So, today I went to San Kamphaeng Road (I may have the spelling wrong there, but since I’ve seen at least three transliterations today, I’m not sure it matters), where the craft factories/showrooms are. In fact they’re more showrooms and demo sites than factories…there’s precious little actual production going on there, but it’s great for learning.
San Kamphaeng Road runs from the outskirts of Chiang Mai to the town of San Kamphaeng, I think nine or ten kilometers in all. You can get there in one of four ways: on a bus tour, hiring a tuktuk (three-wheeled golf cart) driver, taking a public songtao (pickup-taxi), or under your own power (usually a rented motorbike or car). The choice turns out to be quite important, as how much money you have determines how much the shops overcharge you.
In particular, if you take a tuktuk, the driver collects a commission on anything you buy (secretly added to your quoted price), and gods help you if you arrive with a group tour: they’re charged double (literally) what individual tourists pay, and the shopkeepers won’t negotiate. Basically, the factories make their money by shamelessly overcharging group tourists–they’re typically short-term tourists with more money than time, who haven’t a clue about local pricing, and (probably) come with high agency commissions. Individual tourists get an upfront 20-50% off the posted prices, and you can negotiate way down from that.
So anyway, I took a public songtao to San Kamphaeng town, decided town was boring, and hopped a songtao back to the first set of factories. I stopped by a silver factory first, where they were hammering out repousse silver, then went by a celadon workshop, a lacquer workshop, a weaving place, and a bronzeworks (unfortunately the bronzeworks weren’t demo-ing).
Repousse silver turns out to be really amazing stuff. It’s 92.5-100% silver, and hand-hammered from start to finish. A 6″ shallow bowl starts life as a 4″ disk of silver about 3/16″ thick; the disk is rolled or hammered into a flatter disk, and then heated and hand-hammered to form a rough bowl shape. By this time it’s quite thin, the whole bowl weighs maybe three ounces.
Now the worker changes to a smaller, more delicate hammer, and hammers the bowl on a small round anvil, tapping quite delicately and rotating the bowl from side to side to obtain a smooth curve, with almost no visible hammer-marks. The bowl is now smooth with a few hammer-marks, and very thin.
At this point they do something to hammer in the basic design–I’m not sure what exactly because it wasn’t being demoed, but it produces a very rough outline of the shapes. Then they melt large sheets of tar, fill the bowl with tar (with a stick in it to make handling the bowl easier), and wait for the tar to cool. (This provides a malleable backing to soften hammer-blows.)
Now the worker takes a collection of patterned stamps (they look like a bunch of precision screwdrivers with patterned ends) and begins hammering at the bowl. Straight stamps produce straight lines; little triangles, leaves, bird-heads, and so on. It’s painstaking work; it can take ten or fifteen minutes just to put a series of straight lines around a bowl. Each of the repousse bowls is absolutely covered in intricate pattern-stamps…so I can’t imagine it takes less than ten hours to do a bowl, start to finish. They’re beautiful.
Anyway, after watching the demos (yes I did take pictures and will post them when I get a chance), I wanted to get a small repousse piece myself, but was a bit intimidated by the prospect of bargaining for it. It’s hard to get over the highly American conviction that to offer less than the asking price is insulting the vendor–especially with respect to craftswork, since artisans are typically underpaid anyway. It didn’t help that as soon as I arrived a salesperson would follow me around, trying very hard to cater to/anticipate my every need. In the U.S., of course, labor is usually the most expensive part of any operation, so to take up a salesperson’s time without buying anything is a hideously rude thing to do. (Conversely, it’s extremely rude for a salesperson to hover, because it creates an implied debt/pressure to buy.) It’s really really hard to get over this, at least for me. Some people take to it immediately. So I didn’t buy anything.
Next down the street was a celadon painting place. Celadon is a type of ceramic glaze which is made from the ashes of some sort of wood; it produces a nice translucent green color which is reminiscent of jade (in fact it was an early form of faux jade). They had plain celadon, and also some very lovely painted pieces (also have photos of those). Not much to say about that since it’s all very straightforward–they rough in the design in charcoal, paint in the various patterns (took two photos of a half-finished dragon vase), and then fire it. They also had some people carving designs into bowls–the bowls are cast, dried until the clay has a leather-like consistency, and then carved with what look suspiciously like linoleum-carving tools.
After that I ran into a lacquer showroom, which was totally empty–they had to turn on the lights for me, and three or four salespeople followed me around as I was looking at things. Signs everywhere proclaimed a 50% discount–which I assumed was simply the non-group-tour pricing. (I don’t know what they do when a minibus appears–run around and gather up the discount signs? They certainly have enough people to do it.) Anyway, I looked around for a bit, found a very nice pattern of Celtic knotwork mixed with more traditional patterns, bargained for a set of containers suitable for eggwork, but wound up only getting the square box. While I was waiting for them to wrap up the box, I started a conversation with the owner about how they make lacquered boxes.
A confession: I don’t think much of lacquer. I think because I’ve always associated it with cheap stuff you get for a few bucks in Chinese discount stores. But this stuff was definitely above the average, though not as stunning as the wood or silverwork…
Anyway, I’m not sure how we got started on it, but we wound up talking all about the history of lacquer, how they make it, and engaging in the universal commiseration of artists about how art never pays. It turns out that lacquer in Thailand is about 100 years old; it arrived from China and Burma (China–> Burma and Burma–> Thailand mostly), and was popularized in Chiang Mai after the Burmese invaded Thailand and took over the city. It’s made by flattening bamboo, then painting it with black lacquer, then scratching the black and applying/rubbing in colored lacquers. For the black lacquer, they use dye from a local tree: use a knife to create long slashes in the bark, then wait several hours for the dye to run down. At this point, it’s white; to use it in lacquer, you have to wait several more hours for the dye to turn black (oxidation?). The other colors are also natural, and come from a variety of trees, plants, etc. (Yes, those were my fingers you saw twitching–I love natural dyes.)
Anyway, a good lacquer worker is apparently very fast, and can make a lacquer plate in 3 hours or so. He lamented, though, that lacquer is a dying art; all of his 20 workers are old, and no one new is learning. It takes time to learn, and younger people can make better money elsewhere, so they’re not interested. When he realized I was interested in the craft of lacquer (and not just as something cheap to stick on your coffeetable) he said he’d try to get me a cheaper price on the five boxes I had been looking at, and offered to take me up tomorrow to show me around the factory. He also asked how long I was going to be in Chiang Mai and what I’d seen–I think he was going to offer to show me around, or introduce me at the other artisans in the area. I told him I was leaving tomorrow, but would be back, and he gave me his card and his cell number and told me to call him when I came back into town. Very sweet guy, I’m looking forward to seeing his “factory” tomorrow, and will definitely look him up once I’m back in Chiang Mai.
He also said that business is way down…Noi said the same thing, there are about 30% fewer tourists than usual, and the ones who are here aren’t spending. He told me that the road used to be packed with minibuses, and he could sell without offering discounts…but with the terrorist worries, business is very very bad. He had a woman demonstrating lacquermaking outside, but had to send her home, and pay her on commission rather than on salary. I hope they all make it through OK.
(Tourism in general in Thailand is way down…and in Phuket, it’s even worse: 50% of normal. This suggests I might be able to get a good deal on diving–don’t know.)
The weaving place was just amazing. If I got started on the ingenious design of Thai looms I’d never stop, so I think I’ll save that description for the spinners’ list (unless you really want to know the gory details of treadle harnesses, shuttle throwing, and reed design). But they had demos also of silkworm rearing, moths, and reeling off the silk cocoons…they have a really cool device for reeling silk that I must construct once I get home. (I tried to buy one, but they weren’t selling. *sigh*) It’s hopeless to describe–the closest I can come is a small open barrel/wheel (think hamster wheel) set on top of a steaming cauldron full of cocoons. Strands of silk run through a small hole and up over the barrel; the operator simply pulls the strand of silk, and the cocoons reel off easily.
The really ingenious part of this, if you’ve ever tried hand-reeling cocoons, is that this method doesn’t require attaching individual filaments by hand. There are a hundred or more cocoons in the pot, and the jostling ensures that new fibers are picked up as old ones break, etc. –so the reeling can be done more or less continuously. This is way faster than the usually recommended method, which involves finding the end of each individual cocoon with a toothbrush. If there aren’t enough filaments, they stir the pot with a cleft wooden stick to encourage more filaments to adhere.
They also had photos and descriptions of the natural dye colors used on silk, but since they were in Thai, they unfortunately didnt’ mean much to me. I may drag Noi there to see if she can help. (Well, after I finish up in Bangkok, that is.)
I’m embarrassed to admit that I bought a half-kilogram of reeled silk, despite having no idea what I’m going to do with it. So much for my firm resolve to stop stockpiling useless crafts stuff. On the other hand, as a souvenir of Thailand I can’t think of anything I’d like better. Finished work is so boring. 😉
Last stop was a “bronze factory”, where they took one look at my bulging bags and immediately steered me to the expensive jewelry section. After I escaped from there, a salesperson followed me around through the rest of the store, which consisted of some very nice jade carvings, some cheap jade sculpture, some so-so bronzes (mostly Buddhas), and some stunning large bronze sculptures. (Fortunately shipping the life-size bronze tiger would have been an ungodly nightmare, so I didn’t have to resist the urge to get one for my nonexistent living room.) Luckily, just as the hovering salesperson was really starting to get to me, my phone rang–Richard, the body-painter. He’s sacked the first photographer (not good enough), gotten a better studio, and is 3,000 baht over budget, is that OK? (Yes, of course it is. Don’t be silly. 😉 )
Anyway, by the time we worked out the details, the hovering salesperson had vanished, and I’d somehow mysteriously decided that I needed a jade sword. Or dagger. Dagger is closer to it: it’s about 18″ long (best guess), stone, and has a dragon carved into the blade. I asked the salesperson for the price, she said 12,500 baht (which was not only clearly outrageous but also way out of my range), I said no way, and she said, “How much? Nine thousand?” So we did some bargaining, and I wound up getting it for 6,000 baht–but I had to swear up and down that I wasn’t part of a group tour, and wasn’t staying at any fancy hotel, first. (My guess: they don’t want to give any discounts to group tours, because it would create endless trouble if word ever got out; also, if they give a discount to one, they’ll have to give discounts to all of them, plus any of their friends who might come to Thailand (etc.). And, group tours are the people with money, the ones who make up the bulk of their income.)
So now I have a jade sword, of sorts. It goes with the jade stone in the “tiara” I’ve been making for the barbarian warrior photo shoot: a large jade cabochon set in the center, with handmade silver leaves on either side. It’s quite pretty, and makes me look sort of like an Indian princess. How this reconciles with the chunky necklace rusted fish spear, and big bamboo bow, I’m not quite sure, but I’m sure we’ll think of something…
I also *almost* bought a jade elephant, out of nostalgia for my college days…the sign for Dabney House is a green elephant (long story), and I thought it would be pretty cool to have my own green elephant. But after the sword, I decided I’d better quit. 😉
(The shop people were all very amused by the sword. One of them asked me, “You use it, or only decoration?” I said, “No, no! Only decoration! Already broke up with boyfriend, what I use it for?!?” …okay, for a domestic violence advocate, that’s a horrible joke–but it was still funny.)
After that I walked another kilometer or so on the way back, before catching another songtao back into town. In a little bit, when the cafe closes, I’m going to head down the street to see if I can catch a glimpse of the gateois.
So the net of Chiang Mai seems to be that I have one contact in the lacquerware factory guy (I pointed him at my website), one contact for textiles (ooh, hurt me 😉 ), a lot of photos of craftwork, and a jade sword. I’ll see which of those I can get up on my website, but if it doesn’t happen tonight, I imagine it’ll be a few days. As soon as I get back to Bangkok, it’ll be body painting; and that will, of course, generate another slew of photos.
Hmm, maybe I’ll come straight back to Chiang Mai after the body painting, and hang out for a few days while I catch up on all the travel writing.