Thursday, July 08, 2004

A Real Instance of Cultural Imperialism

I've just discovered an excellent example of the sort of arrogance that presumes other people ought to stay with the ways of the past merely for one's own entertainment, and in the New York Times, of all places.

LUANG PRABANG, Laos - This former royal capital perches on the banks of the Mekong River, a gorgeous medley of gilded temples and pagodas, creaking wooden homes and some spruced-up vestiges of the French colonial era. Scarlet hibiscus and cream frangipani nestle beneath coconut palms.

To the newcomer, it is easy to imagine the impression left on Pierre Billotey, a French novelist, who traveled here to north central Laos in the 1920's to see his recently ensconced countrymen. He wrote of a tropical paradise where the French and the locals, including the Laotian king, Sisavang Vong, lived in harmony. Other visitors spoke enthusiastically about the easy opium and the not-too-discreet harems.

Now the foreigners are back, bringing with them a quickened pace and different demands.

Specifically, Unesco, the United Nations agency that fosters the preservation of important historic sites, wants the people here to maintain their houses in the style of those long ago times.

The town was named a world heritage site by Unesco in 1995, a designation that makes it eligible for United Nations preservation funds. Among other things, the residents are being offered traditional-style plaster instead of the big no-no - concrete - for refurbishment.

But the requests are being met with the kind of disdain that Manhattan residents often show the New York City Landmarks Commission when it asks for restraint in replacing leaky period windows in Art Deco buildings. In short, there is resistance.

"When we explain that timber is part of the tradition, they don't understand, because to people here timber is the material of the poor," said Emmanuel Pouille, a French architect and historian, who is the chief technical adviser to the Unesco project. "Here, concrete is a symbol of being rich. They say, 'Why can't we live like the people in the suburbs of Bangkok?' '


Mr. Pouille says that without Luang Prabang's traditional look, even intrepid travelers will be less inclined to come.

"But people don't see the connection,'' he said. "Most want to make the money very quickly and run."

For many residents, the outsiders' passion for the old is misplaced, a cultural misunderstanding that refuses to respect their desire to spend a newfound wealth that has been a long time coming.


To keep all this history in its context, Mr. Pouille and his team - a Japanese architect, two French environmental experts and a passel of Lao architects - want the authority to enforce their aesthetic standards.

Last year they won a symbolic victory when Unesco stopped the construction of a concrete house that was being built behind a Buddhist temple. The juxtaposition was especially troubling, they say.

Now they hope they can persuade the authorities to pull down the concrete shell. "It is unacceptable," Mr. Pouille said. "We will call the TV to show people we can demolish."

But Thong Parn Wattanacine, 24, a guesthouse manager who taught herself English with the help of an American boyfriend, said the outsiders were unrealistic.

"People are getting richer,'' she said. "They don't want the old things. If they own a wood house, they will move outside the town and build concrete houses."

Moreover, Ms. Thong Parn said, there was a practical reason why people preferred concrete in the tropics. "A wood house is hot, concrete is cool." (emphasis added)
Notice that the eminently sensible reason for the natives to prefer concrete isn't mentioned until the very end of the article, while the impression is fostered early on that these are just a bunch of greedy and ignorant savages who don't have the foresight to appreciate their good fortune. It must be wonderful for Mr. Pouille and his comrades in arms to be able to use their UNESCO money to flex their architectural muscles against villagers who'll actually have to live in the picturesque structures the foreign interlopers are struggling so mightily to preserve; as for the structure Mr. Pouille is planning to tear down, ought we to take it for granted that no compensation will be paid to the ignorant local who failed to consult with his new foreign master before putting his time and money into constructing the condemned structure?

The sheer arrogance of the whole enterprise is unbelievable. I like architecture more than most, and I certainly appreciate the value of preserving the best of the past, but in the end it doesn't matter how architecturally marvellous some bunch of foreigners may feel a building or a complex to be, if those to whom it belongs no longer care that it be maintained pristinely for perpetuity. For a bunch of privileged, pampered First Worlders to come down to Laos and start ordering the indigenes about as to how to dispose of their own heritage displays a level of conceit and high-handedness that only needs a pith-helmet and jodhpurs to fit right into the heyday of colonialism.