Slums and Spirit Houses:


Jay is alone in the computer lab. He is one of the founding members of a famous band of computer geeks – better known as the Gang of Angels. He makes several clicks on the mouse as a large map of Bangkok starts to appear on the screen. His eyes are tired from staring at long strings of programming codes and he is not so sure if what is emerging on the screen is not some sort of mental hallucination on his part. As he waits for the entire map to finish loading up, he feels compel to leave his computer station – where he has been sitting for the past 5 hours. He takes a Djarum cigarette from the pack, dismounts from the chair, and left the room. The map continues loading.

The city map makes its appearance with dark blue dots and veins sprawling over a bland yellowish background; it brings to mind the image of a certain type of cultured cheese – perhaps the Gorgonzola.

They are the colony of slums and shantytowns that have informally taken over the city; turning it into something very alive – much like the blue cheese. Their patterns, too, are unique to its location of origin. The connoisseurs may have acquired a taste for the Gorgonzola, the Roquefort, or the Stilton; but they have yet to acquire the taste for the Mumbai, the Nairobi, the Caracas, or the Bangkok. Perhaps these cities are much too pungent for their fine palates.

Similar to the colonies of Lactobacillus Bulgaricus that labored tirelessly so that the connoisseurs could enjoy it with their red wine, the slums of Bangkok or Mumbai suffered the same fate; but in a rather different way.

Prior to 1957 – when the American planners arrived - most Thais were living on the land without the concept of title deed. The land was handed down from a generation to the next generation. If the land was left unused, it would automatically be taken up by someone else who could make use of it.

The Spirit House is a living relic to this traditional land use pattern. The fundamental concept of the Spirit House – aside from its complex rituals – is rather simple. It reminds the living that the dead is the undisputable landlord; and that the land belongs to the ghosts who reside in the Spirit Houses. So most people – the living - accepted their common lot as ‘trustees’ who take care of the land; making useful things out of it while they go through the stage of being alive. It was the concept of trusteeship that laid the foundation for traditional land use patterns in Thailand. It is also interesting to note that a piece of land is traditionally thought to be owned by a collective group of ghosts; rarely would a land be owned by a lone individual ghost.

After the arrival of the American planners, we see the rapid expansion of roadways throughout the nation. It was a first step in preparation for the Vietnam War in the eyes of the American planners. It was also a boon for the speculators as the price of land along these new roadways skyrocketed. Land titles were sold to local investors – many were men in military uniforms – who were more than happy to make accommodation to the Americans GIs. Like in South Vietnam, the Americans had hoped to create an infrastructure that could help support their troops while providing a steady cash flow to their hungry hosts.

The night is warm and quiet outside the computer lab; Jay is puffing his 2nd clove cigarette, thinking about the ghosts. The computer labors on his behalf; making strange noises while it renders the city map for its master. It is halfway done with the map now. Jay takes out a watch – which he has removed from his wrist – and finds that it is now 2:05 AM. He doesn’t like to be reminded of time; so he usually removes his wrist watch and puts it in his pants pocket. He used to say that there are lots of people out there these days who don’t seem to have enough time; but some people – like him – always have time; they just don’t look at it.

Inside the computer lab, the emerging map starts to render up the location of the bazaars and markets; they are always seemed to be in close proximity to the slums. Often, the people who live in slums create social spaces near their homes so that they could trade and sell goods; sometime they sell their own bodies to delirious sweaty men. Over time these social spaces became bazaars and they, in turn, became important destinations; places where people meet, eat, shop, and dream. The land value goes up proportionally to the popularity of such dreams; and some land owners wake up with bulging pants after seeing one of those dreams. When this happens, he usually relieves himself by going to the slums; waiving his impressive Chanod to some astonished grandmas – who have never seen anything like it for the past 50 years. The grandmas and her belongings and her pets and her battery powered radios are usually thrown out; either by force or by the more common method of arson. Like the micro colonies that live on the blue cheese, the slums dwellers are active agents that create value and life for the otherwise bland piece of land. But a ripen piece of land could no longer protect the colony of squatters from the inexorable thrust of the Chanod.

The age of capitalism had begun, and it brought its own tools and dogmas. The concept of land title and deeds – the Chanod - were one of those dogmas; and it was taken up by those who had power. Traditional beliefs - like the Spirit House – were relegated to decorative and routine rituals. The folks who still practice this traditional ritual are seen as backward and animistic.

General Eisenhower starts howling; it has arrived here with his friend Tuy who has a peculiar taste for naming his dogs after the military men in Washington. The dog, too, is a creature of discipline; it is proud of its name, and for 6 months, it is unresponsive to everything but General Eisenhower – not even "Ike."

“You’ve left this CD-R in the teahouse last night,” says Tuy as he handed the disc to Jay and walks the dog away towards the field.

“Thanks dude,” shouts Jay as he handles the CD-R with care.

Back in the lab, he finds that the entire map of Bangkok has finished loading up. The rendering is complete. The computer is not making any more noises and the shaking movement has stopped. He glances at the map for some minutes; absorbing it in his memory picture. The blue dots are so extensive; more so than he has originally thought they would be. Bangkok is indeed a city of slums. Today, the eviction of slums is no longer popular with large and experience landlords. The squatters – during eviction seasons – scattered themselves throughout the city; germinating their new settlements; inviting more families and relatives from the villages. The landlords had come to realize that the eviction of one slum could cause 20 more slums to reappear in a matter of weeks. And when they find that the new slums so happen to be growing on several of their million dollars properties, their worst fear is confirmed.

Jay starts loading the CD-R he got from Tuy on another computer station. His mind is shutting down on him so that his head becomes heavy and it falls on the computer desk; it would remain there for the whole night, resting and rolling on the mouse pad.

The hands on the wall clock now read: “6:25”.

“Wake up dude!” says a young man with a bushy head. “Got the disc?”

“What?” Jay gets up slowly from the chair like a fat man; his eyes are still watery; his cheek bears an etching of the mouse pad’s logo. From the lab’s windows, he can see the orange sun at the edge of the horizon, but he is not so sure whether it is early morning or early evening. Sometime he sleeps during the day and wakes up at 6:00 PM; and the sun looks exactly like the one at 6:00 AM. So he stares at it; trying to see if it's rising or falling.

“The disc, the BUDO community map…you know what I mean?”

“Oh….. sure… I got it right here. What time is it?” says Jay, still dazed.

“It’s 6:27 AM…… Look, they say we still need to add more communities to the map; they’re presenting it to the Cabinet in two weeks!” the man says.

Jay yawns as he stretches his arms. “We’ll make it… we have time,” he says, feeling the wrist watch in his pants pocket.