“What architecture expresses, if one distinguishes it from building, is something of an intangible and impalpable nature. Over and above the material presence of the construction, it owes its existence to the meanings with which it is charged and to the fact that it speaks, it expresses a culture, and it reveals a social structure.” [from Architecture as an Expression of Minority Culture, by Sophie and Pierre Clement]
As I am about to embark on my next journey within Southeast Asia, I have extracted and edited five elements from The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux. A few words to keep close to the heart along the way…
I often like to believe that there is no such thing in life as coincidence. The last 4 weeks have been a succession of odd events – from staring at my apartment’s ceiling while recovering from dengue fever to ’swimming’ through irrelevant up-stream hierarchy battles in the workplace. Such hurdles surely are not lived without a bit of suffering, however they also set forward a new direction as I opened my eyes to the true priorities in my life. It somehow feels like I suddenly woke from a tropical slumber. After all, I did spend the past two years in 35ºC weather, right on top of the equator in Singapore.
I vividly remember writing this in my diary back in 2003, sitting alone in my modest rented room in London: I am standing at a crossroad.
There have been many crossroads since then and I sometimes wonder if a difference of one single decision would have changed the course of my life. Perhaps not at all.
10 years on, I sit at the front of a double-decker bus underneath an anonymous Singaporean highway, waiting for the traffic light to turn green. As the light switched from red to green, I feel a sense of hope. I think to myself “yes, it’s time”.
Having spent the last decade moving from Europe to North America to Asia, I now understand my place in the world better than ever before. This is not to say that I know where I belong but rather, I know the road that I am walking on. It is a road of changing landscapes, and I am guided by one vision.
The possibility of good change.
September arrives like a promise. It seems to say “you have come a long way, but it’s still time to dream further.”
October will be a month of transition, November the start of a nomadic experimentation…
Local culture in Laos is an asset which has continuously infused the country’s very distinctive essence and identity. With a large number of indigenous minorities, Laos has been a focus for anthropologists since decades, while its traditional handicrafts, more particularly the unrivaled complexity of local textile making and weaving, have drawn admiration from connaisseurs around the world.
Like the rest of Southeast Asia, the country is currently in rapid transition. Since Laos opened up to the world in the early 1990s, it has experienced the rising influx of tourism followed by a growing influence from mass trade and globalization, particularly in the capital city Vientiane and world heritage destination Luang Prabang. While opportunities and threats are both integral to the global economy, the vulnerability of Laos is linked to its limited ability to sustain local cultural traditions through new creative practices.
In Laos, cultural infrastructure strongly caters for tourism but does not take local communities into sufficient consideration. While it is rather typical across most countries of Southeast Asia, in Laos the management and/or commercialization of culture is by often led by foreign entities or individuals. On the positive side, this foreign interest has helped preserve some local cultural assets over recent decades yet it has simultaneously created a strong dependency on foreign support. Tourism has also negatively influenced the handicraft production chain, decreasing product quality to produce quantity. A balance needs to be restored in order to let the next generation of Laotians acquire more leadership in the management of their own culture and the development of new creative skills that can generate valuable cultural experiences.
Typically in Laos, culture is deeply embedded in everyday life (especially in rural areas). But on the other hand cultural education is scarce and creative thinking not commonly practiced, if at all. Presently, young people in Laos are not well exposed to cultural and creative education as their access to general education remains a challenge.
Across Southeast Asia, culture is now increasingly considered as an opportunity for economic growth through the development of handicraft consumer goods. Beyong mere product, culture also needs to be remembered as an experience that defines a local way of life. With a distinctive culture shaped by the surrounding eco-systems, traditional ethnic minority lifestyle is an inclusive model of sustainable development.
Now the question remains whether the intangible relevance of Lao culture(s) will find its place in contemporary life, amid rapid transformations.
How does culture define our relationship to the world? How does the world define our relationship to culture? On 23 August, I will share some thoughts, observations and tiny local examples that shed some light on this very global topic at ENGAGE / MAKMAL Forum x George Town Festival 2014.
Editing this precious new collection made in collaboration with Lao kids last April. This is ahead of a presentation about ‘cultural influence’ in George Town, Malaysia (23 August 2014), and a case study which I am preparing to write for the UNDG on ‘Culture and Education’. Items will also be sold online at Haystakt.com to raise funds toward creative education at Phoudindaeng Youth Center.
A landscape punctuated with my travel notes from the past 4 years…
The evening sky tells me that beauty is unpredictable.
Field trip to witness papermaking and textiles made from paper mulberry at POSA Handicraft Center in Houay Pamom, Laos. See more at CRAFTED
Sneak preview of Handmade Stories Vol 2 catalogue: original interpretations of NOMA textile design by kids from Phoudindaeng Youth Center, and a few local “spices” added to the mix! [Creative direction by CRAFTED] We are glad to announce that the first collection’s catalogue has reached 93000 views on issuu!
My dining area is officially gone since the watercolours are out… A myriad of ways to paint a landscape, and right now I’m testing my painting skills again. My plan is to create a 16×182 cm journal filled with connecting landscapes. 26 pages in total… and all this led me to think of acquiring a piece of secluded tropical land to built my art studio on…
Journey to a familiar place, my childhood DNA. It’s been a year and a half since my last visit but people often say that Paris never changes. Paris doesn’t change, only my life is permanently changing
The biggest consolation after a journey spent on the road is to open my suitcase, reminisce the moments and people encountered. while mentally shaping tomorrow’s chapters.
// This time, I recall the textile salesman who moved to VangVieng from Sam Neua with a collection of vintage Lao Lum textiles that can no longer be commonly found (1+6). He eagerly explained the difference in quality between textiles from the past decade and the current ones. A sad reminder that much has been lost within just 10 years, and in my personal view, the confirmation that cultural preservation must take place through renewed creative practices.
// While sourcing textile for fashion company NOMA t.d. (2), I discover an unusual fabric made from Posa trees, native of Laos and currently grown in the village of Houey Pamom as part of a capacity-building initiative called FORCAP that focuses on sustainable agriculture and forestry (3).
// A few days later, I encounter a community of weavers from Ban Phonsung comprising several generations of makers (4). In this instance, I once again witness the elimination of local cotton and silk by a production/distribution model that diminishes the value of craftworkers. A brief exchange with them motivates me to imagine new possibilities between fair trade business practices and cutting-edge fashion design.
// Traditional Recipes from Laos is a book I had often thought of purchasing. It gathers a collection of local recipes by Phia Sing, a revered chef at the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang (5) This book is most likely the only written record of Lao culinary heritage and captures locality through illustrated descriptions of plants, vegetables, fruits, and objects used in the recipes.
// I could not leave Laos without stopping by the morning market in Vientiane to collect colourful pieces for the next Handmade Stories exhibition at the Karuizawa Art Museum in Japan (7).