In Southeast Asia the urban environment changes faster than people and life itself. In Saigon like in other places, natural elements are challenged, space is being constantly altered. But the street food lady continues to sell even in front of a huge construction site, while the bamboo on this wonderful building seems to say that we can change without sacrificing all.
While the world is talking about freedom of expression, I am now training 13 women in Bangkok and witnessed their need for creative expression.
“I had fun.”
“I didn’t think of anything but just made something.”
“I don’t know what it is, but I’m going to make a brooch out of it.”
Those are some of the comments heard at the end of the session.
When I started the class, the women asked me for instructions to follow. I said I had none and that they had complete freedom. It made some feel nervous at first, but then, they picked the material in front of them and started making. Some went fast, others went slow. Some sat on a chair. Others sat on the floor. Some made small objects, others made big ones.
13 different personalities, 13 lives, 13 forms of expression.
With a black pen in my hand, I watch the river stream go on and on and on. I listen to it when I go to sleep at night, when I wake up in the morning and during the small moments in between. It whispers to me that we have absolutely nothing to worry about. [Nam Song, Vangvieng, Laos]
I flew to Bangkok to collect several kilos of industrial waste. This will be a new kind of creative experience for me, working closely with Thai women who suffered domestic violence.
Now, in the early prototyping and concept development phase, I have a lot of bra straps and clips to work with! Throughout this creative experiment, I intend to make the original material ‘disappear’ and create new forms and textures.
This work comes with a lot of material and technical constraints, it is a process of reinvention and learning. A symbolic one for the women I will be working with…
[Doi Saket, Chiang Mai] These past weeks, an accumulation of short-lived events; ‘caught in a moment’ moments or a dozen unexpected conversations with strangers… My new life setting also led me to regularly ride a diesel bus with local villagers and school kids while watching monks peacefully cross 4-lane highways in the dark of night. Now I try to discipline myself and slowly compile these “Short Tales” in the form of a travel journal. There is much to think about and write about from this part of the world. Through images and text, I would like to share different perspectives and realities in order to open up new ones…
Setting up my work space. No air con, no desk and a low 3G network. But that’s not going to stop me… The urge to create is stronger… When my legs fall asleep, I sit on my suitcase, the electric fan blowing at my side. Between a dark room with AC and a bright room with no AC, I chose brightness. And while I am working in this low key rural context, I am saved by the magic of wireless technology, printing and connecting to the rest of the world through my little iPhone device.
Moving from Singapore to Chiang Mai…
“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.