Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Temple Painter of Trang

The provincial city of Trang in southern Siam is used by a few tourists as a brief stop over on the way to such over-priced and over-rated locations as Phuket but is otherwise largely unknown to Western travelers. The present author arrived there a few days ago after journeying into the Kingdom by boat and by another short journey inland, but rather than using the city as a bus hub he has decided to camp there and explore for a while. The main reason for this is that, like George Town where he had stayed earlier, Trang has a large population of Straits Chinese and a strong Chinese culture; it is another instance where the local culture – in this case Thai rather than Malay – has been greatly enhanced by the admixture and influence of settlers from southern China. In the case of Trang the Chinese went to there to work in tin mines and have remained and intermarried. In general, the Chinese in Siam are well-integrated; the resulting Chinese-Siamese hybrid culture is rich and colorful, peaceful, clean, productive, industrious, cordial, relaxed, and with an excellent cuisine. 

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Just a few miles walk from the centre of Trang is a large Boodhist temple on a hill boasting a statue of the Boddhisatva Guanyin, the goddess of mercy. (Her prevalence in Asian spiritual life was the subject of a previous post, here.) It stands as a beacon over the city and so is an obvious place for a newcomer to investigate. After climbing a steep series of broken steps, however, you will discover that the temple is in advanced disrepair – in fact, abandoned. The author was greeted not by monks in prayer but by two cleaners – a man and a woman – who, rather than sweeping with their brooms, were happily groping and fondling each other somewhat immoderately in the shade of the temple walls. The goddess stood golden and merciful at the summit all the same, identifiable from her iconographical pitcher of water and her twig of willow, but everything else about the temple – a modern rather than traditional construction - is in ruin. It is a very odd structure. Evidently based on the architecturally ill-conceived idea of a giant cement-fabricated lotus pad it is a maze of circular forms, winding stairs and empty conference rooms, all of which is now crumbling and streaked with water stains, a dilapidated, melancholy monument to modern Boodhist decay. See:

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In the forest area below this temple, though, is another structure also dedicated to the great goddess of mercy, a small Chinese temple consisting of two simple buildings. See here:

If the Boodhist modernist monstrosity on the hill is disappointing, this traditional and modest Chinese temple is a hidden treasure. It is so inconspicuous that it does not even appear on google maps, nor on the otherwise infotmative local map of must-see temples and tourist spots entitled 'Prestiguous Merit Making'. This small temple is sheltered in concave landforms and overgrown forest and is accessed by an obscure pathway from the monastery at the foot of the larger temple. English-speaking locals could report little of it, except to say that it is a "joss house" - one of many in Trang - and that it is kept by the old Chinaman who is responsible for its paintings and iconography. 

The author found this old Chinaman on top of a small pagoda in the front of the temple, putting finishing touches to the enamel designs on the pagoda roof. Other than a few children playing near the caves at the back, he was the only person around. Here he is: 

He speaks very little English, for which he apologises, but in one way or another is able to communicate a few salient points about his temple. "Chinese temple!" he says - by which he means "as opposed to Thai." And as for how long he has been there painting he just says, "Long time." He is perhaps in his sixties or seventies - it is hard to tell and impolite to inquire. 

In any case, he has clearly been painting over the walls and fixtures of this temple from little tins of enamel for many years, and just as clearly it is a labour of dedication and love. The afternoon sun is very hot. He is perched on the pagoda roof protected only by a coolie hat. He is manifestly proud of his temple and very happy that a traveller would be bothered to step off the beaten path to see it. 

Although modest from the outside, the interior is a carnival of Chinese vermillion adorned with dozens of scenes from mythology and other paintings. It is all done in the same bright glossy enamels with which he is now painting the highlights of the padoga roof.  

The iconography of the temple is standard, and much of it can be seen in similar "joss houses", but the endearing feature of the temple is the somewhat naif mode of the painting. The artist is not idiosyncratic; he follows the canonical iconography, but he is - so it would seem, anyway - self-taught, or at least not a professional. The colours are bright and strong. The lines are intense and heavy. The medium is modern industrial enamels applied thick and without much subtlety. It is not a polished temple like others, but it has beauty and simplicity and power. Here is one of the door guardians:


Here are some panels showing Guanyin as one of the immortals:

Some scenes depict stories from the famous novel of Wu Chengen, Journey to the West - the story of 'Monkey' and Tripitaka who has been tasked by goddess Guanyin to journey from China to India to fetch the sacred scriptures:

As well as these familiar mythological depictions, there are also a number of panels near the front portal that seem to depict modern scenes of mining. The author surmises - though he might be wrong since it is a matter he was not able to clarify in the brief conversations with the old painter - that they concern the history and hardship of the Chinese tin miners who travelled from southern China to settle in the Trang region of the Siamese Kingdom in the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries. They are more cartoonish than the panels based on established iconography, presumably because the painter was creating scenes from his imagination:

The real delight of this temple, and this painter's work, however, is in the incidental depictions of birds and animals and flowers and fruit that fill the gaps between the formal panel paintings and that adorn the pillars and lintels thereabouts. These are really quite wonderful little nature studies - all in enamel - that are often signed and dated in both traditional Chinese dating and in the dating of the common (Western) calendar. Examples can be found below. As readers can see for themselves, the paintings of birds are especially successful:


Harper McAlpine Black


  1. Thanks for your review! I too was captured by the beauty of this temple from afar two years ago and ventured here shocked to find it in such a state of disrepair. We are back and will be visiting this temple this week or next (raining quite a bit currently).

    My family and I had no idea of to smaller structures below with those most amazing paintings. From what my wife knows, the temple is not that old, the temple goers raised the funds to create it; however, the majority of them were in their later years. As they passed on, the following for the temple and its funding ran out.

    My wife is Thai, we will attempt to communicate with the caretaker and get you more information on this. If you happen to know anything more (perhaps the home the caretaker lives in) please let me know.

    As well as any other things off the beaten path in Trang.

  2. Duncan,

    Since my last post, a lot as happened. life, as it often does, happened. My father unexpectedly passed away and my plans to reply answering what must still be questions rattling back in your mind fell through. I will make an effort to post what I have in a series of posts as there appears to be a character limitation on each post. Should you be interested in any of my photos, let me know, is be happy to provide them.

    My wife, parents, sister in law and I set out to visit the Guan Yin temple in Trang to hopefully learn more of the aforementioned painter and the temple he so meticulously cares for. We arrived on an overcast day in May dotted with frequent thundershowers fully anticipating not to see a painter out in said weather.

    We arrived shortly after noon to find the lower temple uninhabited excluding what appeared to be a young couple near a building on the right hand side of the temple which appeared to be some sort of service building or dwelling of sorts. The couple immediately took notice to our arrival and greeted us. They lit various candles in the temple and spoke to my wife and sister in law about the temples history. It turned out the temple was not for Guan Yin but for another Chinese deity, Bao Zheng - God of Justice ( He is depicted in the predominant shrine in the upper middle portion of the temple (see photo).

    1. I was not able to get further details on the Guan Yin temple above, other than it was still used semi-yearly but the vast majority of the temple followers were older and had passed on. No one else filled their shoes resulting in the temple losing its funding and upkeep.

      By this time we had discovered the painters name was Chiang and he was on his lunch break but would return shortly.

      While kittens (that appeared well cared for) frolicked about, we viewed the numerous exquisite paintings in anticipation of Chiang's return. Roughly 15 minutes later the man of the hour had casually walked down the puddle ridden temple driveway as he must do day in and day out, strait to us. He had a warm, radiant smile and was clearly pleased to see visitors to the temple. We explained who we were, where we were from. We were flabbergasted that he knew of the area to which we call home (Seattle, WA USA). He knew Seattle was a, "very progressive city" and enjoyed a prosperous economy. He knew what the weather was like and that it was below Canada in the state of Washington. He knew that Seattle and San Francisco had very large Chinese populations. I should note that after spending a month in Thailand visiting Bangkok, Chiang Rai and all over the Trang province we had never encountered a single person that knew anything of our home city or the area in general. This was a jaw dropping first.

      Chiang was born in 1949 or 1950 (he is 66 years old cas of may 2016) and was raised in Trang. Very early in life he discovered he enjoyed the arts and began painting. Astonishingly, despite Chiang's articulate descriptions of his paintings and global geographic knowledge, he never attended school. When he was young, a traveling Chinese art teacher visited Trang and spent time at his temple. The teacher accepted a young teenage Chiang as his apprentice and seems to have done a masterful job. Chiang learned much from his teacher and began painting at the temple in his twenties. He has now been painting there for 44 years and it clearly shows given the masterful works of art adorning nearly every surface.

      By the time Chiang began painting for the temple, it had recently been remodeled (approximately 70 years ago) from a wood structure to the wonderfully detailed masonry structure that exists today (see photos).

      Chiang had maintained the temples original water based paintings which were of various fauna and flora / scenes of nature (still visible near the rafters of the temple) until roughly 11 years ago on the Thai calendar date of 2548 (see photos). The original works of art became damaged and deteriorated due to age and several birds that had taken up residence in the temple. It was decided to use a more durable oil based paint and create the wonderful new paintings and reliefs we see today. (Photo)

      Each painting is unique in that it springs from Chiang's own interpretation of various religious and or historical events / texts; although, he admits some of his inspiration stems from an old TV program of Bao Zheng's life. Chiang explained as my wife translated that his inspiration came from deep inside and intimately knowing the subject matter. Note on each painting there are Mandarin letters as well as Thai, these are the names of the people that donated, effectively commissioning him to complete the paintings.

      I asked Chaing if he would be willing to pose next to his most cherished painting, he did not require time to ponder, we headed over to the far right corner of the temple where a wonderful painting of Guan Yin that I had noticed earlier seemingly glowed in the dark corner of the room. "This one." Chiang said in a refined yet proud voice.

      He didn't know exactly how long the painting took but he theorized 2 months of work, although my wife and I are under the impression he spent a fair amount more than that. (See photo)

    2. Chiang's own children are not interested in taking over for him at the temple. As it so often seems to be in the art world, the work he does is a more of a labor of love, appreciated by the few that go there, not resulting in what most would consider, fair monetary compensation.

      Chiang was curious as to how we came to know of his temple. It's not a sprawling complex perched on a hillside for all to see, but on a back alley, nestled up to a cliff side dotted with caves and trees with root structures stretching down, art in themselves (photo). I happily explained of a visitor that saw him roughly a month back, that Chiang must have wanted to tell so much, but the lingual barrier was just too high of a hurdle. I showed him a photo of himself on top of the pagoda he so masterfully painted and he exclaimed, "Ahh! The man from Australia." he smiled as he looked over the blog post that had I not seen, would have resulted in a missed opportunity for a lifelong memory.

      After nearly two hours conversing with Chiang, our stomachs were grumbling for some of the seemingly endless delicious food that Trang has to offer, it was time to go. By this time a torrential downpour of sorts had begun, creating a waterfall through the center temple opening which is akin to an ascension to the heavens (see photo).

      Chiang, with a happy yet vexed look about him attempted to convey to my wife just how utterly pleased he was of our visit and those that came before us. He noted he couldn't express in words what it meant to him. I instantly knew, as if a flood of Chiang's emotions of a lifetimes work enveloped me. Chiang paused, attempting to conjure the words to articulate his feelings. I fought back tears of which I'm certain he took note. My parents explained what I could only show, we understood, completely. (See photo).

    3. And ignore the name "Duncan" and replace that with, "Harper".

      I have no idea what I was thinking there.