CHIANG RAI – Lue Lai Kham is museum of Lue textile and fabric museum. The owner, Mr. Suriya Wongchai, started collecting Lue textiles and traditional costumes by buying old clothes from Lue villagers and exhibited them in his house.
Suriya Wongchai’s efforts to save an important aspect of his ancestral legacy from extinction have culminated in a wonderful new museum in Chiang Rai, dedicated to the increasingly rare fabrics woven by ethnic Tai Lue artisans.
Suriya Wongchai spent more than a decade gathering as many fine samples of the textiles and costumes as he could before opening the Lue Lai Kham Museum three weeks ago in Baan Sri Don Chai, his birthplace. As an added attraction, it also boasts a quaint cafe overlooking rice fields. The project has cost him Bt5 million thus far.
The private museum was Suriya’s own residence, formerly a rustic wooden house on stilts, now augmented with concrete walls and an inclined “hip roof”. With more than 1,000 exhibits on view, it tells the history of Tai Lue people – who are thinly spread out in the upper Thai North, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and southern China – and lovingly illustrates the obsession of a dedicated collector.
“My ancestors migrated from Xishuangbanna in China and settled in Baan Sri Don Chai during the reign of King Rama V,” says the former schoolteacher. “Our village, not far from the town of Chiang Khong, only has about 2,000 residents, but we all share the same surname!”
Around 200 villagers are weavers and Suriya acquired 60 looms for their use, selling their textiles and tapestries at the museum. It’s extra income for them and helps keep the legacy alive. “The traditional textiles and the people who have the knowledge and skills to make them are slowly disappearing, so I wanted to preserve and share what makes all of this so fascinating.”
Suriya’s guide to collecting was the book “The Cultural Heritage of Tai Lue Textiles” by Soangsak Prangwatanakun of Chiang Mai University. The first floor of the museum has display panels with excerpts from the book, used with the author’s blessing, that provide an overview of the various Tai Lue groups and their distinctive styles.
On the second floor, dressmakers’ mannequins are set up to show how the remarkable textiles are worn, again with excerpts and photos from Soangsak’s book lending context.
“Baan Sri Don Chai and Baan Hat Bai are the two Tai Lue villages in Chiang Khong district with quite distinctive weaving,” Suriya points out. “Sri Don Chai is noted for its koh luang technique, in which the supplementary weft is run back and forth with different-coloured thread. Each thread as it’s added is tied into the wrap yarn to strengthen the fabric and create the intricate pattern called lai nam lai [flowing water], which signifies the Tai Lue’s resettlement along the Mekong River.
“Hat Bai is known for its chok technique, where the supplementary weft forms a complex and colourful geometric pattern.”
A glass-front cupboard holds a stunning array of century-old tube skirts and blouses that the women of Sri Don Chai would have worn when attending weddings. The long-sleeved blouses are made from dark indigo-dyed cotton and decorated with triangular patterns of coloured thread.
“The typical tube skirt consists of the waistband, the main body and the hem border,” says Suriya. “The Sri Don Chai tube skirt is recognisable from the emphasis on bright horizontal patterns at the midriff and the plain, dark-tone hem. The coloured yarn remains bright because the women wore inner garments and didn’t have to wash the skirts that often.”
From a large Tai Lue population in Chiang Rai’s eastern Wiang Kaen district comes another woman’s costume featuring a plain, long-sleeved blouse in dark indigo and a tube skirt with a waistband in alternating green and black stripes. The rest of the skirt is a colourful geometric design combining the chok and koh luang methods.
Suriya also owns a rare selection of Tai Lue weaving from Laos, particularly the northern province of Luang Namtha. A typical woman’s cotton blouse might be black or dyed dark with indigo and have embroidered bands at the front, while the tube skirt mixed the techniques of chok, koh luang, ikat (mudmee), khit (using a continuous supplementary weft) and pan kai, the last with stripes of different-coloured yarn twisted together.
Thanks to their vivid shades, the textiles from Baan Doi Oup Fah in Laos’ northwest Sayaboury province are quite outstanding, and yet there are also expressions of the sorrow of war – mingled in with flowers and butterflies in the motifs are bombs and helicopters.
“The skirts were woven from small synthetic yarns using chemical dyes, so they’re much more colourful,” Suriya notes. “The decorative chok pattern on the main body might also indicate the wearer’s marital status. A married woman’s skirt would have a thinner pattern.”
Two mannequins wear the costumes of Tai Lue noble ladies from Chiang Tung in Myanmar. The blouses are Persian black velvet and rose-hued Chinese silk. The skirts have small alternating horizontal stripes and silky velvet at the hem.
From northern Vietnam there are a man’s black trousers and long-sleeved shirt with an embroidered standing collar and a woman’s blouse that’s all black except for coloured strips of prefabricated fabrics. The skirt bears geometric and symbolic motifs, rendered in the chok technique, the hems adorned with vertical embroidered fabric bands.
Also on display at the museum are ornaments and everyday items, including pha lop (a bed sheet), pha hom (a blanket) and pha chet (a shoulder cloth). These were generally woven from cotton and adorned with multi-coloured patterns.
IN THE WEAVE OF HISTORY
The Lue Lai Kham Museum is in Baan Sri Don Chai in Chiang Rai’s Chiang Khong district.
It’s open daily from 9 to 6. Admission is Bt50.
For more details, |call (089) 838 5724.
Art of Weaving: Tai Lue in northern Thailand
The Tai Lue (or Tai Lu) are a Tai ethnic group who speak a Tai language, Tai Lue, related to the Thai language.
Tai Lue are Buddhist like most Thai people are and share many of the same customs and traditions of Thai people such as building pagodas made of sand during Theravadan Buddhist New Years (Songkran).
Tai Lue live in the Golden Triangle area that stretches over many countries from Chiang Hung (or Chiang Rung or Jinghong) in the Sipsong Panna (or สิบสองปันนา or Xishuangbanna) region of Southern Yunnan, to Maesai, Chiang Khong and Chiang Kham in Thailand, to Muang Yawng in Burma and Muang Sing in northern Laos.
As for history, the mother of King Mengrai (1238–1317) the first king of the kingdom of Lanna in Chiang Mai and northern Thailand was a Tai Lue from Chiang Hung. Borders between countries or states did not exist then as they do now.
For the history of the Tai Lue and Tai in general based on Chinese, Tai and Burmese historical sources see two papers in the SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research: 1. Intra-dynastic and Inter-Tai Conflicts in the Old Kingdom of Moeng Lü in Southern Yunnan by Foon Ming Liew-Herres here and, 2. Crucible of War: Burma and the Ming in the Tai Frontier Zone (1382-1454) by Jon Fernquest here.