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Not in my house

By Sirinya Wattanasukchai 6 January 2006 13:50
Ladda Tangsupachai says cleaning up the oversexed, materialistic culture is her job as the countrys maid. How did this former dancer become the arbiter of taste?

Ladda has power. With a word she can get a book taken off the shelves or keep a film from ever being seen in Thailand.

As the director of the Culture Ministrys surveillance center, Ladda Tangsupachai, a former dancer, watches out for any work of art that she deems socially inappropriate or that might tarnish the countrys reputation.

I want the positive culture to outshine the negative, she says.

In her three years on the job, her decrees and pronouncements have prompted sneers from those who see her as something of a reactionary. But many agree with and applaud her insistence on promoting traditional Thai values at the expense of all others.

She didnt want award-winning film City of God, about two boys growing up on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, to be released in VCD format, for fear that kids would mimic the violence.

When Big Brother broadcast a scene featuring a young couple making out some months ago, dozens of viewers called the center and complained.

Ladda condemned the broadcast. Although countless couples do the same thing in real life, she said, such inappropriate scenes had never before been broadcast to an audience of 60 million.

Nor did Ladda appreciate the way two farang writers portrayed Bangkok in the irreverent travel guide Bangkok Inside Out. The book contained a controversial picture taken inside a Patpong go-go bar, and after Ladda condemned the book, some bookstores stopped carrying it.

Ladda thought the two outsider authors shouldnt criticize a country they didnt live in. (Both authors are long-term expats.) Besides, she says, there were so many good things about which they couldve written.

All the negative parts of the culture she encounters come back to the same thing. The country, Ladda maintains, is ill.

The disease that has afflicted the country for decades is materialism. And the patient, she says, should be nursed back to health.

For one with such strong opinions, Laddas personality is rather mild. She is neither meek nor terribly straightforward.

Now 52, a snappy, businesslike dresser with a short haircut, Ladda was born and raised in Bangkok. She grew up under the patronage of Thanphooying Paew Sanidwongsenee, who was made the National Artist for performance in 1985.

From childhood, she attended the Bangkok Dramatic Arts College, where she received a formal education and studied dance. But there were more important lessons outside the school grounds.

Children these days only learn from the textbooks. Nobody teaches them life lessons, she says.

From Thanphooying Paew, she gradually absorbed how to become a decent woman while staying with her patron. She kept telling me different things about life, Ladda says, such as the unacceptable nature of premarital sex in Thai society.

That particular lesson, she recalls, was taught to her more than three decades ago, as she gave her patron a massage.

After her graduation in 1976, the performing arts graduate worked for a year at Srithunya Psychiatric Hospital, where she helped rehabilitate patients. Then she got a job as a cultural ambassador at the Office of the National Culture Commission.

For several years she flew around the globe, showing off traditional Thai dance to unknown lands. Overseas, she also learned about different cultures.

Ladda understands that culture can evolve over time. But she now resists the influx of foreign cultures and urges Thais to learn about their own culture.

Since the time of King Rama V, when a number of royal family members were educated in the West, she says, we learned a lot and picked up only the good things that fit us.

Her example is how Thais opted to use a fork and spoon on the dining table instead of using their hands, for reasons of hygiene. We didnt choose the knife because we dont eat a lot of meat like westerners.

The current disease arose, she says, during the administration of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (1958-1962). In the rebound years after World War II, Sarit focused on economic development. Slogans encouraged people to work more in order to earn more money, so that they could spend more.

All they cared about was the money. They didnt care how people earned it, she says. Such policies led people to overlook their culture, she says. For decades its been, metaphorically, the garbage hidden under the carpet.

Now, she says, the problem can no longer be ignored.

Why are our kids are having premature sex? Because they are the fruits of the previous generation, who thought only about their financial status, overlooking their own minds.

Judging by the complaints she receives about inappropriate scenes and negative images in the media, many in the older generation agree with Laddas outlook.

Some of her informers cultural zealotry extends to far more trivial matters than her own. She once received a complaint about an international ice cream franchise that played foreign songs instead of Thai music.

Though her critics include a number of prominent artists, Ladda doesnt seem to care about how she is perceived.

She describes herself as someone who watches over society and reports to the police if she sees anything suspicious. Im not the cop to arrest people or a judge to judge anyone. Im the maid of the house, she says. How can I not clean the house if some water spilled on the floor?

Ladda may see her role as the countrys attentive maid, but she also acts as a concerned mother.

Senator Wallop Tangkananurak, who has spent decades working for childrens rights and welfare, says the efforts of Laddas center are a good start. He adds that theyve helped the ministry be seen as doing something besides promoting traditional dance. Somebody has to do it. And that person will inevitably be criticized by the public as a dinosaur in this time of globalization, says the senator.

Most contemporary culture for the teenagers is fine, Wallop says, nothing out of the ordinary. But some things go too far for example, a prominent billboard on Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road showing men and women in their underwear.

Ladda says that there is a place for everything, and everything should be in its place. For example, the Big Brother case: it wouldve been fine, she says, if the couple had expressed their affections in a private place.

Wallop agrees. The senator accepts the fact that in the real world, teenage couples walk hand in hand. If female models are topless on the catwalk, its fine. Its their platform. But TV is for the masses, he says. Any developed country wouldnt allow such a scene to happen on television, he adds, citing the condemnation of Janet Jacksons exposed nipple in the United States during a concert at the 2004 Super Bowl.

But Sananjit Bangsapan, a movie critic and filmmaker, says art and culture is too big an issue for any one person to dictate. Shes so naive and narrow-minded, he says of Ladda. Who does she think she is to decide for the rest of the country?

Sananjit points out that City of God, which Ladda found objectionable, has won numerous awards around the world.

His solution? You have to release it and let the people decide whats good or bad for them.

Like many parents, he and his wife screen what films and books their two children consume. So did sex columnist Thaveeratana Lelanuja, whose children are now adults.

The important thing is to never prohibit things, but to let them learn, she says. Most parents order their children around, she complains, because its easier than educating them.

Ladda counters that Thais are not yet ready to receive all sorts of messages. Every family, she says, may not have the parental presence to provide guidance on every issue.

This paternalistic attitude doesnt wash with Thaveeratana. To tell young girls not to wear spaghetti straps is a violation of human rights, she says, citing the Culture Ministrys ban on the revealing tops during the Songkran Festival.

Wilasinee Phiphitkul, director of the Thai Health Promotion Foundations communications office, says Laddas center is important for society at the moment, because of the influx of foreign culture.

But, she adds, they need to be open-minded and let the children be at the center of the decision-making.

However, Wilasinee understands that the government bureaucracy makes this difficult. For example, film ratings have been discussed for the past three decades and have yet to be implemented, even though they are favored by filmmakers.

Ladda has been working on a ratings system for films, which awaits the approval of the Cabinet, as well as for print media.

I could just release X-rated films if the people want me to, she says. But what if the people get sicker because of it will any producers or distributors allocate their profits to treating them?

The only reason she doesnt allow everything to be broadcast right away, Ladda says, is because everyone is not ready yet. But maybe, she says, in the next few years.

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