This long post is a half of a conversation, subjective observations, open questions and approximations, it would benefit hugely from a Mien blogger's second thoughts. This exercise in design threatens to exacerbate problems facing mission in this context by inappropriate solutions based on a superficial diagnosis derived from sight-seeing approach to community engagement. A whirlwind tour to survey the site, consult various stakeholders and grasp the scope for local materials and vernacular sufficient to design by was thrilling, fascinating and rewarding for me, old and familiar news perhaps to those with a longer relationship with these villages. The fruit it will bear will unfold in the next few months, just now I am nursing a Thai caught cold in the blessed calm of Singapore's CNY long weekend. My error-prone research-shallow observations below are not the views of any organisation or church I might have some claim to represent, and any corrections or contributions or extensions would be hugely appreciated.
The towns we saw like Chiang Rai and onwards were very much as I remembered Kota Bharu of 13 years ago, drier perhaps, but the same shape of long linear car-dominated settlements, bright coloured roofing, golden royal birthday welcome arches over roads, bougainvillea down the centre division, building yards with massive concrete storm drain piping stacked out front, big cabling wheels, the stained and streaked concrete of ageing medium-rise, an unrestrained cacophony of signage out of all proportion to adjacent urban scales, black and white striped kerb edges, banana trees lining padi fields edges, overloaded motorbikes, pickups with purple windows, abandonned and quickly overgrown plots, roadside fruit and miscellany stalls.
Stopping to eat, stopping at builders merchants, MSG is added liberally and asbestos profiled roofing of every colour lies in tall piles all about, letting it be known we are a long way from hypochondria of Singapore.
East and out of town, has the up and down of the Cameron Highlands, with the steep sided wiggles, steeper perhaps with limestone lumps, but so much drier, that much more deforested and dusty, smoky from the burning of this season's harvested rice fields. A bigger temperature range than the Camerons, cool at night and a dry direct heat in the day. New fresh black roads, flanked by over loaded pylons leaning under many tangled cables. Then the villages, reminiscent of Orang Asli settlements, where bamboo, hardwood and corrugated tin form clusters of shelters. Their landscape is not long deforested, the villages appear occasionally profligate and extravagant in their standing as teak clad islands surrounded by a sea of scrub and denuded red soil given a hastily constructed cover of lychee plantation. These teak encampments offer a sombre tribute to a time, even recently, when timber logged illegally was that much more abundant.
We were east and out beyond the reach of mobiles and wifi, but not beyond the reach of Tesco's, another blog post deserves to delight in the various ways brands are bent, borrowed, broken or translated here. See also Redemption Hill Church, and Spectacle Hut, and the international language of Ikea's crockery.
On our way these yellow stickers half way up telegraph poles were pointed out and translated, the work of a mysterious character, who anonymously has made it his mission to vex the authorities and use these virally to speak good news into rural places.
Observing the Mien
It was interesting to travel with two Chinese Singaporeans and to pass time on windy roads with them and hear their stories. The Mien are of Chinese origin and their presence in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam dates from a period of acute famine in China in the last century, it was at this time that a large number of Singapore's Chinese came to Singapore, the same diligent, self-sacrificing, Buddhist and Daoist young people, sent forth to earn and send money home, even selling themselves to ships to then buy their freedom on arrival at employment in a foreign port somewhere on the rim of the South China Sea, if indeed they survived what by their accounts was a dangerous journey. By dint of fate, those who ended up in Singapore, went on to dominate a powerful city state, those who made their flight over land, or couldn't manage the boat ride all the way came to Thailand, where they have been an excluded minority consigned to the poverty of difficult hill-farming in the far rural north. And I think a sense of unsure entitlement is felt by many in Singapore.
And something of this history contributes to the frustrating, inoffensive, answer-is-always-yes consultations. The Mien are accommodated on government land, they do not have ownership in that sense, and a strange bind, which once said, if you clear jungle you can keep the land to farm on, now states, if you ever cease farming the land you lose any claim to tenancy, and it returns to the government. The progression from not owning land, to a learned helplessness and to a loss of any conviction sufficient to plan, preach and build by is a crucial one. Second and third generation fatalists whose imaginations have never been given the breath or platform to venture, “I would like a house like..” or to plan, “If we collectivise Cashew farming now, in a few years we could...” It is a gift we take for granted, having a language that accommodates Dreams and Visions.
The relatively young understanding of theology still for many considers Christianity to be an updated ancestor worship, a new form of ritual in exchange for healing. In this village they count a quarter of their 400 to be Christian, half of that quarter attend church and of those literacy and understanding are limited. Their difficulty is labelled by the missionaries as nominalism, which seems unkind, perhaps because I tend to use the term pejoratively for willed and escapist irresponsibility rather than a nominalism of ignorance.
So this is to say, that this strange and long-term-temporary nature of their situation disempowers them from taking responsibility for building or belief, finding Home in make-shift structures and nominal faith. This is short term tenures in London, this is Israelites in Babylon, and they would all benefit from Jeremiah's intentionality who would have us Build houses and Live in them. Good news for them would be to seek a self-sufficiency as a community, in the hope that from that basis they might seek the good of the city, economically and religiously.
There is a statistic which estimates less than 1% Thai are Christian compared to greater than 5% among tribal minorities and the growth of Christianity is 4% among the Thai compared to 8% among the tribal minorities. A statistic which presents the strategic nature of these open people groups, and the value of the investment of cultivating leaders, evangelists and culture-makers among them. If by training people willing to stand as structural members in the face of rural decline, if by equipping young people to invest their talents in their rural community towards a sustainable life there, rather than the quicker, more glamorous wealth of work in Bangkok, then, at a time when avenues such as Manorum have closed, there is a possible mode for catalysing rural economic revival and medium for displaying joy in spite of circumstance sufficient to draw the unhappy rich to Christ and a suffering sufficient to effect the genuine environmental healing much needed. That sentence was too long, I'm trying to express the bound up nature of an economic and spiritual gospel, that sustainable church and sustainable community are both the content of and conduit for good news. I am stating the obvious, what is less clear is the way forward, the sorts of micro-financing, collective farming things which thrive when predicated on Christian-derived presuppositions and which would provide the basis of good rural employment sufficient to sustain the relational gospel-communities from which to send their own evangelists, there is a need for consultant missionaries better versed in the ways these things work, their specifics, costs and benefits. Anyone?
So, we saw the freshly printed copies of the Mien bible, a translation completed in the last year, in its three separate formats, transcribed in Thai script, Roman script and a Chinese script. And we sang songs, translated, Come Thou Fount in Mien etc. As the world and the East anglocises and internationalises, why not? As memories become myths of former indigenuity what profits the Christian cause or the Mien to hope to keep alive a fading language and musical tradition? I recorded such singing and some Mien pipe playing which would be happily here embedded if I knew how. Anyone?
On the point of language and continuity, D expressed that the received wisdom is that a generation must be left fallow, to reject the carvings, alcohol, wood chimes.. before they are re-appropriated for another message, a Christian message. As for example the elaborate gable ends and roof trimmings designed to scare away evil spirits that define the Thai vernacular, and could be, and should be redeemed, reimagined, remessaged. As Christmas trimmings and their pagan origins. There is a powerful temptation to diminish the importance of ornament and music, to consign them to after-thoughts, skills which can be re-learnt, I would argue the impulse for urgency and the impulse for cultural thoroughness should not be set against one another. Meh.
Interestingly the Thai government is changing, having tried and failed to forcibly relanguage the Mien by a method of immersion, taking kids as young as they begin school and putting them into fully Thai education. This former method has tended to result in significant difficulties, typically putting those students two years behind others and this and other discouragement leads to a high drop out rate. This correlates with extensive studies in the States and by UNESCO relating to second language kids, that in fact if children are given early education in their mother tongue they far more easily adapt to a second and third language as they progress. So the possibility for a Mien kindergarten opens up, and we will see, just as English villages survive or fall by the closure of the local school ~ see Sleep Furiously.
Tangentially, I had a fascinating conversation with a translator from the Bible Society over lunch on the first day of CNY. The task of a translation is epic, candidates must have 10years post-doc experience, must know Greek/Hebrew, the language of the translation and a vehicle/intermediate language typically English/French etc and they must give themselves entirely to a culture for as long as it takes, typically another 10years, and must manage a small team of informed locals to corroborate the translations/approximations ventured, that for example the Papuans read bread broken most easily as coconut.
But our conversation centred on all that we can learn from illiterate societies, how is it that their engagement with Story is so much more emotional that ours? What is lost in our privileging abstractions over nuanced specifics? What are these cultures' practical disciplines, habits, rituals, manners of meeting, that give to their epistemology the humility that does not leap to the conclusion of a story by force of precedent and abstraction, but that allows the mystery of each unique Story to affect the emotions? Why did CSL's Hrossa burn their poetry?
He expressed the admiration he had for those who can come as a child and enter in fully to a story without presuming its outcome. In this way, translators have found it more successful to translate beginning chronologically with Genesis then unfolding, rather than to descend in supposed heirarchy of importance, Gospels, Epistles, Pentatuke ..etc. Sat on the coast with a local he had asked if they had ever been to an island which they could see some little way out to sea. He hadn't but he wondered, maybe, if they were to visit there, if they might be able to look back and see the place where they were standing now. Ignorance or humility to not presume beyond one's experience?
Other observations. Poverty engenders community by necessity, and perhaps engenders a better awareness of the gift nature of reality, and certainly, observably they have developed a pattern of hospitality that puts us to shame. These hill tribes, who have so little, trapped outside an economic system which for reasons racist and historical significantly exclude them, are warm, welcoming, self-deprecating and aboundingly generous. We ate well to the point of embarrassment, unshowy but homegrown rice and pork and chicken and bamboo.. Clearly they made it an occasion with all the meat, but clearly also within their limited means - a single wood stove - they have found a way to cultivate delicious food basics in the everyday as well as for special occasions. It was unique rice, in the best possible way, amazing, and there is no organic labelling on plastic wrapped rice packs, no microchips in their blackened pan rice cooker. Not to idealise poverty, but we have allowed ourselves by impatience's trumpcard to believe that good food is expensive food, hightech food and foodmiles varied food. I would say I took on trust what we ate, I did see a kid on a motorbike with a rifle and three squirrels tucked into his belt, and I think AM was unimpressed that I had not been served anything so challenging as an exoskeleton.
Of their wider economic situation, there is a low grade but savage corruption, where two years ago they got 8.5baht for a kilo of maize they now get 6.5baht, over a period when such commodity prices have gone up at the customer's end. Local governors are reported to have been shot when they turn a critical eye to the middlemen who set these prices. Or perhaps they were recollecting the Philippines, either way, the challenges of economic justice are perilous and need confront the vested interests of the many and the powerful.
So, I would turn then to perhaps the more specific area of observation for the trip, we coming as architects rather than consultants in any more theological or agricultural, linguistic or economic role. And to a certain extent I am following D, and or making it up as I go along.
Categories of observation might be begin thus:
- The practical challenges of climate and geography their built structures resist within this locality.
- The practical constraints, available materials, available contractors.
- The shape of a day in the life and social life of a Mien. Points of contact, relation to public space.
- The way their buildings are relevant by speaking of a history. Habits, mementos, non-functional additions to give a sense of belonging.
- The way buildings embody their aspirations, where does the good life come from, what is the apex of aspiration and how is it attained or how is it approximated? Concrete, AC, Upper storeys etc.
And then to the ways this project will interrupt the existing conversation of a given circumstances built forms and criteria towards which conditions might be modified:
- Distinct objectives of this mission. Passions particular of those involved.
- The symbolic function of this particular project.
- The scope of the process of designing and building to teaching new patterns of construction to the community, to enrich their range of possible forms and methods.
A Mien village architecture
One startling theme is that of kitsch (I risk appearing, nay being, patronising, I want to gesticulate a defensive apology, I cannot find another more sympathetic expression to this strange observation), the kitsch is particularly evident because it stands stark beside their own exquisite embroideries and is notable also for the cost of some of these mass-produced pieces. D thought the tile patterns terrible, comparing them to 1930s vinyl designs and perhaps this is it, that they, as we then, are making first generation entrances into industrially produced possibilities for decoration. That transfer of qualifications for that which is admirable is transferred much more directly, more linearly. Wood to faux wood, hand-carved to cast reliefs, painted to printed pictures and so on, a transfer of value accorded at a visual level ignorant of the means of production.
Presentation Rooms. Whatever the reason, there is a lack of subtlety, concealing or irony in their expressions of that which they would highly esteem. And within this, but also corresponding to a tradition in many cultures, some have reserved a room for presentation. This was in the one house, I could not apply to all but here, as in some corners of other houses, the plastic wrapping is left on the faux-polished metal-effect plastic handles to their wood-effect furniture. I'd love to know what the roots of this protective preciousness are.
Plastic Flora. Just as I was amazed by the proliferation of fake plastic flowers in Malaysia 2005, again here, in a land flowing with natural flora it seems baffling. Similar to this, in the house we stayed comfortably in our host had reinterpretted a popular form which uses tree trunks whole as supporting columns, in concrete had cast with crude grooves of bark and knots and painted over brown.
False Ceilings. Of other unexplained cultural memes, false ceilings in Mien churches. The neon-lit space is made claustrophobic and the ventilation is stifled by the addition of a grid of floral profiled ceiling panels, and D adds that this is a common request by the Mien for their churches, strange but these are their inherited images of what a church ought to look like.
So these things jarred with me, they jarred because they offend some lingering ideal of honesty to materials, but they jar more because these people are clearly adept at construction and talented at their own native decoration. I am sure that ways that I have bought into the dreams sold by modernity, parading foolishly with my digital camera, would be the more obvious to others than they appear to me as I examine myself. Further it is clear that the palette of material options is limited, having explored possible other tile varieties in local shops, they could have done worse, with Disney or pornographic tiling designs.
Glass. So these are ways we out-work our worldview by the fashions we subscribe to, I risk being simplistic, but I will plough on. Another strange and fairly rare aspiration would appear to be glazing, which would correspond to an airconditioned internal environment, yet without airconditioning. Without AC, the most obvious opening is a mosquito-screened opening with shutters. Perhaps this correlates with an embarrassment at the environment and a looking towards the city for models to emulate.
Enclosure. The houses' construction is sturdy, heavy timber beams clad with substantial board on board timber walling make for lightless spaces, enclosed but porous to mosquitoes, gloomy but still traps for heat. I want to explain the weight of construction by a protection from a dangerous environment, which perhaps I take too lightly. It wasn't mentioned, although at harvest time they do kill some big wild pigs who come out of the jungle at that time of year. Equally though a blocking out of the specifics of their locality, opting instead for a televised reality received through enormous satellite dishes perched on each and even bamboo roofs.
Rubbish Bins! A consistent feature, which had a deeply satisfying simplicity and elegance were these recycled tyre rubbish bins found in all of the villages we visited. I should love to know their history and design story. Tyres as a universal waste product, such a pressing need, such a simple design, such a simple mode of production, and a handsome form. And so unashamedly a former tyre as to beg the imagination to consider the story of that particular tyre, the miles it travelled before retiring to a life as a rubbish bin, and so unashamedly a former tyre as to provoke the imagination to to explore what other waste might be so dignifiedly re-purposed. Little other recycling goes on, as plastic in the stream and the smouldering mound behind the rice stores reflects, which is strange, for it is not for lack of willing to perform seemingly low grade manual tasks. One industry the Mien have excelled in is the production of those grassy strands for brooms which are collected from the hills, laid on the roadside to dry, painstakingly individually pruned, bunched, tied and transported for manufacture. If like Curitiba's subsidies for such, or somehow by more specific use of individual waste materials we could find a slim profit from their use, there is an opportunity here for one with the imagination to pursue it. If, like Rural Studio's tyre constructions, they could become building materials without transport to and from a tertiary processing plant more the better.
Tertiary Materials. In conversation about recycling and such we spoke briefly about a common point of reference, The Gods Must Be Crazy, a recurring reference in these conversations, if you haven't seen it, do, it is a subtle and humourous exploration of technology and waste, amongst other themes. Within this quandary one could equally question those government buildings, the school in the centre of the village, where Thai teachers com up daily to teach in Thai, or don't in the rainy season. These imperial and alien forms, roofed in alien steel frames stand aloof and unfeeling, an island of tertiary technology, unbelonging and irreparable. What do we do? How would Schumacher discern what appropriate intermediate technology would best serve this situation? Dignity and with it sustainability will be squeezed out unless a way of owning the task is given to the village.
Fuel. Their fuel is mostly wood, so gathering and storage accounts for some small part of their time and built fabric. The cooking for the most part is done under cover, perhaps to use the smoke as a mosquito deterent, perhaps for need in the wetter seasons. Some families burnt spent husks and cobs of maize and gathered round a pot over them. Sometimes burning other bits, rubber and such. One elaborate construction at a later village had formed a duct for smoke out of sheet metal and was cooking off a gas cylinder hob. They reported that there had been no significant fires in their village, which I want to believe, dry as the air was and gable to gable as the houses were.
Hardwood. Be it on our conscience, at their legal risk, and at someone's potentially considerable cost, if we use the timber that makes itself available at roadside yards. Managed forests exist but this is not a job that has resources for a supply chain manager. Anyone?
Split Bamboo. Reinventing split bamboo which is so pleasingly used in their rice barns was told squarely no. Would it be nice? No. Could we preserve it chemically? No. Even with the right bamboo? No. There was more going on than they would let us know, but that was about the most emphatic thing they expressed. No bamboo, no, not even if you romantic westerners think it looks nice.
Stools. I can't believe I haven't managed a clear photograph of these. All we sat on were the Asian standard pressed plastic chair and then stools, woven, or wired, bamboo or other. And that is how they spend great periods of the days, under the eaves that reach towards the street from their front door, in busy but sociable activity, arranging these broom things and doing embroidery.
Embroidery. It would be sad to be told this was kept alive only for the tourist dollar, and with the grannies and the locals still wearing them, one hopes, and those 'pants' or lui houx can take a year to complete a craft website tells me. There is a skill in so perfectly doing the stitching that the fabric is reversible, delightful from both sides, they are never worn reversibly, but that seems to be the mark of tidiness they were able to communicate. In town I saw possibly the loveliest trousers I have ever seen, different in pattern from the Mien, this Hmong embroidered piece exuded a joy in pattern alien to the noodle bar they found themselves in. Largely the crafters are the grannies, contented, peering over spectacles, who do it for habit, for joy, for money, but perhaps it will fade in the urban drifting generation. I'm so frustrated by my lack of language, I want to sit without translator and glean their motivating force and their worldview that gives this ornament meaning.
Clothes on outdoor racks. Why? For show, for moths, for superstition, for space? We visited in the dry season, how does this change seasonally?
Overhanging first floor. As the Tudors excelled in, there is a mode of timber construction which counterbalances the live loads on the beams internal by reaching the ends of the beams out beyond a pivot of the ground floor wall. The has the added benefit of offering some measure of rain and sun protection from lower floor timber and windows. It is a not unsophisticated pattern and one which economises timber.
So sum the way the Mien popularly build right now perhaps it could be generalised thus: Flimsy grade concrete blockwork up to window sill level between concrete foundation pillars scarf jointed to a timber frame, timber roof joists supporting colour asbestos roofing or tin. Some on conrete slab, some on earth, some eventually tiled.
Other bits: Ramped thresholds and motorbikes kept indoors. Padlocked bamboo doors. Neon lighting, strips at night in the street. Chicken prints on concrete roads
Other bits not from the village:
Multiple roofs stacked, tiered, in pleasing cascades of hat-like forms above the head and face of the building. This is a language of metaphor they have read and may yet comprehend, and while respecting the Royal and Temple resevations, there is an avenue of metaphor to communicate by.
Bright colours, not in village so much, although in school, acutely at temples, generally on businesses, painted with an eye to the environment where an abundance of Bougainvillea and Ratchaphruek trees set a bold and explosive colour precedent. And colour in their embroidery is layered with meaning beyond me.
Water towers, here is fun geometry.
Needs, Collaborations, Enquiries
- Powerful Cheap Passive cooling
- Economic Justice, Mien Kindergarten, Employment
~Theological, Cultural and Economic Self-sufficiency,
- Cashew Project, Collective, Perma-culture or other
- Reforesting - subsidies or none
- Terracing – a pattern of reinforcement to make their steep sided landscape more fruitful
The project is interesting, and if it goes as planned I may get to lay honest bricks in August time, and perhaps spend some slower time with a dear and fascinating people. The hope is to introduce patterns to make rural life viable, a cashew collective, a mien language kindergarten, a mode or terracing rice production, of utilising government reforestation subsidies. Previous projects of D's have inspired other villages to adopt design elements.
So it was an interesting and frequently happy time, with warm people, operating imaginatively within a often bleak situation. I feel helpless, callous and over-privileged. Have you ever prayed that peak oil would come tomorrow, the lights would go out and that we might make things with our hands again? Such is the fall out from hyper-modernisation, such is the dazed impotence of we who scrabble about dotting between the centres of power and the cultural waste at the fringes. I have really been impacted by a sense in my time here of the cultural toll that our generation's super-urbanisation is taking on Asia's social and relational fabric, and in that I am moved to urgently hope that the church might offer practical and long-term geographic even agricultural alternative frameworks, within its preaching of the gospel, before this urban model multiplies as one irreversible, human and environmental calamity. Too big a prayer?