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Young Lisu caught between money and culture

Ung Chansophea

Sri Dton Yen village – Her hands busy sewing long strips of colorful cloth, 18-year-old Sabai Tip proudly wears a traditional Lisu costume made of pink, black and blue velour. She said she wears it everyday, even at home.

In contrast, the decorations on her body are modern: hair highlighted deep yellow, two modern bracelets, a bright earring, and violet-colored nails.

“My parents don’t say anything about my makeup or jewelry and I don’t think I do anything wrong. It’s normal,” replied Sabai Tip, sitting in front of her bamboo house. “It’s true now that a lot of young Lisu prefer to wear normal clothes at home because they think the traditional costume is hot. But for me, I wear it to make my mum happy. Old people still love that their children wear this costume.”

Sabai Tip’s outfit looks new. She just returned from a traditional dance performance at Lisu Lodge, a small resort of Lisu-style houses located just outside Sri Dton Yen village, about 50 km north of  Chiang Mai town.

Next door to Sabai Tip, another young Lisu woman, wearing a flower-painted shirt and shorts that rode well above her knees, was cleaning her shiny black motorbike. She could easily be mistaken for a girl from the city.

Such modern clothes and makeup are far from the traditional dress of the Lisu, a hill tribe that originated from Tibet and migrated through Myanmar and into northern Thailand.

“Since the village opened business connections with the outside world because of poverty, the new generation has changed,” said Lao Chiv, chief of this village that contains 150 families.
“They accept more and more clothes from the outside world and they prefer to use Thai or other languages rather than their own language. Maybe the Lisu language is no longer as important as English or French or Thai, which bring them more income.”

Lao Chiv recognizes that Lisu culture – symbolized by its costumes, language and belief in ancestor worship – might be lost in the near future.

“We might lose our culture one day, but it’s happening not only in our village but in all villages of minorities in the countryside where people have connections with the outside world,” the village chief said.

Playing a key role in the tension between old and new cultures is Lisu Lodge, founded in 1992 by The East West Siam tour company. The resort brings outsiders to the once remote village, increasing contact with the modern world. At the same time, the resort gives villagers another incentive for keeping their traditions alive.

Many young children want to learn traditional dances so they can earn money from tourists.
Villagers also say the lodge has boosted sales of handicrafts, which now accounts for 70 percent of all village income.

About 6,000 tourists from England, Germany, France, and South America visit each year.

“After Lisu Lodge, our sales in the village increased because of the tourists,” said Alepha, a 52-year-old man who can earn 150 baht per day as a silversmith. “And they have created more jobs for young Lisu who had nothing to do beside growing rice and some vegetables.”

Alepha, whose son plays traditional music at Lisu Lodge, wears a simple shirt and trousers at home. Even the chief of the village wears a normal T-shirt.

“In the past, some people didn’t agree with the project of Lisu Lodge because they were concerned about culture,” said Lao Chiv. “They were afraid that when more and more tourists came, they would bring their way of dressing. They worried that Lisu would lose their polite dress. This is very wrong in our culture. Anyway, time has passed, and the new generation wears even shorter and shorter [clothes] than the tourists.”

In the greeting book that Lisu Lodge provides for tourists, visitors are expected to dress modestly and to refrain from showing open affection with partners. “Villagers do not consider it polite to show their bodies, particularly women,” the book states.

For Lovmi, a 19-year-old waitress at Lisu Lodge, it’s not so much the influence of tourists; rather, it’s the young Lisu who study or sell handicrafts in the city. They come back wearing urban clothes. TV also has a big influence, she said.

“It’s globalization,” Lovmi said. “This century, everyone needs the same things.”

Lovmi had a French boyfriend when she was selling handicrafts in the Mae Taeng elephant camp, where she earned 4,500 baht per month, less than the 6,000 baht she now receives at Lisu Lodge. But she finally married a Lisu man after pressure from her parents.

Besides her good salary, Lovmi enjoys learning English by talking with foreigners. She said she’s happy to meet tourists and learn about other cultures. Some foreigners try to flirt with her.

“When they approach me, they ask me if I have boyfriend or not, and they say, ‘If I want to marry you, how much money or stuff do I have to pay for the wedding,’ but I reply simply that I’m already married,” Lovmi said with a smile.

In the past, when a single man wanted to speak with a woman, the conversation was controlled by the parents. “But now old persons have started to accept the liberty of love of their children, and some let their children choose their own husband or wife,” Lao Chiv said.

Such change will continue, thanks to the influence of tourists and urban life. Many in the village, however, pay more attention to the increase in income.

“Before, the village was undeveloped, but now it has become more developed. More income is generated for the villagers and the management is better. The village looks cleaner. We are asked to keep it clean for the tourists. I don’t see any change of culture,” said an old woman, Ami Malaosi, who was collecting trash in front her large house made of stone.

At a neighbor’s house made of bamboo, a 77-year-old man worried about the changes, but saw a good future for the young generation.

“A lot of culture has changed – the way of dressing and language,” said Aphapha, who sat alone in front of his house. “But to me, it’s rather good for the young generation because they have better education and have good contact with people. It’s good for their future.”

Copyright 2009 IMMF.