Thai Singers and their fans - Written by Peter Garrity
One of the more interesting aspects of Thai music, and I am only referring to lukthung, morlam and li-ke here, is the interaction between the artists and their fans, and while is not unique, it does have characteristics which make the relationship very Thai and demonstrates the patron/client relationship existing in Thai society, what we might call you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours! In the west when singers do have contact with fans, and especially when they are famous and successful, interaction with fans is often quite remote and when it does occur at a personal level is often under the eyes of bodyguards, or at least PR staff and might involve little more than a quick autograph or handshake. There might well be household names in western countries that put time aside each day for fans to ring, those who invite fans to their house or to family celebrations, even the odd one who pays for concerts tickets or even for fans accommodation bills, but if there is I have never heard of them. In the world of Thai music this closeness is not that uncommon, although of course not all stars are this accommodating by any means. One the fan side they can spend considerable amounts of time and money following their favorite stars just as they do in the west, but the rewards are often greater and at least the opportunity to get close up to the artist, in fact the phrase ‘close up' to a singer is often used to show off the level of the fans relationship to the star. This being Thailand the level of this ‘close up' status is sometimes played up by both the artist and the fan for mutual face.
At times fans can resemble football supporters, as with the fan club of new singer Norng Phao (star of Phumphuang film) at 4 years of Fan TV celebration 2012. At this event fans and singers were split into two sides, pink and blue to play games for charity money, followed by a concert. The event was a great success with fans. Grammy obviously recognises the importance of public support as it named it's Lukthung TV channel Fan TV and spends large amounts on public promotion of the brand, as with Grammy Wonderland at impact arena held over several days in October 2012.
Regular fans of a certain singer, or even not so serious ones will very often be given the singers own phone number, something I would think quite rare in the west, can you imagine Beyonce for example standing behind the stage giving out her phone number? But it happens all the time in Thailand. As well as personal communication fans will expect the opportunity for photos with singers after performances as well as autographs and signing of photos and CDs Of course all singers are not the same with some far more accommodating than others, to some it's clearly an inconvenience at times, most see it as an obligation and part of the world they entered into. I am often surprised at the patience of singers and musicians in some situations where fans continually ask for photos, but a clear and blunt refusal is almost never seen, even from the most difficult of stars. While the giving on the part of the singer, if only with their time, can be considerable, the giving from the fans can also be generous to say the least. Gifts to singers starts at the bottom with a single rose, the commonest type of ‘malai', all the way up to the presenting of expensive items like cars. Of course where cars are accepted the relationship is often a little more than singer/fan and it is a rarity, but does happen.
Some singers are quite well known among fans for their loyalty and friendliness, singers such as Janet Khiao, Asia, Luktan and Sao Mart for example. When it comes to male singers I don't know of anyone more friendly than Cham Cham Ram from Grammy Gold. Some singers are friendly but keep their distance, Cham is not one of those and gives fans lifts in his own car, takes them out for meals and even invites them to his house, as well as phoning them up. On the other hand some singers would not give you a lift in a van if it was raining hard, even if you had been going to their concerts for years.
Fans are often invited to celebrations by singers for events such as house warming parties, wai khru ceremony or other events such as monk ceremonies.
New Year party at Takkataen Chonlada's house
Cham Cham Ram and fans at a karaoke night out at Mega Bangna
Several of the very best lukthung singers ready to see fans for autographs at the Thai cultural centre, June 2009. From left, Oen the Star, Sunari Rachasima, Cathaliya Marasri, Takkadaen Chonlada, Ajariya Busaba and Mangpor Chonticha, Tai Orathai is just out of the frame. Looks like Cat has got a dog with her under the table!
At times the singing star is also in the position of the fan and when face comes into play here it can be an expensive business. There is a story about Yordrak the famous lukthung singer who died in 2008. He liked to visit cafes to see other singers, often almost unknown ones. At such venues the way of showing your appreciation of the singer is to present him or her with flowers, real or artificial, often with money attached. It's the same as at concerts. Sometimes a competition evolves between two or more givers. Yordrak got into something like this with another fan of the singer, each trying to outdo the other with larger and larger gifts of cash. In the end Yordrak ‘won' but it's said to have cost him over 200.000 baht. There may have been exaggeration of the amount over the years in the telling, but it does say something about how seriously face can be taken. I wonder what the Mrs had to say when he got home! Nice payday for the singer anyway.
Nangfa Kalasin recently signed with R-Siam label, forget which malai I gave him, not the money one that's for sure! Nangfa is a very nice mannered singer.
The structure of the singer/fan relationship is in most ways very casual and where fan clubs do exist they are not something you usually sign up for but just groups that get together and organise things like having t shirts printed and signs made up themselves. The only officially organised clubs seem to be those by the big Radio stations such as fm 95 and fm 94.5 who do at least issue member cards and organise club events, especially fm 95. DJ's within stations have had their own fan clubs as had the recently departed manager of fm 95. Perhaps this leads to some internal friction and so may not be a good thing. There are no charges to join any singer fan club that I have heard of. I seem to be in three ‘fan clubs', if they can be called such as they are very informal. Jintara Phunlap's as I have been following her for years, Job and Joy and lately Mangpor Chonticha. Manpor asked us herself to go along to her fans day out which she has done for a couple of years.
Mangpor fan club at Thai cultural centre
While the fan structure is often casual there are still cultural rules and customs governing fan and artist conduct and even though the fan relationship can be very close moral codes existing in Thai society at large are apparent in the world of music. It sometimes comes as a surprise to foreigners only exposed to tourist areas like Sukhumvit to learn that it's actually not generally accepted to touch women you are not related to in public places. Male fans would outrage everyone if they attempted to kiss a female singer on the cheek and even touching them where photos are taken is often seen as risqué. Women on the other hand can get away with almost anything with male and female singers, sometimes life just ain't fair! The female singer however will sometimes touch male fans for photos, but it should be left to them to initiate. Singers themselves are often at pains to maintain their moral reputation as well as keeping marriages and relationships secret. This can sometimes famously backfire as was the case with Jintara Phunlap a few years ago. Always maintaining in interviews over the years she was single, a reported snapped her ID card when she went to vote revealing her married name. As it turned out she had been married to her manager for many years. Homosexual status however does not seem to be such a problem, unless it's a woman and one very famous lesbian singer is routinely in denial over this. The male singers are luckier, as fans male or female do not seem to care about their sexuality, but they are just as likely to be secretive over relationships. Singers can be so protective of their reputation that it has ended up in court cases. In the 90's new singer Appaporn Nokonsawan sued TV Pool magazine for defamation when they wrote she had a child, she had not and the editor and writer were sentenced two years in prison,!! later suspended with a large fine.
The giving of malai to singers by fans is an important contact point for both.
As has already been mentioned the malai, or phuang malai is one main way the fan shows appreciation to the singer in Thai music. As I have only been involved in this scene for 12 years or so I only have photos and film from 20-30 years ago to judge how this has evolved. Looking at older sources I have rarely noticed the giving of money with the malai at concerts and also in the past singers seemed more likely to wear the malai where as today they often pass them straight to a stage hand. Fans take malai more seriously than do most singers today. Many fans will actually judge a singer on whether they wear the malai or not at the performance, and in particular if they take them home or not. The singer who just dumps them at the back of the stage is not appreciated as much as one who takes them away. Most of the older singers did and still do take them away and as the cost of some is considerable -30-500 baht fans feel that in taking them home they are treating the fans with respect. New singer Sasinan (Dr Donut) recently said this in an interview with writer on Thai music James Mitchell:
Q:What do you do with malai and roses? What is considered the right thing to do with them? Have you ever received malai with money or photos of the fans?
Donut: I keep as many of the flowers as I can. If I receive a phuang malai I will present it to Phra Phikhanet [a shrine] to worship (but not the money).
I take the roses, dry them and keep them in a box . When I receive money malai – I write down who has given the money and how much.
The malai will always include the fan's telephone number and details about themselves. Then later I will call them back to have a conversation with them – to thank them and find out when their birthday is so I can sms later on. The fans appreciate what I have done so I want to make them feel special.
Dr Donut at a concert in Bangkok's main train station - they have them everywhere!
Just as the fan base is more socially diverse today so are the singers, Sasinan is half Thai half Malay, has a Phd in education and speaks several languages. Just as all fans are not working class Isan migrants, neither are all singers poor, rags to riches types with little education. There are even a few farangs who sing in lukthung/morlam, although I have never heard of a li-ke farang performer. Ever heard of Johnny Olson an American performer? Quite a good khaen player (reed mouth organ). There are also western, and even African comics performing in Thai music, many concerts having comic groups and morlam style clowns appearing, maybe I should give it a go. The successful lukthung singer of today is likely to have a degree and even other business interests.
Takes some skill to keep hold of a load like this, I'm sure it's all genuine of course!
Surprisingly as they are after all just flowers, I have seen major stars providing fans with flowers to present them, usually where they are on TV, no doubt worried a loss of face might result in not enough, or poor ones being presented. More often these ‘fake malai' are in the form of money that the singers (usually a third party) provide fans with to present to them. This fake malai business seems to have come from li-ke, the central Thai folk theatre built around song and it is most noticeable in lukthung where a li-ke singer is singing lukthung. Often great sheets of money are awarded and the same elaborate arrangements can be seen concert after concert, rather a giveaway. Fake malai involving money are not so obvious in lukthung where the singer is not also a li-ke artist, and even less so in morlam. At lukthung and morlam concerts fans are likely to present singer with 20-100 baht, sometimes 500-1000, but the great displays dished up to li-ke singers, and which can look ridiculously over the top are not so often seen in lukthung and morlam.
In li-ke the fake mali and large amounts of genuine money gifts are almost routine. One major li-ke star announced a few years ago he did not want fans to give him flowers any longer-he just wanted money malai While it did not do his reputation with the fans much good he is still as big a success, and he still takes flowers! The organisation of fans in li-ke is more sophisticated then in lukthung and morlam with the main fans often being women who compete at times for the singer's attention. The hero in li-ke is always a small, youthful non threatening male, and yes they are often gay but this is irrelevant to the female fans who can spend very large amounts in presents and money gifts to the singer they follow. The serious li-ke fan, or mae yok as they are sometimes called occasionally hit the front page in the newspapers as happened in 2009 involving the same singer who said he wanted no more flowers given. The husband of a fan demanded a very large amount of money back that his wife had given the singer over a period of time as the family were in dire straits. I believe it involved a crude attempt at blackmail in the end to try and get the money back. This is a good argument for not giving all your wages to the Mrs.- you don't want her running off and wasting most of it on a pasty faced limp wristed youth in a spangled suit that looks like a clowns outfit do you?
Jintara besieged by fans, the little girl doesn't look too pleased with the handout - kids!
Singers are often not just judged by their singing ability, but also by their conduct and mannerisms when performing. In competitions judges often comment on the mood of the singer, ‘arom di'(good natured) is a welcomed comment. The way the singer conducts themselves off stage is also important, somebody acting a like a big shot, even if they are, is widely frowned upon. The singer who remains humble, close to their roots, often rural, and who is seemingly unchanged by their success is often most admired. Different companies use varied approaches to shape the singers image. Grammy for example, with few exceptions, turn out their acts looking very ordinary, jeans and tops are common place, in an effort to promote the idea that they are one of the people still and really like the guy or girl in the next village or soi. This may seem a little transparent and I do think they take it too far as many of their stars don't really need any help with image- they really are genuine anyway.
Japanese fans can be just as fanatic as Thai fans, but while they are just as keen on photos with singers they are not as keen on the giving of flower malai. Kenji San is seen here giving singer Mangpor a present at her birthday party 2011. I would say that most foreign fans, including the Japanese, appreciate one special aspect of Thai country music, and that is presentation. For us a large part of the enjoyment of this music comes in the form of the costumes, hair styles, the dancers and the effort that goes into making a performance a spectacular and specially Thai experience. It is not so enjoyable when singers present themselves in s t shirt and jeans looking like they have just gotten off a bus, it looks to us like no effort has been made. This sort of presentation is most often seen in rock and phuea chiwit performers, but it has been seen more and more often in lukthung, or what R Siam calls lukthung/phuea chiwit. This sort of image has also been used by Grammy for a longer time with stars like Mike Phiramphon and Phai Phongsathon while their female singers are not often seen in the fantasy like dresses that look so good.
Cham Cham Ram inspecting his birthday cake presented by fans on Fan Tv feb 2012.
He was also celebrating 25 million hits on youtube of his song ‘Karuna fang hai jop' which
was mysteriously removed after it got to well over 30 million views, the highest number
of views on youtube for any Thai singer.
The malai man
Q: Can you say something about your work and your customers?
a: My name is Phira but some people call me the Malai man because that is my only job, making and selling phuang malai and flowers at concerts.
Q: What kind of malai do you make and why do fans give flowers rather than cash or presents?
a: Fans give malai to show their appreciation of a singer and the performance. Some give money and presents as well, it's up to fans what they prefer.
Q: What flowers do you use to make malai and which ones are most profitable?
a: Mostly I used jasmine, orchid and dork khiam for malai but it's up to the customer what they want to order. Profit is about the same on all types but prices vary depending on the season so malai prices will as well.
Q: At concerts there are often many malai sellers. Does this ever cause a problem?
a: No problem because I have regular customers who order before the concert so I have my sales already made.
Q: What about singers getting malai while singing? Does this interfere with the performance and how do they feel about being given flowers all the time?
a: I don't think it interrupts the performance just part of it. Older singers are more pleased to get malai and more likely to take them away but in general most singers take them when they leave.
Q: Which concerts are best and worst?
a: Best are big concerts and awards ceremonies, worst are when you get there and they have been cancelled or affected by rain a lot.
One of the malai man's creations worn by Baowee of R Siam, a dork khiam one. It takes many hours to make these as each tiny flower has to be individualy threaded onto the malai string. They can be one of the more expensive ones to buy. Here is a smaller dork khiam in two colours, often seen on the roadside as a verge bush. This one was for Cham Cham Ram of Grammy Gold who is certainly the most fan friendly singer the writer has ever met. Some nice rings here!
The ultimate patron/client relationship, here the former prime minister turns up at a concert, not for the malai but to boost support among the rural poor and migrant workers from Isan who are the backbone of supporters of lukthung and morlam. In associating himself with the music on TV he attempts to do so with rural fans where his support has been weak. The usual fans were replaced for this concert with bussed in supporters.
This was rather like a posh Tory PM in the UK doing a bit of Reggae dancing at the Notting Hill carnival, while at the same time associating his policies with the achievements of the Queen of England, all rather unsophisticated from a farang point of view. It is striking that the musical preferences of the two political adversaries PAD and UDD are poles apart. I did not see any PAD gatherings where lukthung or morlam were performed and the reverse was true at red rallies. The mystery is in Thai music why it has not been used more as a political voice.
The ex-Prime Minister with singer Chaiya Mitchai at Wethithai concert.
Interview with new singers Norng Mara and Norng Min
Q: You just started out and have one single each but you already have a lot of fans, how did that happen?
a: I think this is because we work hard at being friendly to people and people seem to like the songs
Q: Do you feel a fan club is important?
a: Yes very because we feel we could not progress much with this support and they give us motivation and encouragement.
Q: Many fans say they like your manner, do you work at this consciously to make a good impression?
a: (Nong Mara) No it's my real self and I don't do anything different just to make people like me and we are glad to get the support the fans give us
Q: Do you think getting malai is important or not?
a: Very important and we appreciate it very much, applause is also important as it creates confidence.
Q: How have you promoted your songs?
a: We have been to many radio stations up country who interview us then play our songs. Also we have them on youtube and facebook. Facebook has led to bookings and charity appearances so that has been helpful.
Q: What is your goal for the future?
a: Just to do our best, to be a success and for people to know us and like our work and we hope people will listen and support us.