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Bangkok has been at the frontier of capitalism's drive into the global south for three decades. Rapid development has profoundly altered public and private life in Thailand.
In her provocative study of contemporary commerce in Bangkok, Ara Wilson captures the intimate effects of the global economy in this vibrant city.
The Intimate Economies of Bangkok is a multifaceted portrait of the intertwining of identities, relationships, and economics during Bangkok's boom years. Using innovative case studies of women's and men's participation in a range of modern markets—department stores, go-go bars, a popular downtown mall, a telecommunications company, and the direct sales corporations Amway and Avon—Wilson chronicles the powerful expansion of capitalist exchange into further reaches of Thai society. She shows how global economies have interacted with local systems to create new kinds of lifestyles, ranging from "tomboys" to corporate tycoons to sex workers.
Combining feminist theory with classic anthropological understandings of exchange, this historically grounded ethnography maps the reverberations of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity at the hub of Bangkok's modern economy.
Two of Bangkok's well-known tourist attractions offer clues for understanding the powerful effects of the global economy unfolding in Thailand today. The first attraction is the photogenic "floating market," the early-morning market in canals where women sell produce and goods from small canoes. The second is the commercial zone of "Chinatown," specifically Sampeng Lane, a dense street of wholesale shophouses. By evoking colorful markets from Thailand's past, these attractions point to the cultural, even intimate, properties of the economy.
Floating markets feature women in indigo clothes and straw hats selling fruits, vegetables, snacks, and also T-shirts, silk garments, and knickknacks. On the banks of the canal, warehouse-sized stores are piled high with souvenirs. Organized tours take tourists a few hours outside Bangkok proper to visit "one of the most authentic left in Thailand," where they can purchase items and take photographs of "this millennium old tradition [on the] verge of extinction."
The distinctive picture of the vendors in their small boats, loaded with baskets of produce, offers arecognizable symbol of Thai traditions. Images of the floating market pervade the tourist archive, providing a standard graphic for postcards, coffee-table books, T-shirts, and posters. The familiar boat loaded with produce even appears on an English-language government pamphlet about venereal disease (see figure 1). Cultivated first for the foreign gaze, the image of the floating market has also come to symbolize Thailand and Thainess in materials oriented to Thais. Recently, a photo of women in boats filled with produce was circulated with the phrase "Thais help Thais." The slogan itself was widely employed in a government effort encouraging Thais to buy domestic goods and to rally together following the 1997 economic crisis that began in Bangkok and spread across the Asian region.
Even if most of the examples of floating markets around Bangkok are now choreographed for the tourist economy, this water-borne exchange harks back to a long stretch, if not quite a "millennium old," of Thai history, when canals and rivers provided the major arteries and Westerners called Bangkok the Venice of the East. They illustrate the water-oriented nature of the traditional life of the Thai, whose houses were built on stilts by the rivers that irrigated their rice fields. Perhaps unintentionally, these tourist attractions also highlight a constant observation about Thailand and much of Southeast Asia: that local markets are worlds of women, and that women conduct a good deal of the local trade. By at least the nineteenth century, market women-mae kha (mother traders)-exchanged produce, cowries, Mexican coins, Indian rupees, and Thai coinage with traveling male Chinese vendors, acting as the frontier of the market economy in their villages. In any given Bangkok neighborhood and throughout the Southeast Asian region, women vendors still predominate in small markets. Peasant women bring extra produce to nearby market areas or specialize in selling prepared foods, handicrafts, petty commodities, and contraband.
The prevalence of women in markets is virtually a cliche in observations about Thailand, and there are numerous studies of market women. Yet when it comes to discussing the Thai economy, their presence is generally forgotten. Their absence from the discussion results from gendered conceptions of the economy and of Thai identity. In academic, economic, and popular understandings, the "Thai" people and Thai culture have been envisioned as separate from the market economy, largely because Theravada Buddhism is central to Thai society (it is the state religion), and Buddhism is often understood as a nonmaterialistic religion. In this way, discourses about Thainess have often erased Thai women's key roles at the economic and cultural crossroads of markets of Thai society. Instead, the emergence of the modern, capitalist economy is typically credited solely to immigrants from China and their Sino-Thai children, an ethnic economy represented in the second tourist site to which I turn.
"Chinatown" is the English name given to a large and variegated market area of old Bangkok. It is known for a patchwork of commerce that includes imported fruit, vegetables, and prepared food; apothecary shops and street stalls peddling sexual aids; bazaars selling secondhand junk and counterfeit goods; and stores specializing in luxury textiles, electronics, coffins, and gold. The best-known market within this area is Sampeng Lane. Sampeng is a tightly packed strip lined by hundreds of small wholesale shops selling imported and domestically made goods: fabric by the yard, paper and plastic goods, novelty items, and bags and hats bearing contemporary logos (often imitations of well-known brands, like Gap or Polo), packaged in dozens.
Despite its claustrophobic feel, Sampeng Lane has been an attraction for visitors at least since the 1960s, when the "News for Nang and Nang Sao" (News for Mrs. and Miss) column in the leading English-language newspaper wrote of its "frequent listing as one of the 'sights to see' in Bangkok." The article explained, "Sampeng Lane is not a tourist trap but is a strictly utilitarian market." Unlike the typical floating market, sightseers come to see utilitarian, business-as-usual operations of merchants, hawkers, deliverymen, and buyers. They also come to savor the area's "local color." Tourist guides encourage trips to Chinatown, providing helpful maps of the many lanes that crisscross Sampeng and sketching the area's "colorful" history of gang fights, prostitution, and opium dens.
Chinatown and floating markets signal Thai history, tradition, and culture, particularly in contrast with the modern urbanity-the shopping malls, high-rise buildings, go-go bars, or outlying factories-that characterizes more and more of Bangkok. To Thais, they signify different elements of the country's past. To foreign tourists from industrialized countries, they provide the experience of "otherness" that is one of the aims of such travel. Thailand was never colonized by the West. Still, lingering images of ethnic enclaves in port cities from the era of Europe's colonial empires in Asia inform many foreigners' perception of Chinatown and other features of Thailand.
It is noteworthy that particular economic forms serve as symbols of tradition and culture when Thai tradition is typically envisioned apart from the market economy. The historical floating market trade is an example of petty commodity exchange that is based on a surplus of farm products; its traders do not accumulate wealth through this trade. Shophouses typically are small businesses, often owned by a family, of a form called merchant capitalist or comprador capitalist. (See figure 2.) This merchant trade allows businesses to make and reinvest profit (one of the hallmarks of capitalism) and employ wage labor. As examples of Thai history, they reveal traces of modernity within Thai tradition. Well before the massive tourist industry, Chinatown's trade and even peasant markets were integrated into national and international economies. Old-time floating markets, mimicked in tourist versions, were intricately connected to the economic and modernization projects of the kingdom: the canals that women vendors gathered on were designed by the Siamese state to facilitate the export-oriented rice trade, which expanded exponentially from at least the 1850s on, and women's trading was connected to the commercialization of their family farming.
To say that these markets were and are integrated into a larger economic system shaped by international capitalism is not to deny that these trades differ from the economies of global corporations. The older economies of vernacular bazaars and urban merchant trade differ in terms of scale, infrastructure, organization, and values and, significantly, in the ways they are embedded in local communities and culture. The contrast between these traditional markets and modern retail crystallizes the drastic changes that have taken place in marketing, first in the 1950s and 1960s and then dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. Such broad-sweeping changes to the local flavor of markets make the hawker and merchant compelling tourist attractions. The appeal of such older venues for modern visitors derives less from the nature of their actual economic functions than from their cultural qualities.
The "color" of these antiquated markets derives from their real or suggested connections to older ways of life, indicated by the presence of social worlds, cultural practices, and particular identities. Around Sampeng, numerous Chinese shrines and temples, shark-fin or noodle soup restaurants, and Chinese-language signs lend a distinctly ethnic cast to this commercial space. Most of Sampeng's trade is connected with the Chinese minority of Thailand. This trade involves community, specifically kin and ethnic networks. Shophouse businesses that bundle pocketbooks, sneakers, or keychains for shipment abroad are typically family concerns, drawing on family members' labor and support. The place of families in the public floating markets might be invisible, but the economic roles of women traders-even in the tourist economy-are inseparable from patterns of kinship.
Another way that these premodern market attractions signal cultural tradition is through the people associated with them. In both the floating market and the Sampeng shophouse, the figure of the vendor is key. For the boat seller, the straw hat and indigo peasant clothes or colorful sarong demarcate her role. The Sampeng merchant is less marked by costume than by ethnicity and surroundings. For Thai observers, Chinese male bosses (tao kae) form a codified figure, the Sino-Thai commercial family is an established formation, and even their shophouses present a recognizable architectural-economic form. The figures of Thai female vendors or of Chinese shopkeepers are marked by gender and national-ethnic identities as well as by class associations of peasant or bourgeoisie; their identities symbolize older economic systems and ways of life.
As even this cursory sketch suggests, in the historical floating market and present-day Sampeng Lane shophouse, social worlds are intertwined with economic systems. Paddling vendors and Chinese shrines are connected to local ways of life. Another example of the overlap of social identities and economies can be seen in the use of kinship terms for the roles involved in commercial exchange: the term for female vendor (mae kha) means "mother trader" or "mother of trade"; phaw kha for male vendor means "father of trade"; and luuk kha for consumer means "child of trade." This integration of social and economic systems conveys the presence of intimate life, at least in old-fashioned economies. This is how these tourist markets provide clues for understanding the global economy. They invite the question, What is intimate about capitalist modernity?
One of the fundamental questions in current scholarship on the global south in general is how the linked processes of globalization, modernization, and transnational capitalism affect people's everyday lives. Capitalist development in Thailand has changed the stage for citizens' identities, subjectivities, communities, and relationships. It has transformed the ways people support themselves and their families and live day to day, altered the class composition of the country and city, and generated a powerful consumer culture that informs all manner of identities. The effects of capitalist modernity are far reaching, entering the intimate realms of daily life. But the global economy itself is typically seen as lacking the texture of local culture. As the tourist attractions of the floating market and Sampeng Lane illustrate, the effects of global capitalism are often registered as a loss of the social and cultural dimensions of economic realms. The implicit contrast between a multinational chain store and a floating market implies that modern commerce diminishes the intimate texture of public economic realms. The Intimate Economies of Bangkok challenges these assumptions by revealing the intimacy within modern global capitalist venues. It might seem paradoxical to look for the intimacy of capitalism, a hegemonic economic system that, almost by definition, is seen as nonintimate and impersonal. To eyes steeped in contemporary urban worlds, modern capitalism lacks the social texture so visible in the floating market or Chinatown. Certainly such signs of social meanings and relationships as ethnicity, gender, and kinship-so visible in antiquated markets-are harder to register amid the shiny surfaces and generic uniforms of modern transnational capitalist institutions. And as I show, the intersection of market economies and intimate life has undeniably been transformed with capitalist development. Yet, as I also show, intimate identities and relationships, specifically gender, ethnicity, and sexuality have been and continue to be centrally involved in the operations of modernizing markets. Just as floating markets and Chinatown are in their own way modern, newer commercial venues also include social and cultural dimensions, even where these are not easily seen. Understanding the intimate aspects of capitalist markets illuminates the power of and limits on the global economy's ability to remake social worlds.
This book explores the intimate qualities of increasingly global capitalist economies in Bangkok by examining specific commercial sites. Each chapter is grounded in a different kind of market: department stores, the tourist sex trade, a popular downtown mall, a telecommunications marketing office, and Amway and Avon (direct sales). These markets are "modern" in that they are contemporary, shaped by transnational flows, and are associated with and helped to propel modernization in Thailand. Each example captures a moment where commodified exchange is extending its reach into social life-into sexual, domestic, and romantic arenas-and expanding its role in defining public and personal identities. Together, these different venues of the capitalist economy illustrate the "local color" and social and cultural texture of global capitalism in Bangkok.
The term intimate economies in the title of this book introduces its rubric for analyzing interactions between economic systems and social life, particularly gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. By intimate, I mean features of people's daily lives that have come to seem noneconomic, particularly social identities (e.g., woman) and relationships (e.g., kinship); by calling these intimate, I mean to capture the deeply felt orientations and entrenched practices that make up what people consider to be their personal or private lives and their individual selves. I take the ethnographic view of identities as inextricable from, and realized through, social relationships. The use of the plural economies recognizes that there are different economic systems even within the same society. My approach is premised on the often-overshadowed notion that economic systems are not separate from intimate life, as orthodox conceptions of the economy suggest, but are inextricable from social relations and identities. According to cultural anthropology, economic systems incorporate social and cultural realms that are typically considered "private" and separate from the formal economy. Inversely, critical social theory suggests that social life is not separate from, but linked with, economic affairs. Just as intimate life (e.g., gender identities, sexual relationships, and ethnic ties) crosses into the public arena of markets and jobs, those public realms profoundly affect people's private interactions and self-conceptions. The ways that global capitalist economies involve and shape identities and relationships differ from earlier modes, as I illustrate in the portraits of various Bangkok markets. But in this broad anthropological perspective, economic systems-even corporate capitalism-are composed of social and cultural processes and are lived in daily life. By intimate economies, then, I mean the complex interplay between these intimate social dimensions and plural economic systems in a context shaped by transnational capitalism.
Excerpted from The Intimate Economies of Bangkok by Ara Wilson Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations
Notes on Transliteration and Dates
1. From Shophouse to Department Store
2. The Economies of
Intimacy in the Go-Go Bar
3. MBK: The Retail Revolution and the Infrastructure of Romance
4. The Flexible Citizens of IBC Cable TV
5. The Avon Lady, the Amway Plan, and the Making of Thai Entrepreneurs
Conclusion: The Intimacy of Capitalism