to live here legally ? whether you?re Burmese, American or French ? you?ll probably face similar amounts of paperwork and expense, but you?ll never be accepted as a Thai. Just ask an Indian whose family has been here for generations, a member of an ethnic minority group in the mountains of the north, or a German woman married to a Bangkok Thai. Where?s home for them?

The more money you have, of course, the more rights you have to be many places and the less attached you may feel to just one ? and you do need money to be Iyer?s Global Soul. With money, you can travel widely across the spinning globe and always feel right at home, with recognisable fastfood chains, beauty stores and supermarkets all arriving at your destination before you. It would be more foreign for many expatriates to head to the poor areas in their own home towns than it now is for them to arrive in Thailand and take a lease on an executive apartment.

But money or no money, bureaucracies are failing to keep pace with people like us. For reasons striking at the heart of what it means to be a nation in the twenty-first century, it still matters very much to governments and organisations where people are from.

Rebecca is an American-born teacher; her dad?s Thai, her mum?s Norwegian. She?s been in Thailand these past few months teaching, and would now like to volunteer with a US-based volunteer program. She can?t because she?s already here. Their forms don?t allow it.

Australian Guy and Thai Jen met while studying at university in Australia years ago; they married there. They moved to Thailand a few years ago and recently had their first baby. Guy still has to pay someone to take his visa out of the country every 30 days; the irony of living in a country where his child is a citizen but he?s not can?t be lost on him. (Although Guy does note that at least his child is entitled to citizenship, which may not always be the case in other countries.)

My first job here was at the Australian Embassy in the political economic section. I was ?locally engaged?, but also Australian – I had to be to acquire the necessary security clearance. I received local wages, had to pay tax in Australia, and could not be promoted anywhere because I was technically a local.

Now I might soon be earning most of my income from outside of Thailand, but there?s not yet an appropriate visa for that situation.

Bureacracies aside though, those with enough money and appropriate skills can still largely take advantage of the technologies of our time, skating along the gaps of categorisation and happily nesting wherever we happen to find ourselves.

But a Swede I met in Vietnam reminded me that not everyone wants to create new homes. She had lived uncomfortably in Johannesburg for a year, where she found it difficult to connect with any of the locals and longed to get home. ?I hate to go to a pub where there?s nobody who?s from my culture, who understands where I?m coming from,? she said. ?I need to have that connection.?

Indeed Iyer quotes Simone Weil: ?To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul.?

The question remains, however, of what it is each of us should be rooting ourselves to.

Best buys in a shrinking market

14.07.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

As the baht slides against the US dollar, Californian winemakers are feeling the pinch in Thailand. ?We cannot say that Californian wine represents good value for money anymore,? says Uthorn Budhijalananda from The Wine Cellar. ?For good value you cannot compare them to Australian and Chilean wines right now. But compared to many French wines, they are still quite reasonably priced and good.?

Californian wines have been available on the market in Thailand for around twenty years. Uthorn judges that they?ve been second in popularity to French wines for the past six to eight years, but that wines from Australia, Chile and South Africa are now quickly catching up. ?Twenty years ago Thai people ? and Asians generally – preferred to drink whiskey and cognac,? says Uthorn. ?If they were going to start drinking wine, they wanted it to have a similar sort of character. It couldn?t be too smooth and easy, but needed to have lots of body and strong tannins.? Californian Cabernet Sauvignon fitted the bill well.

According to Vanichwathana?s assistant managing director Vichai Kanchanasevee, at the outset it was ?supermarket? brands such as Paul Mason and Gallo that introduced the Californian style to Thais. ?The premium and super premium range started around 1985 or 1986 when tourism started to boom in Thailand.?

Coupled with the growth in international hotels with professional food and beverage staff, Californian wines grew in popularity. ?The best years for California wine were from 1994 to 1997 when they had a 32 to 33 per cent market share and almost half of the volumes were medium to premium price products.?

Thanks to the sliding baht, California wines have a market share of only around seven to eight per cent, with most of the volume going to brands Paul Mason and Gallo. According to Jeff Cook, Robert Mondavi?s director of sales Asia Pacific, Californian winemakers successfully produce most varietals: ?Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from Napa; Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria area.?

Thais seeking a prestige wine should head for winemakers such as Robert Mondavi and Dominus. From Mondavi wines in particular, Mr Cook recommends the Napa Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves and Byron Pinot Noir (prices vary based on vintage, but the latter is usually sold in upscale restaurants only, for approximately Bt3800). ?They drink on the same table as the top Grand Cru Bordeaux and top Domaines in Burgundy, but without the huge price.?

Dominus is the particular red wine produced from the Napanook vineyard in the Napa Valley, made from Cabernet Sauvignon with small amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Vanichwathana?s prices range from Bt5890 to 6790 depending on vintage.

For Mondavi, at the economical end Vanichwathana stocks the Mondavi Woodbridge range, including their Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt825), Zinfandel (Bt720), Merlot (Bt670) and Sauvignon Blanc (Bt850). Other Mondavi wines include the Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt1100), the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt1670) and the Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt2780).

While Thais snap up those sturdy Cabernet Sauvignons, the most widely planted grape in California is in fact zinfandel, which has unknown origins (the current theory is that it?s a grape called plavac mali from Croatia) but was first harvested there in the 1850s. The Wine Cellar?s Uthorn describes the red wine the grape produces as being ?quite a smooth, easy drinking wine? ? he recommends the 1993 Robert Mondavi Zinfandel (Bt1,650), and says that Thais haven?t become familiar enough with this wine.

But if you?d still like to stick to what locals love best, Uthorn also suggests Mondavi and Dominus. For drinking now or cellaring he particularly recommends the Mondavi 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt1,800), the Mondavi 1992 or 1994 Cabernet Reserve (Bt4,250 and 6,950 respectively) or the Dominus 1994 (Bt6,300).

Getting laid off

14.07.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Finance ::

Thailand might be clawing its way out of the recent economic crisis, but with the slowing ? and changing – global economy, that doesn?t mean you should take for granted that your job is secure.

Restructurings happen; technology alters demand for certain types of skills; personality conflicts emerge. According to research by outplacement specialists DBM Thailand, the typical ?transitioning? executive in Thailand is aged 41, will have spent eight years with their previous employer, and will spend just over three months unemployed. Would you be able to cope if you became one of the statistics?

Look ahead and be prepared is what experts advise. ?In order to prepare yourself to face these challenges it is important to look at overall trends, understand growth areas and keep your relevant skills up to date,? advises Julian Merrill, managing consultant at DBM Thailand. Furthermore, Mr Merrill adds, keep your resume up to date; don?t let your interview skills get rusty; look out for other employment opportunities; network; and be flexible enough to accept change.

If the worst does happen
If you lose your job, it?s time to put those skills to the test. ?It helps if you are fortunate enough to be given, as a part of your severance deal, access to outplacement counselling,? says Mr Merrill. ?This process will provide you with the chance to realign your career with your core values and help you to take the right next steps.?

However, while the use of outplacement services is on the rise in Thailand, they?re still not as widespread as many western countries. Adecco?s general manager Aree Petcharat says most companies here are yet to understand their value. ?It?s a young market. We?ve been quite successful in introducing the service to clients who are laying off staff, but many companies are still not aware of the benefits.? The main benefit to the company is that it projects a positive and more caring image of them to the marketplace.

If you don?t have the direct help of professionals, here?s what they recommend:
* Prepare mentally for the search;
* Think about what your skills are and whether you might like to change the direction of your career;
* Consider the type of job and company you?d like to work for;
* Browse job advertisements;
* List companies you could approach independently;
* Compile a list of people who might be able to assist you in your job search;
* Update your resume and practice your interview skills.

In interviews present what happened to you in a positive light. ?Don?t sound like you were the first to go, but don?t be misleading.? says Adecco?s Aree. ?Explain that your company was very good, but they were facing problems, policies changed or a department was closed, and that you were on the list of those to go. If you?re open about it, employers will be more sympathetic.?

It can be a positive experience
Siripen Songpol?s experience demonstrates that change can happen frequently, but be positive too. She was laid off from her job in public relations at an internet company last year; she had wisely kept an eye out for other jobs when she first noticed they were having financial problems. ?I didn?t feel upset at all. I had had the same experience twice before ? the marketing or public relations department is always the first choice for laying off staff. I didn?t really like my job anyway and looked forward to changing it.? Although she stayed in marketing, she happily moved out of the internet industry, relying on both her severance pay and savings to get her through the break.

According to DBM?s Mr Merrill, losing your job can provide time for reflection and an examination of your options. ?It can ?rescue? people from jobs that are no longer challenging, and breathe new life into careers that have grown stale or boring.?

Sisters still doing it for themselves

14.07.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

While the participation rate of Thai women in the workforce is higher than average for the region, evidence shows that pay differentials between the sexes persist and various obstacles stand in the way of women getting ahead in their careers ? indeed relatively few Thai women hold significant decision-making positions in either politics, the civil service or the private sector.

Participation high
The 1998 participation rate for women in the labour force was 63 per cent, one of the highest figures for Asia; however, there are marked gendered patterns of employment across industries. For instance, according to the 1998 Labour Force Survey, only 22 per cent of women made up all administrative positions as opposed to 58 per cent of clerical workers. United Nations Development Fund for Women?s (just put Unifem and it?s not so much of a mouthful?) regional program director for east and southeast Asia Lorraine Corner attributes this figure partly to women not getting ahead in the public service and government – until 1998 there had never been a female permanent secretary. ?The government needs to recognise its own rhetoric,? she says. ?It has not been very active; large sections of the government are not very supportive [about addressing imbalances].?

But pay isn?t
Despite legislation requiring equal pay, women on average are paid considerably less than men for the same or comparable work. The same survey showed that the average monthly salary for women overall was Bt15,074, while their male counterparts earned Bt23,742. At the officer (ie lowest) level women made up 54 per cent of the total employed and earned Bt9,388 compared to males, who earned Bt10,971. And the more senior the position, the wider the gap. At the director level, where women made up 23 per cent of the total, women earned an average of Bt51,206. Men pocketed Bt63,848.

On men?s terms
Panatda Chennavasin made news in July when she was chosen as director of marketing for Tri Petch Isuzu, a Japanese-Thai company in the automotive industry. Panatda says she does not believe she?s faced particular obstacles to get where she is today. ?However, my company is not typical of either Thai or Japanese firms,? she says. ?It is very unique, and has its own way of corporate management. From my first day here, I have not had to face any discrimination.?

However, she had to overcome it to be accepted into the company in the first place ? she answered an advertisement asking for male applicants. ?I called the Japanese GM and said, ?Give me a chance ? you will never be disappointed.? ? She took the necessary exam and interview and was offered a position in 1977.

Panatda argues that women have to be the ones to prove they are capable of the job. ?They have to show men that males and females are equal, that brains have no gender.? For Panatda, this has involved working long hours and planning her time carefully. ?You really do have to plan – you cannot just work like a man.?

Breaking through in the civil service
Secretary-general of the Office of the Civil Service Commission Khunying Dhipavadee Meksawan agrees. ?Both males and females are not used to having a woman leader at the top,? she says. ?You have to prove yourself more than a man, but you have to look at life in a positive way too ? people tend to underestimate your ability because you?re a woman, so it?s not difficult to be compared well to your male colleagues.?

Khunying Dhipavadee identifies several problems for Thai women getting ahead in the workforce: they are still viewed as the weaker sex; they lack role models; they need to balance being aggressive with being soft; and they need to balance family life with work. ?Even if outside the house you?re number one, you are still expected to go home and be a proper housewife.?

She offers advice to women who want to get ahead: ?We have to start with ourselves. You have to keep improving yourself and depend on your own abilities. You have to have confidence in your own ability, and present the positive side of yourself to the public. You have to work hard, and work as a team. Try to create a network of both male and female contacts; and manage your time.?

Couldn?t this advice apply equally to men? Khunying Dhipavadee concedes that it does. ?But women have to work at all of these things much harder.?

No need for nirvana in paradise

05.07.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Expat tales ::

It?s the tenth set of squats that sends a ripple of rebellion through the class. There are murmurs and soft but indignant groans as people try to catch each other?s eyes before rolling them behind the teacher?s back.

?And in your own time, twenty more. Remember to breathe and keep those ankles on the ground,? the teacher says.

The students from his studio in the UK glide easily into and out of the pose, palms raised together above their heads, knees bending elegantly at just the right angle. They?re wearing the right clothes, have golden tans and they glisten rather than sweat in the humidity. We shoot envious glances in their direction.

?He?s got to be kidding,? says Irish Meg a little louder than she should have.

?I really can?t take much more of this,? her friend warns sharply.

It doesn?t matter that we?re standing on a near-deserted beach in southern Thailand. We don?t notice that the sun is dipping towards the horizon, leaving a sky streaked with baby pinks and blues behind, nor do we listen to the wind as it rustles through the palm trees swaying just behind us. We can?t smell the salt in that fresh seabreeze. And we certainly don?t care about those fish splashing offshore. We?re in pain. This yoga sala may as well be in the middle of Bangkok.

It wasn?t supposed to be this way, some of the students tell me later. They thought yoga would be fun, maybe a little spiritual and definitely relaxing. ?It?s boring, he?s making a lot of money, and I?m more stressed than when I arrived,? Meg summarises. ?Animals run around in the ceiling of my bungalow at night but I?m too sore to get out of bed and see what they are.?

I?m not quite in the same boat, being a ring-in from Bangkok staying on the island?s sole resort for a few days. The others are a group of fifteen travelling from the UK, attending yoga classes with the same teacher every morning and evening for ten days. I?ve joined them just as the reality of the squat-school of yoga they?ve chosen kicks in.

This is not how I was introduced to yoga in Thailand. I attended classes in a smaller sala on the much more developed Ko Samui. At a resort squeezed between two others on crowded Lamai Beach I learned what it is that draws people ? ordinary, non-Gwyneth and Madonna types ? to yoga.

The teacher, trained in a squat-free school, taught just one morning class to whoever turned up. She had a knack for picking up on what people?s personal physical problems were, and would run an entire class around them while keeping everyone else challenged too.

?Look at Carla!? she would cry when somebody was doing well in a pose. ?Carla, you?re really in your body today!?

It would have been laughable or corny from anyone else, but from this teacher, it meant something: Everyone could see that Carla was really ?in her body today?.

Some students undertook cleansing fasts at the resort running the classes; I read about their programme in a piece published in Australia later on, written by a sceptical journalist who trivialised the whole beads-in-the-hair health experience.

I stayed elsewhere and thought switching from coffee to tea was a sufficient dietary overhall, and I didn?t put any beads in my hair or cleanse my colon. But I?d still go back to my bungalow after class and fall into a deep sleep for an hour, awaking refreshed, energised and ready to commit to yoga for life.

?Practise,? the teacher told me. ?Practise. And have patience.?

Back in Bangkok, I undertook a search to find a teacher from that same school of yoga. Bangkok is a big, cosmopolitan city; I thought it would be easy. But there are few schools of any type here compared to many places much further from India, and it took weeks before I finally found someone.

This teacher?s studio, a five-minute walk from the BTS, has airconditioning rather than a seabreeze, and a view of the high-density neighbourhood rather than the ocean. Traffic and the occasional barking dog form the background hum, rather than the splash of waves on sand. But these classes are just what I need to avoid turning into a flabby, knotted-muscle, grouchy mess.

Despite a bad back and advice from doctors to exercise, My Man refused to come to a class. He persists in calling it yogo.

?What?s the point of doing yogo in a polluted city where you can?t breathe properly anyway?? he?d retort when I issued my almost-daily invitation to come along. ?What?s so spiritual about standing around in a sanitised, airconditioned box? Why fight living in Bangkok??

Then he conditionally relented. ?I might come for a class if we go back to Samui.?

We weren?t back on Samui, but this beach further south was prettier and the air even fresher. Things were looking promising. We sat in the restaurant and a hornbill flapped by while the sun made pretty patterns through the thatched roof. The yoga teacher pulled up a chair and started to chat.

?So you don?t practise yoga?? the teacher asked My Man.

?Maybe in a few years?when I?m seventy,? he smiled to someone who didn?t smile about yoga. ?Yogo?s not really my thing.?

?Well, that?s the beauty of yoga. You can start at any age,? the teacher replied soberly. ?But it would be better for you to start now.?

He serenely headed off towards the sala on his own with his practice mat tucked under his elbow as Irish Meg joined us for a sunset drink.

?I need to dull this pain,? she said. ?I?ll have a double gin and tonic.?

?So are you enjoying the yogo classes?? My Man had to ask.

?No,? she said. ?There?s too much squatting. I?ve had enough of squatting. I don?t want to squat anymore. And I?m sick of the people who can squat.?

Would she do such a trip again? ?Well, this place is alright. This place is beautiful,? she said. ?But I?d bloody well do a bit more research on the yoga next time.?

She was right; there was too much squatting. I didn?t even want to go back to class. I saw any hope of My Man picking up a yoga mat that weekend evaporate as quickly as Meg was downing her drink.

We ordered another round. And I looked forward to getting back to Bangkok for my next squat-free class.

Taming Thailand’s Press

01.07.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

It was a test of strength for Thailand’s Constitution Court, formed under the country’s progressive 1997 constitution. One of the country’s most powerful politicians, Sanan Kachornprasart, was on trial, accused of falsely declaring his assets. Independent Television (iTV), the country’s first and only truly independent free-to-air channel, broadcast the live proceedings in full. On August 10, 2000, Sanan was found guilty and barred from holding public office for five years.

Now the Constitution Court faces a bigger challenge as Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, head of ruling party Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), answers allegations that he failed to fully disclose his assets while deputy premier in 1997. The case could go either way. What’s been proved already, however, is that iTV has changed. It suspended its broadcast of the proceedings after just one week.

It was perhaps a predictable development, following the February 7 sacking of 23 iTV journalists who had alleged editorial interference by their newest shareholder, Shin Corporation, the telecommunications company founded by billionaire Thaksin. But the apparent collapse of iTV’s independence raises further questions about the often unclear influence of politicians and businesspeople on the media in Thailand today. “If you look back to when the army controlled the country, [the issue of who controlled the press] was black and white. Now there are a lot of blurry lines,” said Jira Honsamroeng, the channel’s former managing editor.

Some say those lines began being blurred with the onset of the 1997 economic crisis. President of the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and managing editor of The Nation newspaper, Kavi Chongkittavorn, says that over the past three years there’s been a shift away from ownership of newspapers by journalists towards ownership by businesspeople and politicians. “The new money has led to changes in some editorial positions. It’s more pluralistic, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. You need to ask, who’s behind this? There is a new pattern of owners with vested interests. The Thai press used to get mad. They don’t get as mad anymore.”

iTV stood out for its ability to “get mad” on issues. The channel was born in the aftermath of the country’s May 1992 anti- government protests, when the five government-controlled channels failed to accurately report on violence that saw scores of Thais killed; its hard-hitting investigative reports, in which social issues were given unprecedented prominence, were something never before seen on Thai TV. So when the company founded by the man most likely to be the next prime minister took an interest in the channel in early 2000, staff got edgy. When Shin Corporation took a 39 per cent stake in the company, they started protesting.

On 12 June, iTV news director Thepchai Yong was removed from his position for his part in the protest. Next to go – ‘voluntarily’ – was managing editor Jira Hongsamroeng, six days after the January 6 election of Thaksin. “There was so much pressure to do this, to not do that,” said Jira of the lead up to the election, adding that he had been told by management he “had to learn to compromise”. Then on February 7, seven dissident journalists were sacked and 16 were layed off, after alleging editorial interference in political reporting. A majority of them had also tried to form a labour union.

UK Leeds University academic and Thai media expert Dr Duncan McCargo says that iTV now suffers from exactly the same problem it was designed to avoid: the image of a television channel controlled by a powerful interest group. “The ITV sackings are definitely a step backward for Thailand, which is now reverting to the 1992 position when television could not be relied on for objective information. They do illustrate a longstanding problem with Thailand’s media: that people buy and own media as a fairly crude means of exerting political power and influence.”

Still, along with the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia, Thailand has one of the freest presses in southeast Asia. The 1997 constitution comprehensively protects media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information; press monitor Freedom House upgraded Thailand’s press from “partly free” to “free” in its 1998-99 report.

Thailand’s journalists have also taken the lead when it comes to promoting freedom in the region. In Singapore last October, the TJA staged a walkout at an assembly held by the Confederation of ASEAN Journalists, an organisation that had linked journalists in the region for 25 years. “They don’t want to fight for anything,” said TJA president Kavi. “Our walking out was a big shock to them; they told me I was behaving like a westerner.” Kavi says that Thai journalists will instead work to strengthen the South East Asian Press Alliance, formed in 1998 by Thai, Indonesian and Filipino journalists.

As developments at iTV indicate, such an organisation has plenty of work to do. “Definitely Thailand has more freedom than in other parts of the world where journalists are physically threatened,” said sacked iTV anchor and reporter Karuna Buakumsri. “But here there are psychological threats. Sometimes there is self-censorship – these days there is a lot.”

The pressures to self-censor are even greater outside Bangkok. Amnat Khunyosying, journalist and publisher of Phak Nua Raiwan (Northern Daily) in the northern city of Chiang Mai, says he paid the price for refusing to self-censor his reports on local corruption. On April 18 last year, he narrowly escaped death when shot by four soldiers, who are now in jail awaiting trial. “A group of influential men in Chiang Mai are pressuring me to accept Bt500,000 and drop the case,” Amnat said through an interpreter. He says the jailed men have threatened to name the person who ordered the shooting if they remain in jail for longer than a year.

Amnat has covered corruption all his life, and has been sued – unsuccessfully – by disgruntled subjects before. “Many have threatened me, but nothing ever happened before this,” he said. Despite feeling the pinch following both the economic crisis and the shooting – the paper is now published three times a week instead of daily, and has been cut from 16 to 12 pages – Amnat is determined to continue publishing his paper. “I want to publish a real newspaper. Other newspapers don’t dare to review corruption.”

As Amnat says, the law in Thailand is good. “It’s the people who use the law – the public prosecutors, the police, the lawyers – who are not good. There are black influences hanging over Thailand.”

The sacked iTV journalists will soon be testing that law themselves. Article 41 of the constitution guarantees the rights of journalists in media organizations to be independent of influences from their owners, so long as the journalists behave ethically. The journalists will petition the Labour Court, from where their case is likely to be referred to the Constitution Court. There are also plans to lodge a complaint at the ILO. Whatever happens, it’s unlikely to be broadcast on iTV.

Time out for tea

01.07.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

While coffee shops are opening in Bangkok almost by the day, teahouses are quietly going about the business of what they?ve always done: serving tea, properly.

?If you compare the present situation to ten years ago when tea was only to be found in Chinatown, then there has been progress, but it remains very slow,? says Nim?s Tea House manager Yves Pintaud. ?The new coffee shops are trying to promote a stylish, yuppie way of life in a busy city. Tea, on the contrary, has long been associated with meditation, rest and healing – this is a concept far more difficult to sell in our present environment.?

So why follow the sheep? Head to a teahouse instead where you can slow down, choose a tea to suit your mood, and enjoy having it served correctly. Or choose your own to take home, invest in a good tea service, and ingest it at your leisure.

To the uninitiated, selecting from the huge array of teas available – more than 500 Chinese teas are in existence – can be daunting. There?s no standard way of classifying teas, but a common way to do so is based on the processing and appearance of the tea. This method produces six groups:
* Green teas, which are not fermented at all;
* Oolong teas, semi-fermented, lying between the green and red groups;
* White teas, which are slightly fermented and must follow a strict selection process;
* Red teas, which are fully fermented;
* Black teas, which are made from large mature leaves and takes the longest time to ferment; and
* Flower teas, composed of a green tea blended with flowers.

?Tung Ting Oolong is probably the most popular tea served tea here,? says Ong?s Tea assistant manager Woraphong Ong, referring to one of many types of Oolong tea. His family has been selling teas in Bangkok for more than one hundred years. ?But there are a lot of other popular teas, such as Te Kwan Yin and Narcissus [both Oolongs]. Thais tend to like teas that are more bitter, but we also stock special grade ginseng tea, which is sweet ? not from sugar, but from the tea itself.?

A bottomless cup in-house costs Bt100 to Bt300. Take-home teas (loose leaf) start at Bt45 for Thai lemongrass tea (120g), a mid-range price is the ginseng tea for Bt400 (120g), while their best quality tea is Tung Ting Oolong, costing Bt2,500 for 300g. ?This is a very good Oolong tea,? Woraphong says. ?Many of our customers know a lot about teas ? they always ask for grade A [the top grade].?

Tea services range from Bt450 to Bt3000, with price based on the type of clay used, and the artisan who made it.

At Nim?s, prices for in-house tea range from Bt100 to Bt380 per person, with the more popular ones being Korea fruit teas (Bt100) and Kau San Jin Hsuan Oolong (Bt150) tea. To take home, expect to pay Bt150 to Bt500 for 50g of Chinese tea, depending on the quality.

It might seem expensive to drink tea in-house, but the way tea is prepared is just as important as the quality of the tea itself ? and it?s unlikely the novice will get things right at home themselves. The type of water used, the water temperature, the quality of the teapot, the volume of tea leaves used and the steeping time all contribute towards a full appreciation of the tea?s qualities. If buying take-home tea, ask your tea seller for advice on that particular tea.

And when ordering in smaller teahouses, don?t always expect to be told exactly what you?re drinking, warns Woraphong. ?Many tea shops won?t tell you the names in the particular blend they are using. They?ll mix it themselves and use their own brand name.? If you like it, you?ll have to keep buying it from them.

Be good to yourself … but enjoy

01.07.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

The garden is dotted with the deep purples and whites of Thai orchids here and there; a fountain gurgles and a cat lounges on the well-kept lawn. If health stems from a feeling of tranquility, then the Whole Earth is well on its way to keeping customers happy right from the start.

Take off your shoes at the entrance to the converted house, feel the cool smooth floor under your feet as you enter and absorb the peaceful atmosphere, enhanced by wooden furniture and khaki and pink d?cor. Downstairs there are tables and chairs, while upstairs the seating is traditional Thai-style. Altogether around 150 people can be accommodated, but the division of the rooms lends a degree of intimacy that suggests a much lower number.

Lounge on the cushions as you sip a smoothie – a blend of banana, papaya, yoghurt, orange juice and honey (Bt55) – and browse the menu, which features a great selection of both Thai and Indian vegetarian food, as well as a selection of dishes with seafood and chicken.

"Most people still like to eat a little meat," says part owner and manager Kaneungnit Jearawaropart. "But people really come here for the vegetarian food."

And it’s the vegetarian food that she’s obviously most proud of, carrying on a tradition of providing healthy food to Bangkokians that her uncle began 21 years ago at the Whole Earth’s first branch, on Soi Lang Suan.

"Everybody likes good food, and more people are wanting to eat food that’s good for their health," Kaneungnit adds. "Here the concept is all about health. And we want people to feel at home, to be able to relax. That’s why it’s shoes off at the door."

The restaurant philosophy is suggested by the text on the menus, that begins: "Every fibre of food we eat has within its total potentiality of cosmic intelligence." It might be a little inscrutable thanks to the translation, but the basic idea of "you are what you eat"is easily determined.

I tried the vegetarian samosas, served with a zesty sauce of coriander, mint, yoghurt, salt and pepper. Sturdy and stuffed solidly with tasty vegetables, a few of these would almost be a meal in themselves.

Kaneungnit’s favourite starter is the mango salad (Bt85), which she says is one of the more popular starters, along with the deep-fried vegetable cakes (Bt85) and the vegetarian satay (Bt85).

Next I tasted the vegetarian hor mok, a creamy steamed curry served in banana leaves (Bt90); it was a reminder of how readily adaptable so many Thai dishes are to being vegetarian. The sauce was spicy, but let the flavours of the finely-chopped vegetables show through.

"Everything we serve is fresh and cooked just before serving," Kaneungnit reminds me. She needn’t have – it’s obvious.

The fried rice with mixed vegetables and ghee (Bt140) comes served in a pineapple and with a generous sprinkling of cashew nuts; but my favourite dish was undoubtedly the tofu larb. Normally I find the idea of making vegetables imitate meat somewhat distasteful, but this dish demonstrated that tofu is simply a perfect ingredient in its own right to use in larb, being solidly textured and readily able to absorb the flavours of the herbs.

Prices are excellent: most dishes are in the Bt85 to Bt120 range. The pricier dishes include a deep-fried snow fish with mango sauce (Bt295), the shrimp tandoori (Bt295) and a charcoal broiled snow fish, but these are in the minority – making this a very affordable restaurant for the Sukhumvit area.

The wine list is a little brief, and most of the reds are unfortunately described as being suited to red meats. If you’re really here for your health though, perhaps you’ll settle on a glass of the house Carlorossi (Bt130). Large beer bottles are Bt130.

The focus on health strays just a little when it comes to dessert – this is reward time, after all. Ice cream sundaes available for those with a seriously sweet tooth, but a more well-balanced choice is the fresh banana or papaya topped with home made youghurt and fresh farm honey (Bt55).

If you’ve been really good, treat yourself and finish off with a liqueur coffee (Bt155). This is, after all, the sort of place to linger, relax and reenergise.

Whole Earth
71 Sukhumvti 26
Tel: 258 4900, 661 5279

93/3 Lang Suan
Tel: 252 5574, 652 0301

Relaxing with Rika

01.07.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: People ::

Rika Dila doesn’t look like the busy businesswoman and mother of two young sons she is. "I tell people I’m 28," jokes the half Filipino, half-Japanese representative of Sotheby’s in Thailand. "And after a while I start believing it!"

The white lie wouldn’t be difficult for anyone to believe. Rika wears no makeup, but there’s hardly a fine line on her face. Her hair is swept elegantly into a simple pony tail, and she looks relaxed in a crisp lemon shirt, long khaki shorts and flat tan sandals. She sips a ginger tea as she recalls the events in her life that have made her who she is today.

"My parents migrated here together, and I was born here, so I’m Thai," she explains. She attended an international school in Bangkok before heading off to college in the Philippines and then university in Japan, where she majored in economics.

She nearly became a professional golfer along the way, playing on the winning team in the national competition in Japan, and winning the all-Japan collegiate. "I then played one year with the pro tour, but as an amateur. I was really fit, and I was big!" she laughs. "I was 53 or 54 kilos. I’m 42 now. Can you imagine?"

The weight was actually muscle. "During that year, we played almost two rounds a day, and we had to carry out own bags – it’s only in Thailand you have caddies everywhere. I went to the gym at least three or four times a week for serious workouts."

Despite having played competition golf from the age of nine, Rika decided this wasn’t the life she wanted. "I didn’t enjoy it, so I quit when I graduated."

Next came a stint in a Bangkok bank and at a real estate company; then she started working for jewellery company Bulgari. "I opened and managed the shop. I was there for almost eight years," she says. She got married, and fell pregnant with her first child. "I quit a week before I gave birth."

When her second child was about a year old, she was approached to be the Sotheby’s representative in Thailand. "I worked out of my house until we became more known here. I loved it because I could just wear my jammies and come downstairs and work at my computer," she recalls. Now the prestigious auction house has an office at the Sukhothai Hotel. "And I wear proper clothes to work!"

Her days usually end in the early afternoon, when she goes to pick up her children. "But we get really busy four times a year when we look for goods going for auction. Then I work a full day, until 8 or 9pm, looking for clients or going to clients’ homes."

In between work and caring for her children, Rika maintains a fitness regime. "I used to do yoga, but it took a full two hours to go through the whole routine," she says, adding that eventually she couldn’t spare the time. "I tried to go to the gym, and alternated between running and lifting weights, but I found that just lifting weights was boring."

The solution arrived in the form of a personal trainer. "Now I do boxing and kicking. I’m not doing it for self-defense purposes, I just do it for exercise. I enjoy it a lot, and practise two to three times a week."

Rika says she’s usually a very happy-go-lucky person, but she does occasionally get stressed out when she comes across a problem she can’t solve. Writing can be a release for her. "I take the kids to the park and I try to write. Or I write when I have things to think about at night, or I can’t sleep but I don’t want to read. But lately when I’m really stressed out I notice that I’ve just been falling asleep!"

Otherwise to relax she listens to music, or reads. She confesses to keeping to books that entertain rather than educate. "I read junk! I love reading about serial killers and I love ghost stories. I’m reading Thai novels now."

When it comes to skincare, Rika’s dedicated. Her daily routine involves washing with a soap-free cleanser and applying lotion in the morning, and cleansing in the evening too. "On alternate days I use a soft sponge to sponge down my face."

She also goes for a vitamin A and C treatment about twice a month. "It feels good while they’re doing it – but I don’t really see any visible difference."

To maintain her body’s skin, she scrubs regularly. "I love to scrub! Once or twice a week I scrub." On top of that, she tries to get to a salon every fortnight for a scrub, sauna, milk bath and oil massage.

Rika’s makeup style is dependent on her mood. "Usually I skip foundation and just put on some blush – I use a lot of blush now. When I was younger I didn’t, but now I feel like my face doesn’t have enough colour."

She generally doesn’t bother with mascara, but adds some lip gloss or lipstick and a little eyeliner. "My lip colour really depends on my mood too. Now I’m in more of a pink mood, but usually I stick with brick reds and purplish reds."

"I spend more time and more money on products for my hair than my face," says Rika. She colours her own hair – "I have a lot of grey" – and gets occasional trims from her stylist.

At home she uses a weekly oil mask before washing. "I leave it on for three minutes, then I wash it and condition it. Sometimes I leave in the conditioner after I wash – I just wrap my hair up in a towel for twenty to thirty minutes, and put a mask on my face too."

Rika doesn’t smoke, but she does drink. "A lot!" she laughs, adding that she usually sticks to white spirits and the occasional red wine. "I went to the Regent the other day and tried vodka and cranberry juice. It’s my new drink now!"