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Friday, April 07, 2006

Novices of Mae Hong Son

In far north Thailand, April brings a girl-less beauty pageant, the social and spiritual event of the season.


Poi Sang Long parade in Vieng Neuea, Thailand

Photo: Chris Pirazzi

Those sizing up Easter bonnets for this year, may be especially interested to see spring millinery from the Thai/Myanmar highlands. In a word: Wowza!

The ethnic Shan, also known as “Thai Yan” and “Tai Long” live in Laos, China, Myanmar, and Thailand. Particularly in the Thai province of Mae Hong Son, they observe a rite of spring that’s visually on par with Mardi Gras. As with Fat Tuesday, boys and men get the spotlight—and in this case, the lipstick and floral headdresses too.

The Poi Sang Long ceremony ordains boys, ages 8-14, to be Buddhist monks, three days of festivity that proceed from normalcy to elaborate ostentatiousness to solemnity. The Human Flower Project here is the tradition of decorating all the novices’ newly shaved head with stupendous flowered hats. Once crowned with flowers, each boy rides the shoulders of an older male friend or relative through the streets, shaded by another who carries a decorative umbrella (again, the flavor of New Orleans).

imageNovices parade to Pa Pao Temple

in Chiang Mai

Photo: Chiang Mai Mail

“On the first day, the boys have their heads shaved. Then, they are bathed and anointed with special waters and dressed up elegantly and colorfully while their faces are superbly embellished. By this time, the boys are known locally as ‘Sang Long’ or ‘Look Kaew’ (jewel sons).

“On the second day, a colorful procession is held displaying offerings for the monks. On the third day, the procession once again proceeds through the town and the boys are taken to the temples for the formal ordination ceremony.”

It’s believed that the ceremony re-enacts the story of Prince Rahula, the Buddha’s own young son, who renounced the world to follow his father’s spiritual path. Most of the Shan are Theravada Buddhists and will be so ordained on the final day of Poi Sang Long, trading their jeweled costumes for a monk’s orange robes. But from what we have learned, the Poi Sang Long is as much a social event as a religious one. Here’s an interesting account by a young man who went through the ceremony himself not long ago.

“When my grandfather died, I (was) ordained as a nehn or novice monk. In Thai this is called buat nah fai which means ordination in front of fire. Thai people believe when they die they will go to paradise by holding on to a monk’s robe. So I became a monk to help my grandfather go to paradise…. Most boys, like my younger brother, are monks for only one or two days. But I was a novice monk for a month because it was the school holidays.”


Poi Sang Long

Photo: Chiang Mai Mail

Meaning no disrespect, we find this comparable with the “debutante season” in old Louisville, when the first families of the city would hold rounds of parties for their teenage daughters. It’s a “coming out” party than introduces a young person in the wider community but/and primarily honors his family.

“A family may spend upwards of 30,000 baht ($800) and a month of their time preparing for the huge event. Everything must go just right in order to assure good fortune for the family.”

These days, in addition to its social and religious significances, Poi Sang Long has become a tourist attraction, too, and spread to neighboring provinces of Thailand.

See these wonderful photo galleries of the celebration, by Theodor Pitsch and Craig Raskin, as well as Chris Pirazzi’s Journal, where we first learned of this custom.

Dazzled by all this rouge and eyebrow pencil, we can’t help but think that Poi Sang Long is a puberty rite too—a last hurrah for these cherubic boys whose voices will soon crack and cheeks grow peach fuzz. This rite sends off their childhood and “femininity” in a blaze of glory, riding one last time on “Daddy’s” shoulders, in a froth of pink blossoms.

Posted by Julie on 04/07 at 11:48 AM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsTravelPermalink

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Azaleas—‘Say Amen’

The Masters golf tournament begins today, graced by Mother Nature and two Belgian nurserymen.


On #6, during practice for the Masters

Photo: David J. Phillip, for AP

We are golf-averse. The clothes, the manners, the country clubs, that smug little humming sound the carts make all elicit our inner gangster. Golf has even made us hate azaleas.

Today The Masters, the most azaleafied event on the globe, begins in Augusta, Georgia. Everything at the Masters is “traditional”: the winner’s green jacket, “The Eisenhower Tree,” and the 6 zillion azalea bushes blooming to order.

Hole # 13 is even called “Azalea.” Mounds of the tournament’s “signature shrub” line the left side of this hole “from tee to green.” Actually, all the holes at Augusta are named for some tree or plant, but somehow it’s these garish piles of pink and white sloping down to the immaculate fairways that, to us, scream “ELITISM!”

How does the Masters get its flowers to perform each April? We learned today that the Augusta National course had a big head start: it used to be a nursery. Before golfers bought the property, in 1931, it was Fruitland Nursery owned by a father and son team of Belgian horticulturists, the Berckmans. From 1858 to 1918, they introduced scores of plants, shrubs, and trees to gardens and orchards of the Southeast. Prosper Berckmans “developed or improved many types of peaches and eventually became known as the ‘Father of Peach Culture’ across the South.”

It was Prosper also who popularized the native azaleas, spreading them to domestic landscapes—and ultimately, golf courses, too—through his nursery business.  This species of the rhododendron family grows abundantly in the Appalachian Mountains.

The Masters (like all elites) would have one believe that the appearance of the course is natural. “‘At Augusta National Golf Club, we are concerned about the environment,’ said Hootie Johnson, club chairman. ‘A state-of-the-art irrigation system and a primarily curative versus preventative philosophy are just two examples of our commitment to the environment.’” What does THAT mean?

imageIn the Roan Highlands, 2001

Photo: Donald W. Hyatt

If you really want to see azaleas in nature, check out this glorious site assembled by azalea expert Donald W. Hyatt, with a photographic guide to the pinks, whites and peachy-oranges of the region. His shots of azaleas growing along Roan Mountain offer an antidote to Augusta’s ungodly greens. See too Hyatt’s essay on the azalea’s history in the region; all the invented traditions of the Masters look like flashes in the pan.

For this year’s tournament the manicured vistas, we learn, have been elongated, to accommodate Tiger’s and John Daly’s long drives; otherwise, surely, all will be the same. No women allowed to join the Augusta National Golf Club. And that’s a.o.k. We’ll take our stand and our $40,000 membership fee elsewhere.


Mowers prepare Augusta National for the Masters

Photo: BBC

Enough grumping. After learning about the Berckmans and seeing Don Hyatt’s site,  we just may check in on Amen Corner, the 11th, 12th, and 13th (Azalea) holes that seem to make or break the tournament. You can watch it on your flat screen TV or on your computer screen. This year the Masters will be showing “Amen Corner Live!” online, as each player treads the fairways fantastic. Play started at 10:30 today and will go on through suppertime Sunday.

Posted by Julie on 04/06 at 12:31 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyGardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsPermalink

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Qing Ming

For China’s festival of “Clear Brightness,” descendants gather round the ancestors with food, flowers, and “hell money” on fire.


Hell Bank Note, to burn for the departed

Collectors Warehouse

April 5 is day 106 after the winter solstice: time enough for spring to have arrived in China. Everyone turns out of doors, to plow, picnic and revisit the ancestors.

The festival of Qing Ming takes place today. Over the years, it’s become one of China’s major floral holidays as folks crowd into the subways to buy chrysanthemums with which to decorate the family cemeteries.

Formerly, Qing Ming rites involved the burning of Hell Money, play cash imprinted with lotus flowers, thistles, dragons, and pots of gold. According to Chinese traditional belief, “when someone dies, his spirit goes to the afterlife, (also known as non-perjorative “hell”) where it lives on, doing much the same things it did in life. Surviving relatives want to send gifts to make the afterlife as comfortable as possible.” That means providing facsimiles—at least—of cars, houses, watches, and phones, as well as, of course, a bankroll. “Hell Bank Notes are most popular. Burning sends them on their way.”

During this festival time, descendants also keep up the family graveyard, pulling weeds, repainting gravestones. In the Southern states of the U.S., we observe this custom in late May, calling it Decoration Day. In Mexico and the Southwest U.S. it’s El Dia de los Muertos, observed November 2, but the purpose is the same: to remember the ancestors and tend their burial grounds out of respect and affection—with more than a dash of fear.

imageLilies, food and chrysanthemums brighten a grave on the outskirts of Beijing for the annual Tomb Sweeping festival, Qing Ming, April 5.

Photo: Ng Han Guan, for AP

On March 15, 1995, the Beijing government outlawed burning paper money for Qing Ming, and since then chrysanthemums (with their flamelike petals) have overtaken the capitol for the holiday. “The success of the 1995 regulation has resulted in another problem for officials. Since chrysanthemums are in great demand at festival time, and since they have sold out so quickly, people have begun to steal flowers from graves to sell again.

“‘That is really a headache,’ said Fan Min, an official with Beijing Babaoshan People’s Cemetery Administration. ‘We are short of hands to put this place under a close watch.’”

Here is more information about the history of Qing Ming. It seems originally to have been an effort not to spur ancestor worship but to contain it. “In ancient China, Qingming was by no means the only time when sacrifices were made to ancestors. In fact such ceremonies were held very frequently, about every two weeks, in addition to other important holidays and festivals. The formalities of these ceremonies were in general very elaborate and expensive in terms of time and money. In an effort to reduce this expense, Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty declared in 732 that respects would be formally paid at the tombs of ancestors only on the day of Qingming.”

imageIn Xiangfan, China, a man burned offerings at family grave April 3, two days before the busy Qing Ming festival.

Photo: Reuters

Today the holiday is being observed in New York and Malaysia, in San Francisco and Hawaii as well as its homeland of China.

There, it inspired not only annual observance but a national art treasure, the glorious scroll painting by Zhang Zeduan. Like the works of Brueghel, this piece seems to capture all of life—China’s natural world and all of its social customs—in one bustling image.

Precursor to the Qing Ming “Clear Brightness” celebrations of today was the much older observance of Hanshi “Cold food,” dating from the 6th century BC. It honors the tragic story of Jie Zitui—faithful servant who sacrificed his own flesh for a starving Chinese prince. It’s maybe the saddest story we’ve ever heard. Reading about it, you’ll understand the place of fire in Qing Ming and see why a rite of exuberant spring involves, too, the solemnity of the grave.


Posted by Julie on 04/05 at 12:03 PM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsSecular CustomsPermalink

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Bouquets for a Firebrand

White House reporter Helen Thomas receives a truckload of roses for bulldogging President Bush on Iraq.


Floral thanks for White House correspondent Helen Thomas

Photo: Democratic Underground

The best known member of the White House press corps, 85-year-old Helen Thomas, never worried about people-pleasing, which is just what has made her a great reporter.

After being relegated to the back row, Thomas was at last called upon March 21 by George Bush. Right off, Thomas put him on notice: “You’re going to be sorry.”

“I’d like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet—your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth—what was your real reason? You have said it wasn’t oil—quest for oil, it hasn’t been Israel, or anything else. What was it?”

The President proceeded to rollerblade away from the question.

Bush: ”...we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I’m never going to forget it. And I’m never going to forget the vow I made to the American people that we will do everything in our power to protect our people.

“Part of that meant to make sure that we didn’t allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy. And that’s why I went into Iraq—hold on for a second—”

Thomas: “They didn’t do anything to you, or to our country….”

And she continued to interrupt. How unladylike!

Thomas worked for United Press International from 1943 to 2000; after the wire service was bought by New World Communications, she resigned because, she said, of the company’s ties to Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. She now works for Hearst and continues to report and write but “is rarely called upon in press conferences.”

...because she’s a has-been? No. Because she’s right on the money—with the kinds of barbed,  confrontational questions that used to differentiate journalism from oral history and therapy.

imageHelen Thomas questioned President Jimmy Carter, 2/8/77

Photo: Courtesy of Jimmy Carter Library

At a speech she gave at MIT in 2002, Thomas asked, “Where’s the outrage? Where is Congress? They’re supine! Bush has held only six press conferences, the only forum in our society where a president can be questioned. I’m on the phone to [former press secretary] Ari Fleischer every day, asking will he ever hold another one? The international world is wondering what happened to America’s great heart and soul.”

For her decades of tenacity, and her most recent upstartism, Thomas was surprised with about 38 dozen roses last week, a gift from a group called Democratic Underground. “Thank you Ms. Thomas,” the organization wrote, “for asking the President the questions all Americans want answered about Iraq! Thank you for always siding on the side of truth and asking for others to do the same! We’ve got your back!”

Thomas replied: “Blessed are the peacemakers.  The bounty of beautiful roses from such wonderful people has lifted my heart and will remain in my memory for the rest of my life.  Thank you for caring that others may live.

Helen Thomas

Columnist, Hearst Newspapers

March 31, 2006”

Thirty-eight dozen roses are hardly an “underground” activity. On the contrary, giving flowers is a revelation of both recipient and giver. In our view, guys, your group needs a more accurate and in-the-sunlight name!

We enjoyed reading the reactions to the flower-shower, both pro and con. Flowers mark feeling, and with Helen Thomas involved, that of course translates into feelings on both sides: a.k.a. controversy.

Hey, when was the last time you sent flowers to a reporter?

(Note: Our apologies for under-reporting by a landslide the roses for Ms. Thomas. We’d just counted the vases shown in the photo. But read the comments here. Democratic Underground sent Thomas 100 dozen flowers!)

Posted by Julie on 04/04 at 12:08 PM
Art & MediaPoliticsSecular CustomsPermalink
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