Ethnography Project I (Family Origins)
I began my ethnography project as a way to teach university students basic research skills while practicing English. In Thailand, it is common for students to copy material without guilt, and essays are usually cut-and-paste directly off the Internet. Therefore, I decided to have them research something that they wouldn’t plagiarize – their own family backgrounds and village life. Based on ethnographic principles, I requested that my students interview Thai elders (using my own list of questions) and write reports on the results. I edited this material later to create inexpensive mini-textbooks to use in other English classes.
In this first installment, I had students interview elders about their family origins. Where did they come from? When did they move to the Ayutthaya province? What was life like in their village decades ago? I wrote two ethnography reports of my own for this section, which I used in class to model how the research needed to be done.
1) Sanga (age 72) – Her family came to the Ayutthaya province over 50 years ago. She believes that her family originated in the Ban Mon area of the old empire (on the western side of the island), but they might have retreated to Bangkok for a short time. They now live with other people from the Mon ethnic group at Wat Kai-Teaw near Bang Pa-in. Many Muslims live in the nearby village of Kong Ta-Kiem, but her village is not Muslim. Journeys were very uncomfortable as a child. There were no roads in Ayutthaya and bamboo forests were located around their home. They used candles because there was no electricity. People worked in rice paddies and children often studied with monks at a temple, especially if it was a big family. Most people didn’t continue education beyond high school. Near her home she has discovered old plates and bowls by the river. She believes that Ayutthaya needs to promote its OTOP program more (one village, one product). Young people should return to their hometowns to help develop them. They need to respect their family and help elders.
2) Say (age 72) – Her family came to Ayutthaya 72 years ago. She was born in this city and lives in an old house near the Chao Phraya River. She has a Mon heritage. They bought land from another family member and built their home by themselves. She has never found any artifacts near her home, but remembers many stories about the Burmese invasion. She believes that Ayutthaya needs to improve old monuments and develop the province. She wants young people to remember to come to Ayutthaya and study its history, because it is part of Thailand’s heritage.
3) Sangworn (age 68) – His family originally came from Burma. They are Mon people who moved to Ayutthaya three years before he was born. His grandfather moved to Ayutthaya to become a politician in the Nakorn Loung district. His grandfather knew a soldier who sold him the property. Families survived by farming and small businesses. The family businesses were run as a cooperative. The Pasak River was the main resource for the Nakorn Loung people. Boats were used for transportation and trade. They bathed in the river and used its water for farming, but now there are cement and steel factories. The area has become an industrial complex. They can’t use the river anymore. As a child, he found some artifacts in his neighborhood. He calls them “meed aran yik” (toy knights?). They are made from iron and are very beautiful and strong. The Nakorn Loung Palace is located near this property. He remembers several ghost stories about thieves who were punished for stealing from ruined temples. Younger men used to go to festivals to meet girls and fall in love. Sangworn believes that Thai people should teach their offspring to have passion for their hometown. Ayutthaya needs to improve, but you have to improve first the people who live in Ayutthaya. He wants young people to love Thailand and be thankful for its culture and tradition.
4) Mae (55) – Her grandfather came to Ayutthaya from Pakistan. He married a local woman who practiced Muslim traditions. They lived on the northern side of the island near the Pakistani mosque. When she was young the area was surrounded by forest. There were no homes or buildings in that part of the city. They bought the property from a friend and lived off the river with a big family. She believes Ayutthaya could improve the old places of the past. Young people should love the place where they live and preserve old buildings.
5) Chor (age 70) – His family came to the area more than 70 years ago. The family has a Thai background, which they feel leads back to the old empire. They now live in the Bangban district in Angthong. As a child there were no roads. People used boats for all transportation. He worked as a farmer. Chor believes that Ayutthaya needs to clean up the garbage around the temples. World Heritage Sites shouldn’t be cluttered with litter. Young people should be proud of Thailand and love it.
6) Sa-Nguon (age 82) – She originally came to Ayutthaya from Bangkok 41 years ago. She lives off the island in the Vietnamese (Yuan) district. There were many trees around her home at that time. It was quiet and not busy with traffic. The family lived in an old house without electricity. There were no televisions or electronic machines. She thinks that Ayutthaya needs to grow more trees. Younger people should preserve old places and behave themselves.
7) Ladda (age 72) – She came to Ayutthaya before World War II. Her family lived in a slum in Bangkok (Sam Saen) as Vietnamese refugees. The King gave this land to the Yuan people. Her grandfather moved to the Sena district to get married. The new family rented land from the Catholic church for very cheap. The family fished for a living in the Sena canals. A French missionary, Father Broza, came to Sena to promote his religion. He was a friendly man who helped many people learn the English language. Father Broza wanted to build a school for the Catholic community, so he asked this family to help him purchase land. At that time foreigners could not buy Thai property, so her grandfather became owner of “Rad Bumrung Silp” school. Her grandfather tended the school and her family became teachers. Father Broza went back to France and a Portuguese priest, Father Leona De Jesus took over. Ladda wants the government to help increase the education level of children in Ayutthaya. She feels that younger people should believe in God and go to church every week.
8) Pa Chit (age 80) – She moved to Ayutthaya about 17 years ago. Her grandfather was Chinese, and he came to Ayutthaya to settle down and marry. Her family survived in the Hua Ror market as traders and shop keepers. She was given her current home by her father. She remembers that in 1967 temple looters would try to sell gold and gold leaves at the Hua Ror market. The treasure was considered state property. Allegedly, the thieves were punished by supernatural forces that made them sick or go crazy. She notes that there are more and more homes being built in the Hua Ror area. Teenagers like to ride noisy motorcycles very fast. She worries about this conduct. She believes that younger people should become interested in Buddhism and go to temples.
9) Daeng (age 78) – His grandfather came from China and married his grandmother who was Thai. They originally lived in Prachinburi. This place had many foreigners and most people worked as farmers. During World War II, his family moved to Ayutthaya. His sister got married so they family stayed. Transportation was very different between the two cities. In Prachinburi most people used trains, but in Ayutthaya the population used river craft. The canals and rivers of Ayutthaya were filled with boats. The family survived by gardening and growing mangoes, but they could not continue because their crops were destroyed during the Second World War. He then got up early in the morning to sell pork by boat. Dang believes that the government should take care of Ayutthaya’s rivers and canals. Ancestors protected the city for 417 years. They sacrificed with their blood and their lives. Therefore, younger people must also take care of Ayutthaya. They need to learn more about the city and teach it to foreigners.
10) Chamaiporn (age 69) – Her grandmother and grandfather both came from China. Her grandfather decided to conduct trade in Ayutthaya, so he brought his family to the city. Her family lived off the island opposite Hua Ror market, near the funeral pyre of Wat Prasat. There were many trees and temple in this area. There were many artifacts in the area: kitchenware and iron products. All the buildings were made from wood. They made their living at first by selling Moo Sa Tea (baked pork). Her aunt and mother bought a house together and shared it as a beauty shop (near Chamaiporn). She believes that the government should take better care of the canals and rivers. The streets should be cleaned more often because the city is a World Heritage Site. She feels that young people should take care of their family and be respectful. She wants the new generation to be industrious and honest.
11) No Name (age ?) – My family came to Ayutthaya around 1923. My grandmother told me that our ancestors are Pattani Muslims. The government ordered our family to immigrate to central Thailand. When my ancestors came to Ayutthaya we conducted trade with Buddhist people. My grandparents lived on a raft boat because they couldn’t afford land. We lived off the island in the south. When my grandparents got richer they chose to buy land near the Chao Phraya River, because they traded by boat. That is where my house is now. After my grandparents died my parents worked the same trade. They didn’t have the knowledge to do any thing else. In those days few people had a good education. When my mother graduated from school she became a teacher. She has a good job. She wants me to be like her in the future and to have a good life.
And two of my own:
Ong (age 45): As far as he knows his ancestors lived in Ayutthaya before 1767. His family returned to Ayutthaya from Sukhothai in the north, because the former was becoming a big city. His grandfather is Thai and his grandmother is Chinese. When they moved to his present home, which is located inside the island on its southern side (by U-Thong Road), the family staked this territory out with wooden poles. It was purchased from a government official. The property was located on a swamp land and had to be drained before living there. At that time, all houses had to be made from wood in the Thai style. The family hunted and fished for food, but paid for rice with money. Wild boar lived on the other side of Chao Phraya River, but every boy in the neighborhood could swim across to hunt them. Nobody wore shoes, in fact it was even looked down on to wear them.
There were no cars, very few bicycles, and U-Thong Road was still made out of pot-holed dirt. As a child he remembers finding Buddha images and artifacts all over the neighborhood, however it would have been considered disrespectful to take them. If you dug a hole to plant a tree you might have discovered plates, cups, or amulets (it sounded to me like finding plastic soldiers in a sandbox back in the United States). He developed his English skills mostly by practicing with tourists. He had at one time moved to Bangkok to study art and make money as a musician. As an adult he believes that Ayutthaya needs to improve its rivers and canals, as well as revive old temples. The advice he gives my students is to make Ayutthaya an important city. They must improve their lives with education and help foreigners understand about Ayutthaya.
Chai (age, older than me): His family was originally based in Saraburi. Both his parents were Thai. His father, known as Mr. Hong, worked as a teacher, but moved to Ayutthaya after switching jobs. His father worked as a government officer at the Ayutthaya courthouse. His employment required that he move around the province providing legal service, so he bought a boat house for his family to live on. It only costed 3,000 baht at the time. The family lived for many years on the boat, which was docked along the Pasak River. The Chao Phraya Dam had yet to be built. A common form of transportation was known as the “red boat”. Chai remembers taking the boat to Bangkok as a young child, and the shock of the overnight journey. People slept on the top floor and used the hull for storage and gathering. The river was very dangerous, because the rising level during monsoon season made the currents unpredictable. The raft’s location near a confluence was vulnerable to whirlpools. The family decided to move onto land after one of his siblings almost drowned. His father bought land from a government official. Their new home was located south of Hua Ror market on an unnamed street that would later be nicknamed Khao Sarn Ayutthaya (near Chao Phrom market).
On land, as a child, Chai used to hunt for bee hives to sell. They also gathered a type of berry that made their mouths turn purple. Their family owned the only house in the neighborhood. There wasn’t yet a road, but the unpaved U-Thong was located to the nearby east. Many trees surrounded his home like a jungle. Occasionally, the area slightly flooded so that he could catch fish. Chai remembers seeing a few canals being filled with sand for future road construction. Most people lived in the Hua Ror market on boats. The area was known as China town. All the buildings were made out of wood, and a large fire had once destroyed many gambling dens. The people there spoke a Thai-Chinese mix. Many of them operated successful businesses, which crossed into Chao Phrom market near his home. Their children were the best at sports and grades in Ayutthaya. One of his strongest memories was watching television for the first time. The broadcast was of the first walk on the moon and the entire village watched it together.
His family was one of the first to welcome tourists. They shared their house with foreign visitors as a homestay. Backpackers slept on their floor. He learned to speak English from this interaction. When tourist visits increased too much for one home his family started the city’s first guest house in 1986. The accommodation was known by its more user friendly name of B.J. Guesthouse. The name was later changed to Ayutthaya Guesthouse in 1987, in recognition of Thailand’s first tourism promotion campaign (Visit Thailand Year 1987). A few hippy-friendly guesthouses opened up in the area in the 1980s (Toto, Lotus, Chantai, etc.). Before the mid-eighties travelers usually stayed in one of three Chinese hotels located at Hua Ror market. One significant event for him was when the Moon Café opened in 1994. He and his friends developed the place, so that travelers could stay up late at night partying. Too many arguments broke out at his guesthouse, because some people were trying to sleep. The Moon Café was designed to allow live music and late-night gatherings. Travelers even participated in its creation. It remains today as a prime gathering spot for westerners. The advice he gives my students is to learn by actually leading tours and interacting with travelers. Dialogues from a textbook aren’t too helpful. There are business elements that can only be understood first hand.