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The Cold War, Thailand and the construction of the Gendered Tourist Gaze.

  • Jun 21 2022
  • Rosalia Namsai Engchuan
    (she/her) is an artist and researcher based between Berlin and Southeast Asia. Her video works are speculative vessels that aim to undo the underlying structures of colonialism, race, gender and class that shape the production of our worlds and from there, collectively with her research collaborators, creates worlds otherwise. Her research into the nebulous yet persistent stereotype construct of The Thai Women started many years ago, when she was driven by an urge to make sense of an uncanny feeling that shaped her experience of growing up in Germany, as the daughter of a Thai father and German mother. Engaging with historical sources, she began to comprehend that to enter the space of The Thai Woman is to enter the space of a superficial stereotype of docile smiles and submissive beauty, a product of imperialism, crypto-colonialism and supra-national beauty standards. A colonial fantasy, a fantastic construct, distorted in its making and destructive in its consequences.

Colonizing from the inside

In the 19th century Siam (today known as Thailand) was a buffer state between British and French colonial empires. During this period Westerners began to settle in Siam with the desire to integrate the country into transnational flows of trade and commerce, and to spread Western power and Christianity under the banner of civilization. In their encounters with the Siamese, labels such as ’barbarous’, ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilized’ were a common trope. These judgments were mostly based on the nakedness of Siamese people, the sexual excess of polygamy, and the perceived lack of gender differentiation in the appearance of men and women. Siam was considered inferior to Western nations and its alleged backwardness placed the country under the threat of colonization. Officially and formally the country was never colonized, but to stay independent as a nation a whole project of crypto-colonization had to unfold: driven by local elites rather than foreign colonizers, Western modes of education, government and commerce were adopted. The need to construct an outer image that would satisfy Western observers was felt to be necessary among the ruling classes of Siam in order to make sure they could retain their position of power. Thai scholar Thongchai Winichakul calls this process “the quest for “siwilai”” (2000) - a ‘civilized’ appearance.

Negotiations between Siamese and Western male elites behind closed curtains (c. Thai National Archive)

The female body as a site of contestation

In this process of crypto-colonization the Thai female body was something that Westerners in their early encounters with the Siamese could not comprehend. With her short hair and black teeth she did not fit the feminine beauty standards of a Western gaze:

No one can have been many days in Bangkok without being struck by the robust physique and erect bearing of the ordinary women. It is by no means uncommon at first for a stranger, till quite close to them, to mistake them for men, the similarity of their dress and their short-cropped hair lending themselves to this deception.[1]

In an effort to create an outer surface of civilization, according to Western standards, new gendered norms for public appearance were imposed upon the Thai population through Phibunsongkhram’s cultural mandates: a series of stipulations that made Western-style apparel compulsory for the masses. These rules were enforced by state agencies and bureaucracies, who launched decrees ordering the masses to cover their bodies in Western style when in public.

To manifest these revised gender norms, the newly-constructed (Westernized) Thai Woman was presented to the world in the ritualized space of the international beauty contest. She became a hyper-mediatized representational body and operational image in transnational networks of tourism, human trafficking and marriage migration.  

Western Man’s fascination with, desire for and repulsion by exotic otherness led to the compulsive construction of something tangible, which culminated into the violently objectified figure of The Thai Woman as an object of promiscuous and submissive desire. An always-preceding meta-identity and a surrogate discourse for the great unspoken: the weakness and insecurity of the Western Man. She took on a life of her own, but her becoming was determined by her creators, the compulsive desires of men in desperate need to feel power.

War and tourism infrastructure-building

The idealized image of The Thai Woman became an advertisement strategy for tourism, in a country where it was almost non-existent 50 years ago. Traveling to Thailand remained the privilege of a select few on the 1947-launched transatlantic luxury journeys of the American airline Pan Am. Others traveled on land routes along the hippie trail, in search of an alternative to the increasingly militarized and capitalist reality of the West. Many ended up in Thailand's Khao San Road for cheap accommodation and then ventured out to the undiscovered paradise islands that were to become an inspiration for Alex Garland's 1996 novel The Beach. The context of all of this was the American War in Vietnam (1955 to 1975). American GIs swarmed to Thailand for their five days of Rest & Recreation, for the consumption of Thai bodies, alcoholic spirits and the fumes of opium to flee from the horror of the battlefields. Thailand was an important ally of the US in the transnational fight against ‘communism’ - a placeholder for anyone and anything considered a contestation of the powers that be. American air bases and thousands of US soldiers stationed in the country created a demand for infrastructures to accommodate their needs. Funded by the US, hotels, bars, restaurants, nightclubs and the infamous massage parlors mushroomed in places that were to become tourism hotspots in a burgeoning industry. Splendorous empty beaches and fishing villages were turned into overwhelming assaults on the senses, spaces of concrete and neon. A whole infrastructure was built on the promise of the submissive and docile beauty of The Thai Woman. The increase in disposable incomes made long-distance travel accessible to more and more people, who could not wait to travel to an untouched exotic paradise like Thailand. In 1966 the German travel agency Neckermann started intercontinental trips on chartered Boeing 707 jet planes to Thailand. Local food was soon replaced by German beer garden proxies in the tourist entertainment streets of Thailand's tourist centers. 

American soldiers in Udon Thani during the Cold War and a German proxy restaurant in the same area, video stills from Complicated Happiness (2020)

Tourism reversed

The human desire for paradise is strong and its imaginations are persistent, even as realities move further and further away from its delusional promises. A tsunami that took too many lives, environmental degradation caused by a sheer overwhelm of incoming travelers based on capitalist growth ideologies with no respect for the local flora and fauna, the ongoing political crises as ongoing reverberation of unresolved power struggles seeded in the pre-colonial era and manifested through global imperialism, manifesting in multiple coups d’état and most recently the reality of a repressive military dictatorship. NOTHING could stop the tourists from coming to Thailand. 

Alongside and opposite to the tourist routes in multiple ways, another path appeared, but those who embarked on these journeys were not going on holiday. The Thai Woman not only lured GIs and tourists to fill the new tourism machinery, but she also became an operational image in transnational marriage migrations to extend the availability of exotic Thainess to the home countries. The idea of the submissive and weak woman makes the Western Man feel strong.

When image meets body

Despite her dubious composition and origin, The Thai Woman operates as an expectation and a yardstick against which Thai women all over the world are measured. She leaves no room for the complexity and contradictions of real human beings. Uncannily, she is floating as a discourse that defines Thai women as she projects herself onto our bodies, rendering us invisible. I was born in Germany, my father is Thai. The Thai Woman is projected onto my body, and it is this projection that I share with other women who are read as Thai. Other than that, beyond the projected surface, there is not much that we have in common. Yet, she lingers with us as an always-preceding meta-identity.

The Thai Park in Berlin 

The Thai Park in Berlin, where women from Thailand are selling street-food style food on sunny summer weekends is a space famous for its “delicious street food” and “authentic” atmosphere. It is one of these spaces where these life trajectories of marriage migration and mediatized stereotyping lead to and intersect. It is a space where all these histories crystallize so clearly. It was built organically by a growing community of diasporic Thai women for decades. In 2021, the Berlin city administration formalized the market, pushing out the most vulnerable members of this community to create the figurative impossibility of an “authentic” but “formal” food market experience, one that is legible to the German bureaucratic system.

Attuning myself to the lived realities of those who built the Thai Park, I wanted to make real and explore this assumed space of our shared commonality. My research and conversations with the women in the Thai Park were premised on the imperative to do better than an encounter at the surface that only sees projections, on the promise to not speak from totalizing assumptions but to make and hold space for those whose bodies, like mine, have become a projection screen for the fantastical figuration of The Thai Woman. It was driven by a desire to find those nodes that make thinkable another mode of being in the world. In order to get there I spent a lot of time in the park, in the Thai temple and at other community gatherings. It took a lot of time to build this space where I can learn from them.

What is a good life and who can have it?

Many of the women who migrate to Germany through the constellations of marriage migration come from Isan, the Northeastern region of Thailand, where US military bases were located. Today, the soldiers have left and Isan remains a place where tourists hardly go, since the effects of ‘modernization as internal colonization’ turned out to come with a price tag paid by the newly constituted internal other, the ‘underdeveloped bodies’ of Isan. The Asian Financial Crisis, changes to agricultural and social systems, political and climate crises make life unlivable for too many in places like Isan, from where women continue to migrate elsewhere — to the tourism hotspots of Thailand's beaches and urban jungles and on to the nebulous paths of marriage migration — up until this day. 

There is a connection between what happened in the past and the gendered, classed and racialised division of labor in spaces like the Thai Park in Berlin. There is a tremendous history of violence that undergirds the presence of Southeast Asian women in the Preußenpark on sunny summer weekends. It is from here that we need to understand their lives and presence in the park, not as a coincidence or a choice, but as a consequence and concrete manifestation of historical and global developments, power structures and hypermediated aesthetics.

Yet, all that people seem to see with superficial eyes is a commercial market offering tasty pad thai and sweet mango sticky rice. We come to this park for different reasons, with fundamentally different life trajectories. Some come in search for a home and others for a few moments of cheap exotic food. Unable to overcome even in thinking their own limited positionalities as consumers, the newest governmental moves to formalize the market are built on a fraught assumption about the very nature of the Thai park which operates on a brute distortion of what the Thai Park constitutes to the women who built it, to whom the selling of food is only a by-product of a much more important project: home making far away from home. Killing what it refuses to see, creating what it wants to see. A space of organic diasporic place and home—making is turned into a commercial market. This way of looking at others but refusing to see is inherently colonial and a pattern that has been replicated in encounters with alterity for centuries. It is in the form of encounter that the past violently pierces the present through the repetition of meta-patterns. Encounters at the surface lead to situations where violent histories are unspoken and unheard of.

Encounters at the surface are encounters where exchange does not go beyond ordering food. They are not innocent. They locate the women at a distance of respectability; where they are not met as human beings but as service providers; where they are treated merely as vendors and not human beings in search for home. It is denying them their humanity and asking them to be machines in an extractivist commercial system solely geared towards the benefit and convenience of the consuming visitor. This kind of action speaks louder than words: It speaks I do not care about you. I care about you making exotic food for me. But in doing so please obey our rules. I don’t care about your yearning for a home. Your history and future are outside of my interest and responsibilities. Situations like this, encounters at the surface, are where century old systems of violent colonial oppression are being reproduced. In the middle of the self-proclaimed and aggressively marketed ‘multicultural’ city of Berlin.

Taking a step back, I realized that the assumption of the individual body feeds narrations of migration and diasporic life-making as tales of individuals: of a woman who left Thailand to find a better life. These kinds of stories subscribe to a neoliberal idea of the individual that obscures intimate entanglements with larger histories of migration, postcolonial power structures and gender dynamics. Those present absences that are ever present. These are the structures of violence that make possible encounters at the surface

To think of the decolonial body is to start ideating the antidote of the individual body.  

The notion of the individual body was brought to Thailand by American protestant missionaries. Preaching the superiority of Western medicinal practices over traditional Siamese practices, they brought new ontological assumptions on what constitutes the body and where the boundaries are drawn. Grounding their arguments in knowledge of human anatomy, their body was one that can be seen, depicted and taken apart for further understanding. The need for transparency and depiction is indicative of the need for control and reveals an underlying worldview of separation. The same ontological ideologies that make possible extractive capitalism and have led our world into multiple crises. And curiously, the missionaries acted not only as doctors, but as mediators and trusted political advisors. The opening of Siam to international free trade with the unequal Bowring Treaty and the introduction of Western medicinal practices was intimately entangled with, and at times negotiated and driven by the very same people: the American missionaries Dr Bradley and Dr House.   

Not always but at times, they refuse to inhabit the victim positionality which is compulsively imposed by the always-preceding meta-identity of The Thai Woman. Life could be sustained in communities of relations. 

The decolonial body is the antidote of the individual body; she is the body of the community. She is a placeholder for the now-impossible female Thai warrior, the Naga goddess who predated colonial intrusion and at the same time becomes a placeholder for other futures. She holds space for other futures, un-predicting the most likely one that is merely a reproduction of current power relations in ever-changing forms; she holds space for other potentialities to become actualized. She is a body that is rooted in a radical recognition of interdependency. Not in its delusional romanticized ideal of absolute harmony. This body knows that there is both violence and power in relatedness. We do not get to choose only the good ones. She knows that we are related with violent histories as much as we are related with the potentialities of community. She is on the right side of history, rendering explicit larger entanglements and histories. She is recuperating these spaces to create the conditions for healing.

A placeholder for other pasts and futures, video still from Complicated Happiness (2020)


Banner: Thai Women before the colonizing embrace of the Western Man (c Thai National Archives)

    [1] Campbell (1902). Siam in the Twentieth Century: the Experiences and Impressions of a British Official, p.113.


    Eksuda Singhalampong, “Picturing Femininity: Portraits of the Early Modern Siamese Women”, Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia 3, no. 1 (9 April 2019): 49–75.

    Peter A. Jackson, “The Performative State: Semi-coloniality and the Tyranny of images in Modern Thailand”, Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 19, no. 2 (2004): 219–53.

    Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1997.

    Thongchai Winichakul, “The Quest for ‘Siwilai’: A Geographical Discourse of Civilizational Thinking in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Siam.”, The Journal of Asian Studies 59, no. 3 (August 2000): 527–527.



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