BANGKOK — Veteran political cartoonist Stephff, whose real name is Stephane Peray, has been based in Bangkok since 1989. His works were published on many papers in Thailand and the region including The Nation, Bangkok Post, and currently Prachatai.
The French man self-published a cartoon book “Farang Affairs” in 2020 making fun of farangs and Thai people alike. Khaosod English asked him a few questions on his works and what is it like to be a farang in the Land of Smiles.
Do you think the word farang is offensive? Why or why not?
Well, I kinda like this word and I don’t find it offensive. It is meant to acknowledge a difference of ethnicity in a rather naïve, childish way. I’ve been often called a ‘farang’ by Thai friends who sometimes were teasing me or simply were using the word with affection instead of using the word ‘Westerner.’
There are – of course – cases when it can be a bit insulting and racist like in the pejorative expression “farang kee nok” aimed at making fun of cheap and dirty Western backpackers. But overall, most of the time, it’s not meant to be racist and most farangs who’ve been here long enough have learnt to be at peace with this word.
Westerners who get upset just started to live here and still make comparisons with ugly racist slang words used in the West.
One example that comes to my mind is the word ‘chink’ (apologies for using it by the way). This word is unmistakably racist and loaded with the intention to hurt. So it’s dishonest to compare the word ‘chink’ and the word ‘farang.’
I am aware that the word ‘farang’ is not very political correct but it’s rarely used as an insult. And in the rest of Asia, you also find similar words to describe Westerners which are neither meant to be offensive: “ang moh” in Singapore, “gwailo” in Hong Kong, and “gaijin” in Japan.
Do you think most farangs exoticize and orientalize Thailand, particularly Thai women?
Well, exotic destinations sell themselves by playing on exoticization. All you have to do is look at Thai Airways advertising or Tourism Authority of Thailand campaigns. When I was 18, I went to live for a while in French Polynesia and it was my first encounter with a tropical country.
Tahiti – if you know the story of the mutineers of the Bounty – is the quintessence of exoticization and Tahitian women – in the white man’s mind – are the ultimate sexual fetish.
So yes, a lot of farangs exoticize Thailand and fetishize Thai women but I think this exoticization and fetishization – which are probably a relic of the colonial mentality – exist for many other places in the world like Africa or Latin America (all you have to do is listen to the stories of those white men expats who have been living there to realize that).
Anyway, this is very good material for cartoons because it’s pure culture shock: the fantasy versus the reality. No matter how perfect your idea of the Asian woman was, no matter how perfect the dream of living in a tropical country was, reality always hits back very hard. But don’t forget this delusional exoticization exists the other way too: how many Thai women from poor backgrounds have fantasized marrying a handsome, tall, blue-eyed farang, and living in a rich country where it snows in winter?
Remember the ultimate exotic dream for many Thai people are Swiss mountains covered by snow while we – farangs – dream of white sand beaches and coconut trees.
Do you think Thai society is welcoming to foreigners who stay long term like yourself and not just tourists? Is the Siamese Smile a genuine smile?
Yes and no. The ideal westerner for the Thai government (and it’s true for all the Thai governments I’ve known since PM Chatichai Choonhavan) is a rich foreigner who creates businesses, employs a lot of Thai people, spends a lot of money and doesn’t stay too long. Some long-term foreigners with small incomes like teachers in Thai schools, freelance journalists, NGO people, researchers or artists are not interesting for Thailand.
Even less interesting if we earn little, live a sober life in a semi-Thai way, and buy a little piece of land under the name of the Thai spouse. Consequently, we – the low-status Farang migrants – often find out that there is no clear and easy administrative way to obtain a proper long-term visa and work permit and it’s a headache year after year.
For example, there is absolutely no special case visa for foreign artists. It says a lot about a certain Thai mentality: valuing only money. But an artist, an animal activist or a teacher are bringing something valuable to Thai society. But it’s not money.
So I wish the Thai authorities could be more open minded – like Singapore’s “foreign talents” scheme and not emphasize only on material criteria but on what could be beneficial for Thai society in general. A foreigner who comes to spend all his time and money to save elephants – doing the job that the Thai authorities should actually be doing – should be helped in every way.
Look at the way this government is trying, right now, to make life even more difficult for civil society and foreign NGOs. I also feel young foreign migrants who come to try to create a business here should be given more chances. Don’t give them a contemptuous look because today they have not much money.
Every successful person has to start first in his garage. I have many farang friends who are extremely successful today but came here with just a few bucks in their pockets. And for me, that was the magic of the 90’s in Thailand. This Siamese smile? To me it’s still genuine and authentic because the majority of the Thai people are naturally nice, generous and kind. But at the same time it’s also a kind of national myth, a little story that Thailand sells around the world.
What’s the most obvious misconception about Thailand that farangs or Westerners have about the kingdom – and Thais about farangs and Westerners?
The most obvious misconception would be that Thai women are easy.
It’s totally the opposite.
Dating a Thai girl takes a lot of patience – well at least – in my time – when I was dating. But we all know that prostitution is responsible for this serious misunderstanding. Another misconception is that Thai people are lazy. The majority of Thai people work very hard to make a living and don’t have an easy life.
So labeling people “lazy” is not fair. But we all know that inside the Thai society itself, we also find those clichés like Thai-Chinese would find Isaan people lazy. I can’t really think of a misconception about farangs. Maybe – in the case of French people – Thai women have this whole idea that France is the country of romanticism but when they go there for the first time, all they see is rude and bad-mood people.
So you see, France’s national myth we sell around the world is romanticism.
How hard is it to be a cartoonist in Thailand? Is it easier to mock Thai politicians or farangs?
Well, not hard. The only real obstacle is (again) the administrative part and it seems when the authorities are fed up with you, this is exactly where they will ambush you.
Making an income is not easy but that’s true everywhere in the world for an editorial cartoonist. Newspapers have no more money and they only think of saving money on the small things (and cartoons are small things in the mind of editors). But so far, it’s still possible to make a correct living and if I don’t, it’s not necessary the fault of Thailand but rather my lack of talent.
I feel quite free in doing my art but of course, satire in Thailand is limited under Article 112. However I have no right no complain about it. By living here since 1989, I knew the rules from the beginning and I have – as a non-Thai – accepted to live under those rules (but it doesn’t mean deep inside me, I agree with those rules but that’s another matter).
Mocking Thai politicians is quite easy – never had any complain from authorities themselves (maybe that’s because nobody at the top ever read my cartoons hahaha). Here, there’s no ‘lese-prime minister’ like it exists or existed for Hun Sen, Mahathir or Lee Kuan Yiew in their respective country.
Now of course the political cartoonist always makes many people angry and that’s what makes this job hard. Whether your hero is Prayut, Yingluck or Suthep, when your hero is taken down from his/her pedestal by a cartoon, bird’s names are flying. And it’s even more true nowadays when the society is so polarized.
In the past, getting insults would mean I am doing my job correctly. But today, I am not even sure of that. I feel being insulted all the time means that – somehow – I participate to the polarization myself.
Maybe that’s when it’s hard to be a cartoonist – when you realize that maybe you’re not really bringing positive thinking with your art – just drawing what some people in your so-called ‘camp’ want to hear – and isn’t the definition of demagoguery?
Mocking farangs is rather easy but I make some people very angry too – ironically it’s the real life caricature people who don’t accept to become a cartoon caricature hahaha! And don’t forget that I am not only making fun of farangs in my book. When I make fun of farangs who start to drive as carelessly as Thai people, I obviously make fun of the Thai way of driving.
Is Thai sense of humor different from Europeans?
Yes it is. Maybe that’s how I can get away with certain things. Second degree, for example, or sarcasm are not things that Thai people immediately understand. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Prayut‘s humour is not sophisticated but rather primitive. The basic Thai way of humour can accommodate more sexist, racist jokes as well since political correctness has not full reached here.
You could compare it to humour 40 years ago in the West when it was still acceptable to make fun of everything. I must confess – to my bid shame – that I am still a sucker for stupid sexist jokes Benny Hill-style. I know it’s very bad but I cannot help it, it’s my latin side sorry!
As a matter of fact, my book had a lot of success with French, Belgian, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian people, not so much with Americans and British expats and I suppose it had to do with the good dose of political incorrectness I put in there. The biggest surprise, though, was that many Thai people enjoyed my book, including Thai women.
I wasn’t expecting this at all. But to be fair, it’s probably because Angel (my Thai wife) helped me with the book and managed to embed a little je ne sais quoi of Thai humour. But even if the Thai people have different humour, I must say they still have a lot of humour and can laugh about the themselves. I couldn’t live in a country where people had no humour.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your work?
Certainly not the money hahaha.
But still, earning an income, no matter how modest – while doing what you love the most in your life, is very rewarding. It’s the famous Japanese “Ikigai” concept of happiness in life. But the most rewarding part is of course when people come back to you and thank you for making them laugh.
It really makes me happy to know that I’ve brought a big smile or a laugh to somebody. Still, it’s not the end. An editorial cartoon has two major objectives: make you laugh and make you think.
So I would say that the ultimate rewarding part is when I manage to bring a serious issue inside a cartoon that made you laugh and later make you think. Making the reader laugh is like first getting their attention and then when you get it, you try to tell them something meaningful that will induce some thinking.
“Funny and so true,” that’s what you want to hear from a reader! It really gives you a sense of purpose. The fact that I self-published my book gave me complete freedom (nearly complete because you know … Article 112) about serious issues I wanted to talk about.
Like in the Rohingya cartoon that reminds the reader the double-standards of hospitality in Thailand. It’s not even supposed to be a funny cartoon if you consider what happened to some of these poor souls. Drawing and publishing a cartoon is not something in vain if, somehow, you’ve managed to say a few things that were important to you.
That’s the rewarding part of my work.
Limited edition copies of “Farang Affairs” retail online for 1,400 baht.