Monthly Archives: October 2010

Trading Thai Ganja for U.S. Guns in Vietnam

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 123-126:

This exchange of drugs for luxury goods brought together the Thais and the Americans to a degree greater than any official duty ever did. When asked to recall their interactions with Americans and other farang in Bearcat Camp, the Thai veterans brought up their meetings with drug-prowling GIs more often than they did any other circumstance. Even those Thai soldiers who said they did not participate in these illicit exchanges often cited conversations with drug-using farang as the only time they had a lengthy conversation with a foreign soldier in South Vietnam.

A drug user’s urge for a score was a powerful motivating factor for overcoming the reticence generated by cultural boundaries and difficulties in communicating. And the happy garrulousness that emerged in the aftermath of a successful buy turned some normally taciturn GIs into ad hoc cultural ambassadors. The relaxing effects of the marijuana on the Americans, when combined with the Thai soldiers’ self-described propensity for friendliness and tolerance, created the circumstances and environment in which the two groups could meet and learn about each other. “The ones who talked to us were the ones who [used] intoxicants, such as marijuana,” Sergeant Wad Kaeokalong remembered. “They used to come around looking for the Thai soldiers every day.”…

The drugs seemed to provide the impetus for farang soldiers to learn Southeast Asian languages. Some Thai volunteers later remembered the drug-using Americans as possessing superior language skills….

In addition to … items … available from the PX or the quartermaster’s store, there were other items more difficult to obtain that the Thais eagerly sought from the Americans. Namely, they wanted guns. It was common for Thai soldiers to bargain for a sidearm like those carried by American helicopter pilots. Possession of one of these high-powered pistols, which were not included in the arsenal issued to the Thai units, brought honor to its owner. More importantly, these unofficial weapons would not be taken from the Thai volunteers when they returned to Thailand. They could be hidden in their duffel bags and smuggled past the military police and customs officials who haphazardly searched the returning soldiers.

The most prized of these pistols was an American officer’s .45-caliber Colt automatic, what the Thais called the “US Army brand,” the “11” (for “11 millimeter,” the size of its round, or “M1911,” the US Army’s designation for the pistol). They did not come cheap, though. To obtain a weapon like that, the Thai volunteers had to trade a minimum of three kilograms of marijuana. “They brought [the pistol] back to Thailand to show it off,” Wad Kaeokalong explained. “Thai soldiers like guns.” For an American intent on scoring some marijuana from a gun-loving Thai, it was only a matter of reporting that his sidearm had been accidentally lost in flight.

The consequences of this drugs-for-guns trade affected crime patterns in Thailand. Thai authorities were alarmed by the number of personal weapons being smuggled into their country during this phase of the war. Some of the “top-grade” weapons acquired by the Thai volunteer forces began appearing in Thailand’s arms black market. Criminal investigators discovered a dramatic increase in the number of hand grenades, automatic pistols, assault rifles, and high-caliber ammunition turning up in the possession of private citizens, and in May 1970, Thai police officials gave orders for a crackdown on soldiers smuggling weapons from Vietnam and Laos….

This Thai desire for American arms had its origins in earlier episodes of modern Thai history. In bringing these weapons home, either for sale or personal use, the Thai volunteers were participating in a historical trend involving the dramatic proliferation of small arms throughout rural Thailand in the late twentieth century. This quiet arms race, a process that Thai historian Chalong Soontravanich has called the “democratization” of small arms, began during World War II, when most of the Thai volunteers interviewed for this project were young children. The influx increased during their adolescence Great quantities of lethal weaponry, including automatic pistols, hand grenades, and high explosives, flowed back and forth across the Mekong River when war between the French colonial forces and the Viet Minh flared in the late 1940s. Other wars of liberation throughout Southeast Asia fed more weaponry into these arms-trading networks throughout the 1950s and 1960s. These modern weapons, according to Chalong, became part of rural people’s “daily tools” and were used primarily for protection. The Thai government’s statements and warnings about the dangers posed by indigenous and foreign communists, subversive Vietnamese refugees, and militant Muslim separatists all helped generate a social atmosphere of imminent danger throughout rural Thailand. The acquisition of personal protection not only continued in this period but appears to have intensified with the availability of American weapons in the region. The Thai troops who acquired handguns and other weapons had a ready market at home. There was no indication of a glut in this market. As long as there were Americans around who wanted drugs, the Thais had the means to facilitate a trade….

Of all the stories about Thais who smuggled US Army weapons back to Thailand, one in particular gained legendary status among members of the Royal Thai Army for its audacity and high profile. Lieutenant General Chalad Hiranyasiri, the Thai commander entrusted by MACV to crack down on the Thai malfeasance in 1969, “embezzled” (om) a US Army helicopter as a “souvenir” of his time in South Vietnam. He kept it on the grounds of the Royal Thai Army’s First Infantry Regiment. Chalad, who was described by one Thai military writer as “bighearted,” used the helicopter to give rides to children each year on Children’s Day. Nearly three decades after Chalad was executed for his coup attempt, the helicopter was still in use.

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Dull Eating along the Tokaido in Edo Times

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), 163-164:

After so much talk of famine, we too need some relief. Let us turn next to the food that travelers ate at the fifty-three stops of the Tōkaidō highway. In 1817 Yamagata Heiemon Shigeyoshi, the master of the scholar Yamagata Bantō (1748–1821), was summoned by the lord of Sendai. Yamagata left Osaka by boat on the eighteenth day of the first month and then traveled on highways to arrive in Sendai on the twelfth day of the second month. In his detailed travel diary, he recorded exactly what he ate at each of the inns at which he lodged.

For lunch on the nineteenth, while looking out over Lake Biwa near Atsuta, Yamagata ate corbicula soup; a dish of carrots, burdock, and kelp; and a dish of trefoil dressed with white sesame sauce. Toward evening he arrived at Kusatsu in snowy weather; here it was so cold that even the lamp oil froze. Supper consisted of a vinegared dish (namasu) of giant white radish (daikon), persimmon, and greens; a soup of greens and dried bean curds; a hira of kamaboko, gourd shavings (kanpyō), and burdock; and a broiled salted mackerel. The next morning he ate white beet soup; a hira of Japanese cabbage (mizuna), shiitake mushroom, and dried bean curd; a choku of pickled salted plums; and a roasted dried fish. Yamagata crossed Suzuka Pass in heavy snow and spent the night at the bottom of the opposite slope: the twenty-first found him in Kuwana; the twenty-second, in Miya. Although the surroundings changed considerably, food on the Tōkaidō highway stayed basically the same at every inn. As soups, hira, tsubo, or broiled fish were not varied by introducing locally available specialties, the cuisine was quite monotonous.

This was an official trip. Travel expenses for Yamagata and his attendant, a doctor, five porters, three packhorse drivers, and three horses were probably paid by the lord of Sendai. Thus meals at each post town must have been of a high quality. Although one must take into account that Yamagata’s journey took place in the middle of winter, the lack of variety in the cuisine is surprising. Soups always included giant white radish, either fresh or dried; the hira always featured combinations of dried gourd shavings (kanpyō), tofu, burdock, carrot, potato, kelp, shiitake mushrooms, and, as recorded on a few occasions, dried laver (nori) and kamaboko. The tsubo consisted of kokushō; of tofu boiled in water, soy sauce, and sake; of burdock; or of light wheat gluten cakes. Broiled fish usually meant mackerel, young sea bream, sole, or yellowtail. Exceptional meals included the eel served for supper at an inn at Arai and the “fluffy eggs” eaten for breakfast at Fukuroi. Today Japanese travelers would tire of such fare in two or three days. Such cuisine gives us yet another insight into conditions on the Tōkaidō during an age in which the pace of life was much slower than it is today.

Once Yamagata had passed Edo and headed for the northeast, some local color appears in his meals. At Kasukabe broiled carp (funa) was served; at Odawara he ate a wild duck. Broiled fish was almost invariably salmon or gurnard (kanagashira), but at Koshigawa he received dried cod flavored with sake. Nevertheless, both soups and hira featured nothing out of the ordinary. Even the fact that udo (probably yamaudo) was eaten at the stay at Kasukabe on the fifth day of the second month seems remarkable in this context. If high-class inns on the Tōkaidō and Ōshū-kaidō served this kind of fare during the late Edo period, one may assume that both the quality and preparation of food at townsmen’s homes must have been quite mediocre by today’s standards.

NOTES: Although I was familiar with kinpira (金平 lit. ‘gold ordinary’), I wasn’t aware that hira (平 ‘level, plain, common’?) could be used for all types of similarly prepared (sauteed then simmered together) vegetable dishes. Perhaps tsubo (壷) ‘pot, jar’ dishes differ from nabemono (鍋物 ‘hot pot‘) by being prepared in the kitchen rather than at the dining table. Kokushō (濃く漿, ‘thick sap/serum/plasma’?) seems more commonly known as 重湯 omoyu (lit. ‘heavy hotwater’) ‘thin rice gruel’, like okayu (お粥) ‘rice gruel, jook, congee’.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Frikadel, Shippoku-dai, Zhuofu

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), p. 146:

During the early years of the Edo period, Japan engaged in much trade with East Asian countries. As a result, a remarkable amount of foreign cuisine was imported. Unusual ingredients, previously seen but rarely in Japan, were introduced. Their use was at first limited to social or ceremonial events and special banquets, but in time they were consumed by a broad range of the population.

A number of new foods are recorded in contemporary writings: red-and-white hanpen (a cake of pounded fish); yaki-dōfu (broiled bean curd); sarasa-jiru (a soup made with fresh chrysanthemums); a Javanese dish called gōren (“goreng“) made with fried fish; and furugasuteru (“frikadel“), a dish apparently of Dutch provenance in which beef and cabbage were finely minced, combined with egg, seasoned with wine, covered with bread crumbs, and fried.

The spread of such cuisine brings to mind my own experiences as a child. My hometown was in the Kansai area, in a rural area around the city of Akō in Harima. Things may have changed now, but in my childhood we called a dining table a shippoku-dai. Usually everyone ate from individual boxlike trays, but local tradition required the use of a shippoku-dai when guests arrived. The word shippoku, which originates from the Chinese word zhuofu (tablecloth [桌布]), denotes a Chinese-style dining table. But what we called shippoku-dai was a purely Japanese-style table with no hint of Chinese influence. Shippoku cuisine, a Japanese version of Chinese food, is today a specialty of Nagasaki; this cuisine and the shippoku-dai were probably transmitted to Japan in much the same manner. Although shippoku cuisine did not spread to the rural areas, the shippoku-dai, by contrast, spread to every nook and cranny of the Japanese countryside. Many people of the Kansai area must have fond recollections of this kind of table.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Kohada-zushi, Konosirus punctatus

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 170-171:

At the end of the Edo period the charming sight of sushi vendors selling kohada-zushi (sushi topped with a small gizzard shad) could be seen in the streets of Edo. Nigiri-zushi—bite-sized sushi made by squeezing a small amount of rice in the hand—was an Edo specialty that appeared during the Bunsei Period (1818–1830). This sushi soon became all the rage. The most conspicuous nigiri-zushi vendors sold kohada-zushi. These hawkers covered their heads with a hand towel in Yoshiwara fashion; they wore narrow-striped kimono tucked up behind, short coats with broad stripes and black silk collars, sashes known as Hakata obi, cotton leggings with white socks, and sandals made of straw and linen. Such a unique outfit made kohada-zushi vendors quite striking in appearance. From the start of spring until early summer sushi peddlers sauntered through the streets and called out in a mellifluous voice, “Sushi! Hey! Kohada-zushi!” …

Nigiri-zushi was also sold by “Atakematsu” of Atakegura in Honjo; eventually this sushi came to be known simply as “Matsu’s sushi.” … Most were mere street stalls, but true restaurants existed as well. At any rate, sushi was highly popular. From Edo the sushi fashion spread to the Kamigata area. In the late 1820s a restaurant called “Matsu no sushi” appeared south of Ebisubashi in Osaka. This was the first Osaka outlet of Edo sushi: but before long this specialty was sold at shops throughout Osaka.

Kohada (小鰭) and shinko (新子) are young and younger stages of konoshiro ‘dotted gizzard shad’, Konosirus punctatus (Temminck & Schlegel, 1846), according to Japanese Wikipedia, but a species utterly missing from English Wikipedia, where gizzard shad is summarily redirected to American gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum), in a genus limited to eastern North America. The other five genera of the subfamily Dorosomatinae (gizzard shads) are not covered at all. The systematics of shads appear to be extremely complex.

I first heard of shad from my youngest uncle, who had a cabin down by the James River near the site of Virginia’s peculiar political gathering, the Shad Planking.

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Thai Language Speakers in South Vietnam

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 168-169:

Thai language skills seem to have spread quickly to areas beyond the villages directly surrounding Bearcat Camp. Infantrymen on operations were surprised to find Vietnamese women in isolated villages who could speak some Thai. Yutthasak Monithet, who went to Vietnam with the Black Panther Division’s third phase in July 1970, recalled conducting impromptu Thai lessons for curious Vietnamese: “As for the Bien Hoa market. people in the shops could speak Thai, but they spoke it as if they had [recently] learned Thai. Sometimes they had questions [about Thai], and they would ask, ‘What is this thing called in Thai?’ We would tell them the words that Thai people used for these things.” The market that Yutthasak described is fifteen miles or so from Bearcat Camp.

The other factor that contributed to the spread of Thai was the influence of ethnic Vietnamese who had lived in Thailand and Laos. There is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that some of the Vietnamese refugees who had lived in Thailand in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s returned to Long Thanh District and settled in areas near Bearcat Camp; others found their way to Saigon, Vung Tau, and other R & R towns frequented by Thai troops. Some of the repatriated Vietnamese opened Thai restaurants while others provided Mekhong whiskey and other goods to sell to the Thai soldiers. Many spoke the Isan-Lao dialect, “as they do in Ubon [Ratchathani] and Nong Khai, and others spoke Central Thai, also known as Standard Thai.

A third factor was the role of the Thai-Vietnamese translators. Some of the Vietnamese who were hired to translate for the Thai units had lived in Bangkok before the war. Unlike the Vietnamese who settled in Isan, these Vietnamese learned Central Thai, the country’s official dialect. They lacked Thai citizenship and apparently had been repatriated along with the Vietnamese from the northeast. Their familiarity with Vietnamese and Standard Thai made them a valuable asset to the Royal Thai Army and the Royal Thai Navy as they sought translators for their units.

Repatriated Vietnamese were mediators between the Thai military and the indigenous communities. The Thai volunteers relied on them for items that the US Army would not or could not provide. In market towns such as Long Thanh and Bien Hoa, Viet Kieu (expatriate Vietnamese) restaurants were centers of Thai relaxation and recreation. Chanrit Hemathulin’s unit regularly patronized one of these restaurants near Bearcat Camp because it offered northeastern Thai staples, such as lap (minced-meat salad), som tam, and khao meo (glutinous rice). “It was as if they were Thai restaurants, he recalled….

Mixed in among the population of Vietnamese returnees were Thai women who had married Vietnamese men back in Thailand and then accompanied them to Vietnam when the Thai government had deported them. Like the returnees among whom they lived, these women served as mediators between the two cultures.

The Chinese characters for Viet Kieu must be 越僑: 越 as in 越南 Yuènán ‘Vietnam’; 僑 as in 华侨/華僑 Huáqiáo ‘Chinese Abroad‘.

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On the Foreignness of Vietnam to Thais

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 188-189:

The Thai soldiers saw South Vietnam as a separate country in a conception that differed from their understanding of their immediate neighbors Laos and Cambodia. Many of these soldiers had passed through those two countries in their youth. Private First Class Aran’s childhood home in Nong Khai, for instance, was within sight of the Mekong River and the banks of Laos opposite. As he recalled, “It was like going into my sibling country. Back then Thailand and Laos weren’t that different from each other. There was no ideology [separating them] at all. We crossed over to play like normal. We could eat and sleep, and then cross back. [The Lao people] were like our relatives; we could go back and forth [between Thailand and Laos] all the time.” Those soldiers from the southern Isan subregion, many of them from districts where Khmer was spoken as a first language, enjoyed similar ease in crossing the Thai-Cambodian border in the period before the World Court awarded full ownership of Prasat Khao Phra Wihan (Preah Vihear in Khmer) to Phnom Penh in 1962. For the ethnic Khmer living in southern Isan’s Sisaket, Surin, and Buriram provinces, a jaunt into Cambodia was as unremarkable as the boat ride on the Mekong River made by their ethnic Lao counterparts in the north.

Vietnam was different. Its cultural dissimilarities more so than its geographic distance put it into a separate category. It seemed Chinese. The strong cultural similarities between the Vietnamese and the Chinese made such comparisons inevitable. The historical Vietnamese embrace of Confucian principles, Mahayana Buddhism, Chinese script (as well as Nom, the Vietnamese indigenous script that resembles Chinese to many outsiders), and the classics of Chinese literature encouraged the Thais to see Vietnam as belonging to China’s sphere. It seemed distant beyond the kilometers that separated it from Thailand.

Upon their arrival in Vietnam, the first action undertaken by many Thai volunteers was to acknowledge the presence and sovereignty of the local spiritual regime. As soon as Sergeant Khamron set foot in South Vietnam, he dropped to his knees, scooped up a handful of dirt, and sprinkled it over his head. He carried out this impromptu gesture to ensure that Mae Thorani would protect him while he was in South Vietnam…. “If you are Buddhist, they train you to do things like this,” he explained. “There is a khata [verse] that says, ‘When you go to a foreign land/Entrust your care to Mother Earth.’ It is the same thing when you return. When I got back [to Thailand], I immediately knelt down, took up some dirt, and sprinkled it on my head. I said, ‘I’m back.'” Khamron’s decision to carry out the same action on returning to his homeland underscores the degree to which many soldiers saw South Vietnam’s spiritual forces as belonging to a separate (and specifically Vietnamese) realm. Despite sharing the same physical landmass and duplicating the same flora, fauna, and weather, the two countries were seen to harbor individual and esoteric spiritual actors. The sovereignty of each area belonged to local spirits. For this reason, some Thai soldiers brought their own soil with them. They collected samples of dirt, which they addressed as “Mae Thorani,” and carried the samples with them to South Vietnam.

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What the River Kwai Meant to Thais

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 42-44:

Behind the confident statements issued by Thai and US leaders throughout the first half of 1967, the battle readiness of the regiment was uncertain. American military personnel who had come to train the Thai [Queen’s Cobra] regiment were unimpressed by the volunteers’ level of preparedness. From early June, in the ten weeks that remained before embarkation, the American advisers guided the Thai unit through field exercises and training missions in Lopburi, Chonburi, and Kanchanaburi. The Americans had designed “an intense training” program that “drilled the Thai [troops] in the exact tactics and methods of operation employed by the Viet Cong.” They hoped that this crash course would help the Thais counter the guerrilla warfare methods being used by the Vietnamese guerrillas. All of the American instructors came from experienced combat units in South Vietnam and were eager to impart the lessons they had acquired. They attempted to simulate the conditions that the Thais would face in South Vietnam, but despite the physical similarities between Thailand’s and South Vietnam’s landscapes, the Americans found it difficult to impose a sense of urgency or even realism on the regiment that had hitherto been regarded as a domestic symbol. In Kanchanaburi the Americans led the Thai troops in field training exercises that crisscrossed the jungles along the Khwae (or Kwai) River, not far from the site of the bridge built by forced labor for the Japanese Imperial Army’s “Death Railway” during World War II. The fictionalized retelling of the bridge’s construction, as presented in Pierre Boulle’s 1954 novel and its 1957 film adaptation, was on the minds of the Americans as they trained the Thai troops. The hint of cinematic make-believe suggested by the Khwae River location may have contributed to the growing unease among the American instructors. It was as if their appreciation of the book and film undermined their own attempts at simulating realism in the jungles there. The Americans’ effort to impose realistic conditions on the exercises were compromised by the feeling that they had been dropped into a movie set on which a familiar, unrealistic film had been made. While the Thai troops were certainly aware of the cinematic resonance that the Khwae River setting elicited, the region offered them another set of specifically Thai symbols born from a different semifictional source: Thailand’s nationalist history.

The area used in the training exercises was not far from several sites important to the historical imagination shared by most Thai soldiers in this era. Kanchanaburi’s location below the Three Pagoda Pass put it on a major route traditionally used by the Burmese and Siamese armies while invading and raiding each other’s kingdoms. In the nationalist version of Thailand’s history prevalent in 1967, a retelling of events that was particularly popular with members of the Thai military, the Burmese of old were always portrayed as the Thai people’s archenemy. The natural corridor created by the mountains to the west and the Chaophraya floodplain to the east was the site of several celebrated (and historically embellished) clashes between these occasionally bitter rival kingdoms.

The battle of Nong Sarai was certainly on the minds of the Thai volunteer soldiers as they trained for their South Vietnam mission. It had occurred during a phase of Ayutthaya‘s history when the kingdom’s Thai rulers were struggling to retain their sovereignty after several decades of Burmese military occupation. At this site in January 1593, King Naresuan the Great, the most revered figure in this nationalist history, won Siam’s greatest military victory. With his forces pressed to the breaking point, Naresuan was said to have called out the Burmese crown prince to challenge him to a duel on war elephants. After a few minutes of fierce combat, Naresuan got the better of his Burmese rival and killed him with a well-aimed slash of his sword. The Burmese forces panicked and fled south-southwest toward Burma. Naresuan’s army pursued them through Kanchanaburi, decimating their scattered lines.

The Thai soldiers preparing to fight in South Vietnam relished their proximity to the site of Naresuan’s victory. Joseph Callaway described his Thai trainees talking about a centuries-old victory over the Burmese “as though it took place only a few years before.” They cherished the historical memory of the warrior king and asked his spirit to bless their upcoming adventure. The men prayed in an ubosot (Buddhist ordination hall) said to have been visited by Naresuan while he was fighting in the area. Many recalled dreaming of Naresuan while training in Kanchanaburi and fighting in South Vietnam….

In the midst of this atmosphere of competing cultural and historical symbolism, the Thai troops added one realistic detail to their training procedure that may have trumped even the Americans’ passion for realism. The Thai troops carried live ammunition along with the simulated rounds used in their training because they felt they required protection against the dangerous forces that inhabited the Thailand-Burma frontier, everything from cobras and tigers to opium smugglers. Although the American trainers felt that the Thais did not fully comprehend the danger posed by the Viet Cong guerrillas, they were flabbergasted to discover how anxious this apparently sleepy western province made the volunteers.

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