Written by Philip Cornwel-Smith / Photographs: John Goss
Very Thai is by far one of the most interesting Thailand books you will come across. Accompanied by great photo's the book reveals the beauty of everyday Thailand life and shines a light on the many expressions of Thai culture.
Chicky Net will hopefully help you with finding your way around Thailand but Very Thai will help you to understand it. From tiny pink tissues, blind bands, gambling and the drink in a bag, Very Thai covers it all. I am very pleased that I can share 3 chapters of this book with you (one each month), this is the 2nd chapter. I am sure you'll want a copy of the book afterwards.
Chapters published on Chicky Net: Female Grooming, Nang Kwak and Beauty Queens.
Very Thai - Everyday Popular Culture
Philip Cornwel-Smith / Photographs: John Goss
The beckoning lady brings business and love
"Those who don’t ask don’t get" runs the English proverb and Thai shopkeepers aren’t shy to ask for more custom. Most unambiguous of all the trade talismans, nang kwak (beckoning lady) ushers in business at restaurants, shops and stalls. Often seen on counters near the till or door, she was originally kept in a money bag.
Dressed in traditional costume and crown, she sits Thai-style – legs tucked in to the right, left hand on floor or thigh – her right arm half-raised to beckon. In the courteous way that Thais summon taxis, waiters or social juniors, her palm faces down. Were nang kwak’s fingers pointing up, trade would suffer. Made by men, that rude gesture aggressively challenges; made by women, it’s a raunchy signal to “come hither”.
Actually, nang kwak does have a sexy side. Like many amulets, she doubles as a love charm, though in the form of leaves from the plant of the same name. It’s among a class of waan yaa (herbal medicinal amulets). “Whoever desires a magnetic charm in himself or herself for love or kindness, smears the face and body with waan nang kwak accompanied by the recitation of ‘Namo Buddhaya’ 108 times,” wrote Phya Anuman Rajadhon of old lore.
Metal nang kwak in silver, gold and – in a rare two-handed gesture – bronze.
Though arcane, the practice persists. “In junior high school half a dozen girls in my class would wrap nang kwak leaves in a handkerchief to place in their top pocket to find a boyfriend,” recalls Chatchai Ngoenprakairat, 24. A few men likewise pocket a waan sao long (‘infatuated girl’ herb) leaf or wash in Waan Sao Long brand herbal soap to attract women.
Coloured red or green with a white centre, nang kwak leaves curl down – an auspicious trait seen as beckoning. Leaves have a limited life, so their power was extended by carving a beckoning figure from the herb’s tuber root. It must be found in the wild and dug up only after offering liquor, betel and other goodies to the spirits.
Over time, the sculptures were enlarged and executed in ivory, bronze, clay or a particular wood (notably the fig tree). Most elegant in gold leafed black lacquer, they’re often now plaster or plastic, moulded and painted with the same imprecision as spirit house attendant figures, among whom nang kwak sometimes sits.
A simpler, stylised stone nang kwak beckons customers to a carrot juice stall.
“To carve nang kwak it is advisable to wear a white suit and finish within one day,” Sombat Plainoi cautions. Shamanic medicine was inseparable from magic, hence the mystic letters engraved on the body: bhogam (left hand), jana (right hand), du (left breast), sa (right breast), ma (forehead) and ni (back), which combine into the spell “bhogam jana du sa ma ni” (meaning ‘heart treasure’) uttered in 108 incantations. Today, fewer nang kwak get inscribed, but they still require blessing by a monk, medium or shaman in order to turn the figurine into an amulet for enhancing public relations.
To show what people actually say when muttering a spell, here’s a translation of her Maha Ongkarn mantra:
“Om, Maha Siddhi joga. Om, the great Phu Chao (Lord Paternal Grandfather) of Blue Mountain with an only daughter named Nang Kwak. Women adore her, men love her. May luck be bestowed on me, and all people know me. Om! Traders, lead me to the Maen (god) country where I gain a thousand thanan (coconut shell measure for rice) full of ring gems. I trade in diverse wares and gain profit easily. I trade in silver, it comes to me brimful; I trade in gold, it comes to me brimful. Come friends and partake of food, for today I have much luck. I come home with baskets full. I am better in luck than those female traders, even surpassing the owners of junks. Om! Lord Phu Chao bestow good fortune on me alone.”
Just as leaves wither, so magic wears off. To top it up requires reciting Maha Ongkarn daily while offering popped rice, candles, garlands and scented paste. The hassle of all this leads many to adopt a similar Japanese talisman, the maneki-neko. A beckoning cat, it’s happy with simple snacks and sweets and needs no invocations.
The Japanese beckoning cat maneki-neko is a growing fad among modern shopkeepers, though the nang kwak is older and authentically Thai.
Adopting the same pose, purpose and position as nang kwak, the maneki-neko raises the right paw for luck in general, the left for financial fortune. “The maneki-neko had gone global by the end of the 20th century,” Nicholas Bornoff writes. “Outside Japan you’re more likely to see the maneki-neko in Chinese stores and restaurants than in their Japanese equivalent.”
Like many Japanese imports, the cat’s popular among the hip, globalised young, who spurn Thai traditions like nang kwak. “I’m selling trendy outfits for youngsters. She’d make the place look sort of old-fashioned, which might drive customers away instead of drawing them in. It wouldn’t look cool,” says Chanthorn, 25, who instead picked maneki-neko as the mascot of her Siam Square boutique. “It’s cute. Displaying a Japanese charm makes my shop look modern and fashionable; it speaks to my young customers more than any other sort of talisman.”
Nor do these believers want an old-fashioned maneki-neko. The original white pelt with brown tabby blotches makes way for all-white coats of papier-mâché or painted porcelain. Increasingly made of plastic, maneki-neko come in pink to solicit love, in red to banish bad luck or completely gold-coloured to bring riches. For hi-tech effect, many sport a battery-powered beckoning foreleg that swivels perpetually like a metronome.
Perhaps in response, nang kwak statuettes are getting less fussily detailed. It may only be a matter of time before an entrepreneur turns her into a cute toon girl. A bridal shop has already made one out of a mannequin.
The two talismans have become so interchangeable in Thailand that some may wonder if they are related or a total coincidence. Originating in a local herb, nang kwak evidently evolved through ancient indigenous shamanism. She’s unlikely to have been inspired by maneki-neko, which first appeared in Edo in the early 17th century, just after Japan made contact with Thai traders at Ayutthaya. So it could well be that maneki-neko has come home, that the beckoning cat is a Nipponese nang kwak.
This text is copyright material and has been reproduced by special permission. It may not be used or reproduced in any form, except for selected lines in a credited quotation or review, without the express permission of the publisher. Very Thai is published by River Books and is available at the price of 995 baht from all good bookshops or from the publisher.’