» Archive for category: ‘popular culture

studying_SEA_comics-940x400Development studies and practice has a tendency to represent large parts of the world as places of poverty, misery and underdevelopment. In this regard, a look at the creative industry works as a useful corrective. It brings to the forefront the dynamic and creative dimension that is also part and parcel of the so-called ‘developing world’, and at times sheds an interesting light on questions of development.

The Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia presents a special issue entitled ‘Studying Comics from Southeast Asia’. As Jacqueline Berndt observes in her introductory essay:

…research on comics cultures is dominated by the comparison between North America, Western Europe and Japan, occasionally including Korea and also the Chinese-language markets, in particular with respect to manga. 

A focus on comics from Southeast Asia is thus much welcomed and the issue provides a useful introduction to the world of comics in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.

From a youth studies perspective I would have liked to see more about the consumers of comics and the role of comics in youth sub-cultures. The contribution about Vietnam by Nguyen Hong Phuc goes someway into such a direction where it discusses the controversy around the picture book Sát Thủ Đầu Mưng Mủ by the Vietnamese artist Nguyen Thanh Phong. The book recreates Vietnamese proverbs and includes new slang which it does through a total of 120 drawings that are each accompanied by a short caption playing on common informal Vietnamese idioms. Nguyen Hong Phuc illustrates this with the following example:

…the traditional Vietnamese saying “when a horse is sick, the whole stable refuses grass”, which means “love people like loving oneself”, was revised to “when a horse is sick, the whole stable can eat more grass” which implies a degree of selfishness and uncaring for others. 

Although such creative use of language received considerable critique leading to a halt on the publication of the book, it also received support. Nguyen Hong Phuc reports that in a debate organised at the French Cultural Centre in Hanoi (in 2012) on ‘the language of youths in the internet age’ many youth voiced their support for Nguyen Thanh Phong’s work. Importantly, some Vietnamese scholars took side with these youth by pointing out that:

new ways of playing around with Vietnamese words and re-creating idoms were innovative since the official Vietnamese language could not reflect such expressions well enough, thus, it created new value from the old

Perhaps, then, development studies scholars have much to learn from reading comics as it arguably captures people’s experiences and perceptions of socio-economic change much more aptly than any large scale survey on such matters.

posted by Roy Huijsmans


image0012The excellent New Mandala, featured an interesting post discussing a controversial Thai television series about a group of middle-class Bangkok teenagers entitled ‘Hormones’ (Hormone WaiWaWun).

The author, Pasoot Lasuka, notes that the series, which has just completed its first season, has been controversial in Thailand. He argues that this is largely due to ‘its explicit portrayals of social issues that can be found in actual Thai high school life. These issues include, for example: sexual desire among students (especially through Sprite, a female character who is portrayed as sexually open-minded); the discovery of homosexual desire (through a character called Phoo); and the challenge to the school’s authority of Win, a male character who is depicted as having a critical mind’.

As noted in earlier posts (HERE and HERE), young people’s bodies are often important sites of development governmentalities. Hence, the concern expressed by the Thai National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission about the apparent ‘inappropriate content’ of the series is not entirely surprising. On the other hand, Pasoot Lasuka notes that the series is also celebrated by, for example, a critic from Prachachat News who considers the series ‘useful for the youngsters and their parents to learn what really happens in school today.’

In his conclusion, Pasoot Lasuka raises the question whether despite all the controversy Hormones is perhaps not reinforcing conservative values more so than offering any progressive content. He bases this claim on the observation that the rebeliousness displayed by the youth in Hormones goes only so far; it doesn’t destabilise traditional conservative institutions like the family and religion. In fact, the author notes ‘the series puts a high emphasis on the importance of the family institution in helping the youngsters in the series get out troubles. For instance, when Sprite, the sexually open-minded person who likes to fool around with boys, learns that her mother is pregnant, she becomes a completely different person by staying at home and help taking care of her mother. Phoo, who becomes so confused with his gender identity, is understood by his mother and his younger brother, and can live happily at the end’.

A point that escaped the otherwise excellent analysis is the title of the series. Does the title ‘Hormones’ not effectively suggest that any of the apparently ‘rebellious behaviour’ displayed by these teenagers should not be interpreted as political, because it suggests that this is simply the result of the condition of the adolescent brain?

posted by Roy Huijsmans

posted by Roy Huijsmans

Some days ago the Lao B-Boy group Lao Bangfai posted a strong statement on their Facebook page (for an earlier post see on Lao Bangfai go HERE). Their message is straight forward. They are happy that they often asked to perform on all sorts of occasions, yet, they are annoyed with constant requests to put on such shows for free or for a much lower fee than their usual one.

In their words:

Of course you would prefer us to dance for free, and WE don’t dance for the money, but who pays our bills? Who pays our food and water while we are training for your event? We have a studio that we rent, just like you rent your house.’

To be sure, Lao Bangfai does not always charge fees (e.g. exceptions may be made for charity  related events) and it is particularly when their involvement is sought by commercial parties that complaints about fees annoys them:

‘You know yourself (Organizers and Promoters) that Laobangfai can attract more people to your event than any other local artist (no disrespect but it has been the case in all past events). So please respect our service fees, think before commenting and complaining.’

The artistic value of Lao Bangfai is recognised across the globe as their long list of awards and prizes indicates, so why then is it not recognised as a form of ‘work’ and properly rewarded? Their may be two issues at stake here. First, is the work of art, which b-dance is, which is too often not recognised as a form of labour. It may be viewed as an unproductive activity, a form of leisure rather than labour, etc.  Second, this artistic labour is done by young people who present themselves as youth. Diane Elson observed in an article way back in 1982 that due to the ‘seniority system’ it is extremely difficult for children, and to some extent for youth too (!), to achieve ‘full recognition [by adults] in monetary terms for the skills they possess and the contributions they make’ (p. 493). This appears to hold for Lao Bangfai too and is further complicated by the fact that their artistic work is seldom given due recognition as a form of labour.

Political Breakdance

Category: popular culture

3 Sep 2012

posted by Roy Huijsmans

Lao PDR may not be known for its B-boying scene (or ‘breakdancing’). However, the dance group ‘Lao Bang Fai‘ is working hard to change this. Started by a group of local youngsters who were inspired by this global youth culture, Lao Bang Fai is now regularly staging shows across Lao PDR and beyond and exciting crowds wherever they are.

In the Lao context, ‘culture’ tends to refer to traditional Lao culture, rather than new forms of cultural expression like ‘breakdance’ that have obvious foreign (read US) roots. A main task of the Lao Ministry of Information and Culture is the preservation of ‘Lao culture’ in times of rapid socio-economic change. In this light, it is remarkable that Lao Bang Fai was accepted for official registration under the Ministry.

Lao Bang Fai often works with development organisations, hosting breakdance workshops and shows with and for disadvantaged youth. This development gloss no doubt helps to depoliticise Lao Bang Fai’s culture work. Yet, a closer look at their work shows that Lao Bang Fai breakdance shifts the parameters of Lao culture and does so in subtle, beautiful, yet deeply provocative ways.

Its very name and logo (see above) are already deeply hybrid. ‘Bangfai’ means rocket in Lao and in the Lao cultural field this is associated with ‘boun bangfai’ (rocket festival) a Lao folk (fertility) festival celebrated at the start of the rainy season.  With the dragon (or ‘naga’) in its logo, Lao Bangfai incorporates yet another element of traditional Lao folk culture. Furthermore, in this clip key symbols of the official version of Lao national culture, like Patouxay, That Luang and Buddhist temples feature as platforms for modern youth culture. A yet more explicit engagement with highly politicised elements of Lao culture was demonstrated in a recent presentation by Lao Bang Fai representatives at the 3rd International Conference on Children, Young People and Families at the National University of Singapore. Here, a clip was shown of a show that Lao Bang Fai had performed with disabled youth in neighbouring Cambodia (through Handicap International). The main female dancer wore a royal crown and a beautiful silk skirt (sin) and performed traditional royal dance which was beautifully juxtaposed with breakdance. In a country where a communist party has been in power since the socialist revolution of 1975 and where the royal family was removed from the scene soon after such expressions of cultural hybridity are no light matter. Whilst scholars have followed the re-embracing of some elements of Lao royalty by the Lao state with keen interests (see for example here), the way young people through modern youth culture shift the parameters of Lao culture (including through the incorporation and adaptation of elements of royal arts) has received much less attention.

Just before Bangkok would become the site of Aung San Suu Kyi’s first trip outside her country in more than two decades, the Thai capital welcomed Lady Gaga on Don Mueang Airport. Local news reports claim that fans had come from as far as Hanoi to witness Lady Gaga’s Asian part of her Born This Way Ball concert tour that also touched down in South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Philippines, Singapore, but got cancelled in Indonesia after the police refused to issue a permit based on grounds of security concerns following protest from religious groups.

Official ticket prices for the Thai concert ranged from 1,500 to 7,000 Thai Baht, which did not stop more than 50,000 fans from buying a ticket. This made it according to New Mandala the ‘biggest concert held by an international artist [in Thailand] in more than a decade’. Lady Gaga’s global popularity is also evident from topping the Twitter rankings with more than 20 million followers. Tweets from disappointed Indonesian fans following the cancellation of the Jakarta concert show that these followers are found across the globe and reflect a global fan culture.

International Institute of Social Studies

ISS is an international graduate school of policy-oriented critical social science. It brings together students and teachers from the Global South and the North in a European environment.