13 January 2023

Jacinda Ardern:
I Know This to Be True
— On Kindness, Empathy and Strength

Jacinda Ardern: I Know This to Be True

Geoff Blackwell interviewed New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on 8th November 2019 as part of his I Know This to Be True project for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a series of interviews published in 2020 and intended to “inspire a new generation of leaders.” Video extracts from those interviews were then repurposed for Live to Lead, a Netflix series directed by Blackwell, which was released on New Year’s Eve 2022.

In his (short) Ardern interview book, Blackwell asks about her personal values, and she explains that she is “really driven by empathy... that’s probably the quality we need the most.” Similarly, in another 2019 interview, she told author Supriya Vani: “the world needs empathetic leadership now, perhaps more than ever.” (Vani’s Ardern biography is subtitled Leading with Empathy, and Blackwell’s subtitle has a similar theme: On Kindness, Empathy and Strength.)

Blackwell’s and Vani’s interviews are both rather soft and apolitical, focussing on Ardern as an inspirational leader. But Ardern does make a surprisingly candid admission in answer to Blackwell’s question about trusting her instincts: “All I could be was myself. And that’s all I’ve ever tried to be. And if that means I’m successful on behalf of New Zealand, that’s great, and if it means that I’m not, then I’ll still sleep at night.”

11 January 2023

Jacinda Ardern:
Leading with Empathy

Jacinda Ardern: Leading with Empathy

Jacinda Ardern became New Zealand’s Prime Minister in 2017 on a wave of ‘Jacindamania’, and her relentless positivity boosted her reputation on the world stage. (She has been a guest on The Late Show, and Spitting Image caricatured her quite convincingly as Mary Poppins.) She passed gun-control laws with incredible speed, and was equally successful in minimising the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In recent months, rising inflation and a looming recession have sharply dented her domestic popularity, though this has not affected her international image.

She has consistently refused to cooperate with her biographers, though Jacinda Ardern: Leading with Empathy was promoted in 2021 as “[t]he first biography to be based on interviews with Ardern”. At a press conference on 21st July 2021, Ardern made clear that she was misled by the authors, who had not told her they were writing a biography: “certainly the claim that it was an exclusive interview for the purpose of writing a book of that nature is not true”. Co-author Supriya Vani interviewed Ardern in 2019, on the understanding that the book was about female leaders in general. Co-author Carl A. Harte claimed that coronavirus restrictions precluded interviews with other leaders, though Ardern was interviewed via Skype, which the pandemic would not have prevented.

More plausibly, the pandemic prevented the authors from visiting New Zealand while researching the book, though surprisingly this did not affect the amount of ‘colour’ and atmospheric detail they included. Ardern’s childhood home, Murupara, for example, is described as “a place that feels as if it is drifting, somehow behind in time... The town’s beauty is itself beguiling, but the land here has its dark secrets.” These lengthy descriptions, and others, are all examples of armchair tourism, and further padding is provided by extraneous career summaries of several former New Zealand politicians.

Vani wrote an online article for Writer’s Digest on 9th June 2021 titled How to Write a Biography of a World Leader. Her first tip was: “make sure you can resonate with the qualities of the leader to ensure you’re writing a positive biography.” Unfortunately, she followed her own advice, and her Ardern book borders on the hagiographic. (It often refers to Ardern by her first name, emphasises her “kindness” and “well-rounded humanity”, and even compares her to Churchill.) But on its own terms, as an inspirational account of empathetic leadership, the book is well written and researched. Perhaps Ardern’s relentless positivity rubbed off on Vani; if so, it was more appropriate to her first book, Battling Injustice.

10 January 2023

Out of the Blue:
The Inside Story of the Unexpected Rise and Rapid Fall of Liz Truss

Out of the Blue

“A book is being written about the Prime Minister’s time in office. Apparently, it’s going to be out by Christmas. Is that the release date or the title?”

Opposition leader Keir Starmer’s quip during Prime Minister’s Questions on 19th October last year was even more prescient than he imagined. Although Liz Truss assured him that she was “a fighter, not a quitter”, she resigned as PM the very next day. Truss channelled the defiant words of former politician Peter Mandelson, and Starmer copied his joke from Private Eye magazine (no. 1,584), which described the Truss book as “out on 8 December. (The book, that is, not its subject)”.

Like the PM, the book, Out of the Blue, was out sooner than expected, released last November. (The subtitle was also changed—from The Inside Story of Liz Truss and Her Astonishing Rise to Power to The Inside Story of the Unexpected Rise and Rapid Fall of Liz Truss—to reflect her sudden downfall.) Truss served just forty-four days in office, and the book was written almost as rapidly. Authors Harry Cole and James Healey make no bones about this: “We decided to write this book quickly, so those of you expecting Robert Caro will be disappointed.” But there’s nothing remotely rushed about this extremely well-sourced biography.

The most toxic element of the ‘mini budget’ that ultimately led to Truss’s resignation—the removal of the maximum 45p tax rate—was swiftly abandoned, and the book quotes Truss telling her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng: “we need to rip off the plaster.” Similarly, in a Sunday Times article published online on Christmas Eve 2022, Tim Shipman quoted Truss as saying: “we’ve got to tear the plaster off.” These two accounts validate each other, though on 10th December last year the Financial Times implied that the decision was made by Chancellor himself: a FT Weekend Magazine article on Truss’s premiership by George Parker, Sebastian Payne, and Laura Hughes referred to “Kwarteng’s U-turn on the top rate of tax”.

Cole and Healey interviewed Truss twice for their book, the second session taking place shortly after the mini budget. In a Spectator article published on 29th October last year, Healey wrote that his abiding memory of that interview was “the unnerving calm of the Prime Minister even as the markets were in full panic mode.” They also spoke to Kwarteng and former PM Boris Johnson, amongst others. Although Truss cooperated with the writers to some extent, Out of the Blue is an objective portrait rather than an authorised biography. It’s the absolute ideal model for a biography of a living person: exclusive access (via multiple interviews with the subject), without sacrificing any editorial independence.

In fact, although both authors are right-of-centre journalists and Cole (political editor of The Sun) reportedly received regular off-the-record briefings from Truss, they are largely critical of her time in office. They describe the mini-budget, for example, as “one of the worst errors of the past 100 years in British policy making.” They even question her integrity, accusing her of a “fatal error—and one that involves a question of honesty”, namely the deliberate downplaying of her planned fiscal reforms.

06 January 2023

Thai Cinema Uncensored

International Examiner

Thai Cinema Uncensored has been reviewed in the International Examiner, a fortnightly newspaper published in Seattle, Washington. A headline in the 21st September 2022 issue (vol. 49, no. 18) describes the book as “an illuminating work of resistance to censorship” (p. 6).

In her review, Elinor Serumgard says: “Matthew Hunt writes with a sense of urgency to legitimize these films and work towards a future where Thai filmmakers make the films they want without having to worry if people will be able to watch them. Readers will come away with a deeper understanding of Thai films and the history that has shaped them.”

The book has also been reviewed by the Bangkok Post newspaper, the academic journal Sojourn, and the magazines Art Review and The Big Chilli. An online review was published by the 101 World website.

04 January 2023

Bad Words and What They Say about Us

Bad Words and What They Say about Us

In Bad Words and What They Say about Us (published in 2019), Philip Gooden examines how tabooed language has shifted from religion to sex and bodily functions, and more recently to political correctness and identity politics. The book is bang up-to-date, exploring the linguistic legacies of Brexit and Donald Trump: Michael Gove’s cavalier dismissal of expert opinion during the Brexit referendum campaign (“the people of this country have had enough of experts”) prompts a wide-ranging discussion of ‘culture war’ issues, and Gooden draws a parallel—first noted in a blog post by Sonja Drimmer and Damian Fleming—between the Miller in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (“he caughte hire by the queynte”) and Trump’s Access Hollywood tape (“Grab ’em by the pussy”).

Bad Words includes quite thorough histories of the major four-letter words, each of which has its own chapter, though these sections are most notable for their debunking of the myths surrounding the words’ origins. These misconceptions are surprisingly persistent—upon learning that I wrote a thesis on the c-word, some people still tell me that the f-word is an acronym for ‘Fornicate Under Command of the King’—and Gooden provides a useful service in his mission “to unpick this folk etymology.”

The book’s scope also extends to racist and homophobic pejoratives, though there is little discussion of sexist terms, and Gooden tends to favour more recent citations over historical examples. For instance, he quotes a British backbench MP using the n-word in 2017, though he doesn’t mention that John Major used it when he was Prime Minister in 1993. Similarly, Gooden cites comedian Chris Rock’s positive uses of the n-word, though Richard Pryor’s earlier and more groundbreaking reappropriation of the word isn’t covered.

Peter Silverton’s Filthy English and Ruth Wajnryb’s Language Most Foul both cover similar ground to Bad Words, as does another book with the same title, edited by David Sosa. Geoffrey Hughes wrote An Encyclopedia of Swearing (expanded from his earlier book Swearing), and Hugh Rawson’s Dictionary of Invective is equally comprehensive. Forbidden Words, by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, is the most authoritative guide to linguistic taboos, and Allen also recently edited The Oxford Handbook of Taboo Words and Language.

26 December 2022

The Trump Tapes:
Bob Woodward’s Twenty Interviews with President Donald Trump

Bob Woodward interviewed President Donald Trump an unprecedented nineteen times for his book Rage, published in 2020. Woodward has now released his recordings of eighteen of those interviews as an audiobook, The Trump Tapes: Bob Woodward's Twenty Interviews with President Donald Trump. (One of the Rage interviews was not recorded, though Woodward summarises it based on his contemporaneous notes. A 2016 interview with Trump before the presidential election is also included.)

Trump cooperated extensively with Rage in an attempt to avoid a repeat of Woodward’s previous book, Fear, which was written without his cooperation. (A recording of a phone call, in which Trump blamed his advisor Kellyanne Conway for not passing on Woodward’s initial interview request, was released by The Washington Post in 2018.) In his spoken epilogue, Woodward says: “It is still somewhat of a puzzle to me why he talked to me, and at such length. I think he honestly believed he could talk me into telling the story of his presidency as he would like it to be seen and remembered in history.”

As was the case with Woodward’s Fear, Trump likewise didn’t cooperate with Woodward’s Washington Post colleagues Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig for their book A Very Stable Genius. (He describes them to Woodward as “two sleazebags”, adding for good measure: “Rucker, he’s a sleazebucket. I know him well. He never writes good.”) Yet he did speak to Rucker and Leonnig for their next book, I Alone Can Fix It, just as he spoke to Woodward for Rage. Interestingly, Woodward repeatedly asks Trump, in vain, for a transcript of his February 2020 phone call with Chinese President Xi, though Rucker and Leonnig were seemingly able to obtain it.

Trump’s astonishing indiscretion is immediately apparent from the recordings. As Woodward says at the beginning of his spoken introduction, Trump is “staggeringly incautious,” and this is evident throughout the eleven hours of audio. The interviews were mostly conducted over the phone, often in the evenings when Trump was in his private quarters at the White House, which presumably contributed to the informal nature of the conversations. (There are echoes of the “unsolicited phone calls without presumption of confidentiality” that Trump made to Michael Wolff during the writing of Fire and Fury, though in Woodward’s case he always reminds Trump that he’s recording the calls.)

In his commentary, Woodward also decribes Trump as “at times staggeringly repetitive, as if saying something often and loud enough will make something true.” Maggie Haberman also mentions this tendency—which is a deliberate rhetorical device—in her recent Trump biography, Confidence Man: “He started to explain why he doesn’t like when audiotapes of his interviews are released. Being on camera was “much different,” he said. “Whereas,” he said, in a “written interview, I’ll repeat it twenty times, because I want to drum it into your beautiful brain. Do you understand that?” He repeated himself again.”

Rage was originally intended as a study of Trump’s foreign policy. (Woodward had previously written a similar book on Obama.) But after the coronavirus epidemic began in early 2020, Woodward shifted the focus to Trump’s covid response. Throughout February and March 2020, Trump had publicly insisted that the virus would spontaneously disappear, though on 20th March 2020 he confirmed to Woodward: “This thing is vicious, the most contagious virus anyone’s ever seen.” Even allowing for Trump’s usual exaggerations, that’s a dangerous discrepancy between his public and private statements, and he didn’t publicly admit the severity of the situation until eleven days later.

In Rage, Woodward concluded that President Trump was “the wrong man for the job.” In his epilogue to The Trump Tapes, he acknowledges that that was an understatement: “I realise that I didn’t go far enough. Trump is an unparalleled danger.” The Trump Tapes was released on ten CDs last month, and a book of transcripts, The Trump Tapes: The Historical Record, will be published early next year.

02 December 2022

No God No King Only Human

No God No King Only Human, edited and published by Korn Karava, was launched at the 2022 Bangkok Art Book Fair last week. Limited to 500 numbered copies (mine being no. 340), it features photographs of anti-government, pro-reform protests taken over the past two years.

Visually speaking, the protests are inherently photogenic, with swirling tear gas deployed by riot police and fireworks used as projectiles by demonstrators. (Nontawat Numbenchapol’s Thalugaz documentary Rarely Make History includes equally spectacular imagery.) But, as the book reminds us, this is the aesthetics of violence, and other photographs document the impact of rubber bullets fired by the police.

There have been other books with photographs of the protests, such as There’s Always Spring (เมื่อถึงเวลาดอกไม้จะบาน), EBB, and #WhatsHappeningInThailand, all of which are small, slim paperbacks. No God No King Only Human, on the other hand, is a lavish coffee-table book. (It’s the first in a potential series of volumes on the protest movement.)

The title is a slogan adapted from the video game BioShock. (Appropriating popular culture is a notable aspect of the demonstrations, from the three-finger salute taken from The Hunger Games to the Bottom Blues song 12345 I Love You.) The title of Elevenfinger’s CD No God No King Only Humans is based on the same slogan.

29 November 2022

Mob Type —
บันทึกการต่อสู้ของประชาชน ผ่านศิลปะตัวอักษร

Mob Type 33712

The design collective PrachathipaType—a pun on prachathipatai, the Thai word for ‘democracy’—specialises in pro-democracy typefaces. Working with some of the organsiations leading the recent anti-government protests, they have effectively created the visual identity of the reform movement. The new book Mob Type – บันทึกการต่อสู้ของประชาชน ผ่านศิลปะตัวอักษร (‘recording the people’s struggle through the art of lettering’) is a collection of these type specimens and logos, and it was launched at the 2022 Bangkok Art Book Fair (which ran from 25th–27th November at Bangkok CityCity Gallery).

PrachathipaType designed a new font, PrachathipaTape (ประชาธิปะเทป), for Rap Against Dictatorship’s music video Homeland (บ้านเกิดเมืองนอน). They also collaborated with the band on แบบเรียนพยัญชนะไทย (‘Thai consonant textbook’). Their 33712 typeface (named after the ฿33.712 billion allocated for the monarchy in the national budget) was used to recreate a notice from a leaked photograph published by the German newspaper Bild (‘picture’) in 2019. The 33712 typeface also appears in Rap Against Dictatorship’s music video Budget (งบประมาณ).

28 November 2022

There’s Always Spring

There’s Always Spring (เมื่อถึงเวลาดอกไม้จะบาน), published last month by Mob Data Thailand, provides a record of the current anti-government protest movement. Mob Data Thailand collates details of all rallies held throughout the country, and the book highlights the major demonstrations that have taken place over the last two years.

There’s Always Spring is particularly valuable as a record of the origins of the protest movement, which was triggered by the dissolution of the Future Forward Party in February 2020. This is in contrast to other books on the protests, namely EBB and #WhatsHappeningInThailand, which focus only on the period from mid-2020 onwards.

What all three books have in common are their optimistic titles. There’s Always Spring suggests that the winter of repression is coming to an end. (Its epilogue, Winter Never Lasts Forever/ไม่มีอะไรคงอยู่ตลอดไป, states this more directly.) Similarly, EBB refers to ‘ebb and flow’ (the sense that receding waves, like persecuted protesters, will eventually return), and #WhatsHappeningInThailand’s subtitle is และแล้วความหวังก็ปรากฏ (‘and then hope appeared’).

24 November 2022

A Message from Ukraine:
Speeches, 2019–2022

A Message from Ukraine

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24th February, Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky has recorded daily video addresses to his people and delivered more than 100 speeches to international forums. A Message from Ukraine: Speeches, 2019–2022, an authorised anthology sold to raise money for the war effort, reprints sixteen of his speeches in translation, beginning with his inaugural parliamentary address after his landslide election victory in 2019.

Whichever country he addresses as he pleads for military support, Zelensky—or rather, his chief speechwriter, Dmytro Lytvyn—tailors his message to suit his audience. So, he quoted Winston Churchill to the British parliament and Martin Luther King to the US Congress. His historical analogies are also tailor-made. Speaking to the German Bundestag, he compared Russia’s gas pipline to the Berlin Wall; addressing the Israeli Knesset, he cited Russian propaganda that evoked the Holocaust.

In his introduction to the book, Zelensky describes his message as “abrupt, intense, jarring.” The contrast with his former career, as a comedy actor, couldn’t be more stark. (Life imitated art, after he played an unlikely president in his sitcom Servant of the People/Слуга народу.) Of course, he writes with optimistic fervour about victory over Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling A Message from Ukraine “a book about how we can build the future.”

11 November 2022

Confidence Man:
The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America

Confidence Man

Dozens of books have been written about Donald Trump. Sixteen of them have been reviewed on Dateline Bangkok: Fire and Fury, Too Much and Never Enough, Fear, Rage, Peril, I Alone Can Fix It, A Very Stable Genius, Inside Trump’s White House, The United States of Trump, Trump’s Enemies, The Trump White House, The Room Where It Happened, Team of Five, American Carnage, TrumpNation, and The Cost. Maggie Haberman’s Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America was the most eagerly anticipated of them all, and is likely to be one of the few Trump titles that stand the test of time.

Confidence Man, like post-Trump America, is split in two. Trump’s presidency is covered in the second half, while the first explores his formative influences. An early memory—of an engineer being ignored at the opening of a bridge he designed—led to perhaps the closest thing to a Trump doctrine: “I realized then and there something I would never forget: I don’t want to be made anybody’s sucker.” This event, recalled by Trump in a 1980 interview, is doubly revealing. Firstly, it was being made a “sucker”, roasted by President Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, that fuelled his presidential ambitions. Also, almost every detail of Trump’s bridge anecdote was inaccurate, showing him to be “an unreliable narrator of his own history from its early moments.”

Haberman has covered Trump since his days as a New York tabloid mainstay in the 1990s. Throughout his presidency, writing for The New York Times, she was the best-sourced White House correspondent, and her reputation elevates Confidence Man above previous Trump books. (For comparison, Haberman’s coverage of Trump is as authoritative as that of UK political journalists Tim Shipman on Brexit and Andrew Rawnsley on New Labour.) The book’s scoops include the first direct confirmation that Trump contemplated refusing to vacate the White House: “He informed aides he had no intention of departing the White House for Biden. “I'm just not going to leave,” he told one.”

Trump’s term of office was so extraordinary—Haberman describes him as “unlike any president in American history”—that one book can barely do it justice. Numerous major incidents, that deserve their own chapters, are mentioned only in passing. The Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example (during which “senior Trump aides said they felt physically sick”), is relegated to a single paragraph. So Bob Woodward’s trilogy (Fear, Rage, and Peril) is a more comprehensive account of the Trump presidency, but Confidence Man is the definitive Trump biography.

31 October 2022

The Art of Being the Donald


Timothy L. O’Brien’s book TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald was first published in 2005, when Donald Trump’s self-cultivated public image was that of a billionaire real-estate developer. Citing three anonymous sources, O’Brien claimed that Trump was worth, at most, a quarter of a billion dollars, writing (on p. 154): “Three people with direct knowledge of Donald’s finances... told me that they thought his net worth was somewhere between $150 million and $250 million. By anyone’s standards this still qualified Donald as comfortably wealthy, but none of these people thought he was remotely close to being a billionaire.”

Trump sued O’Brien and the publisher, Warner Books, for defamation, seeking an astronomical and absurdly unrealistic $5 billion in damages. In his deposition, he made the audacious claim that his net worth “goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings,” a remark that has since been widely quoted. The case was dismissed not because Trump proved his billionaire status—he didn’t—but because O’Brien proved that his estimate of Trump’s net worth had not been malicious. (The book is written in a tabloid style—with spoof trivia quizzes, for example—though it’s based on interviews with Trump and access to Trump Organization records.)

Trump later sued Michael Wolff to prevent the publication of Fire and Fury and his brother sued their niece, Mary Trump, to block the release of Too Much and Never Enough. In both cases, the lawsuits backfired, as the publication dates were brought forward. He withdrew a lawsuit against comedian Bill Maher, who had joked that he was the son of an orangutan, and his new $475 million lawsuit against CNN is equally unrealistic. On the other hand, Trump’s wife, Melania, has had more success as a libel litigant, winning $3 million from the Daily Mail and undisclosed “substantial damages” from The Daily Telegraph.

TrumpNation was reprinted with a new introduction in 2016, when Trump won the Republican presidential nomination. It’s the sixteenth Trump book reviewed on Dateline Bangkok, the others being Fire and Fury, Too Much and Never Enough, Fear, Rage, Peril, I Alone Can Fix It, A Very Stable Genius, Inside Trump’s White House, The United States of Trump, Trump’s Enemies, The Trump White House, The Room Where It Happened, Team of Five, American Carnage, and The Cost

22 October 2022


สมุดระบายสีเสรีภาพ (‘freedom colouring book’), written by Suwicha and illustrated by PHAR (both of which are pen names), isn’t a regular children’s colouring book. It was released this month by the band The Commoner, and it introduces young children to Thai politics, with illustrations of anthropomorphised animals representing anti-government protesters.

The concept is presumably modelled on the set of children’s picture books released last year by Family Club (and the additional new titles from the Mirror Foundation), which also present progressive political issues in a child-friendly way. สมุดระบายสีเสรีภาพ is especially similar to The Adventures of Little Duck (เป็ดน้อย) from that series, and both books show water cannon being deployed against the protesters.

As สมุดระบายสีเสรีภาพ is a colouring book, its illustrations are all black-and-white line drawings. The exception is the cover, with its symbolic colour scheme: an elephant character (seen elsewhere in the book driving a tank and squirting water at the protesters) is painted blue, and numerous prostrate onlookers are all yellow. (Both colours have political significance in Thailand.)

15 October 2022


Mirror Foundation

Last year, the Ministry of Education investigated a series of eight children’s picture books on the specious grounds that they contained “distortion that incites youths to be led astray.” One of the books was seized by police from a public library. Now, the series has been expanded, with a new set of eight titles under the theme of ตุลาประชาชน (‘October people’) published by the Mirror Foundation.

As before, the books introduce young children to progressive political and social issues. A Life (ชีวิตเล็กๆ เด็กชายวาฤทธิ์ สมน้อย), illustrated by Phetladda Kaeochin, describes the childhood of Warit Somnoi, a fifteen-year-old who tragically died after being hit by a live bullet at an anti-government protest. The Folding Chair Stars (ดาว เก้าอี้), illustrated by Ting Chu and We Are All Human (เราล้วนคือคน), illustrated by Summer Panadd both tell the story of the 6th October 1976 massacre, albeit in a child-friendly way. The latter, co-written by Jinglebell, also features the new generation of student protesters such as Panusaya Sithjirawattanakul. (All three books were written by the same author, under the pseudonym สองขา, meaning ‘two legs’.) Another—Where Have You Gone? (พี่หนูอยู่ที่ไหน), written by สาริน (‘Sarin’) and illustrated by Koobta—is about a young son whose brother was killed in the massacre.

The other books in the new series are: H Is for Hope: The ABC of Democracy (a milder version of PrachathipaType’s แบบเรียนพยัญชนะไทย/‘Thai consonant textbook’), Arkong’s Tale (อ อากง; a biography of Ampon Tangnoppakul, who died in jail while serving a twenty-year sentence for lèse-majesté), A Day with Grandma (ยายลี มีหมา แมว มด ลิง และขุนทอง), and See You Later (แล้วเราจะพบกันใหม่). They are similar to the Sheep Village (羊村) books released in Hong Kong last year, though ominously the publishers of those titles were jailed last month.

21 September 2022

“Shamefully presents a negative image of Thai society...”

Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture

As incredible as it may seem, thirty years ago a dictionary was burnt in the streets of Bangkok and banned by Thai police. The Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture was published in 1992, and soon attracted controversy in Thailand, as its entry for Bangkok described the city as “a place where there are a lot of PROSTITUTES”. (The capitalisation indicated a cross-reference; it was not for emphasis.)

This mention of the city’s somewhat seedy reputation (on p. 79 of the hardback edition) infuriated some Bangkokians, who burnt the dictionary in protest, and it was officially banned on 4th July 1993. The publishers quickly removed the offending text, in time for the paperback edition.

Censorship in Thailand is frequently a face-saving measure, a form of reputation management to ensure that negative images are whitewashed from cultural representations of the country. As discussed in Thai Cinema Uncensored, this results in media, literature, and films “that present a rose-tinted view, rather than holding a mirror up to society.”

This has been the case for almost a century, as the silent film Suvarna of Siam (นางสาวสุวรรณ) was censored in 1923 to prevent the portrayal of capital punishment in the country. Similarly, one of the reasons given for the censorship of Syndromes and a Century (แสงศตวรรษ) was that it “shamefully presents a negative image of Thai society for foreign audiences.”

Bangkok Inside Out was banned here for the same reason, after the Ministry of Culture objected to its photo of a go-go bar. More than fifty years ago, the travelogue Bangkok After Dark (written by Fred Poole under the pen name Andrew Harris) was also banned for its focus on the city’s red-light districts.

11 September 2022

“I hope I can always stand on the side of the sheep...”

Sheep Village

Five publishers of children’s picture books were each given nineteen-month prison sentences in Hong Kong yesterday. They had been held in custody since their arrest more than a year ago, and were all convicted of sedition after a two-month trial. The defendants were members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, which has since been disbanded. They had published three books about a sheep village (羊村) facing attack by wolves, a metaphor for China’s dominance over Hong Kong.

One of the titles, The Guardians of Sheep Village (羊村守衛者), is an allegory of Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. Another, The Twelve Warriors of Sheep Village (羊村十二勇士), refers to a dozen Hong Kongers who were arrested in 2020 when they attempted to escape into exile by speedboat. The third book in the series, The Cleaners of Sheep Village (羊村清道夫), is a reference to medical workers who went on strike in an attempt to force Hong Kong to close its border with China at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

District Court Judge Kwok Wai Kin condemned the publishers for what he described as “a brain-washing exercise with a view to guiding the very young children to accept their views and values”. The defendants—Man-ling Lai, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan, Tsz-ho Fong, and Melody Yeung—had all pleaded not guilty, and Yeung said in court: “My only regret is I couldn’t publish more picture books before getting arrested.” Referring to the political analogy in the books, she added: “I hope I can always stand on the side of the sheep.”

15 August 2022

Uninspired by Current Events:
Sorry Stories

Uninspired by Current Events

Saratta Chuengsatiansup, the artist behind the Uninspired by Current Events page on Facebook, has released a book of his work. Uninspired by Current Events: Sorry Stories reproduces some of the digital artworks he has been posting daily since last year, alongside a handful of new images.

Despite the ironic disclaimer in its title, Uninspired by Current Events provides a topical, satirical commentary on Thai news and politics. The book also features short poems, in both English and Thai, to accompany each illustration, and the poetry is as sharp and subversive as the images themselves.

08 August 2022

Ornament and Crime:
Thoughts on Design and Materials

Ornament and Crime

Ornament and Crime (Ornament und Verbrechen), first delivered as a lecture in Vienna and later published as an essay, is one of the most famous polemics in the history of architecture and design. Architect Adolf Loos abhorred the decorative ornamentation of Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession, as he proclaimed in Ornament and Crime’s succinct central thesis: “the evolution of culture comes to the same thing as the removal of ornament from functional objects.

Linking ‘primitive’ ornamentation to evolution is the most problematic aspect of Ornament and Crime, as Loos equated the tribal tattoos of Papua New Guinea with “degeneracy”. The essay is stridently moralistic, though it’s also arguably one of the first modernist manifestos, anticipating the functionalist architecture of Le Corbusier. Ornament and Crime: Thoughts on Design and Materials features two dozen essays by Loos, newly translated by Shaun Whiteside.

The Grammar Of Ornament, by Owen Jones, was the first systematic analysis of ornamental art, influencing Auguste Racinet’s L’ornement polychrome (‘polychromatic ornament’) and many other compendiums. Stuart Durant’s Ornament is a comprehensive history of pattern design and ornament since the Industrial Revolution. The more recent Histories of Ornament, edited by Gülru Necipoğlu and Alina Payne, is the first attempt at a global history of the subject.

05 July 2022

Thai Cinema Uncensored


Thai Cinema Uncensored is reviewed in the new issue of Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia (vol. 37, no. 2). In her review (pp. 374–377), Annette Hamilton writes: “This is a great read not just for those interested in film, but for anyone trying to understand the nexus between culture and politics in Thailand in recent times.” She concludes: “This book is a valuable addition to Thai cinema studies. It is well-written and instructive.” (The book has previously been reviewed by the Bangkok Post newspaper, Art Review and The Big Chilli magazines, and the 101 World website.)

Thai Cinema Uncensored

The 101 World

The Thai news website The 101 World reviewed Thai Cinema Uncensored on 21st January 2021. (The book has also been reviewed by the Bangkok Post newspaper, and Art Review and The Big Chilli magazines.)

In his 101 World review, headlined “ภาพยนตร์ไทยไม่ต้องห้าม” (‘Thai movies are not forbidden’), Matt Changsupan writes: “นอกจากข้อมูลที่อัปเดตมากๆ... ได้ให้ภาพของการตั้งคำถามเกี่ยวกับการเมืองการปกครองร่วมสมัยผ่านภาพยนตร์ได้อย่างค่อนข้างครบถ้วน” (‘in addition to its very up-to-date content... it provides a rather complete picture of the questioning of contemporary politics through film’).