Opinion: What Do Lisa Blackpink, Elephant Pants, and Somtum Have in Common?

Banners of Lisa (Lalisa Manobal) and other Blackpink members outside the National Stadium, where the girl group's concert is held on Jan. 7, 2023.
Banners of Lisa (Lalisa Manobal) and other Blackpink members outside the National Stadium, where the girl group's concert is held on Jan. 7, 2023.

Observing all the adoration accorded by Thai fans to rapper, singer, and dancer Lisa Blackpink (Lalisa Manobal) as she and her three Korean girl group members entertain the huge crowd at the National Stadium in Bangkok last week, I could not help but wonder where this 25-year-old Thai singer’s musical career would be today without the decade of training, grooming, and promotion by her South Korean record label YG Entertainment company.

Is her success a 50/50 percent split between Lisa herself and the South Korean K-Pop company? Will most of her Thai (and international fans) even notice her if Lisa had not gone through the rigorous training and packaging by a major K-pop promotion company? I am not trying to play down Lisa’s accomplishments. She is currently one of the most famous singers on the global stage but let us not forget that it is most definitely also a result of an interaction between a very talented young Thai girl and a very competent K-pop music industry.

With the interaction and fusion comes something new and potentially wonderful. The interaction between Thai and foreign elements in various fields is often a two-way street as well. I can think of two examples.

Case #1: Elephant pants. The ubiquitous elephant pant has come a long way. Originally just a cheap synthetic pants invented and sold to backpackers so they could skirt rules prohibiting tourists wearing short pants from entering popular temples and the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

When Hollywood’s famous film “The Beach”, starring Leonardo DeCaprio, was out, elephant pants also made a debut to a wider global audience. Over the years, elephant pants have become a symbol of a relaxing and carefree Thai tourism. The interaction means young hip Thais are now adopting it as well and wear this cheap garment as a sign of a carefree lifestyle. It is no longer just something for the young foreign tourists but a legit fashion item and symbol.

Case #2: Somtum (papaya salad). Where would papaya salad be without the fiery bird-eye chilies and tomatoes originally from the New World not to mention papaya itself which likely originated from southern Mexico? There would not be somtum if Thais did not adopt and adapt (originally) foreign ingredients and turn it into something new.

Today, we see attempts to interact and assimilate salmon, a fish found far far away from the Gulf of Thailand and use it in many Thai cooking to greater or lesser success. The interaction and dialogue that is localizing salmon as an ingredient in Thai cuisine is an ongoing process as of press time. Yum pla salmon, or raw salmon spicy salad, is one of my favorites and a success. Beyond that, I have seen (but not tried) tom yum goong hamburger and tom yum goong pizza. I am not too convinced with the two fusion dishes yet but do tell me if you have tried and beg to differ.

All these, from Lisa Blackpink to papaya salad would not have been possible and wonderful without the active interaction and dialogue between Thai and foreign, locals, and foreigners. Let us keep the interaction going, keep an open mind and try something new for these are the basis of a dynamic society.