The (long-delayed; sorry) second episode of “Bangkok is Ringing,” a podcast series about the politics of sound in Bangkok, is now up here at the excellent Triple Canopy. Future episodes will air ~monthly.
Isaan is the rural northeast area of Thailand, and is a major source of migrant labor for Bangkok. Transplanted Isaan natives are so numerous in the capital that there are several radio stations dedicated to their music. And more than a few of the songs on those stations are precisely about the difficulties of migration.
In Bangkok these past few months, everyday labor hasn’t missed a beat. Observing from afar, you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole city shut down, as many malls, offices, and hotels indeed did. But actually, most workplaces kept up regular operations.
This was especially true for the networks of small-scale industrial/manufacturing labor situated on back streets, away from the main traffic arteries. These networks are vast and often informal, but they provide vital services for a big city and employ many people. Some businesses are run out of storefront machine shops, while others use little more than a patch of sidewalk. We’re talking small engine repair, recycling collection, welding, wire-stripping, and the like.
This montage includes five examples of the sounds of urban labor in a tense time. Each is about one minute; follow the annotations below as you listen.
0:00 – 1:07 A recycling facility on a large side street supports many young men in the neighborhood, who gather paper, cardboard, and plastic bottles from nearby buildings and bring them in for 2 baht per kilogram. Here, two men crush cans and stuff them into big clear bags, which they load onto a cart.
1:08 – 2:01 In the United States, ice cream trucks are just about the only mobile sonic advertisements we have. In Thailand, there’s a greater variety, including fruit trucks with speakers tied to the top, so the driver can call out that day’s price for mangosteens and lychees. In this recording, a mobile broom-and-bucket-shop plays its jingle again and again. Sonic ads for all kinds of businesses are more tolerated here, for whatever reason.
2:02 – 3:08 A welder fixes up a door. This neighborhood is a mixture of large, modern houses, international schools, and blue-collar family homes. Many of the blue-collar workers do construction work for their wealthier neighbors.
3:09 – 3:50 A pair of young men hammer thin metal poles into shape for use in construction.
3:51 – 5:45 Some of the more established shops supply parts for larger industries, including automobile manufacturing. Since most of the cars built in Thailand will be exported to other countries, these small shops are closely connected to global trade. As you can hear an example of from about five minutes onward, news reports were often the soundtrack to these shops in April and May.
This recording was made walking counterclockwise around the grounds of Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai, a Thai Buddhist temple built in the late 9th century. The temple is in the city of Lamphun, not too far from Chiang Mai. Its highlights are a giant golden umbrella and a purported relic of the Buddha’s hair. (One strand.)
From the beginning of the piece, a man speaks into a microphone. He repeats a short script with an insistent cadence that becomes musical after a while.
Around 1:10, I reach some candles burning at the rear of the chedi, placed in a trough and lit by worshippers. The candles must have been made out of some kind of fat; they sizzled loudly for a long time.
A.N. and I met a musician while walking around the Mo Chit neighborhood last week. Mo Chit is the last stop on the SkyTrain, right next to Thailand’s largest weekend market.
To play legally, street musicians in Bangkok must be licensed. The licenses restrict when and where one can play – unlike some cities, the subway is not at all fair game – but they also protect musicians from getting hassled by the cops or anyone else.
The fellow we met was blind – music is a common vocation here for people with disabilities. Like many people from the rural Northeast, he came to Bangkok because he was no longer able to make a living in the provinces.
The field recording above has two parts. First, a song, and then (around 4:00) a short conversation, translated within the audio. The piece he’s playing is Northeastern string music, and he’s accompanied here by recorded drums from a tape deck. You see the instrument, the Phin, pretty often on the street, but the double-necked version is rare. Thanks to B for help with translation.
Zoning, which has so much to do with how places sound, is never an entirely formal process. Although cities usually do their best to centralize decisions about where people live and work, they have to contend with other, much smaller and more local political economies. When one hears something from an establishment that’s completely out of place, that establishment is often getting protection from someone whose main gig isn’t urban planning, to put it nicely. This happens a lot in Bangkok, and accounts for surprising – and special – aural aberrations.
Save malls, Lumphini Park is the largest and most utilized public space in Bangkok. At all hours, the 150-acre Lumphini teems with performance and exercise programs that may involve anything from flags and matching uniforms to swords and tea, from high-octane aerobics jams to casual rounds of badminton between siblings. It is easy, actually, to find a quiet spot. But walk twenty feet and you might find yourself in the audible orbit of something completely different. Everyone, it seems, is busy honing their mind or body.
Khlong Saen Saep, under Witthayu Road. image by author.
Snaking through Bangkok’s concrete tonnage are khlong, natural canals that feed into the Chao Phraya river. Many have been filled in to build roads, but there are still plenty within the city boundaries. They’re crucial for understanding Bangkok’s massive and sometimes inequitable 20th century spatial transformations.