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Ghosts of the New City

Ghosts of the New City: Spirits, Urbanity, and the Ruins of Progress in Chiang Mai

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Ghosts of the New City
    Book Description:

    Chiang Mai (literally, “new city”) suffered badly in the 1997 Asian financial crisis as the Northern Thai real estate bubble collapsed along with the Thai baht, crushing dreams of a renaissance of Northern prosperity. Years later, the ruins of the excesses of the 1990s still stain the skyline. In Ghosts of the New City, Andrew Alan Johnson shows how the trauma of the crash, brought back vividly by the political crisis of 2006, haunts efforts to remake the city. For many Chiang Mai residents, new developments harbor the seeds of the crash, which manifest themselves in anxious stories of ghosts and criminals who conceal themselves behind the city’s progressive veneer. Hopes for rebirth and fears of decline have their roots in Thai conceptions of progress, which draw from Buddhist and animist ideas of power and sacrality. Cities, Johnson argues, were centers where the charismatic power of kings and animist spirits were grounded; these entities assured progress by imbuing the space with sacred power that would avert disaster. Johnson traces such magico-religious conceptions of potency and space from historical records through present-day popular religious practice and draws parallels between these and secular attempts at urban revitalization. Through a detailed ethnography of the contested ways in which academics, urban activists, spirit mediums, and architects seek to revitalize the flagging economy and infrastructure of Chiang Mai, Johnson finds that alongside the hope for progress there exists a discourse about urban ghosts, deadly construction sites, and the lurking anxiety of another possible crash, a discourse that calls into question history’s upward trajectory. In this way, Ghosts of the New City draws new connections between urban history and popular religion that have implications far beyond Southeast Asia.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-4782-1
    Subjects: History, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction The Broken Building
    (pp. 1-6)

    Upon travelling to the northern city of Chiang Mai, Reginald Le May, a British adviser to Siam in the early twentieth century, observed of its residents: “In spite of the vast number of temples built, the innumerable images of the Lord Buddha fashioned and venerated, the endless pilgrimages to the more famous shrines, the countless store of money spent on gold leaf and incense, and the armies of priests that have been ordained during all these past centuries, the [Chiang Mai] Lao people remain at heart what they have been from time immemorial . . . animists” (1986, 125). Le...

  6. 1 Progress and Its Ruins
    (pp. 7-31)

    In the 2010 filmLaddaland(Golden Land), one of the highest-grossing Thai horror films, a father, Thi, moves his family from Bangkok to a suburban gated community in the city of Chiang Mai, where he has accepted a new, high-ranking job. Their first drive through the community is a montage of Americana-inspired clichés: broad streets, freshly mown lawns, two-story homes, and even a pair of children playing with a golden retriever in the spray of a sprinkler. Nonetheless, Thi’s family is reluctant to leave Bangkok, knowing they will miss their extended family and suspicious of the new life in the...

  7. 2 Foundations
    (pp. 32-70)

    In Chiang Mai during a time of crisis, anxieties about ghosts trouble the city. This situation is not new, rather, it resembles other crisis points in Northern Thai history. David Wyatt describes one such incident reported in theNan Chronicleof 1795 whereinpretandyakghosts were said to have emerged to attack the populace of the Northern Thai city of Nan:¹ “Ghosts [went] around the city assaulting monks and people. After these beatings they dropped off written messages saying that they had come from thedeva[angelic beings] guardians of thecetiya[stupa] . . . now in...

  8. 3 Mediums
    (pp. 71-93)

    In the previous chapter, I outlined urban power and sacrality as seen through the lens of Northern Thai ritual and myth, arguing that participants in these rituals situate the city as a source of power that extends from charismatic sources downwards. Urbanism, in this reading, was what prevented decline and promised rebirth. But how is such power conceived of today? How does it come to intercede in the present-day haunted and ruinous city? In what follows, I have drawn upon two years of field research conducted on professionals who place themselves as the privileged mediums of this power and show...

  9. 4 Lanna Style
    (pp. 94-128)

    I pulled my motorcycle off the side road onto the damp grass alongside rows and rows of other bikes. As in the case of Grandmother and Grandfather Sae’s rite, I was late. The music had already begun, although the winter morning cool had not quite turned to the heat of midday. In the clearing, underneath a tall canopy of replanted teak trees, a white mat had been laid down as a stage. In front of it sat the guest of honor dressed in white, his hands clasped in a respectfulwai, a benevolent smile on his face. Behind him was...

  10. 5 Rebuilding Lanna
    (pp. 129-152)

    The folk music duo Mai Mueang (Northern Wood) set up in the central night market every weekend as well as in their own restaurant to the north of the old city. The performers adopted a blend of American country and Northern Thai music styles—a blend not unfamiliar in Chiang Mai (see Ferguson 2011). The lead, Thiraphon Bunyaphonhom, sang in a soft, clear voice in a blend of Northern Thai and Central, with music that combined American folk tunes with Northern Thai instruments or melodies. The lyrics interspersed classic love ballads with songs about the disappearance of Northern culture. Jane...

  11. Conclusion The City Doesn’t Have a Future
    (pp. 153-156)

    “The city doesn’t have a future,” was Bon’s judgment when confronted with Chiang Mai’s crumbling architecture. Surrounded by new construction, he confided to me that progress in Chiang Mai was in a state of crisis, unable to move forward and threatened by bad architecture and malignant ghosts. By fusing these two elements, Bon had united the discourses of the mediums and urban planners into a unitary narrative: the failure ofcharoen. Now, I wish to return to the empty space that exists at the center of Bon’s sketch of Chiang Mai.

    Bon sought to convince me that Chiang Mai is...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 157-168)
    (pp. 169-172)
    (pp. 173-184)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 185-190)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 191-197)