The Spirit of Entrepreneurship and the Dynamic Women of Muang Sing
I’ve never really told the story of the women of Muang Sing. But before I do, let me provide a little background about Muang Sing and how I came to meet these women. Muang Sing is a small town in the northwest of Laos, about ten miles from the Chinese border. Back in the late 90’s it was a key stop on backpackers’ maps, primarily because opium and marijuana were easy to get since Muang Sing is in that zone called the Golden Triangle, “one of Asia's two main illicit opium-producing areas.” (from Wikipedia entry). Back then, and even now many people refer to Muang Sing as being a kind of frontier town. Thankfully, the Lao government has cracked down on opium growing and all guest houses had/have flyers stating if anyone was/is caught buying or using drugs they would/will be arrested. And for a falang (foreigner) the cost of getting out of jail would not be cheap. I’ve heard it’s cost certain free-spirit backpacker types thousands of dollars to get their passports back after being caught with and/or using drugs.
I visited Muang Sing for the first time in December 1999 because I heard that there were several Mien villages that were easy to get to, and we had Mien students at the school where I taught and I was interested in learning more about their culture. When I flew into Luang Namtha in the late afternoon Laos was experiencing a cold spell and it was forecasted to get into the mid-thirties that night and all I had was a long sleeved cotton shirt! I was still somewhat ignorant about Laos and thought it was warm year-round and was traveling light. That night I slept in an old Russian hotel that was dank and barren and the only redeeming feature was the room had two single beds and I was able to take off the thin blanket on one of the beds, wrap myself in both blankets and went to bed at 7:00 p.m. and then proceeded to spend the coldest, loneliest night of my life. And the next morning I had to take a “Song Taeow,” an open-air truck/taxi for two hours to Muang Sing. And I thought I had been cold the night before! But I had the good luck of sharing the song taeow with some older Japanese ladies who lent me a coat and woolen hat. It was still cold, but we all huddled together and the two hours went by fairly fast.
After being dropped off at the “bus stop” in Muang Sing, I shopped at the local market for a cap to wear. I have a great shot in the photo gallery of an Akah woman and her daughter at the market and I think the daughter shows how cold it was. I then located the Muang Sing Guest House that had been recommended to me. I have a photo of the guest house in the photo gallery that goes with this blog. There is also a photo taken of me after arrival with the woman who owns the guest house. You can see my long sleeve cotton shirt and the cap I bought at the market by the bus stop. The guest house is simple, but has been improved greatly over the years, though I would recommend it regardless because this woman is so friendly and I have always felt at home there. The rooms then cost about $3 a night, with shared squat toilets and shared bathing facilities that consisted of a small cement tank of water used for bathing. Though there was no piped hot water, the woman and her relatives who helped her run the guest house, kept large thermoses of hot water ready and so the idea was that you would take a couple of thermoses with you (she would demonstrate how it was done!) into the bathing room and then add the hot water to the plastic bucket of cold water and pour that over you. The last time I visited Muang Sing, she had been working hard to improve the guest house and each room now has it’s own small bathroom with western toilet. I sort of regret the modernization because I like people to experience the Lao reality of using a squat toilet, though a majority of Lao people probably don’t even have access to a squat toilet…
That first day I was there it was still quite cold, but luckily I met up with a guide who invited me to his uncle’s wedding and the ample lao lao (lao whiskey) warmed me up so the cold night was more bearable (see photo gallery).
Tai Dam (Black Tai) women: If you stayed in Muang Sing, especially around 1999 – 2002, and walked the short main street, or ate at one of the open air eateries, there would be a good chance a group of Tai Dam women would come up to you and try to get you to buy one of their hand-woven cotton scarves. I have photos in the gallery that show a tourist surrounded by the Tai Dam women trying to sell their scarves. What happens is that if you look at one, then the other women bring out their scarves and give them to you too, so soon your layered with scarves and have no idea of which scarf belongs to whom and it can easily get overwhelming. The Tai Dam women, although they may seem a little pushy, do it with a spirit of fun, and once you understand their situation, you realize why they have to be a little aggressive in their “marketing.” The tourist authorities have tried to force them to only sell their scarves at some crude tables along the road, but I think they’re rightly too impatient to wait for the occasional tourist to come by and would rather pursue customers on their own.
And here’s a story about these women that’s hard to believe and one that had made me “famous” to all the Tai Dam in Muang Sing. On my second visit to Muang Sing I was sitting at an outside table at a restaurant across from the Muang Sing Guest House when some of the women came by to sell their scarves. I moved to a couple of benches and proceeded to look at some of the scarves and of course it became sort of chaotic with all these women and children gathered round me, throwing their scarves at me and I bought quite a few. It was dusk when finally I cried out that I needed a break to drink a Beer Lao and retired to inside the restaurant where they couldn’t follow me. It was about twenty minutes later when I went to pay for the beer that I discovered my wallet was missing, with over $700 in American money. I immediately started thinking back to when I was paying for the scarves. I was paying with Lao kip from a pocket in my jacket and couldn’t really remember if I had taken out my wallet. I went out back to where they had all crowded around me and there was no sign of the wallet. And then, although it was getting dark I went to took for the group of women. I found four of them still cruising the main street and tried to tell them in my very limited Lao and sign language that my wallet was missing. They understood and showed me their shoulder bags with the scarves and with no wallet inside. If I had been really rationale I would have given up because who in their right mind would give me the wallet back and it could be anywhere. But, I was driven to try to find it and they told me a small group of the women had already headed back to their village about a half an hour walk from where we were. I said I wanted to go back to their village and they said ok and so we began walking. By then it was dark and the rough dirt road made walking difficult, though there was a half moon that added some illumination. Along the way I kept thinking this was like mission impossible, but was cheered in a strange way with the chatter of the friendly women and wondering what they were saying. When we arrived at the village, a crowd gathered around us and they told everyone that my wallet was missing and I was thinking, even if someone had it, why would they give it up. It’s hard to convey my emotions. I was upset that I had lost my wallet, but I wasn’t angry towards the women. I had really enjoyed my interactions with them when I was in Muang Sing and had been thinking about ordering a large quantity of the naturally-dyed scarves, one of the reasons I had so much money with me.
After about ten minutes with everyone animatedly talking one of the women came up to me and handed me my wallet!!! With all the money still there!! They told me the woman’s daughter had picked up the wallet not really knowing whose it was and the mother didn’t even know she had the wallet. I was blown away, it worked! I gave her $40 to share with whoever deserved it, thanked them all and walked back to town by myself. I can still vividly remember the sparkling of all those stars in the night sky and thinking this was magic. Pure Lao magic.
Later, in talking to the women in later visits to Muang Sing, they told me a different story. They said the the woman, not the daughter had picked up the wallet and knew there was money in it and planned to keep it. But when the other women brought me into the village so everyone knew that my wallet had been taken, the woman felt obligated to give it back because if she kept it, and spent the money, everyone would know and she and the village would “lose face.”
The Lao concept of face, or more specifically "losing face" and "saving face" is a primary motivator of their behavior. I would guess that it is the primary motivating force behind the way they act. As Westerners we can compare face to the word honor. The Lao concept of face is similar to honor... and yet there is so much more to it. If a Lao "loses face" it means that he or she has suffered some loss of honor... some embarrassment. To the Lao this can be absolutely devastating depending on the manner in which it was dealt by another or experienced as a result of his/her own actions prior. In Lao society there is this emphasis on maintaining the facade of perfection. This facade of perfection means that as a person, as an individual you do nothing to disturb that facade. It is unspoken, but everyone knows. You don't disturb the facade of perfection. You don't break the facade or people lose face. You don't criticize others. You don't yell or lose your temper.
It was the concept of face allowed me to get my wallet back…
The next day I visited the home of one young Tai Dam woman who impressed me with the quality of her scarves and who I thought was a good weaver and contracted with her and her sister to make several hundred of the naturally dyed scarves. And over the next couple of years I also had her weave a series of larger, more brightly red/purple scarves in a style used by shamans. I love these scarves, especially the naturally dyed scarves. They remind me of all the colors in a pastel sunset and although I haven’t sold any of these scarves, they’re waiting for the time my wife and I open a textile gallery, featuring Lao textiles. These Tai Dam textiles are more simplistic than Tai Daeng (Red Tai) style textiles, but they’re also a lot cheaper, and just as beautiful in their own right.
The Mien women of Muang Sing
I wrote on an earlier website about the Mien in Muang Sing that one of the reasons I first visited Muang Sing was because I met a woman named Fahm Choy at a Cultural Show in Vientiane. She was with a group of other Mien woman selling handicrafts that were made through a cooperative (Mien Women’s Association) located in their village of Pou Don Than, located just miles outside Muang Sing and within a couple of miles of the Chinese border. Now, in 2007 as I write this blog entry, and think back to when I first met Fahm Choy, it was the only time in the six years I’ve visited Laos that there was an exhibition of Mien embroidery in Vientiane. To this date, there are no galleries that feature Mien embroidery, besides a few that sell antique textiles and have a few of the heavily embroidered pants that the women make for themselves. And who knows if they are antiques are not.
I had Mien students when I taught in Oroville, California and became close to a couple of families and was always impressed with their embroidery which is much different than that of the Hmong. The Mien and Hmong are both classified as Lao Soung (Lao of the mountain tops) by the Lao, but really their cultures are quite different and the Hmong outnumber the Mien probably about 7 to 1.
When I attended the handicraft exhibit in the fall of 1999 and met Fahm Choy for the first time, I remember her giving me her business card which I still have. And on the card it had the letters ZOA. After doing a little research I found that ZOA was a Christian organization for humanitarian assistance. As taken from their website it states they have “over 30 years experience in relief, rehabilitation and reintegration. Founded in 1973 in the Netherlands. In the beginning ZOA worked in countries in South East Asia. That’s where the name ZOA is derived from. ZOA is the abbreviation in Dutch for Zuid (South) Oost (East) Azie (Asia), the part of the world where ZOA started her work in the seventies. In the past decades however ZOA has expanded her work to other parts of the world, like Africa. In the meantime the name ZOA has become a 'brand', rather than that the abbrevation fits the mission of the organisation. The addition –Refugee Care indicates the primary target group: (former) refugees and IDPs.”
I went to their small office/home and talked to the director and he told me about what they were doing up in Muang Sing. They had different projects going, and one of them was to help the Mien women in the villages of Pou Don Than start a cooperative to market and sell their crafts. By 1999 they were at the tail end of their funding and the hope was, like with all NGO projects, that they become self sustaining when NGO funding dries up. But in my experience from seeing different projects and talking to a wide variety of people in Laos, when the funding dries up, so often does the project. It’s hard to bridge the gap from dependency to independency.
I think ZOA meant well and I think they bought most of the Mien crafts and took them back to the Netherlands to sell there. But, to think that the women could gain some kind of financial independence from a little cooperative out in the “boondocks,” was not realistic.
Not just for the Mien, but for the Tai Dam and Hmong, who all mostly relocated to Muang Sing, Muang Sing seemed like a town, where some tourists did come, and so maybe they could make a living selling their crafts. But the problem is two-fold. First, the number of tourists is relatively small because it’s not easy to get to, and second, a majority of the tourists who do come, are backpacker types who are traveling light and are not serious buyers of crafts.
I think when I first visited in 1999 there was still a strong sense of excitement about the possibilities in Muang Sing for all the ethnic groups and it was only through ZOA funding that Fahm Choy could come down to Vientiane to demonstrate Mien embroidery at the handicraft faire. From what I know, they’re the only ethnic group in Muang Sing that had NGO support in marketing their crafts.
ZOA lucked out with discovering Fahm Choy, because she is unbelievably dynamic and a natural leader. Unlike the Hmong and Tai Dam women in Muang Sing, who as a group impressed me with their “get up and go,” Fahm Choy is the only Mien woman that I saw who really tried to find a way to sell their crafts to tourists.
Unlike the Hmong and Tai Dam women, the Mien don’t try to sell their crafts in the town of Muang Sing, but wait for tourists to visit their village. At first, back in the late 1990’s, this was a reasonable strategy because many people came to stay at the Adima Guest House on the outskirts of the Mien villages. But, unfortunately, the guest house became run down and most of the guests were there for illegal purposes…
I have photos in the gallery showing Fahm Choy at the little cooperative store in front of her house and consulting with other cooperative members embroidering various craft items or embroidering cloth to be used for making a woman’s pair of pants.
Over a period of three years we ordered a number of items, various wallets, purses, bags and banners and were always impressed with the quality of the embroidery. I also know that some Japanese placed orders through her and they were always working of items to be shipped to relatives in the United States for sale. But by the last time I visited Muang Sing in 2005, the cooperative store was basically empty and Fahm Choy told us that most of the women had given up embroidering for the cooperative.
Fahm Choy has really tried, and I wish our gallery was open so we could more actively market the Mien crafts that we purchased from her. But, with her entrepreneurial spirit I have a feeling she will continue to search for a niche, and I’m looking forward to our next visit in December 2007 to find out how she and the other Mien women are doing.
The Hmong Women of Muang Sing,
I first met the Hmong women when I was walking through downtown Muang Sing and saw that close to where the Tai Dam women had some tables set up to display their scarves, the Hmong women had a small display area for their embroidery. But what I saw was completely different from what the Hmong had created anywhere else in Laos. In Luang Prabang, in the Hmong and evening markets, the Hmong women sell a lot of embroidery and one of their designs is a very simple outline of a person, that could be male or female. They put usually put these designs on pillow cases, but they incorporate the design into other crafts too. The design in its simplest form is traditional and used to ward off evil spirits.
But, what I saw here in Muang Sing was incredibly creative. They had taken this figure design and elaborated on it in creating these fairly elaborate appliquéd mandalas. Not only were there these people figures connected in a circle, but they incorporated other traditional Hmong motifs. I was blown away and bought all they had and asked if I could visit their village the next day, and they agreed saying they had some more of these cloths in their homes. That night I got to thinking that I would like them to make some more similar cloths for me, and there was one cloth I really liked and thought if they could reproduce it using different colors than I could easily sell them in the gallery my wife and I will eventually open.
We went out there the next day, and met with the woman who seemed most like the leader of their informal group. Unlike the Mien, they didn’t have an NGO helping them market their crafts and they are on their own. I explained, with the help of my Lao friend, what I had in mind, and they agreed and I paid half of the total up front, so they could buy supplies. I told them I would be back in about six months.
Well, just as with the Tai Dam, when I came back to Muang Sing to pick up my order I was filled with excitement and a little trepidation. Our dealings were somewhat informal, although we did write a very simple contract we each had copies of . They had never done something like this before, so it was a new experience for us all. When we went out to the Hmong village to pick up our order, we were invited into the lead woman’s house and then she brought out the big sack of all the cloths and began pulling them out. Immediately I could see that they didn’t copy the same design like I told them, but each one was uniquely different. My first inclination was to be a little upset, but when I started really looking at each cloth, I was glad that there were a variety of designs, because they were beautiful. And then when talking with the woman she told us what she had done was to distribute the work, so each woman had a number of cloths to make. And although she may have told them that I wanted them to be all the same, I think the women wanted to express their creativity and create something totally unique from each other. I think that’s what happened initially when the “lead woman” made the first cloth several years ago and sold it to a tourist, the other women saw that and decided that design might be something tourists would readily buy and so they “copied” it.
On my next several visits to Muang Sing they continued to create these beautiful appliquéd cloths, which I call Spirit People Mandalas, and when one of my group of educators visited their village they created a beautiful outdoor display of everything they had to sell and everyone bought something special.
But, two years later when I visited they really didn’t have much to sell and had “regressed” to selling more simple cloths like I’ve seen in Luang Prabang.
Conclusion: It’s been over two years since I’ve visited Muang Sing, and am hoping that will go back up there when my wife and I return in December. I greatly admire the women of Muang Sing, but the anticipated tourist boom has pretty much been a bust and I think their initial excitement of being close to a market where they could sell their crafts has not significantly diminished. All three ethnic groups are not producing the same quality of crafts that I saw between 2000 – 2003. And even with the help of ZOA, the Mien women haven’t been able to find a sustaining market.
The reality is that Muang Sing is too far off the beaten mainstream tourist path. And it’s the mainstream tourists that have the money to buy crafts and desire to bring them home. Right now, as I write this in April 2007, Lao Air flights from Vientiane to Luang Namtha have been suspended as they work on improving the airport. When they begin flying again in 2008, maybe that might make a little difference, but Muang Sing is another two hours away and the accommodations are much simpler than most mainstream tourists are used to. And there’s no incentive to really improve the guest houses if the tourists don’t come. And as I wrote at the beginning of this blog, the owner of the Muang Sing Guest House has invested a fair amount of money improving her guest house and if there were more tourists she would develop her own eco guest house out by the Mien villages (about four miles from town) and close to the run-down Adima Guest House. She’s asked if I wanted to help her invest in a guest house, and although I admire her deeply, I could see that the tourist market was not sufficient to warrant any investment on my part. I would love to partner with her in some way and hope that with the opening of our future textile gallery that I can once again more actively support and market the beautiful crafts of the Tai Dam, Mien and Hmong women in Muang Sing.