Each year when I visit my papermaking friends in the little villages of Burma and Thailand, I explain that my research in southeast Asia is finished, and that I may not be returning. Invariably, however, something exciting or unusual happens that brings me back yet another time to these places. This occurred again last November in Northern Thailand, when I met a remarkable papermaker. Here is the story.
In the past several years I had been disappointed with hand papermaking in Thailand. The "Papermakers of Southern Siam," who were the subject of one of Dard Hunter's books, published in 1936, were no longer involved in making paper to be used for important documents of the government and the royal family of Thailand. The two daughters of Luolin Niltongkum, young girls when Dard Hunter photographed the family, decided that papermaking was too arduous a job, and now their husbands could support them. They hoped that their moulds and tools would be acquired by the royal family and displayed in a museum. Donna Koretsky [the author's daughter, also a professional papermaker] and I documented [on videotape] their last days of papermaking in 1986 and 1987. Subsequently, I presented a program about them at a Dard Hunter meeting in Appleton, including my own efforts at making paper in a klong (canal) while the Thai papermakers sat on the banks of the klong, laughing hysterically at my ineptness.
Another notable papermaker I met was Chanda Photi and his family, in the tiny village of Bon Mai Mok Jam, close to the Burmese border. Dorothy Field spent considerable time there (see: A Gathering of Papermakers, and Bull & Branch [newsletter of the Friends of Dard Hunter], August 1996). In 1991, when I visited, Chanda Photi was primarily making thin paper for the wrapping of opium, and thicker paper for accordion-fold books, used for the recording of prayers, astrology and tattoo designs. This type of paper is made throughout the Shan plateau, a vast area encompassing parts of both Thailand and Burma.
The other papermakers of northern Thailand (there was no one I could find in southern Thailand other than the Niltongkum family) were making paper either for paper umbrellas or for the tourist trade. The paper was carelessly made, in the sense that the fiber was not well cleaned after cooking. Generally, chlorine bleach was added to the fiber while it was being beaten, so that all the impurities were whitened rather than removed. The papermakers were making paper that would be suitable for sale to tourists, incorporating flowers into the paper, and using chemical dyes to create brightly colored sheets. The method of papermaking in northern Thailand represents an adaptation of their original technique of pouring pulp onto a floating mould. The papermakers had figured out that a mould could be dipped into the vat of pulp, the sheet of paper forming immediately on the screen. The paper is not couched, however. As in the floating mould technique, the entire mould, with its wet sheet of paper, is left to dry in the sun.
But last November I met Supan Promsen, a young man intensely interested in preserving the old heritage and methods of Thai papermaking. There were at least three areas that impressed me so much about Supan. First, he is keenly involved in the exploration of Thailand's indigenous fibers, including "khoi" (Streblus asper), originally the fiber of choice for Thai papermakers. Secondly, he has studied the problems of permanence and durability of paper, and is determined to produce paper that is archival. And finally, I realized that Supan has a keen sense of new directions for handmade paper that transcend the kitschy "flower papers" of his compatriots. I was blown over by a large artist's sketchbook he had made. The book measures 16.5" x 25" x 2.4"; the sewn binding is extremely well done; and the cover papers are truly clever in their design. Most importantly, the sheets of paper are even and consistent, showing a mastery of technique that other northern Thai papermakers do not try to achieve.
I have been in contact with Supan upon my return to the U.S., and he has agreed to teach a workshop at his studio in Thailand for a small group of people. It will be a full three days in November, for a maximum of eight persons. Each person will receive 2 pounds of processed fiber and a bamboo mould, 20" x 27.5". Supan prepared an outline of work, as follows:
1st day: forming sheets on a Thai mould; thin, thick and textured paper; embedding and laminating on a Thai mould.
2nd day: stripping, cooking, bleaching (using a special non-chlorine method), and beating mulberry fiber; use of other fibers.
3rd day: bookbinding; mould-making techniques-Thai mould and dipping mould; solution to any problems.
The program at Supan's workshop will be part of a three-week expedition starting in Bangkok to see the glittering Royal Palace and the ornate wats (temples). Next we fly to Rangoon, Burma, to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most impressive religious structure in all of southeast Asea. Then we're off to Mandalay, where we see the wonders of this old capital city, and we travel by oxcart to visit the rice straw papermakers of Nyaung Gone and the bamboo papermakers of Daung Ma. The final stop in Burma is Taunggyi, where we witness the exciting festival of handmade paper "fire balloons" on the full moon day of November. The dates of the expedition are Nov. 1 to 22, 1997. For information, call or write: Elaine Koretsky, Carriage House Paper, 8 Evans Road, Brookline, MA 02146; tel: 617/232-1636; fax: 617/277-7719; e-mail: PAPER ROAD@ aol.com.