Monthly Archives: November 2008

Thailand’s Airport “Woodstock”

The past four days of PAD’s occupation of Suvarnabhumi airport has been a bit like a party cum middle class woodstock. Grandmas and babies have joined the crowd, even the odd yellow bandana-ed pet. rio-h-nov08115.jpgrio-h-nov08136.jpg Food stands were giving away food and drinks, supplies were brought in by the truck load, the only vehicles to get by the razor wire barricades set up by the PAD. Vendors were making a killing selling the hand clappers, t-shirts, and sundries. On Friday, the fourth day, people were even getting haircuts and having their portraits drawn by artists, and the PAD’s emergency services were providing free clothing. People were sleeping wherever they could. Smiling, starry eyed middle class women and men were going up to reporters and telling them how this was a fight for a just cause, declaring this a “beautiful protest”.rio-h-nov08138.jpg rio-h-nov08143.jpgBut still there is a slightly ominous truth behind it. Thai society has become bitterly divided over the last few months, perhaps even years. The airport alone is losing more than a million dollars a day (they have left the power, air-conditioning, and even the muzak on) from lost revenues – 40,000 passengers a day have been stranded or rerouted. And the implications for Thailands economy isn’t that great either. A couple of businesses which have based their workings on supplying fresh imported goods have already gone bust, the country’s image as a reliable medical centre is damaged, not too mention it’s growing role as a transport and travel hub for Asia. 3000 stranded international travelers will spread the word, and tourism is going to suffer. The tensions between the various factions has led to violence, and eventually the shutdown has to be overcome. BBC has just reported that PM Somchai sacked his police chief this afternoon. So now we sit and wait.

up date on a-maze-in thailand, downer for tourism

Probably within half an hour of that last post things started to heat up. There have been shoot outs on the streets outside the protest areas between gangs, and the expressway to Suvarnabhumi airport is overrun with PAD and some opposing gangs. A taxi driver has been shot, but no one knows by whom. Thai TV is showing images of PAD supporters having taken over two floors of the new airport. Meanwhile PM Somchai is still in Peru as his plane seems to be suffering from ‘a technical problem’. Maybe both sides are feeling that this has to be the decisive moment? So last night the PAd overran the airport terminal, all flights were cancelled, thousands of tourists who had checked in and passed immigration are stranded at the airport, and a few thousand more who hadn’t checked in have tried to get back to town. Monica’s cousin Poum was at the airport trying to leave for Paris when the crowd broke in, she described in real time how the Thai airways ground staff simply took off (other airlines apparently held out longer!!), food outlets closed, and total chaos reigned. So travellers were literally left to their own devices. Thai tv showed tourists walking through traffic on the expressway. 26112008004.jpgTourism industry operators are in despair: not what they needed on top of the global economic downturn. The minister of tourism has been up allnight at the airport, and can only think about damage control – good luck. Perhaps the more optimistic elements of the tourist industry are projecting flat growth. They could be right if central issues (read government resigning) are resolved quickly. But both parties are stubborn, and CNN images of Thais shooting each other on the streets don’t help the country’s image much.

A-Maze-in Thailand…

Bewildering Thailand – could be the new slogan . TVs across the land are plugged into it. Dinner party conversations inevitably come to it: For months now the PAD vs government debacle has no resolution. The interesting thing is how a small minority like the PAD, who to be honest aren’t really offering anything near an Obama-like-change (and if you dug into their motivations probably aren’t that different from the people they are trying to oust), have managed to throw spanners into the whole political scene for months. My resident photog friends who cover these things describe rallies where long maned peaceniks share the platform with crewcut would be rambos. Ragtag is the short description. Yet a few thousand people can occupy buildings, grind Bangkok traffic down to more of a halt than before (bet you didn’t think that was possible) on a regular basis. Strangely they might achieve their goal not by popular people’s power but just by highlighting the government’s incapacity to deal with them. But all in all it ain’t good, and is ripping society apart. No one really wants to talk together realistically about what to do, and the King has so far publicly stayed out of it. The only effect that royalty currently has on the public scene is to put an unspoken moratorium on any political disturbance during events like the late Princess Galyani’s cremation. More than a week after the event literally millions of Thais have flocked to the site just to see where she was cremated, queueing up literally for hours to get a chance to tour the actual tower (which unlike the Balinese they don’t burn down). One minute they are manning the barricades, the next minute they are queueing up together after the fact to see a temporary royal site. Go figure… rio-h-nov08086lo.jpgrio-h-nov08089lo.jpgrio-h-nov08093lo.jpg So now the tension has been ratcheted up, with the police and military under standing order not to use any form of violence whatsoever (we will see how long that lasts), the courts are mulling whether to declare the ruling PPP party illegal, the PPP trying to push through favourable (for them) legislation in parliament, Thaksin swearing he will be back in Thailand in December, the PAD swearing they will bring the government down this week, business people just swearing, and no one seems to be able to compromise. Meanwhile a cowardly campaign of sporadically chucking hand grenades at the PAD encampment at night continues. It’s not that long before the King’s birthday (the 5th of December) which will bring another hiatus. Both sides might feel they will lose steam if they don’t come to shove before then – so, well who knows if one of them will go even further?


A quick trip up to Singapore last weekend for a meeting could have actually easily been a one day turn around. But It has been a while since I caught up with old friends Peter Schoppert (once a publisher, and a dotcom wiz, he is now with McKinsey & Company looking after external relations – but his real talent is simply being a genius about everything that’s going on!) and his wife Lee Chor Lin, a mover and shaker in Singapore’s museum world and who now runs the Singapore National Museum of Singapore. Chor Lin has injected a huge dose of life into NMS, overseeing the huge renovation and additions a few years ago, bringing in all kinds of interesting and contemporary exhibits.

Up right now are two contemporary photography exhibitions which, if you are in Singapore or have some time to spend there, are absolute musts to see.dsc_2448.jpg

They are both housed in the spacious underground exhibit halls, which is very fortunate for the first one especially – Robert Wilson’s “VOOM PORTRAITS.

This exhibit has travelled and is not new, but here each portrait gets a whole large cubicle like space to itself – every photogs dream. The portraits are video stills – almost. As you stand there standing at portraits of the likes of brad pitt, suddenly they move. It’s kind of eerie and wonderful. Wilson really catches you off guard with the minimalist movement, and a smooth indiscernible looping of the tapes.

The other exhibit, Chang Chien-Chi’s “Doubleness” is three of his exhibitions put together, which again is only possible in this fantastic space. The first one, from which the title comes is about the whole scene behind arranged marriages. Many of the images are disturbing and touching at the same time. Deceptively simple, straightforward shots from the inside of the registry counter, mass wedding setups, it all speaks of quiet desperation and quick fixes. The next section is disturbing in a different take on desperation: “Chains” shows portraits of inmates at an asylum which simply chains pairs of inmates together – slightly better of ones with dificult case. The theory being one would help the other. When you look at the images you get the feeling the opposite is going on. And this in our times. The last part is off Chinese migrant workers in New York, and the families they left behind – years of separation.

What is a bit sad about these exhibits is how few people were there. Most seemed to be those who had stumbled on it on their outing to see the “new’ museum. Both exhibits warrant a lot more publicity, both (especially Taiwanese Chang Chien-chi’s) have quite a lot to say about our contemporary world. A Sunday afternoon at the NMS is worth it, plus you get these two world class exhibits! Check it out:

On the ‘private’ side of Singapore’s art scene, Peter and Chor Lin took me down to the dockside were the inimitable Valentine Willy set up his latest fine art gallery (VWFA) in a warehouse – all white and huge. That is if you can find it on Keppel road inTanjong Pagar in a building called – wait for it – Distripark. (Here Valentine is seen consorting with the Grand Doyenne of singapore’s art scene, Marjorie Chu)

img_0477.jpgFilippo Sciasca (previously of Gaya) is showing a handful of his canvas takes on Carravagio. Brave of them to show just a few, and indeed that is how it should be: show only what needs to be shown. The canvas, cracked and crackled like some renaissance batik, are so thick with glue and resin that even when one of the frames broke during shipping, the canvas was so stiff that it stayed flat, so Filippo tells me. I like this collection, it does reach across the centuries. There were a lot of familiar faces down there, old Indonesia hands like Mary Edleson, and dancer Restu heavy with twins.


Looks like it will still be awhile before the arts get really popular in Singapore. So we (Peter, Chor Lin, Meena Mylvaganam and I) wind up the evening off Cuppage Center with mexican food and then some live music. A very slick Malaysian guitarist who is close to being a genius but seems stuck at the ‘wiz’ level . We call it a night at midnight and head home. I miss color here….img_0480.jpg

VISION….. AND THE LITERAL LACK OF IT. Two films from Balinale

The Balinale International Film Fetsival is well and truly over, showing some great films and some less so, and despite a couple of little tech hiccups at showings (in Ubud in particular, “someone get the circuit breakers…”) seems to have gone off well. Congrats to the organizers for helping to enrich Bali’s cultural pool. I have been meaning to post some comments about two films I saw, which deal with vision – and the literal lack of it. Why they intrigued me is of course very subjective on the one hand – Michael Wiese, who made “Sacred Sites of The Dalai Lamas: A Pilgrimage to the Oracle Lake”, is a friend and the subject matter is of course close to my heart; John Fawcett, who was the subject of God Made Them Blind, is also an old friend. On the other not-so-subjective hand, I am so glad to see more content-over-form film, where the film makers have simply focused on being dictated by the subject instead of spending time and money on fancy footwork. Granted there is a slightly amateurish tinge in both, but the awkwardness is overcome by the subject matter, and if anything makes it more real. I was glad not to have lots of clever visuals or mtv sensationalism interfere in either of these films. For a Tibetan Buddhist, watching Sacred Sites, a vaguely cinema verité take on a modern day Buddhist pilgrimage, really gives one the feel of being there. Though pilgrimages may sound like something exalted, there are also always the nitty gritty bits of travel which enforce reality checks – logistical obstacles, sickness, fatigue, and so on. If anything pilgrimages are really about what happens inside us as we confront all of this, as well as how we absorb the extraordinarily sacred places we visit. The places we see and experience in this film are remote not only in space but in time as well. It feels like being a 21st time traveller in 16th century Tibet, and for a Tibetan Buddhist, it is like treading on hallowed ground – caves of great masters like Guru Rinpoche, Atisha, Milarepa and other famed hermits attained enlightenment, valleys where spiritual communities of the highest order lived and flourished, and finally the oracle lake where the history-determining visions are sought. We travel in the company of Glen Mullin, a living legend for Tibetan Buddhists, and the irrepresible Bhutanese teacher, venerable Khenpo Tashi. The simple, hand held camera work, the candidness of musician Steve Dancz’s narration make it an intimate encounter. When you watch these scenes you know that these are not ordinary places. The “vibe” comes through. It is a kind of vindication for Michael, who, strapped with the technological reality of recording this journey, obviously had to sacrifice some sense of the sanctity of the pilgrimage – if nothing else working when others were meditating!

In “God Made Them Blind”, film maker (what else do you call someone who like Michael also wrote, directed and produced their film?) Richard Todd spent more than four years documenting the extraordinary community work of John Fawcett in Bali. John Fawcett, who is an earthy western Australian ceramicist, has devoted the last decade or two to providing free eye operations for literally tens of thousands of poor Balinese. After a traumatic nearly crippling accident, the pain from which left him in a state of deep depression, John somehow found his way to Bali. Here he found inspiration to move forward again, and one day he came upon the idea to set up a mobile clinic. That is the short version. The story itself is told with refreshing, humble candor, and we follow John in his encounters with poor Balinese farmers and fishing folk, slowly overcoming their superstitions: “God made them blind” said one farmer about 8 of 12 his children who were genetically blinded by an operable condition, for 12 years refusing to let John have them operated on; the moment he finally relents is caught on camera in an almost anitclimactic yet touching way – which is how most of these moments actually do happen. There are several stories intertwined, and different reactions: moments of quiet joy and wonder when vision is restored to the one of the girls referred to in the title, the bewilderment and wonder of a two year old who had never seen anything before in her life, the quiet, resigned disappointment of a older peasant woman who, after finally being convinced to see the doctor, found she had left it too long and could not be helped. Through it all is John’s life story, his pain, and his dedication to this extraordinary service: by most counts the program has successfully given sight back to twenty five thousand Balinese. And Richard, bless him, helps us see this. My hat is off to both these film makers, who have documented inspiration with the minimum of fuss.