Survey, Drawing, Interview : Tools for Discovering the Urban Living and Stories of Wua Lai Neighbourhood

By Pijika Pumketkao-Lecourt

In mid-December, with a map and a drawing board in hand, a group of Franco-Thai students walked through the calm shaded alleyways in Wua Lai neighbourhood. As part of the Spatial Investigation Workshop, they had been asked to conduct a survey on the living space of Wua Lai, to make sketches of the wooden houses and to interview the residents. The schedule of work was very tight, but for them the survey was a break between the first phase of workshop focusing on the analysis of city contexts, and the third phase during which they finalized their spatial project.

In fact, the survey is a key moment for bringing the students from the urban to the domestic scale, which allows them to switch back and forth between the local context and the overall vision of territory. By considering that the inhabitants are at the heart of urban project, we encourage our students to learn about the local culture, residents’ place-making practices, and also to discover the neighbourhood’s dynamics, social ties, histories and aspirations.

Photo courtesy of Pijika Pumketkao, 2018

Sitting on a wooden table, one of our students started to talk with Mrs. Tu (Saisunee Chaiwongyart), a retired nurse and house owner, about her daily life and family background. The lady patiently answered the student’s questions while continuing to make the colorful Lanna flag (tung). The interview revealed that her family has been settled in Wua Lai neighbourhood for three generations. Her parents’ house was situated next to the ox statue, near by the entrance of Muen San Temple. After she gave birth to her second child almost thirty years ago, Mrs. Tu and her husband decided to move to a house nearby, located near another entrance of Muen San Temple. Mrs. Tu underlined that she has preferred to stay in her native neighbourhood where her relatives live.

The location of Mrs. Tu’s house in its surroundings. Her relatives’ houses are marked in grey.

Mrs. Tu’s story represents the social structure of ancient Thai neighbourhood, which was based on the ties of family and kinship. During the interview, we noted that Mrs. Tu used the word ban when referring to her relatives’ house, for example “ban mè” (her mother’s house), “ban na” (her aunt’s house), and also when referring to her neighbourhood “ban Wua Lai”. We can notice that the same word (ban) is used to designate both a house and a village. The double meaning of ban shows the expansion of filiation link from the family to the village level. This is a fundamental element which creates the sign of belonging to the neighbourhood in Thai cities.

Photo courtesy of Pijika Pumketkao, 2018

Not far from Mrs. Tu’s work table, another student was sketching the house’s facade and taking note of the use of domestic space. The drawing exercise enable students to learn how to observe and understand the “place”. This approach provides a form of analysis and presentation that illustrates the way how the residents shape the built environment of neighbourhood. Ban Wua Lai exhibits the traditional urban settlement form of Chiang Mai: organic form of alleyway with the tiny lots and small footprint buildings. Each compound has an open space between the alleyway and the house which usually contain the well and feature one or more shade-giving trees. This traditional urban forms have promoted social cohesion, walking, local economic interactions, and an evolved response to climate.

The making of the house’s floor plans and sections is aimed at visually describing the composition of materials and the relation between the rest area (bedroom), the gathering space (living room, dining table), the working space and the sacred space (praying room).

The drawings also show the relation between the house, the garden, and the key elements of Lanna’s house such as ancestor altar, guardian spirits altar, well and stand of drinking water pots called han nam. Like many residents in Ban Wua Lai, Mrs. Tu still keeps and maintains the old well and the stand of water pots situated in her front yard. Han nam represents the sharing spirit and culture of Lanna people ; in the past, it was placed in front of each house for providing drinking water for the guests and the travellers. Nowaday, han nam is a sign of welcome which is integrated in the cultural landscape and urban culture of Northern Thai cities.

Well and stand of drinking water pots (han nam) in the front yard of Mrs. Tu’s house. Photo courtesy of Pijika Pumketkao, 2018

The working space is also a significant place of Ban Wua Lai’s residents. Many of them use the space underneath their houses on stilts as a work area. The rich and calm environment of Wua Lai has inspired local artisans to produce the household objects and meticulous works of art for local rituals and religious ceremonies (please see the post In Conversation with a Master of Silverware in Wua Lai). Wua Lai is well known for silversmith, but after doing the surveys, we found others craft activities which also participate in the dynamic of local livelihoods.

Lanna flag (tung) produced by Mrs. Tu. Photo courtesy of Pijika Pumketkao, 2018

Mrs. Tu’s deep faith in Buddhism has inspired her to create colorful Lanna flag (tung), an important element of Lanna rituals and merit-making ceremonies. Tung are notably used during the Thai new year festival (songkran) in April, to decorate the sand stupa (chedi sai) created in every temple. After retirement, Mrs. Tu has spent much of her time producing tung for sale, teaching and sharing her knowledge with people who are interested in this crafts. She has transformed the space beneath her old wooden house into a workshop, a place where she crafts and gives the course on creation of tung. Today, Chiang Mai people know her as a cultural educator of Ban Wua Lai, who preserves and passes on Lanna art and traditions to future generations.

Another local product we found during the survey is nam nang (lit. “water of skin”), traditional snack made from buffalo skin. It is usually taken as a side dish for nam phirk (chili sauce) served with fresh vegetables. Mrs. Sukhon is one of the last persons in Chiang Mai who still makes this dish. During the interview, the lady showed us the traditional way of cooking: boil the buffalo skin for eight hours; smear nam nang on the banana leaf and leave it in the sun to dry; before eating, grill the dried nam nang on the charcoal brazier. We found many pieces of nam nang on banana leaf hung underneath her wooden house. Mrs. Sukhon prepared these products for sale at the local market (Kad Kom) and at the city’s markets (Kad Pratu Chiang Mai). She underlined that this snack can only be made during the dry climate in winter and raised concerns about its disappearing due to climate change and the complexity of the cooking process.

The plan of location shows that Mrs. Sukhon’s house is located midway between Kad Kom (local market of Ban Wua Lai) and Kad Pratu Chiang Mai (city’s market).

In summary, the survey could provided knowledge on local organization and experience of teamwork. Working as a team in the limited time is a challenge. Besides, the drawing and interview revealed some hidden features of the neighbourhood and highlighted the role of Ban Wua Lai’s residents as active manufacturer, creators and protector of cultural assets. The dialogue with residents enable students to take into account the neighbourhood perspective, local dynamics, threats and pressures from rapid urban development. During the presentations and discussions on the survey works, many problematic issues were raised, notably on the impact of tourism, infill development, replacement of some small wooden houses with larger and higher buildings (hotel and apartment), and disappearing of craft culture. This provide a basis for further reflection on the future of Wua Lai neighbourhood.

Nam nang produced by Mrs. Sukhon. Photo courtesy of Pijika Pumketkao, 2018

Furthermore, through this exercise, we intend to create an inventory of the craft village’s knowledge and heritage assets, and also to make this knowledge accessible to a wider public in order to raise awareness of the ordinary living heritage of the city.

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