CHIANGRAI TIMES – New Year in the mountain villages of the Lisu people is certainly one of the most vibrant and colourful. The four days and nights during which the Lisu indulge in dancing, singing and drinking coincide with Chinese New Year as the somewhat sinicized Lisu still adhere to the Chinese lunar calendar — usually at the end of January or in the first half of February. For them, the celebrations are more than just about having fun; they are the ultimate expression of their cultural identity.
Visiting a Lisu village during New Year is a rewarding experience, as outsiders are warmly welcomed to the festivities, while the crowds of dancing villagers dressed up in their most elaborately decorated costumes are a photographer’s delight. Although many remote Lisu villages can only be reached by a dusty and bumpy ride on a dirt road, at least a dozen are situated along a major asphalt-surfaced road and so are relatively easy to get to.
The preparations for the festivities take place well in advance. Most households will ensure they have a stock of liquor at home, beginning to distil it as soon as they have harvested their corn and rice after the rainy season. Over many weeks, even months before the New Year, the women will be engaged in making new, eye-catching costumes that will be at centre stage during the New Year festivities. Women working on their sewing machines in front of their huts are a characteristic feature of any modern Lisu village in Thailand.
In the past, much of the colourful fabrics for these costumes was woven at home, but nowadays virtually all is bought in town. In December or early January, you may spot many Lisu women in the textile shops near Chiang Mai’s Worarot Market choosing a selection of the most colourful fabrics on offer there during the clearance sales. Some three decades or so ago, this was the time when most of them had just harvested and sold their opium, and consequently, much of the income from their cash crop was invested directly in the New Year’s celebrations.
The Lisu from China’s Yunnan province started to cross into Burma during the tumultuous second half of the nineteenth century. During the 1910s, the first groups began to settle in Thai territory — Doi Chang in Chiang Rai province is thought to have been the kingdom’s first Lisu village. From then on, more Lisu migrants followed, so their settlements are now scattered throughout the northern parts of Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai en Chiang Rai provinces.
Lisu New Year by Sjon Hauser