Friday, September 30, 2011

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lao Coffee Taste Testing!

So, you managed to get three or four different bags of Lao coffee! It's a perfect time for a taste test party. 

Like a fine wine, what's the best way to taste it and introduce the taste to your other friends and colleagues?

Try not to schedule a tasting party for coffee at night. At the very latest, between 2PM and 5pm is the classic tea time, and the same goes for coffee.

If you want to go all out, have pre-printed cards or sheets of paper for guests to judge each brand on the classic attributes of flavor, body, and aroma, with space for people to make notes. Some common additional attributes applied to a coffee refers to the bitterness, nuttiness, and sharpness.

Have plenty of filtered water on hand, because you don't want to ruin high quality grounds with stale or mildewed water. Soft water and distilled water often are too salty and throw off the taste. Fresh and filtered is the way to go!

Have a tray with approximately a dozen small ceramic or glass cups along with measuring spoons and scoops. For Lao coffee the instinct is to prepare it using a French press. Be sure to remember to bring your coffee with you to wherever you're holding the tasting.

Try not to use styrofoam or plastic tasting cups, as the chemicals can throw off the flavor and aroma of the coffees.

Boil the water, then grind the beans using a burr grinder. The fineness of the grind will make a big difference in the final cup of coffee. Be sure to clean the grinder well before placing in a different brand of coffee.

Prepare the different coffees in a coffee maker but remember to allow it to steep for several minutes before tasting. Generally, the proportions are: 2 tablespoons of coffee per 6 fluid ounces of water, but adjust it as you try to find the most flavorful for you. The water is ideally 200 degrees Fahrenheit.


After the coffee has settled for a moment after, you can spoon out a taste and smell it. Take time to enjoy the aroma for a moment, then taste the coffee by letting it run over the tongue. Hold the taste briefly, and then spit the coffee into a nearby container.

Coffee engages smell, touch, taste, and sight. No one likes an anemic looking coffee. It shouldn't be clear as tea.

Pause and consider the experience with the coffee you just tasted. Did it remind you of wood in its taste and smell, or was it peppery or perhaps floral in its flavor? Try different roasts. These range from very dark to light.

You may want to experiment with altering your grinds from very fine to rough. Sometimes the grind can make big difference in the final taste and texture of your coffee.


Cleanse your palate, usually with a bite of something like a scone, a piece of bread, or a plain cracker, then try your next cup.

To fully appreciate the coffees, sip it black first before adding cream, sugar, syrups or condensed milk. But after the formal element of the tasting, have these on hand for people to see if the coffee responds well to their favorite additions.

These are only suggestions, however! You're free to experiment with whatever works best for you as long as you have fun!

If you're doing a tasting with guest, be sure to give them information how to get their own bags of each brand. Even better have a few pounds on hand that they can take home with them, or send them with some in a ziplock bag that will help keep in the freshness.


Lao language classes and cultural preservation

How tragic, to learn a language but have nothing interesting to say.

I get many questions from across the country from people who want to set up Lao language classes. They believe it will preserve our culture and that there is a culture worth preserving. I agree and applaud this.

I've seen a number of approaches that I think are promising and well-intentioned but I am obliged to point out a number of hazards that undermine these efforts, at least in the US.

I wonder how efforts in the other major expatriate zones such as Australia, France, Canada, Japan and Thailand are going to preserve Lao language and culture.

We must go beyond sentimental attachment. We must build the language to be a powerful approach to expressing key transformative ideas.

There are some great programs such as the SEASSI program in Wisconsin to learn Lao.

But as an 8-week intensive program, it is difficult for many to take that much time off if they aren't in college and in the Midwest.

With over 200,000 Lao in the US, we need some truly interesting, innovative and sustainable methods to encourage Lao learning.

People always take time to learn the comparably difficult languages of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Why? Because there's something interesting to be found at the end for having mastered them.

At the moment we can barely fill even a single bookcase. And how many shelves would contain genuinely interesting books in Lao?

The best ways to 'preserve' a language takes place in the home and among others.

It is not about preserving the language for language sake, but to actively give the words a chance to speak of pasts, presents and futures.

If our arts do not continue to work to speak what our children need to be able to say, then those arts fade away. The same with language.

Wittgenstein says 'the limits of my language are the limits of my world.' If you can't say it or express it, you don't have it, you've lost it, or you can't move towards it. You are just a creature without power, constantly moved and herded by others. 

And as Lao, as we continue our 600 year journey to be and remain a people, we must recognize this is ultimately counter to the dreams of those who've come before us.

We don't want to be like the last two guys in the world who speak Ayapaneco who won't talk to each other because they don't think the other person is very interesting.

There are many ways to teach the Lao language, but for it to be truly meaningful, parents, families and classrooms must also teach our children to be passionate thinkers. We must instill them with a thirst for knowledge, promote curiosity, inquiry and a desire to express interesting ideas. Ideas that transform not just themselves, our even our society, but whole nations, and yes, even worlds we have not yet reached.

How terrible it would be to one day be a society that makes it to another planet, only to find we add nothing positive to the great cosmic dance, bringing only quarrels and dull thinking to the heavens.

We need to encourage applied language courses and methods that reward innovative thinking and encourage interest in expressing things in Lao. When was the last time someone said: "It's much more profound in the original Lao."

We need to keep the language flourishing because at the moment, no one regularly complains 'why are you using such big Lao words?'  If we maintain a simple language, we become a simple people with only a simple future. And people with simple futures rarely arrive at a good happy ending.

Especially within the US, where freedom of speech is protected, Lao communities ought to explore the possibilities that come from good debate and speech clubs that encourage public speaking and logical thinking and research skills. Spelling bees are one approach but even better are approaches such as Future Problem Solvers that build robust thinking in youth.

But what do you see as needs within our community that our language programs need to address?

Happy National Coffee Day!

In celebration of Nation Coffee Day, I'm going to point out to my readers the makers of the Lao coffee, SnakeBomb. I enjoy the Lao coffees, which are quite distinctive but hard to come by in the US on a regular basis.

SnakeBomb stands out because they use their profits to help with UXO removal, clearing the 80,000,000 unexploded bombs leftover from the American bombing campaign in Laos from 1964 to 1973.

They also work to provide antivenom against snakebites, which is important because Laos has many deadly snakes including the Malayan Pit Viper and the Green Pit Viper. Unfortunately, while Malayan Pit Viper bites are rarely deadly (2%), many victims are left with dysfunctional or amputated limbs due to the lack of antivenom and early treatment. And of course, cobras abound.

But back to coffee:

There are several other coffee companies in Laos, including Lao Mountain Coffee, based in Vientiane, who also specialize in green tea from the Bolaven Plateau and Phongsali Province, and the specialty Pu'er tea.

Another notable group is the Saffron Coffee Company in Luang Prabang, who works with Hmong, Mien, and Khmu farmers. They offer two different roasts, the Luang Prabang Roast and the World Heritage Roast. They offer both a Prime and Premium coffee, but also a distinctive Peaberry coffee that is a 100% Shade Grown Organic Arabica.

 Paksong near the Bolovens Plateau is considered the Lao coffee capital, with over 5,000 families involved in coffee production there. They even have a website that outlines a coffee tour you can take to try it all out.

Are there any Lao coffee companies you like or recommend?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Lao Folklore: Xieng Mieng / Tricksters

Every culture has its trickster figures in their folklore and legends. In Southeast Asia, and particularly Laos, one of the oldest and most popular stories are connected to the Xieng Mieng (or Xiang Miang, among various spellings.)

Written versions of the Xieng Mieng story are dated as far back as the 16th century on palm leaf manuscripts, and quite possibly earlier. Copies of these manuscripts are found at the Lao National Library. The stories have been told in both prose and poetry form.

In the mid 1990s, a Xieng Mieng storytelling contest was regularly held in Laos. Appropriately, in some years, the contest was held on April 1st.

Xieng Mieng's name is usually connected to a story of a boy named Kham who became a former novice monk (Xieng) eventually placed in charge of the royal storehouse of Mieng leaves by the king, at least for a time. In other stories he becomes a jester or takes on other roles.

There are several commonly told stories connected to Xieng Mieng, including his origin story. In no particular order, these include:

  • Xieng Mieng tricks the merchants
  • Xieng Mieng outwits the king at the river
    (similar to Xieng Mieng tricks the king who wanted to be tricked.)
  • Xieng Mieng and the snail
  • Xieng Mieng sees the king's face
  • Xieng Mieng follows the king precisely
  • Xieng Mieng and the king who loved stories.
  • Xieng Mieng and the king's cat.
  • Xieng Mieng gets too fat
  • Xieng Mieng and the bamboo tube
  • Xieng Mieng outwits the cloth merchant
  • Xieng Mieng and the amazing bird
  • Xieng Mieng and the king who lost his appetite
  • Xieng Mieng and the drawing competition
  • Xieng Mieng's last trick
  • The novice, the abbot and the chicken.
  • The abbot and the novice carry salt.
In these last two stories, the novice isn't necessarily named but storytellers have often found it easy to attribute it to Xieng Mieng. Sometimes he has been a relative of the king or an adopted brother of the king, but in most stories, a family relationship isn't really a key element to the story. 

There may be other traditional stories, and as Lao engage with other tricksters in different storytelling traditions around the world, we may see many new variations added to Xieng Mieng's repertoire over time. 

By the time of Xieng Mieng's death, he has a wife, servants, at least one favorite dog, and for a time, the king's favorite cat.

Most Lao publishers have at least one book of Xieng Mieng stories or a folklore collection that features a version of a Xieng Mieng story.

Vientiane Times Publications, for example, has a specific collection from 1995 that was dedicated solely to Xieng Mieng stories in English retold by Steven Jay Epstein. Epstein was the Education and Language Training Advisor at the Vientiane School of Law. That edition was illustrated by Anoulom Souvandouane, who also illustrated the Lao currency. It's worth taking a look at in addition to the work of Wajuppa Tossa and Kongdeuane Nettavong's and their Lao Folktales

A number of youtube videos are online retelling particular stories. At the moment, the most professional is Arnushawn Production's high definition videos of storyteller Mr. Akkasith.  He even has a twitter account: @xieng_mieng.

There is at least one effort to make a children's story book and interactive learning project based on the Xieng Mieng story at by NawDsign that I pointed out back in 2009. Hopefully it won't be too much longer before the project is completed. 

But what are some of your favorite Xieng Mieng stories or memories?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

32 Organs of Buddhism and the Su Kwan

The baci ceremony is one of the main ceremonies within Lao culture.

In traditional belief, the human being is an aggregate of 31 to 32 organs. Each of these organs has a kwan to watch over and protect it. But the kwan, as a form of energy, has a tendency to 'wander' and so it is important to call them back to a body from time to time, securing them in place and establish equilibrium for maximum health.

The organs tend to be grouped in fives for easy memorization:
  • Hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin
  • Flesh, sinews, bone, marrow, kidneys
  • Heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs
  • Bowels, intestines, gorge, dung, brain
  • Bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat
  • Tears, grease, snot, spittle, oil of the joints, urine

In advanced Buddhist philosophy these organs are particularly contemplated in Patikulamanasikara meditation.

For further details, The Lao Heritage Foundation has a good overview of the specific elements of a baci ceremony.

Yu Zhenhuan in "Love is in the Hair"

This one's for Barbara Jane and Oscar. ;)

Yu Zhenhuan, one-time rocker known as Hairboy is still looking for love. This month he was in Hunan going on blind dates with nurses according to Chinese news services. It's good to see he's gotten over his disappointment over not being cast for the Monkey King in a live-action movie last year. I always felt bad about his stalled music career.

I've always enjoyed following Yu Zhenhuan's adventures since first running into him in Science Digest back in 1981. In 2002, he was declared the world's hairiest man with hair covering 96% of his body.

He was a super-cute kid and it's awesome to see him trying so many different things on the artist's path. :)

Keep rocking on, Yu Zhenhuan!

Celebrating Year of the Dragon in 2012

By the Asian zodiacs, Year of the Dragon arrives around February or April, depending on your particular tradition.

For student groups, non-profit organizations and others with the Asian American community, what are some fun and innovative ways to celebrate without descending into kitschy stereotypes and hackneyed cliches? What would be really bold choices?

From a literary standpoint, I think there are some really magnificent possibilities. The Chinese American poet Arthur Sze uses the metaphor of the Silk Dragon to describe poetry.  Planning at least one poetry or short story reading dedicated to Asian and Asian American poetry and/or dragons would be fun.

Especially during dragon boat races, which were originally inspired by villagers who were trying to find a beloved poet who'd fallen in the river (and trying to distract the dragons from eating him.)

From a cinematic point of view? An edgier choice is presenting Frank Chin's Year of the Dragon with George Takei and Pat Suzuki. (NOT to be confused with Mickey Rourke's Year of the Dragon although the background Chinese dialogue in it is hilariously raunchy.)

Dock yourself points if you think a screening of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would count. The same goes for How To Train Your Dragon and to a lesser degree Mulan. Sorry, Mushu.


But, given the interesting history of Godzilla as a modern day perspective on society and the role of science, technology and nuclear weapons, I would personally consider a mini-festival of his better films a fun approach. (But beware. He does have some real stinkers.)

If you had the cash to spare and could secure the right venue for him, Masanari Kawahara's short play, Gojira 1954, is really an amazing experience. He recreates the story of the original film using puppets, and heretical as it sounds, it's really more fun than the movie.

I wish Toho Studios' film Orochi, the 8 Headed Dragon based on the classic Japanese tale "Yamata no Orochi" hadn't been such a snooze-fest or I'd recommend it.  It will always baffle me how you could screw that story up. But hey, you could do a live re-telling of "Orochi, the 8-headed Dragon!"

DON'T get yourself a dragon tattoo in 2012. That's just cheesy. Nor would I upgrade your wardrobe to look like that fellow from the beer commercial. Or at least, don't overdo it.

What are some ways you want to celebrate the arrival of Year of the Dragon in 2012?

Passa Falang

En route to our cafe rendezvous
On University Avenue
Debating "Sushi, pho or nachos?
Everything bagels or decadent croissants?"
Famished literary ninjas crammed in a car,
(Or were we roaming gung-ho samurai?)
Pondering our ink-filled avatars,
The verbose madame from Phnom Penh
Who loves to sing "Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto"
And every stanza of "Bohemian Rhapsody" at karaoke
Reminds me, "Sabaidee will always be a foreign word."
Aloha, America. Of thee, I sing.


Writing better Lao folklore anthologies

One area in our antebellum literature that has had significant growth is Lao folklore. For many reasons, I think this is very important, but at the same time there's a scattershot quality of these volumes. Some hit the mark, others do not.

Currently, I think the gold standard is Wajuppa Tossa and Kongdeuane Nettavong's Lao Folktales.

The majority of the folktales are retold well. The English is grammatically correct. Great care was taken to make the stories coherent, consistent and detailed, able to be read both on page and aloud.  Most of the stories collected by Tossa and Nettavong have a good sense of poetry to their retelling and are very well organized. Currently, many other Lao folklore collections suffer because the language is badly fractured and incoherent, even by folktale standards.

Tossa and Nettavong also take great care to credit individual sources for these stories. This is particularly rare in folktale collections but so important because it starts to connect us to a greater sense of cultural lineage. It allows us to appreciate that in each generation, there are actually some very specific people who work to preserve these stories in public, not just in the home.

The stories collected by Tossa and Nettavong are retold with a minimum of interjection from other cultures. This is refreshing, because there are several otherwise fine collections whose retellings have been mangled by non-Lao writers. While many are well-intentioned, there are few things as jarring as reading a jataka filled with biblical metaphors or references to Uncle Sam and George Washington. If I'm reading a story about Xieng Mieng, I don't want to hear him go 'uff da!' without a very, very good reason. 

The great tragedy of the Tossa and Nettavong book is that it is expensive for most families and not readily available in mainstream bookstores. A new edition costs $40 plus shipping and handling, although a used copy can go for around $23+.  A paperback edition would definitely be welcomed. 

I think there's still a definite call in the market for a more casual, slimmer, high-quality collection of folk tales. With nearly 100,000 Lao under 18, there's a sufficient market.

At the more affordable end of the spectrum, many collections of Lao folk stories suffer from either terrible writing, terrible art, terrible organization, or terrible physical quality (easily breaking and getting torn.) Or in some extreme cases, all of the above. 

Hopefully emerging writers will consider this encouragement to add and improve upon the great body of literature in our community, particularly regarding our collective heritage found in our traditional folktales. 

What do you see as some of the challenges for preserving these tales?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lao Space Program: A look at China

We've previously discussed the ideas of a Lao spaceport in the future.

In the meantime, China is preparing to launch Tiangong-1 -- Mandarin for "heavenly palace" from the Gobi Desert on September 29 or 30th using a Chinese Long March 2F rocket. "The eight-ton module will serve as an orbital testbed for China to practice robotic rendezous and docking techniques, a necessary skill for the assembly and operation of the manned outpost China intends to build around 2020." according to reports.

Of course, China's track record with high technology has been a little up and down lately, such as news that China faked its news footage from space. Or else, when they borrowed footage from Top Gun to demonstrate a military drill.

It all raises interesting questions of what it would take for us to effectively develop our own space program. After all, we have our rocket festival. A little application and investment, and we can at least start making some headway before the end of this century. :)

Lao News Week In Review

The Center for Public Integrity featured an article on UXO by Bobby Caina Calvan, "Decades after war, millions of unexploded U.S. bombs haunt Laos".  Liangkham Laphommavong, a female UXO removal technician was profiled, discussing her crew of 17 women who travel across the countryside removing the 80,000,000 unexploded US cluster bombs still left over from the war for Laos from 1964 to 1973.

The article also spoke of the experiences of Pheng Souvanthone, whose 11-year old brother was killed seven years ago. Pheng now works to remove bombs with Liangkham. A victim of UXO who survived a bombie, Ladoune is also interviewed briefly, as is Kinghpet Phimmavong, provincial coordinator for the government’s bomb clearance operations in Xieng Khouang.

Additionally, Truthdig had an article on September 24th, "DECADES-OLD BOMBS STILL A THREAT TO LAOS" which connected to the the CPI article.

Treehugger.Com has a follow-up story on the Peace Bomb bracelet project. These bracelets sell for about $40 to $140.
The Daily Pioneer featured an article, "From Laos, with Love," that addressed a series of cultural programs presented by National Art School of Laos to mark the 55th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Laos and India.

Butch Francisco has an article, "A Trip to Laotian Deep" about his experiences as a Filipino trying to travel to Laos in the Phillipine Star.

The Bangkok Post also posted a photo essay on Lao river life by Pornprom Sarttarbhaya.

Only Make Believe: The Dream

One of the images recreated during the 2011 Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach was Henri Rousseau's The Dream.

This was the last of his jungle scenes, which began with the classic Surprised! (Tropical Storm with a Tiger).  Henri Rousseau's work has rightfully maintained its longevity for its particular innocence and charm, often with a  hint of darkness at the edges, as seen in his well-known Sleeping Gypsy from 1897:

Picasso held a dinner in Rousseau's honor in 1908. Rousseau's deeply wished to paint in an academic style, firmly convinced his pictures were absolutely real and convincing. Of course, the art world in contrast, adored Rousseau's intense stylization and fantastical imagery. 

I would classify him as a poet's painter. Within his sparse scenes, Rousseau's images are open-ended but effectively suggest depth and mystery. At their best, he connects the viewer to something new yet timeless in its energy.

Personally, I prefer Surprised, because it so vividly reminds me of Wole Soyinka's classic statement, "Un tigre ne proclâme pas sa tigritude, il saute sur sa proie" or, "A tiger doesn't talk about it's tigerness, it pounces on its prey!" which is an approach suffused with meaning for any artist:

The Dream was the last painting Rousseau exhibited: A nude woman lounging on a divan in the middle of a dreamy jungle. The artist is at the height of his craft.

It won the acclaim of the avant garde artists of the time, as each element is handled with equal weight: The nude, the lions, the diverse, lush greenery. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire praised this painting, saying, "The picture radiates beauty, that is indisputable. I believe nobody will laugh this year."

 I find it striking for its juxtaposition of the exotic and the mundane, the imagined and the representational, the world of nature and the urban world. Rousseau often claimed to be inspired by his travels, but scholars suggest he actually drew upon illustrated books and visits to the zoos and gardens of Paris. In any case, it's easy to see why this painting would be considered for the Pageant of the Masters.

15 Nak of Luang Prabang

In The Enduring Sacred Landscape of the Naga of Mayoury and Pheuiphanh Ngaosrivathana, fifteen nak are identified connected to the city of Luang Prabang, as well as nine nak and six autochthonous dieties in Vientiane.

The nak of Luang Prabang include:
  1. Nang Dam
  2. Nang Done
  3. Nang Phomfuea
  4. Ai Tong Kwang
  5. Thao Thong Chan
  6. Thao Khamhieo
  7. Thao Bounyuea
  8. Thao Khamla
  9. Thao Khampang
  10. Thao Bounkwang
  11. Thao Bounyuang
  12. Thao Khamtaen
  13. Thao Konglua
  14. Thao Kaicamnong
  15. Sisattanag 

Over time, we'll discuss more of the legends connected to these and other nak found throughout Laos. 

[Lao Fish of the Day] Pa Va

The Pa Va is also known as the Labeo Dyocheilus, or the Lotus Fish, the Pla Bua, Boalla and Heel-Gorya. 

In Laos, it reaches a maximum length of 45cm although accounts in Luang Prabang suggest this carp can grow even bigger. It's common in the Himilayas and is well-known in India, where it can grow up to a meter.  The Pa Va spawns around July to August. 

They provide good thick fillets, and good for a soup dish known as Keng Som Houa Pa Va Sai Het Sed, and a dish known as Sa Ton Pa Va, a fish salad that works best with a female fish and its roe. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lao Steampunk Sundays: Further Considerations

As part of our ongoing series of discussions regarding the writing and development of Lao Steampunk, we recently asked about the viability of greenpunk where citizens of Lan Xang moved towards an eco-friendly society.

One of the questions for writers as we build the world of Lao steampunk will be what kind of characters populate such a society?

To answer that, we might take a look at the traditional professions Lao folk law believed were essential. According to Preeha Phinthong's 1982 Thai/Issan Customs, and others, a king was obliged to follow at least 14 laws, and a city ruler was to provide for the 14 auspicious qualities:
  • First, to have the ear of the city which means to have wise diplomats. 
  • Second, to have the eye of the city which means to have poets and wise men. 
  • Third, to have the core of the city which means to have monks or holy men who are knowledgeable in the Dhammic Disciplines. 
  •  Fourth, to have the gate of the city which means to have sufficient weapons for the city's defense. 
  •  Fifth, to have the foundation of the city which means to have able royal astrologers who can foresee future events. 
  •  Sixth, to have the root of the city which means to have brave and just royal relatives and administrators. 
  • Seventh, to have the crossbeam of the city which means to have courageous and strong military forces. 
  • Eighth, to have the wall of the city which means to have honest and faithful village chiefs. 
  •  Ninth, to have the beam of the city which means to have able and moral ministers and noblemen. 
  •  Tenth, to have the boundary of the city which means to have able ministers to take surveillance of the city boundaries. 
  •  Eleventh, to have the sense of the city which means to have wealthy merchants and businessmen. 
  •  Twelfth, to have the heart of the city which means to have able physicians and royal daughters. 
  •  Thirteenth, to have the resources of the city which means to have rich natural resources such as gold and silver mines, trees, and quality citizens. 
  •  Fourteenth, to have the clouds of the city which means to have the patron spirit of the city, the city post, and guardian deities.
Now, as you can see, there are a number of professions and callings that aren't listed here, but this doesn't mean they weren't essential to the society. Including several really obvious one related towards food production. But this already begins to provide a number of fascinating figures one can write about as they engage with Lao and falang technology.

There are a number of character types often found in more mainstream steampunk stories that would be worth considering for incorporation: 

Inventors and scientists, of course. The formal scientific method began as early as Ibn al-Haytham in the 10th century. He proposed "Truth is sought for its own sake. And those who are engaged upon the quest for anything for its own sake are not interested in other things. Finding the truth is difficult, and the road to it is rough." This would resonate with many who are following the 5 precepts of Buddhism.

As an interesting aside, the first working steam-powered vehicle was probably designed by Ferdinand Verbiest, a Flemish member of a Jesuit mission in China around 1672. It was a small toy for the Chinese Emperor, that was unable to carry a driver or a passenger. In real life, there isn't proof that this design was actually built, but it does mean that an alternate history story could plausibly introduce cars of varying levels of reliability in this era to Asia.

Explorers and guides. Personally, I've enjoyed telling stories from the perspective of guides to falang as a necessary counterweight to the usual Gunga Din and Pocahontas figures that typically populate literature. 

Falang Industrialists. Typically members of the middle class in the 19th century, they set up factories and drove a significant deal of commerce, interested in finding good, steady sources for raw materials. Should characters in a Lao Steampunk setting collaborate with these industrialists or would they be resistant to selling the diverse resources of Lan Xang to foreign powers? What would be the consequences?

Ressurectionists A profession restricted mostly to Europe, these were grave robbers who specialized in procuring parts or whole bodies for surgeons and medical students who needed bodies to study. What would bring them to Lan Xang?

Missionaries A significant amount of Southeast Asian politics was shaped by the actions of European missionaries during the 18th to 20th century. It's possible to write good Lao Steampunk stories without them, but they can also definitely be characters.

Of all of the characters common to mainstream Steampunk literature, this is one that can be among the most touchy to include, especially for post-colonial writers. My big caution would be that it can be especially difficult to put yourself into the missionary mindsets of the 18th and 19th century, whose motives and world paradigms are very different from ours today. But if you think you can handle it responsibly, interestingly and well, I'd say go for it.

Urchins have been a common character in Victorian literature, among the most well known being Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. It would be a stretch to bring one over from Europe, but on the other hand, Southeast Asian literature is filled with tales of orphan boys and girls and what they do to try to survive.

Thieves, Bandits and Pirates We talked a little about the Haw Wars and the Black Flag Army who eventually became the Black Flag Bandits in Laos while fighting the French and marauding the countryside. A Lao Steampunk story can examine even more possibilities, given the presence of airships, steamships and similar vehicles. The classic story of Captain Nemo, also known as Prince Dakkar in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island was the son of an Indian Raja. There are many interesting possibilities here.

Again, we're talking alternative history here, so the sky is the limit, but hopefully this is a helpful place to start. What are some character types you could see fitting well within a Lao Steampunk setting?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Free Poetry E-Book: Between Souls

To make it easier for new readers to find my recent poetry, I've uploaded a new introductory e-book of 16 previously published works of mine. The short version of the link is

Examples included in this collection are drawn from On the Other Side of the Eye, BARROW, Tanon Sai Jai, and My Dinner With Cluster Bombs: The Tuk-Tuk Diaries, and other journals, anthologies and magazines between 1999 to 2011.

Thanks for all of your support!

Lao American Artist Spotlight: Seny Norasingh

I first came across the work of photographer Seny Norasingh through his photos for an article about Laos in the June, 1987 issue of National Georgraphic. You can visit his website at

According to his website, he's been shooting in color since the early 1980s and previously took photos in black and white for newspapers.

With travel to over 30 countries over the course of 40 years, he is fairly quiet about his work, preferring to let it speak for itself. In the 1980s, he was twice named North Carolina Press Photographer of the Year.

Be sure to take a look at his work.

In many ways, his style reflects a distinctly Lao approach to the arts that can also be found in the quiet yet powerful work of many other professional artists in our community. If you get a chance to see an exhibit of his, be sure to visit.

[Lao Fish of the Day] Pa Kouang

The Pa Kouang goes by many names, and is an unusual fish because it's a freshwater variant of a species that's normally found in the oceans. 

It's found particularly abundant in the Ton Le Sap of Cambodia, and swims as far up as Luang Prabang and places in between. The Pa Kouang grows between 40 to 60cm. 

Among the names the Pa Kouang is known by in England are the Soldier Croaker, the Drum, or Greenback Jewfish. In Thailand it's called the Pla Ma, and in Cambodia it's the Trey Pama. One of the more common ways to find this fish served is smoked or dried. January to April, the dry season, is the most frequent time to catch this fish, according to Alan Davidson.

What's your favorite way to prepare this fish?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Gaps in Lao American Poetics

There are only a handful of full-length books by Lao American writers at the moment, even after nearly 40 years. Of these, most are memoirs. And this isn't to say that I have anything against memoirs. They're an essential part of any culture's body of experience.

As a writer of speculative literature, I often argue the need for a body of writers to also articulate futures for a community or the persistent fears that our experience will simply be mothballed WILL happen.

Poetry as a literary form is also essential, and these are not being written as books in large numbers within this generation. Not in a proportion that makes sense for a community of 200,000+.  Neither in Lao, nor in English. Nor do I get a sense that there are that many texts even close to being completed.

There are over 70 writers who've written more than one poem. Many made efforts to get them published among fellow Lao Americans and within the mainstream community, based on the submissions printed by the SatJaDham Lao Literary project between 1994 to 2001 and elsewhere.

This isn't a bad sign, but surely there's at least 1,000 of the 200,000 who could be adding their voices to the body of Lao American poetics, both older and younger writers.  Centuries ago, poets were considered the eyes of the city and deeply valued. I think we would benefit a great deal by reconnecting with that tradition.

More can be done to connect with emerging poets to help them complete and refine full manuscripts and assist them to find publishers, and more importantly, their true audiences. 

As Lao American writers and their friends, we need to work together to help each state, each enclave develop its own voice and sense of its history.

I'm not arguing for poets to only be poets. They should also explore the other literary forms, such as short stories, novels, theater and song. But in all forms they should be striving for the best they write within these.

But where are you seeing the gaps in Lao American poetry, and what would you recommend to address it?

2011 Alston Bannerman Fellows named!

The Alston Bannerman Sabbatical Fellowship honors and supports longtime community organizers of color by giving them the resources to take time out for reflection and renewal. Fellows receive a $25,000 award to take sabbaticals for three months or more. Congratulations to this year's winners!

Chung Wha Hong
Chung-Wha Hong is Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), based in New York City. Under her leadership, the coalition has grown to a membership of 200 diverse organizations across the state. NYIC's victories include winning precedent setting language access policies at government agencies, expanding the rights of immigrant students, tenants, workers and families, and increasing funding for services for immigrant communities. In addition to winning policy victories, the NYIC has become an effective vehicle for immigrant communities to come together to take collective action, develop leadership and increase electoral and civic participation.
Barbara Poley
Barbara Poley is Executive Director of
The Hopi Foundation, based on the Hopi reservation in Kykotsmovi, AZ.  She works to strengthen communities through collaborative and innovative programs that preserve and enhance the traditional Hopi way of life while helping indigenous people meet the challenges of the technological era.  These include community radio station KUYI; the Natwani Coalition, promoting traditional farming practices that create a path to a healthy lifestyle, and a program for emerging leaders.
Jamala Rogers
Jamala Rogers is a founder of Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) based in St. Louis, MO.  For over 40 years, with OBS and other organizations, Jamala has been in the forefront of organizing for human dignity, economic justice and political empowerment.  She has led many multi-racial campaigns including for police local control and against the death penalty, and helped exonerate wrongfully-convicted persons.  Jamala is also a long-time columnist with the St. Louis American newspaper.
Kabzuag VajKabzuag Vaj is founder and Co-Executive Director ofFreedom, Inc., based in Madison, WI.  Growing out of work she began to support Hmong girls and women, Freedom, Inc. now comprises both Southeast Asian and African American families, including LGBTQ youth of color.  The organization aims to end violence and promote healthier living by organizing around root causes, defining new solutions, and enabling low-income and no-income community members to become agents of change.
Marcos Vargas
Marcos Vargas is founding Executive Director ofCentral Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), based is Ventura, CA.  In building CAUSE, Marcos brought together community, faith-based and labor organizations, and combined policy research, leadership development, organizing, and advocacy to build grassroots power. Since its formation in 2001, CAUSE has led successful efforts around living wage jobs, accountable development, health coverage expansion, women's economic justice, fair representation, and community support for union organizing campaigns.
Gina Womack
Gina Womack is co-founder and Executive Director ofFamilies and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), based in New Orleans.  By empowering families to take leadership she has built an organization that began as a small support group for parents of incarcerated children into a force for change in Louisiana.  FFLIC has succeeded in securing sweeping reforms, including the closure of two juvenile prisons, and is currently working to interrupt the school to prison pipeline.   

Happy Elephant Appreciation Day!

Laos was once referred to as Prathet Lan Xang, the Realm of a Million Elephants, so it's only fitting we take note of Elephant Appreciation Day.

Laos has the 6th largest wild elephant population in the world. It would be nice to make it to the top five in the next two decades. Because, you know:

We do have the 4th largest captive elephant population, so that's something. There are only 13 nations where elephants are found naturally.

Elephant Appreciation Day was created in 1996 by a Sarasota, Fla., businessman who liked elephants. Technically, it has no official organizers or promoters, but hey, every holiday starts somewhere. A website regarding the holiday says the day is meant "to be observed and enjoyed by anyone anywhere on a local level."

For Lao, our heritage with elephants is greatly endangered by hunting and deforestation, which has greatly reduced the elephant population in Laos.

Wild elephants have less than 47% of the country to roam in and are in constant danger from hunters, particularly poachers from across the borders who want the elephants for their ivory, although it is technically illegal to trade in it.

There may be fewer than 700 left in the wild today and only 570 who are known to be domesticated. This is a 20% drop from 10 years ago.

Rising ivory demand in China by superstitious bumpkins with too much money has boosted the price from $157 per kilogram in 2008 to as high as $7,000 in 2011, an increase of 4,358 percent. Scumbag poachers are wasting no time trying to meet demand.

As a side note: In Naga Cities of the Mekong, Martin Stuart Fox notes two legends related to Vientiane and elephants. One suggests that Vientiane was the place where all the elephants of Laos came to die. Another talks of how "the ruler of Sikhottabong on the middle of the Mekong answered an appeal from the ruler of Viang Chan for assistance, hoping thereby to gain the hand of his beautiful daughter in marriage. When this was refused, he slaughtered a million elephants to show his anger."

Which is obviously an exaggeration, but it certainly adds a different dimension to our traditional understanding of the phrase.

But the point is to take time out today to celebrate the elephants among us! What are your favorite elephant memories?

Utah Robots Win Prize To Clear UXO?

Two companies based in Utah recently released a press release that they had received top prizes in a Department of Defense competition for Robotic Range Clearance.

The companies involved are Kairos Autonomi and Autonomous Solutions. They use Autonomous Mobility Applique Systems (AMAS) to accomplish their tasks. The press release is a little difficult to wade through due to technical language, but the long and the short of it seems to be that the robots needed to be able to remove UXO from a variety of scenarios.

These scenarios included: 1) Vegetation Clearance, 2) Surface Clearance, 3) Geophysical Mapping, and 4) Subsurface Clearance. They're currently going to be available for US ranges, presumably to get rid of unexploded weapons from testing exercises.

It remains to be seen whether or not these would be viable in Laos or other Southeast Asian nations where cluster bombs and other unexploded weapons still remain a danger to civilians nearly 40 years since the end of the war. Their effectiveness in subsurface clearance would be of particular interest. But it will likely be a long time before they are cost-effective to introduce to the region.

But from the looks of the Kairos Autonomi, these can be retrofitted to existing vehicles which might ease integration. There are many key questions to ask.

During the war for Laos in the 20th century, more tons of bombs were dropped on the nation than were dropped on all of Europe during World War II. Over 1/3rd of them failed to explode, with over 70,000,000 pieces still estimated to linger across 30% of the Lao countryside. The majority of bombs discovered must currently be removed and cleared by hand.

Pageant of the Masters: Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre

Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre also known as Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre is a tryptich by the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi was one of the images recreated during the popular Pageant of the Masters in California.

In this woodblock print, the 10th century witch Takiyasha summons a skeletal specter in the hope of frightening the hero Mitsukuni.

Mitsukuni had come searching for the surviving conspirators of an attempt to establish an Eastern Court in competition with that of the Emperor in Kyoto. Takiyasha was the daughter of the warlord leading this failed effort. After the death of her father, Takiyasha continued living in the ruins of their palace at Soma planning revenge.

In this image she is summoning a specter from the void, but Mitsukuni is not frightened, although the other man is. In one variation of the tale, it is a rival warrior in a duel with Mitsukuni and we are watching Takiyasha's plan backfire as her warrior is frightened instead.

This piece works for a number of reasons, sparking the imagination whether you're familiar with the legend or not. While it is effective in telling the story, Kuniyoshi achieves something remarkable here beneath the surface view.

Part of the effect comes from the narrative that emerges and shifts depending on whether you begin looking at the image from left to right or the other way, from right to left.

Do you read it as: Here is Takiyasha, initiating the action, with Mitsukuni at the center with the frightened companion for contrast, and at the end, the reminder of death looming over all of them?

Or do you see it first as: Here's the specter of death, looming over the frightened man, then Mitsukuni, then revealing it was Takiyasha who orchestrated all of it?  This is an interesting change in the narrative thrust.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi was one of the last masters of the woodblock print style of ukiyo-e. He was born January 1st, 1798 and lived until April 14, 1861.  Kuniyoshi was  a versatile artist who'd been influenced by examples of European art and architecture he'd encountered. This was reflected throughout his images of beautiful women and mythic creatures, animals (particularly cats) and landscapes.

 When one considers that he is believed to have based the skeleton specter of this piece on Western anatomical drawings he'd encountered, it's possible there's another subtler story being presented. But that would require a much larger post.

 Kuniyoshi often used dramatic tryptichs to great effect. He also was a master of caricature. From a collector's point of view, many of his original prints are surprisingly affordable considering what you might expect compared to the prices an original Hiroshige or Hokusai.

As we look at Mituskuni Defying the Skeleton Specter, why does he choose THIS particular moment? When we appreciate an artist's work we should ask why this specific moment and not another. And what greater message to a society is a master like Kuniyoshi embedding by choosing this moment?

It is not Mitsukuni's victory over the Skeleton Specter. It is not Mitsukuni unaware as the Skeleton Specter arrives. Nor Takiyasha scrambling for the scroll or weeping at her defeat.

So many possible variations but this is a dramatic point Kuniyoshi thought would most draw audiences in to the story. And he's right.

It's something to consider as we compose and create our own art.

[Lao Fish of the Day] Pa Sa Thong

Also known as the freshwater garfish or needlefish, Xenentodon cancila, this is a small fish that doesn't come in at more than 28 cm with a range from India to Indonesia. Good sized filets can come from it.

Pa Sa Thong is the only kind of gar found in freshwater. It is only distantly related to gars from North America and South America.

In Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos, (Prospect, 2003) Alan Davidson notes that the Lao name refers to a piece of banana stem "which, suitably decorated is placed in front of a Lao house during the annual celebrations of the Buddha's birth. I have heard it said that the beak of the garfish is thought to resemble this. But Mr. One Sy points out that this same piece of banana stem is used to float candles down the river, and that the garfish is a surface swimmer; so there is a further point to the name."

Davidson also notes that in southern Laos and Thailand, it is known as Pa Katung.

The Pa Sa Thong is also popular as an aquarium fish. In Europe it has been kept in aquariums since 1910 and first bred in captivity in 1963. It tends to have a nervous behavior and a preference for live foods, so some consider it difficult to keep in an aquarium.

While this fish is clearly capable of biting, some ichthyologists say the Pa Sa Thong is not likely to really be capable of leaping out of the water with enough force to kill a human.

What are some of your favorite memories and stories about the Pa Sa Thong?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011