Otome, Grand Old Lady of northern Thailand’s Lisu

Studying the collapse of Lisu culture: Otome Hutheesing and the people of Doi Lan         by    SJON HAUSER

[posted 29 March 2020 – text and (most) pictures: Sjon Hauser]

Figure 1-Otome. A. Otome Klein Hutheesing in about 1995. B. Otome in 1987 in Doi Lan, talking to a Lisu man who is spraying his young tomato plants with pesticides. C. Otome harvesting the mountain rice in Doi Lan, 1987.

Sitting tucked-away in a wheelchair in her garden in Chiang Mai’s old quarter on the east bank of the Ping river, Otome still communicates with the world. When a visitor approaches and kisses her, she produces a warm smile, and her verbal reaction that will follow expresses her happiness and positive perception of the wonderful world around her−but is also mixed with humor which at the same time brings this positive world view to more realistic proportions.
Her welcome appears to be the same as thirty or twenty years earlier, when we often met, but a difference is that the 89-year old, fragile woman doesn’t remember who I am and doesn’t get any grip of the things I mention to her.

Figure 2-Otome. Small poppy fields around Doi Lan in the early 1990s. In the second picture you see ripening fruits of Papaver somniferum. With a special knife cuts have been made in the fruits, resulting in a sticky white juice seeping out. When dried it turns brown and becomes the raw opium ready to be harvested.

In August 2020, the Dutch national will turn ninety, and on that occasion her “Lisu family” who took care of her since the past decade and her many friends had planned a good number of activities and festivities in honor of the anthropologist and her involvement with Lisu culture. However, the current corona virus pandemic may urge the organizers to postpone all activities.

Figure 3-Otome. A. Lisu villager spraying a field with a pesticide. B. Lisu villager at work in his field of tomatoe plants. C. Otome in conversation with a Lisu villager from Doi Lan. D. Michael Vickery amidst tomatoe fields around Doi Lan. Photographs taken about 1987.

I first met Otome Klein Hutheesing in 1985 or 1986, by chance, at a guesthouse in Chiang Mai. I was speaking Dutch with a visitor who stayed there, and that moment a good-looking middle-aged women dressed like an oriental princess came towards us: “Ik hoor dat jullie Nederlanders zijn!” (I hear that you are Dutch), she was wondering. The way she pronounced these words suggested a high class, nearly aristocratic background, that blended well with her beautiful features and refined dress, but contrasted with the soberness of the accommodation.
We talked about who we were and what had brought us to Chiang Mai. She informed me that she was an anthropologist, residing in Penang (Malaysia), but that over the past years she had spent much time in a village in the mountains of Chiang Rai, where she studied the culture of the Lisu people.
I then realized that I had already heard about her. Chiang Mai resident, Dutchman Leo Alting van Geusau once had told me about a Dutch lady involved with the Lisu people. What a surprises Chiang Mai had to offer me in those days: a former catholic priest obsessed by Akha culture who studied the Akhas in the village of Saen Charoen, and a Dutch woman, grown up in the Netherlands East-Indies, and subsequently receiving her higher education at the University of Leiden (where she belonged to the first class of “sociologists”), who studied the Lisus in Doi Lan, a village just six kilometres from Saen Charoen!

Figure 4-Otome. A. Otome (left) sitting with Alemma at the dish in a Lisu house (about 1998). B. Otome during a ceremony in a Lisu house. The woman in blue farmer’s shirt beside her was Otome’s neighbor in Chiang Mai (about 1998). C. Otome during the house-warming party following the completion of her new, stone house in Doi Lan. Beside Otome is her partner Michael Vickery, professor of history in Australia and Malaysia (and later in Cambodia) who for the occasion had come to Thailand (December, 1996).

Beside their interest in hill tribe culture and their Marxist orientation, the two compatriots had little in common. When the chain-smoking Leo started one of his monotonous lamentations about the fate of the Akha people, one soon craved for fresh air (not just because of the cigarette smoke) and a few rays of sunshine. On the other hand, when Otome spoke it was as if a clouded sky broke open and one is engulfed by the sun rays of her enthusiasm, humor and laughter. Yet, the story they told me about the hill tribes was basically the same.
Otome was such a kind person. Whenever possible, she always gave visitors like me a small present. She always showed interest in what the people around her were doing and what motivated them.

During that incidental first meeting at a guesthouse in Chiang Mai (1), Otome invited me to visit her in Doi Lan. I can’t remember exactly when I first went to “her Lisu village”. Probably in 1986, and in the company of Otome herself. We took the bus to Chiang Rai from the Arcade Bus Station and during the trip Otome told me why she got involved with the Lisu. In Penang she lived with her partner, American historian Michael Vickery, who was often dubbed the “enfant terrible” of Khmer and Thai ancient and modern history. After teaching several years anthropology at Penang’s University Sains Malaysia, she got bored and had the feeling that she was no more in touch with the real world of what she was teaching about. She was longing for field work, and when she learned about Thailand’s Lisu this mountain tribe began to raise her interest.
Three hours later we dropped off in the small district town of Mae Suai. After Otome had finished her shopping spree at the market of Mae Suai, we climbed into a pick up truck with destination Doi Chang. We had to wait an hour, or even much longer before the pick-up truck began its trip through the mountains.

Figure 05-Otome. Otome in about 1998.

The first stretch of the route was familiar to me, as I had followed that route when I visited Leo Alting vaon Geusau’s Akha village. First the truck followed Highway 118 to Chiang Rai for about 3 kms, then it turned left, onto a country road that leads to Wawi. This road traversed a Khon Mueang village, where mountaineers used to bring their harvest of ‘mountain rice’ for being husked and polished. At the end of the village the asphalt/concrete road climbed steeply amidst cultivated land, fallows and pockets of degraded forest.
After some 4 kms, we turned right onto a dirt road. Amidst deciduous forest this road climbed to an elevation of about 900 m where the Akha villages Saen Charoen and its satellite Saen Charoen Mai were hidden behind pockets of community forest. The remaining 6 km to Doi Lan the road climbed to maybe 1200 m a.s.l., but only relatively few stretches were steep. Yet, during the rainy season this section of the road could be a nightmare because of the deep layers of soft mud. At the approach of Doi Lan, one had a good view over the surroundings. Much of the mountains, as far as the eye could reach, had been deforested and were used as cultivated land or were fallow. Deforestation in the area went back for at least forty years−the name Doi Lan, meaning ‘bold mountain’ indicates that much of the mountain’s summit had already been deforested when the Lisu settled there about 1960. But both Otome and Leo emphasized that the rate of deforestation had sped up over the mid-1980s.

Figure 6-Otome. A. Otome in about 1989 (picture: Ron Giling). B. Otome and Lisu women from Doi Lan during the house warming ceremony of Otome’s new, stone house in December 1996.

In Doi Lan I was introduced to Otome’s “Lisu family”: “Mama”, a kind-hearted chubby woman about 55 years old, her lips always tainted blood red from the betel quid, Mama’s husband, who loved liquor even more than the betel quid, and their children: Awu and xxx, the twin daughters, and two sons, Aleppa and Assapha. Awu, who spoke Thai very well, had been Otome’s foremost teacher of the Lisu language. Otome had learned Thai in Chiang Mai, before she settled in Doi Lan for her research. By 1986 she had spent several years in the village and spoke Lisu fluently. Throughout the 1980s, she had witnessed the rapid changes that took place in the village. These changes were for the worse and the alarming trends continued throughout the following years.

Since my first stay in 1986, I had visited Doi Lan some twenty times, often when Otome was also in the village. Otome and I became good friends, and when she moved to Chiang Mai during the second half of the 1990s we met almost every week. She informed me about the Lisu culture of Doi Lan and the way it became ‘degenerated’ over the years.

Figure 7-Otome. Doi Lan’s women in their most festive dresses are dancing during the Lisu New Year 1988.

Otome first set foot in Doi Lan in 1981. Studying the village society, she became aware that the Lisus were a remarkably egalitarian people. The strong, equal position of the women was much due to the economy of the village. For most Lisu households opium poppies were their major cash crop. Both men and women had their own (small) fields where they planted them. It was a relatively easy crop to grow, and it also supplied women with enough money to be independent. As for the construction of the traditional houses, there was some degree of labor specialization: men used to cut the bamboo and fasten the bundles of grass on the roofs, but such work took place in harmony and mutual cooperation. This ‘sexual equality’ all changed after 1984 and 1985 when the Thai government, with full financial support of USA agencies, implemented aggressive politics to eradicate the poppy cultivation.
In 1984? a group of heavy armed black-clad Rangers − a most feared Thai paramilitary organization − entered the village. Their raids made for good an end to extensive poppy growing. All houses were searched and much of the opium harvest of that year was confiscated – in total nine kilograms. The raids lasted for three days. Everyone was scared to death. Eleven households were bankrupted. Three weeks later, the Border Patrol Police arrived in the village for ‘reconciliation’. They distributed blankets, canned sardines, packets of washing soap, and T-shirts with the massage “I stop growing poppies”.

Figure 8-Otome. Village life in Doi Lan, 1988. A-B. Women engaged in application and other needlework required for making their elaborate dresses and headgears. C. Toddler. D. Mama, Awu’s and Aleppa’s mother.

The actions against the cultivation of opium were considered a great success, both in Thailand and internationally. The following years, Thailand often received much praise from international organizations for the way the country had handled their opium problem. In the 1960s, Thailand had annually produced 150 ton opium, but due to the implementation of the eradication politics, this had been reduced to less than 20 tons, a fraction of the 200 tons produced in Burma and the 70 ton in Laos. Thailand remained the major transit place for the drugs smuggled from Burma and Laos to the consumers throughout the world. The remaining 20 tons produced in Thailand were mostly consumed locally. Few realized the dramatic consequences this “success story” in fact had for the Lisu and other poppy growing mountain tribes in Thailand.
In fact, part and parcel of this “success story” was the complete degradation and collapse of Lisu society and culture in Doi Lan and many other hill tribe villages. Otome often emphasized one of the sour paradoxes resulting from Thailand’s Blitz Krieg against opium cultivation: ‘When the Lisu cultivated poppies, drug addiction was unknown in the village. Now they have stopped growing poppies, and the number of addicts is soaring. Drug use is just one of the ways in which the Lisus come to terms with their growing poverty, degenerating culture and degraded environment.’

The collapse of Doi Lan’s Lisu society and culture followed the raids in 1984 rapidly. As no one dared to grow poppies again, the villagers were frantically looking for economic alternatives. They had hardly any experience with growing alternative crops. They did not receive any assistance. The first year following the raids, various households experimented with growing a number of alternative crops, with mixed success. A few villagers that had grown tomatoes were the luckiest, as they had received good prizes for their harvest, thanks to a newly operating ketchup factory in the North. The success of these lucky few resulted in “tomato fever” in the following season. Nearly all families tried their luck with tomatoes. Much of the forest around the village was cut to convert into fields. Much money was invested in implements, irrigation, tomato seeds, fertilizer and pesticides. The poppy growing of the past did not require such investments, neither did it cause large-scale deforestation. That rainy season, when the tomatoes were growing and ripening around Doi Lan as far as the eye could reach, rains were abundant. Then the rains became torrential. While the Lisus were harvesting their tomatoes, the road to the village altered into a stream of mud. The trucks for picking up the tomatoes could not reach the village and surrounding fields anymore. Many tons of harvested tomatoes were waiting for transportation to markets and ketchup factory. All had been rotten when access to Doi Lan was restored. Many of the villagers were left with huge debts which they could not repay.
Despite this catastrophe, tomatoes remained the main crop of the village, as there were few alternatives. But in the following years markets in the lowlands became oversupplied and prices for tomatoes plummeted. In the meantime, the members of bankrupt families had been forced to sell their land and became laborers on the fields of the more better off villagers. Women were often the ones who were “assigned” to do “the easy work” of spraying the fields with pesticides.

Figure 9-Otome. From left to right: Tomatoes dumped along a mountain road are rotting away; Otome in 1987?; poppy ‘sleep ball’ with brown raw opium sticking to the cuts; swiddens in fire in the area around Doi Lan and Doi Chang.

Poverty and debts had grown so fast that many villagers considered themselves as “dishonored”. “Honor” (myi-do) is an all important central concept in Lisu culture. To be able to show a certain amount of wealth is considered as “honorable”. When the parents of a young bride receive a good (bride) prize for their daughter, this means “honor”. However, because of the failures of their experiments with “crop substitution”, honor was hard to obtain. This was in particular true for the women. The developments had swiftly resulted in labor divisions and had made an end to the egalitarian Lisu society. Many young women committed suicide with the pesticides they used to spray in the fields. Richer villagers began to exploit the poorer ones. Transportation to the lowland markets had become the affair of a few relatively wealthy men who had invested in a small pick-up truck. After the men had sold the harvests in the markets, they started to control the investments. Women traditionally had their own, small poppy fields and thereby were financially independent−opium was the ideal “democratizer”. This independence broke down when tomatoes became the major cash crop. The few, more wealthy Lisu men communicated more and more with the Thai lowlanders, and introduced many modern things to the Lisu villages. Sometimes Lisu men spend their tomato money in the brothels of small lowland towns, and later introduced AIDS to the mountaineers. It was a capitalist development, the worse kind imaginable, that took place in a nutshell. As a researcher, Otome was ‘happy” that she could witness and analyse these developments, but she could cry when observing all hardships and sufferings this imposed on the Lisus.
Also Otome’s Lisu family suffered tremendously. One of Mama’s sons had become so seriously addicted to heroin that he was a plague for his family and for the whole village. Mama couldn’t bear it any longer and committed suicide by eating a handful of raw opium. A year or so later the son, Asappa, realized the hopeless situation of his addiction and the misery he inflicted on others, and shot himself through the head.

Figure 10-Otome. Dutch couple Henri and Marijke Stroband during a visit to Doi Lan in 1996?, some twelve years after the catastrophic opium raids of 1984. By this time officials allowed (elder) villagers to grow poppies on a small scale, so they could use the opium for medical purposes.

Otome’s major study of the fall of Lisu culture and repute was published in 1990 by E. J. Brill in Leiden: Emerging sexual inequality among the Lisu of northern Thailand. The waning of dog and elephant repute. Earlier she had given a talk on that subject for the Informal Northern Thai Group (INTG) in Chiang Mai (2).
In the 1990s, Otome became involved with the prevention of AIDS in Lisu-villages, which resulted in many study papers on that subject. Otome’s work for the Lisus received some acknowledgement in the foreign media. Various chapters in two of my books were devoted to Otome and Doi Lan (3). In 1993 one program of a popular Dutch television series was all about Otome and the Lisus. Later, my friendship with Otome and my many visits to Doi Lan had inspired me to write a little book for Dutch children set in a Thai Lisu village (4). The book was awarded and a Dutch director was assigned to make a film based on it (5). From February to April 2001, a film crew was working and shooting in northern Thailand and most of those days Otome assisted the crew with translations, advises and consults. About her experiences during these months, including her irritations about all foreign-imbued images and Western stereotypes that the filmmakers projected into the original story, she talked for the INTG in July, 2002: “Lisu Actors and Foreign Filmmakers” (6)

Some links to articles on Lisu and/or Otome on my website:
Lisu New Year – link: http://www.sjonhauser.nl/lisu-new-year.html
Lisu Road: Highway 1322 from Mae Cha to Wiang Haeng – link: http://www.sjonhauser.nl/lisu-road.html
Otome Hutheesing en de tomatenkoorts in Doi Lan (in Dutch) – link: http://www.sjonhauser.nl/otome-hutheesing.html
Mae Mu in 1984 – Mae Mu revisited – forthcoming

1. I can’t remember the place anymore, but it was not GAP’s House near Tha Phae Gate, where Otome later often spend the night when she was in Chiang Mai. 2. Link: (naar 1988 lezing). 3. Thailand, Zacht als Zijde, Buigzaam als Bamboe. Nijgh & Van Ditmar, Amsterdam, 1990; Mekong. Van de Gouden Driehoek naar Vietnam. Nijgh & Van Ditmaar, Amsterdam, 2008. 4. De Kampioenen van Tijgerberg, KIT Publishers, Amsterdam, 2000. 5. Tiger Mountain will Never Die, 2001, directed by Gerrit van Elst, produced by Musch and Tinbergen; much of the shootings were done in the Lisu village Pang Paek in Pai district, Mae Hong Son, as Doi Lan was considered logistically inconvenient by director and producer. 6. July 9th  2002 -‘Lisu Actors and Foreign Filmmakers’. A video presentation and talk by Dr. Otome Klein Hutheesing. Link:   http://www.intgchiangmai.com/diary2002_225th.html