New exhibition raises questions about the meaning of ‘Thainess’ in an increasingly globalized world

On Friday (14 February), Thai-French artist Aline Deschamps opened her new art and research exhibition “Luk Khrueng Generation,” at Hostbkk Gallery above Chandrphen restaurant on Rama 4 Road. The exhibition is in collaboration with Project 189 Bangkok.

The exhibition will run until March 15. 

Artist Aline Deschamps discusses her exhibition “Luk Khrueng Generation.”

The exhibition features interviews with 13 different luk khruengs, or half Thai people. The word “luk khrueng” literally translates to “child half.” The interview subjects discussed their ethnic and national identities, and relationships to Thai identity, nationalism, and culture. 

“Luk Khrueng Generation” is an interractive exhibition through augmented reality (the combination of art and digital media), in which attendees used the app Artivive. Aline also screened her short documentary "Luk Khrueng Generation: On Being a ‘Half’ Thai.”

Aline Deschamps demonstrates how to use Artivive at her exhibition

Aline’s work is often linked to identity issues such as gender, migration, cultural mix and heritage. She said that the exhibition was intended to explore how Thailand’s ideas about mixed race people have changed over time.

Luk khruengs first became a well-known reality in Thailand during the Vietnam war era in the 1960s and 70s, during which American GIs often came to Thailand during their breaks, and formed temporary relationships with Thai prostitutes. The children created from these relationships were then known as children of prostitutes, creating a stigma against luk khruengs. 

As Thailand became more and more globalized, however, luk khruengs became increasingly common. Today, luk khruengs are often associated with Thailand’s entertainment industry. Luk khruengs of European descent in particular are often very successful in acting and modeling, due to Thailand’s beauty standards that value white skin and other Western features. Yet, stigma still exists, as luk khruengs are still often told that they are “not really Thai” and are often bullied in school.

Aline's exhibition and documentary explore the experiences of luk khruengs living in modern-day Thailand. 

When You Belong Nowhere

All of the interview subjects expressed feeling as though they belonged neither in Thailand, nor their other country of origin. 

One subject, Veronica, 32, grew up in Italy. She said that in Italy, she was one of two half-Asian people in her school. She was called “Chinacena!” by people driving or walking by her. In Thailand, however, her own cousin called her “farang farang quinok,” or “foreigner foreigner bird’s poo.” Both these experiences, she said, were very alienating. 

Another subject, Panyavee Phongsithai, a Thai-French artist, also recalled namecalling against her when she was growing up. She was called “pale monkey,” due to her fair skin. Since she had red hair, her teacher told her “You have to die your hair back, you cannot have red hair like this.” She then had to show her teacher photos of her family members in order to prove that her red hair is natural.

One half French man who did not reveal his name, 34, said that his cousin was forbidden from hanging out with him because he was “too white.”

Many subjects then note that, later on, being a luk khrueng seemed to suddenly become trendy and hip. 

Odette Jacqumin, a Thai-French luk khrueng, said, “Out of the blue, people started pointing at luk khruengs [saying] ‘You are cute! You are pretty!’ No one really understands how it happened, but it exploded as a phenomenom.” This was in stark contrast to the bullying that Odette experienced as a child, when no one at school wanted to be her friend because she was a luk khrueng. 

For luk khruengs with darker skin, however, discrimination often continues into adulthood. Aaron Warner, who is half Thai half Carribean, and from London, said that his sister wanted an English teaching job in Thailand. She had an interview for one position, which went well. After the interview, however, the employer told her, “We’re sorry, but we prefer someone with a white face.”

Other luk khruengs with dark skin, however, say that this attitude is also changing. One subject, Sukanya Sesenyat, is half South African. She also has dark skin. Sukanya is a model. She said, “In terms of opportunities, Thailand opened up a lot recently. Especially for black people. So I get a lot more work opportunities because it’s rare to find black Thai models. Now there is much more diversity than before, the situation is improving.”

Sukanya (left) made an appearance at the opening night of the exhibition. Here, she and Aline (right) stand next to her portrait.

Participants’ Reactions

Many audience members were luk khruengs themselves, and said that they felt the interview subjects’ experiences resonated with them. 

One woman, Airin, 17, who is mixed Thai and Chinese, said that she experienced some teasing in school for being Chinese, however, that it was not very serious. 

Stefan Crucifix, 38, who is half French, said, “I can’t be in either place for too long. When I’m in France for too long, I need Thailand. When I’m in Thailand too long, I need France. I need both.”

Stefan Rustler, 31, who is half German, said, “I think what we all have in common is that journey that I myself am part of, in trying to find out who you are and where you belong. Of course I belong to Germany, but there are many things that are not German about me where I have some friction here and there, and maybe feel more comfortable in Thailand. Yet I’m also not a local to Thailand, so in a way I’m a foreigner everywhere. But I’m like, embracing this, that I don’t fully 100 percent belong anywhere, but I like that. I think many luk khruengs have this struggle, and, many have made peace with this, and have made this part of their identity, that there is this constant struggle, but it’s a beautiful struggle. It’s symbolic of our globalized world and I think we can be ambassadors of multiculturalism and building bridges between different cultures.”

A Resolved Identity?

In her description of the exhibition, Aline said that this project was a part of her own quest for identity. Prachatai English asked Aline if this had culminated in anything. Aline said, “Yes, looking for other people to tell their story definitely responded in that quest for identity, because I think identity is what you choose to make it. It’s not about genetics, it’s just the culture you’re playing with, and seeing that I’m not the only one to be alone in many ways, and so many people experience exactly the same things, helped me to actually be okay with both sides. And really feel it’s [being a luk khrueng] is something enriching, rather than something to be ashamed of or reject. As the world becomes more globalized, more mixed people are gonna come in the next generation. So I think everyone should embrace those two sides.”