Finding Sweetness in Life

Now comes the difficult part.  Although we’re halfway through the samurai exhibition, still discussing whether to prefer the films of Gosha to Shinoda, autumn approaches with the treasures of Southeast Asia.  We’re trying desperately to finish bibliographies for Burma and Thailand, re-reading Orwell’s Burmese Days and getting disgusted with imperialism.  It’s enough to make me miss the over-long samurai epics I was reading earlier this year.

Even with the knowledge of the dazzling object list that is Emerald Cities (gold sculpture! gold furniture! gold gold!), putting together a collection of books for an exhibition is about more than sourcing pretty picture books.  And sometimes, while getting distracted, tangents offer the unexpected.

It was sometime back in pre-blog November 2008 that I  chanced upon the work of South East Asian artists Chaw Ei Thein and Richard Streitmatter-Tran.

Created for the Singapore Biennale, their imposing September Sweetness (2008) trumps the sugarcube edifices that I attempted as a wee architect.  With the aid of architects and structural engineers, the artists and their assistants boiled nearly six tons of sugar into stable building material and molded the compound into a Burmese-style structure.  Erected in the open air, the pagoda-like sculpture was unprotected from insects and elements, and as it inevitably crumbled, it called attention to the deterioration of the hopes of the Burmese who had just endured the ruling junta’s most recent retaliation.


Richard Streitmatter-Tran and Chaw Ei Thein ©Haupt&Binder

All very dramatic and sticky, and quite ambitious; what I admire is that the artists were willing to keep working toward the culmination of the project even though they didn’t know if the structure could withstand its own weight.  In some way the possibility that it might not work charmed me–hadn’t I heard stories of how the Burmese were, despite their government, among the friendliest of people?  And what does empire do to change a people?  How different might Thailand be if it had been colonized?

Although we’re a museum of art, and although Emerald Cities largely focuses on Doris Duke’s enormous gift to the museum, it’s important to consider what Southeast Asia looks like now, and where it’s headed.

Next on my list of readings, some of the many re-issued and updated works by Aung San Suu Kyi.  Any recommendations on where to start?

11 Responses to “Finding Sweetness in Life”

  1. namastenancy  on August 10th, 2009 at 10:37 am

    The original book Anna and the King of Siam has a section on Burma. I think that Burma was paying tribute to Siam (or Thailand) at that point and one of the Burmese princesses was given to the king of Siam as a gift/bride. She manages to escape from the harem but the fate of one of her attendants was quite tragic. Of course, the book is told from the view point of a 19th century Victorian governess but it’s still quite a good read. Plus the real Anna Leonowens was a fascinating woman with an amazing life.

  2. nico  on August 10th, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Ah, I knew I could count on you, namastenancy, thank’ee! Seem to remember one of the museum store’s volunteers reading the book…

  3. namastenancy  on August 10th, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    Thanks for the compliment – now I know that there’s a real use for my mental collection of trivia!

  4. xensen  on August 10th, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Be careful, however, with Anna Leonowens’s fanciful tales, many of which were created out of whole cloth to titilate Victorian sensibilities and have little connection to the realities of nineteenth-century Southeast Asia.

    Be aware too that her depiction of Rama IV of Siam, who spent decades as a monk before becoming the forward-looking leader of a country that successfully resisted British colonization, has offended many people in Thailand, who dislike having their revered scholar-king portrayed in such an inaccurate and superficial way.

  5. namastenancy  on August 10th, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Ah yes, I should have indicated that more clearly in my post. Her mid-Victorian beliefs were very challenged by Rama IV, his harem and what she saw as the “backward” nature of Thai society of the time.

  6. namastenancy  on August 10th, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    I went looking for decent (i.e. non- insular academic books) on this subtext – first at the library as SFSU where I am currently a student and then, at my old standby, It’s unfortunate that Burma is not widely known. Even SFSU and don’t have that much but these look interesting for a wider historical perspective:
    Here are a few interesting possibilities:

    A History of Modern Burma (Hardcover)
    by Michael W. Charney
    “An excellent work that deals with the period from the annexation of Upper Burma by the British in 1886 until the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The focus is on the period from the 1930s, as self-government was gained in 1937. Charney, Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at SOAS, is well qualified to write this work and he offers a careful account, one that is particularly nuanced in its coverage of the civil conflict and totalitarianism of recent years. What would be welcome is a similar work by Charney on Burmese history as a whole.” – The Historian

    This is available in Kindle (boo hiss) but it might be worth tracking down because a Burmese writes it:

    The Making of Modern Burma
    by Thant Myint-U

    Now this looks like a masterpiece (cough, cough, cough). Whoever could be producing it?
    Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma 1775-1950 (Hardcover)
    by Forrest McGill (Author), M.L. Pattaratorn Chirapravati (Author), Kazuhiro Tsuruta

    At SFSU:

    The river of lost footsteps : histories of Burma / Thant Myint-U.

  7. Rochelle  on August 11th, 2009 at 8:08 am

    Im no expert on Asian art but I love the photos of the Samurais fighting – incredible culture. Thanks for sharing.

  8. xensen  on August 11th, 2009 at 8:12 am

    Chief curator Forrest McGill, who is also the Emerald Cities exhibition curator, has written about Rama IV and Anna Leonowens. The following was a draft for a potential text panel for the show. This panel was cut, but I’ll share it here because it expands on the previous comments.


    The 1999 movie Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat, was the latest in a series of popular Western looks at then Siam in the 1860s through the eyes of an English teacher at the royal court in Bangkok. A little truth is mixed with a great deal of fiction.

    “The King” was known in English as King Mongkut or Rama IV (1804-1868). He was the eldest son of the reigning king, and was educated as the heir apparent. When he was twenty he became a Buddhist monk for what was expected to be a short period. Soon after he entered the monastery, however, his father died. Surprisingly, he was passed over, and his half brother became king. Mongkut remained a monk for the next 26 years.

    As a monk, Mongkut studied widely and deeply. He even learned a good deal of English. He traveled around the country, becoming acquainted with ordinary people in a way a prince or king never could have. Eventually, he undertook a thorough reform of Thai Buddhist doctrine and monastic practice.

    In 1851, on the death of the king, Mongkut left the priesthood to ascend to the throne. He was an extraordinarily capable ruler, modernizing many aspects of his kingdom’s life while fending off threats from the British and other European colonialists.

    The king took a strong interest in his children’s education, realizing that in the new world of expanding European and American pwoer and international trade they would require knowledge and skills earlier royal children had not needed. To teach English and other modern subjects in the palace, the king hired several wives of American missionaries and then, in 1862, Anna Leonowens.

    Leonowens served the king for four years before moving to England.There she supported herself writing and lecturing about Siam, its king, and her experiences as teacher for the royal children. Her books patch together real observation with vivid imaginings and lurid tales. As a historian of the period has written, “It obviously proved lucrative [for Leonowens] to thrill her Victorian audiences with gruesome tales of eastern harem life.”

    In 1944 the American writer Margaret Landon used Leonowens’s books as the basis for her novel Anna and the King of Siam. This, in turn, became a 1946 movie of the same name starring Rex Harrison. Then Rogers and Hammerstein set the story to music, producing The King and I on Broadway and as a movie in 1956 with the king played by Yul Brynner.

    All of these versions have offend many people in Thailand. The dislike having their admirable scholar-king portrayed as a capricious tyrant.

  9. nico  on August 11th, 2009 at 11:49 am

    heh, knew we could stir up something interesting around here.
    Thant Myint-U is fascinating–we’re already carrying one of his books. Interestingly enough I’d dropped by a friend’s place (she’s ethnically Chinese but Burmese), and she had From the Land of Green Ghosts on her bookshelf. Another one for the list.

  10. xensen  on August 16th, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    I’ve been moving my library to a new location, and this weekend, going through a pile of books, I came across Burmese Looking Glass: A Human Rights Adventure and a Jungle Revolution (1993) by Edith T. Mirante. Inside was a note from Emily Heckman, the author’s editor at Grove Press, a friend. I had forgotten about this but will review it now.

  11. xensen  on December 16th, 2009 at 5:14 am

    The Guardian calls Burma Chronicles one of the best travel books of the year:

    In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi is once again under house arrest. Earlier this year she was subjected to a sham trial, the purpose of which was to ensure that she’ll remain locked up until after the May 2010 elections. So there’s no better time to read Guy Delisle’s heart-breaking comic masterpiece Burma Chronicles (Jonathan Cape, £14.99). This graphic travelogue, which traces the artist’s time in Rangoon in whimsical, black-and-white drawings, is the most enlightening and insightful book on Burma in years. Buy it, and begin to understand the cruelty, injustice and absurdity of life in that beautiful, betrayed land.

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