As the Thai economy grows, so do the aspirations of the people in this increasingly credit-driven nation.
Yet many of the 100,000 slum dwellers in Bangkok find themselves locked out of conventional financing and reliant on local moneylenders.
Granny believes she is filling the gap by helping her poor neighbours through her money lending business but thinks nothing of rejecting a loan request from Wat when he fails to keep up with interest payments.
With her health and energy failing, Granny deftly unleashes her slum lending acumen and frets about how the future of her business will fare in the hands of her spoilt children.
By Shane Bunnag
The first time I spoke to “Aunty Yai” I must have looked sick because she made me an offer: “If you fainted right now and needed to go to hospital, I could lend you the money right away.”
Shane Bunnag is a Bangkok-based filmmaker. He was born in Cambridge to a Thai father and an Irish mother and lived in Greece before moving to Thailand in 2005. His first film was a Greek language narrative fiction. Working as an independent director in Bangkok, he has made films on diverse subjects that include the fight against human trafficking in the Golden Triangle, environmental activism and juvenile rehabilitation in the countryside. In 2012, Shane completed a documentary about the fading elephant culture on the Thai-Cambodian border.
Yai consistently cast herself as force for good, a micro-financier in a market excluded from regular banking. She was certainly not public spirited but neither was she some kind of demonic usurer. Like the secondary character in the story, Prawat, she displayed varieties of contradiction and human fallibility that I found indicative of larger themes in Thailand and also appealing in a dramatic sense.
In spite of my ethical reservations, I liked Yai. Both Prawat and Yai were extremely easy to work with and I had no trouble getting them to open up on camera.
Yai was not the first lender I came across but definitely the most charismatic and I felt she spoke volumes about the way slums dwellers interacted with each other. Yet Yai remains for me an extremely ambiguous figure.
She could be compassionate and truly grandmotherly and also menacing and brutal. Her lending is exploitative but she insists she is doing her neighbours a favour. She is deeply spiritual but most of the time thinks of nothing but money, breaking almost all of the Buddhist precepts.
While conducting research it became clear that in the complex ecosystem of slum finance there would be fascinating areas I would have to leave out: the illicit gambling networks, reciprocal pawning and the widespread subcontracting of interest collection; instead I opted to explore the relationship between Yai and Prawat, a lender and a borrower, both with dreams of a better, unattainable middle class life.
I did not intend to trivialise or soften what is a very harsh subject: exploitative lending to the poorest and most vulnerable. I felt that a simple human story might offer an emotive glimpse into a closed world without treading the hackneyed slum-life-is-hell theme.
The largest slum in Thailand is in Klongtoey, the old Bangkok port district. Most people know it as the view from the expressway during one of Bangkok’s interminable traffic jams. Although Klongtoey is rife with crime and drugs it is still a diverse and colourful place, with several temples, a church, a mosque and two princely palaces.
I came know Klongtoey a few years ago making another documentary about the community. In this first film I was interested in Klongtoey as an anachronism within the larger modern city.
The practices that made its inhabitants “failures” were all traditionally Thai; people were still living a pre-modern, almost subsistence, lifestyle. The culture, from hairstyles to building techniques and professions were from a vanishing past and now completely marginalised. At certain times of the day Klongtoey felt like a village in the countryside. It seemed that the sense of neighbourly support and cultural continuity held these people together, providing a strong identity and perhaps also a safety net in times of trouble.
Having stated that, I would not over-estimate the strength of communal altruism in the slums. The daily struggle makes people pragmatic. However, the coping mechanisms and mentality of the people I came across were so typically Thai.
Thailand has a mania for self-definition partly because the nation building process is still underway and also because there is a great unease about the future of the country and the transformation of society.
There are dozens of books purporting to define the elusive Thai mindset. I would sum it up as muddling through with gallows humour. Without which it would be hard to survive poverty with no chance of social mobility. So, in the slum microcosm of the nation, Yai and Prawat are embodiments of this Thai soul.
Unlike its neighbours, Thailand does not suffer typhoons, earthquakes, or cyclones. In the modern era it has enjoyed a relatively stable and peaceful history. The Thai slums are not the most miserable, daily wages are not penuriously low. It may be that this limited exceptionalism is what makes Thailand’s story captivating. Life in the kingdom ticks over, increasing affluence slowly trickles down but the idea of the better life and what it might entail is elusive.