Progress and its Ruins: Ghosts, Migrants, and the Uncanny in Thailand

Abstract

This article analyzes stories of ghosts and criminals told by residents and workers in urban high-rise buildings and suburban gated communities in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. For many in Chiang Mai’s “communities of exclusion,” the fantasy of progressive, orderly neighborhoods and intellectual, prosperous communities coexisted with stories of empty streets haunted by violent ghosts and drug-addicted foreign invaders. With the added shocks of economic and political crises in 1997 and 2006, events that littered the Chiang Mai skyline with abandoned buildings, the idea of progress in Chiang Mai—in the Thai idiom of khwaam caroen—underwent its own crisis. Through an analysis of these stories of progressive or haunted sites, I show how, for many in these communities of exclusion, the fantasy of progress and development has been rendered uncanny.

Further Reading

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles about engagement with spirits as a contemporary phenomenon, including Bhrigupati Singh's "The Headless Horseman of Central India: Sovereignty at Varying Thresholds of Life" (2012), Todd Ramón Ochoa's "Prendas-Ngangas-Enquisos: Turbulence and the Influence of the Dead in Cuban-Kongo Material Culture" (2010), Jean M. Langford's "Gifts Intercepted: Biopolitics and Spirit Debt" (2009), and Jeffrey G. Snodgrass' "Imitation Is Far More Than the Sincerest of Flattery: The Mimetic Power of Spirit Possession in Rajasthan, India" (2008).

About the Author

Andrew Alan Johnson is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern Southeast Asian Studies at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, although he plans to join the inaugural faculty at Yale-National University of Singapore College in July of 2013. He received his PhD from Cornell University in 2010. His current research project examines the religious lives of rural-to-urban migrant workers in Bangkok’s informal economy. His main interests include the anthropology of popular religion, concepts of city and wilderness, nationalism and history. Johnson's book manuscript, The New City and its Ghosts, is a more detailed look at notions of progress and the city in Chiang Mai that explores notions of potency in both Northern Thai “animist” tradition as well as in reifications of “culture” produced by Chiang Mai’s local heritage industry. The manuscript draws from ethnographic work with local culture brokers as well as with mediums of urban guardian spirits, and aim to rethink how we see modernity and its enchantments. It will be published by University of Hawai’i Press in their “Southeast Asia: Politics, Meaning and Memory” series. Click here for Johnson's profile at Yale-NUS College.

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Photo courtesy of Andrew Alan Johnson.

Media from Article

Theatrical trailer for Laddaland, the film discussed at the beginning of the article:

Interview with Andrew Alan Johnson

Adonia Lugo: How did you come to study ghosts?

Andrew Alan Johnson: Accidentally. I think most fieldwork turns out this way. When you begin field research, the questions that you bring with you quite often end up not being interesting, relevant, or even possible. This is why ethnography takes so much longer than other fieldwork methods, because midway through a project you often have to evaluate the assumptions you’ve begun with, and often scrap what you’ve been working on and start anew.

I had originally conceived of a project in Chiang Mai that looked at space in the city, especially the boom in middle-class zones of residence and the civil society reaction to tall buildings. I was going to explore the popular imagination of what Chiang Mai was and how this developed out of Chiang Mai’s relationship with Bangkok.

But ghosts crept in unexpectedly, which is of course exactly what we expect them to do. In talking with my interlocutors about development and new urban zones, ghosts came up again and again as a recurring problem. Instead of dismissing talk of ghosts as tangential or irrelevant to new forms of space in the city, I decided to follow up on the issue, to try and see what the link was between ghosts and new construction in the city.

AL: Did your interlocutors discuss benevolent as well as malevolent spirits? Are positive spirits associated with the obligations of family and place that you mentioned, as opposed to wandering souls?

AAJ: We can think about charoen – progress – as a kind of ladder. You climb upwards, but there are beings above and below you that can pull you up or hold you back. Those closest to you on the ladder are other people. Those farther up or down are spirits. The ghosts I write about here, the phi tai hong, would be towards the bottom of this ladder, but in Northern Thai spirit beliefs there are indeed beings farther up: “lords” [chao] who exist to help humans towards greater levels of charoen.

This article is adapted from a larger ethnographic project that is currently in press with the University of Hawai’i Press. In it, I explore the system of local spirits – chao mueang – that has long been a part of Northern Thai and Lao religion. These are not ancestor spirits as we might be familiar with from Chinese or Vietnamese traditional religion. Rather, they are tied to particular neighborhoods or natural features and often “speak through” a particular medium, normally an older woman or kathoey [male-to-female transsexual]. Traditionally they are “passed” along matrilineal lines.

This kind of belief has been in flux over the last few decades as Chiang Mai changes and the population becomes more mobile. Old neighborhoods are often disrupted by the influx of new people and new money, and former residents scattered. The influx of religious ideas and monks from Bangkok also disrupts these older forms of belief, dismissing this kind of place-based mediumship as provincial superstition, while at the same time endorsing (or at least not commenting on) the worship of Hindu deities, Thai monarchs, or historical figures.

There’s also an ambiguous category. In an article published last year in American Ethnologist, I look at the worship of dangerous wilderness spirits in Bangkok. These are sources of potential threat but also potential wealth with which those in marginal positions in Thai society engage. I should note that these are almost never thought of as phi tai hong, the wandering ghosts that I describe in this article.

AL: You mentioned that people discussed changes in weather and earthquake activity. What are the complex connections between tangible threats and the immateriality of ghosts?

AAJ: The link here ties back to khwam charoen, “progressiveness”, as a kind of invisible quality that inheres in a place. In the kinds of religious thought that I explore here, a place that has moral righteousness in its population and its ruler (a term that would apply to the chao mueang as well as to a living ruler) would prosper in all things. The rains would come on time, there would be good harvests. The city would have no floods, no diseases, no fires, no revolts, et cetera. We can possibly compare it to the Calvinist idea of predestination. A city that has this invisible quality of prosperity will prosper. A city that loses it will fail. It’s teleological.

But how do you know if your city is prosperous? You have no direct access to this information, so you must interpret tangible signs. Earthquakes, random accidents, floods, these are all indications that something is lacking. If we recall Evans-Pritchard’s idea that disaster is explained by witchcraft, that “random” events are in fact directed by an outside power, this case is similar in some ways, although instead of a conscious evil agent (e.g. “the witch”), we have the presence or absence of khwaam charoen. Disaster is both the sign of and the result of its lack.

AL: Traffic accidents come up associated with "bad deaths" that produce these ghosts. What kind of transportation did your interlocutors use? Did this change if they moved into gated communities?

AAJ: Transportation differed based on class, naturally, but all of my interlocutors (aside from some of the Shan construction workers) drove their own vehicles. Chiang Mai simply doesn’t have a good public transportation system. Well-off people and those living in gated communities such as Chim drove cars (both before and after she moved there), but many of my interlocutors who were working in the communities (guards, etc) used small motor scooters of the sort that are ubiquitous in Southeast Asia. This is, incidentally, what I used during my research, a Honda Click, if I remember right. These are wonderful for negotiating a traffic jam, weaving in and out of the heavier traffic, but terribly dangerous. There’s no protection if one falls, and with the combination of heavy trucks, fast-moving cars, alcohol, and an informal rule of the road that favors larger cars, a fall can be quite bad. Many of my interlocutors had scars from one or more tumbles into the road, and I myself took a few falls. For these reasons, traffic deaths (and many ghosts of traffic deaths) often come from motorcycle riders or pedestrians hit by cars or trucks.

With regards to those living in gated communities, the money to buy a house or condo was often preceded by the money to buy a car – also bearing in mind that many of these people came originally from Bangkok and travelled back and forth there often. In a couple of cases, Som comes to mind, a person suddenly came into a great deal of money (Som married a wealthy man) and moved out to the suburbs without really knowing how to get around. Som relied upon friends to drive her, but she was unusual in this respect.

AL: The term "communities of exclusion" seems to work both as an indicator that people who move into these high rises and gated communities wish to demonstrate their privileged status and as a description of their experiences feeling haunted (being excluded from their own domestic spaces). Can you talk more about this?

AAJ: Yes, there’s exclusion from one’s own domestic space, but there’s also exclusion from one’s own idea of and desires for progress. In my book, I use the analogy of a ladder to think about notions of charoen. Higher rungs represent increasing spiritual, intellectual, health and economic well-being. The bottom has violence, ignorance and ruin. The act of climbing this ladder is the process of charoen: as you climb, you achieve better and better states of being and appreciate better the world. But there are other beings climbing this ladder. Some are above and some are below. Those nearest to us would be other humans: a wise king, for instance, might be many rungs ahead, a respected teacher might be just above us. Their greater level of charoen renders a better economic situation or better luck natural. Monks and those actively seeking knowledge are climbing quickly. Those indulging their vices are descending. Beneath you are the poor, or those with lesser status. Those above can lend you a hand, those below can hold you back.

But humans are not the only beings on this ladder. There are things far above you and far below you. Those beings quite a ways up might be neighborhood spirits (the chao mueang) or, above them, the Hindu deities. Phi tai hong, bad ghosts, would be towards the bottom, and actively reaching up to hold back this process of charoen. This is how (imagined) criminals and ghosts are variations of the same thing (and, incidentally, how kings and gods likewise are): beings at the base of the ladder holding climbers back.

The feeling of destabilization for someone like Chim and Maew occurs when they think that they have achieved a higher rung in the ladder. They have a certain fantasy about what life on that next rung would look like, a fantasy that the gated community feeds into, often quite explicitly (recall the ad that everyone is “on your level,” or Chim’s idea that “there are only doctors”). But when they arrive, they discover beings from the bottom of the ladder (ghosts or criminals) already there. This discovery throws into doubt their conception of the forward march of khwaam charoen. What they assumed to be progressive is tainted by something ruinous – it becomes unhomely. This is why exclusion here is so much more than simply the excluding of others (e.g. “A community where everyone is on your level”) or exclusion from your own domestic space, but it’s an exclusion from your very idea of progress.

Discussion Questions

1. Johnson presents us with different models of “progress”, one that rests upon the importance of essences. How might we productively compare or contrast this religiously-informed notion of charoen with economic ideas such as the actions and preferences of “the market”? In what way do economists deal with the problem of uncertainty and the kinds of doubts that appear in Johnson’s article as ghosts?

2. Progress in Chiang Mai is something that is rooted in Buddhist ideas about movement, spiritual growth and enlightenment. How might other religious environments shape ideas about development, progress and capitalism in other contexts?

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