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The Lustre of Lacquerware
One of Chiang Mai's Celebrated Handicrafts

When we talk of "handicrafts" in Northern Thailand, we mean exactly that an item that has been crafted by hand! We have no huge "handicraft" factories or production units in our Kingdom of Lanna-Thai but, as you wander the small soi (lanes) of Chiangmai and into rural areas, you will discover numerous small handicraft units tucked away in backyards and similar. These are the "cottage industries" and, of recent times, many have been producing under the banner "OTOP" which translates as "One Tambon One Product". Each tambon (village district) has been encouraged to specialize in one handicraft product (rather than be "jack of all trades") and to bring that handcrafted item to perfection. So we now have OTOP creations in basketwork, cotton & silk weaving, carving, furniture making, pottery, ceramics and so on. One such handicraft skill, handed down over the centuries, is in the making of Lacquerware. The sheen, lustre and delicacy of lacquerware items have long captured the discerning eye (witness its popularity at shop outlets in the Night Bazaar or on Thapae Road).

The history and tradition of lacquerware skills can be traced back to the times, centuries ago, when the borders of northern Thailand were somewhat fluid. There was a lot of pushing and shoving as armies sought to gain ground. Ordinary folk who got in the way of such territorial friction either fled, as refugees, or were taken prisoner. Talented refugees were welcomed into the Kingdom of Lanna-Thai while a skilled prisoner was a prize indeed.

It is reliably recorded that the ancient skill of lacquerware making was in the hands of the Tai Khern people in their home settlement of Chiang Toong. This settlement, although now geographically in Myanmar (Burma), predates both Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai as it was founded in the early 13th Century and it was established by the great Lanna leader King Mengrai! This explains the similarity of design and technique between lacquerware of northern Thailand and northern Burma.

Upon arrival in Chiangmai, either as refugees or prisoners, the skilled lacquerware artisans of Chiang Toong set up shop alongside the silversmiths on what is now Wualai Road. There they prospered; practicing their craft and teaching it to offspring and young relatives. Over time, already cramped conditions became even more so and many craftsmen found the open spaces of Hang Dong and Sankampaeng areas to be very attractive. So, in the fullness of time, the lacquerware cottage industry relocated to the outskirts of Chiangmai. And where these craftsmen went, with their beautiful wares, interested people were sure to follow. Nowadays, Hang Dong and Sankampaeng (now almost suburbs of Chiangmai city) are but an easy, 20 minute taxi ride away and the lacquerware artisans with their exquisite products attract thousands of domestic and overseas visitors.

The creation of traditional lacquerware is painstakingly slow because of the drying time in between the numerous coats of lacquer applied (the greater number of coats the finer the sheen and lustre). Basically, depending on whether the craftsman is making a bowl, tray, box, salver, etc., the lacquerware foundation may be wood, metal, unglazed fired clay and so on. Coat after coat of lacquer (a black, wood resin) is smoothly applied, allowing lengthy drying time between each coat. Each coat, when fully dry, is polished to bring out the lustre and depth of sheen. Some coats are buffed with soapstone, some with soft cloth and others with softly abrasive leaves of the beautiful sandpaper vine (which looks like Wisteria but is not of the same family).

When the artisan is satisfied with the number of lacquer coats, polish and the depth of sheen, a design is etched into the surface layers. The item bowl, jewelry box, decorative tray, etc. is then placed in a bath of coloring solution for up to three days. After this process is complete, the etched design glistens with color against the black, lustrous background. This quality of lacquerware is called "Kreung khern lai kud". Gold leaf may be used to form the design but this is more complicated (and more expensive).

Once the design has been etched, a "negative" yellow paint is coated on the areas which are to remain black. A covering of thin lacquer is then applied to the entire surface and, when stills "tacky", is further covered with gold leaf, After drying (about one full day); the item is washed in water and Hey Presto! the gold leaf slips away from the yellow painted areas leaving the gold design glittering on the black, polished background. It may look like magic but, in reality, is the result of centuries old Thai handicraft skills brought to life by modern Thai craftsmen. The Lustre of Lacquerware looks good in every home watch out for it when gift shopping (or even for yourself as a holiday treat!). Visit Lacquerware product at Chiangmai Laitong Intertrade, 140/1 Moo 3, Chiangmai-Sankampaeng Road, Tel. 053-338237-8. Email: info@laitongintertrade.com.

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