Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Those wacky national costumes

Miss Thailand Universe Farung Yuthithum came in 11th place in this year's Miss Universe contest, in which Miss Japan, Riyo Mori, was crowned Miss Universe.

In a year of protests and a fall by Miss USA Rachel Smith (she still came in fifth place), there was plenty of trouble. The Mexico City pageant drew protests from women wearing white dresses splashed with blood, calling attention to the abuse of women. Miss Sweden was made to withdraw after protests in her country called the contest demeaning. Miss Mexico had to change out of her national costume, which was decorated with images of rebels in a 1920s religious uprising being hanged or shot.

Yes, those bizarre "national costumes", in which the contestants themselves (or their handlers) take a lot of creative license. For example, Miss USA dressed as a white-jumpsuited Elvis Presley lookalike. And Miss Thailand had a belly button-baring ethnic Hmong outfit.

Of course, back home in Thailand, cultural watchdogs were shocked, shocked, by Farung's choice of costume. The front page of the Thai daily Kom Chad Luek had a photo of Farung in her faux hilltribe get up, asking, "A national costume?"

Whatever it is, it is definitely not Thai, said Ladda Tangsupachai, director of the Ministry of Culture's ominously named Cultural Surveillance Centre.

The Thai national dress, Ladda stressed, must be Thai. It also must be in line with the official, royal designs and it must be used for proper occasions. She criticised Farung for failing to do her duty and show the outside world an authentic national Thai dress. Instead, Farung turned up in a sort of hybrid ethnic - read not Thai - costume.

There was outrage, yes, though not nearly the firestorm that was whipped up when Chotiros "Amy" Suriyawong wore that dress to the National Film Association Awards.

Still, it raises some troubling issues, points out Bangkok Post assistant editor Sanitsuda Ekachai, who says there's a narrow view of Thai identity that ignores the nation's cultural and ethnic diversity. She writes in a recent column:

This hegemonic history, perpetuated by all forms of popular media, has brainwashed society to believe that the country belongs to the ethnic Thai only, reducing other ethnic groups to 'outsiders'. This rigid, national identity forces ethnic groups to drop their ethnic names, adopt Buddhism and learn to speak Thai without an accent in order to be accepted as 'true' Thai.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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