Thai TV

I’m sure Thai people are as baffled that we spend our evenings watching millionaires shoot ducks (I’m talking about both Duck Dynasty and Downton Abbey here) as I was with some of the curious and absurd programmes I saw in the country while I was visiting last month, so please take what follows with a pinch of cultural relativism. As I’m pig-ignorant about much of Thai culture, I’m going to stick with what I know and talk about Thai TV’s engagement with English language and culture.

Ridiculing Southeast Asian television is a rite of passage for popular TV critics. In my childhood, there were at least two (probably more) shows like Clive James on Television and Tarrant on TV where westerners who should know better giggled and guffawed at clips of Japanese game shows (now British TV from that era is our source of the very same mockery). I’m not much interested in this glasshouse criticism – though it’s hard to let go of the Thai TV show where they did nothing but pick up pens for half-an-hour – but I still have that same voyeuristic fascination as those orientalist broadcasters did when I was watching Thai television on my recent trip to the country. Bizarrely (though maybe not to Edward Said), it’s those moments of overlap with the English language and culture that are the strangest.

A case in point is English Delivery, a primetime educational programme using the comic talents and general enthusiasm of its hosts to teach English to viewers, and teach it well. It not so much about learning English words (and my limited experience of Thai people suggests they already know a lot) but getting the drop on misunderstandings resulting from translating Thai into English. To wit, the hilarious consequences that might ensue from confusing ‘pig’s balls’ with ‘pork balls’. As you can see from the examples they use, it’s more about conveying aspects of Thai culture to English speakers so they can understand it than learning about the culture or customs of English-speaking nations. That’s more than likely because so much of the Thai economy depend on tourists who speak English, or those that speak it so they may be understood by Thais.

I’m not saying that Anglo-American culture (well English culture, well English sport, well English football, well Manchester United) isn’t a big deal in some parts of Thailand, like Bangkok where we visited, but more often it feels like a policy of ‘do what you want…but give it an English name’. I was alerted to Don’t Lose the Money because I could read the title (and even when I know the Thai word it often isn’t recognizable in writing) but the show itself was simply a succession of contestants running back and forth between piles of money and empty boxes trying to carry one to the other with the use of head magnets. Increasingly we have game shows like this but we ruin their uncomplicated fun with ironic snark or over-complicated rules, or Richard Hammond.

I wasn’t surprised that when we got to the touristy island of Ko Samui there was so much European and American TV in our hotel satellite services. What did take me by surprise was the exchange of movie channels like HBO and Cinemax for a feed of someone’s laptop playing jittery, low quality streams of recent American blockbusters simply called ‘Island’. This became increasingly evident when we would return to our room to find a Windows shutdown message on the screen, and we knew exactly how long each movie had run for because whichever tech-savvy teenager was running it left the arrow and all the player information on the screen. With the trade in pirate DVDS they do in Thailand, it makes business sense.

HBO Thailand!

HBO Thailand!

Not all my jarring experiences of watching Thai TV were in English. At certain, seemingly random, points of the day, whatever was on TV was suddenly interrupted by choirs of fidgety schoolchildren singing in tribute to ‘The National Council of Peace and Order’, which is the name by which the military junta that has run Thailand since mid-2014 goes. It’s a startling reminder that you’re in a country under military rule, something G and I didn’t get a sense of as tourists – until we went to places where military officers were being served and the waitresses reacted like they were all Justin Bieber – and that TV is still (overtly) a propaganda medium in many countries. Come to think of it, the titles were in English.

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