Lisu Pang Paek on fire (2001), and revisited (2020)

Because of malfunctioning of this website, illustrations cannot be uploaded to this post. This problem will be solved as soon as possible.

Pang Paek village, Pai district, Mae Hong Son,

On Fire, February 2001 & “Revisited”, February 2020

Figure 01-Pang Paek. (left) Burnings along Highway 1095, near Lisu village Pang Peak, February 2020. (right) House on fire in Pang Paek, February 2001.

One day in February 2001, I was in the Lisu village Pang Paek, accompanied by the producer and director of the film Tiger Mountain Never Dies. Otome Hutheesing, an anthropologist and expert on northern Thailand’s Lisu peoples, was also with us. We were looking for an appropriate location for shooting most of the film. While we were strolling through the village, there was a fire in one of the houses and it spread rapidly to a few adjacent houses − where it could be “controlled”.

Figure 02-Pang Paek. (left) Spectators in the smoke. (middle) A Lisu man on the roof of his house with a bucket of water, ready to extinguish a fire of the bundles of dried grass as soon as it might be ignited by descending ‘burning particles’ from fires of adjacent houses. (right) Lisu men cerrying buckets of water to a burning house.

There was quite a commotion in the village. Men were running with buckets of water to extinguish the fires in two or three houses. The fire had probably started in the kitchen of a house with a corrugated astbestos roof. This house would burn out completely. When I remember well, two other houses partly burnt out. Much of the commotion was from Lisus who tried to prevent the fires being spread to their houses. Some men were standing on the roof of their house ready to extinguish fires. The fires were highly infectuous and spread like ‘wildfire’. No wonder, as nearly all were contructed from split bamboo and its roofs were covered with bundles of dry grass. In February, a month usually preceeded by weeks or months without any rain, all was extremely dry and the tiniest spark could ignite a fire within seconds.

Figure 03-Pang Paek. (left) The burnt out house where the fires have started. (right) Idle spectators.

All the commotion brought to my mind a common Thai expression: ‘A chek crying house on fire’. This is colloquial for “panic” in which chek is the common slang word for a Chinese. Well, the commotion in Pang Paek may reflect this proverbial panic. (1)
Maybe Pang Paek was at extra risk for the spreading of fires, as many houses were crammed together in a relatively small space. When we had entered the village, Otome so fort told us that she did not like the lay out of the village. Doi Lan, the Lisu village in Chiang Rai Province where she had lived for many years, was much more spacious.

Figure 04-Pang Paek.

The following days we visited a good number of other Lisu villages, but director and producer of
Tiger Mountain Never Dies decided to do most of the shootings in Pang Paek. The major reason was that Pang Paek was on the main road from Pai to Mae Hong Son (Highway 1095), only 15 km from Pai where some accommodation was considered comfortable enough for the standards of the film crew.(2)

Figure 05-Pang Paek-A, B, C: Lisu house on fire

Figure 06-Pang Paek-A. Lisu House on fire. B. Woman in front of large house : walls and fences all made from split bamboo. C. Mountain view from Pang Paek: most of the surrounding forest had been cleared and converted into cultivated land.

I have never visited the village again, but I had passed it dozens of times on my way from Pai to Pang Mapha and vice versa. Mid-February 2020, I was on that stretch of the highway again. Close to the turn off to Pang Paek the undergrowth of the forest was burning, and fire was moving fastly into the forest. My eyes were burning from the smoke as well. It showed me that in twenty years the Lisus of Pang Paek had not stopped playing with fire.

Figure 07-Pang Paek (revisited 2020)

(1)When writing this little post (in April 2020), I assumed that I had learned about this expression first when I read the book Letters from Thailand by Botan (Editions Duang Kamol, Bangkok, 1982). That must have been in 1983. In my note books I had made a long excerpt of this fascinating novel, which is dealing with life in Bangkok’s Chinatown as seen by a freshly new Teochew immigrant from China. In my excerpt, however, I could not find any notes about this expression. But I found notes about other things of interest written by Butan about fires in Bangkok:

‘… many fires occur in the city of Bangkok. It is said that most of these fires do not result from accidental causes…. Soon after fire has ravaged a slum, new construction begins, not of new homes but of commercial buildings, parking lots or movie theaters.’ (p. 239-240).

In the 1990s, I criss-crossed Bangkok’s Chinatown for many days, and I came across many small private fire engines parked in small dead end lanes. They were witnessing that the inhabitants of Chinatown took the risk of fires most seriously.

(2)Most of the shootings, indeed, were done in April, in the village Pang Paek. Otome was present all these days to advise the film crew and to do translations for them in Lisu and Thai. In the mean time I had abstained from further contributions to the film making. The première of the 25 minutes movie was in Utrecht, the Netherlands, September 2001.
In 2002, Otome Hutheesing lectured about her experiences during the making of the film for the Informal Northern Thai Group: link.

Figure 08-Pang Paek- A. The front cover picture of the video cassette of the film Tiger Mountain will never die shot in Pang Paek village in April 2001. It shows the hero and major Lisu actor, a 12-year old boy from the village. B. Back cover. C. The front cover of my book for children De kampioenen van Tijgerberg (‘The champions of Tiger Mountain’), on which the film script was based (published in 2000 by KIT Press, Amsterdam).