Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Fishing for a New Life

Burmese crewmen on a Thai fishing trawler returning to port in Mahachai

I went to the fishing port of Mahachai to photograph Burmese immigrants. By some estimates there are more than 200,000 Burmese immigrants in the town. They crew the fishing trawlers that sail out of the town, they work in the fish processing plants and high tech electronics factories in the area. They work as domestic servants for families as far away as Bangkok. They're omnipresent. 

The longer I'm in Thailand, the more struck I am by the similarities between Thailand and the United States. One of those similarities is certainly attitudes towards immigration. 

Both countries have the largest, most vibrant economies in their region (in Thailand's case I am talking about mainland Southeast Asia - and not including China). Both countries power many parts of their economies with imported or migrant workers. 

In Thailand, some of the hardest, most dangerous work is done by Burmese and Cambodian workers. The fishing boats are crewed by Burmese men who either trafficked to Thailand or come here hoping to make a few Baht to send home. 
A Burmese crewman walks away from a fishing trawler that's just docked

When the trawlers dock, the crewmen (and they are always men) off load the catch then scramble down from the boat to join women, who were waiting for the boats to come in, to sort and grade the catch, which is  put on ice and sent to either the markets or the fish processing plants. 

Sorting the fish is not as physically difficult as some work I've photographed (gathering salt for example) but it's no cakewalk either. It's fast paced and dirty. The work is done on the floor of the sorting shed and workers crouch in decomposing fish guts (and it smells exactly the way you think it would smell) throwing fish into baskets based on the fish's species and size. 

Fish that are not sellable, for example dismembered fish (not frequent but it happens) or fish consumed by jellyfish (happens a lot) are thrown aside and lay on the floor of the sorting shed until it's hosed down. It's a bit weird to walk through the sorting shed and see translucent jellyfish the size of dinner plates with six or seven whole small mackerel in them. 
Mackerel in a jellyfish, sort of a mackerellyfish

Like Latino immigrants who brought their culture with them to the United States, Burmese immigrants have brought their culture with them to Thailand. They live in sprawling tenements, separate from most Thais. They have their own tea houses and restaurants (Burmese food is nowhere near as spicy as Thai food). They get to and from work in buses provided by their employers. For many they have only limited daily contact with Thais outside the fishing industry. The women (and some men) still wear the distinctive thanaka paste that the Burmese are famous for. 

My photography in the Burmese community Tuesday was complicated by the language barrier. I was working with a Thai assistant who doesn't speak Burmese. The Burmese we were photographing didn't speak Thai. The few times I tried to talk to folks, we had to search out a Burmese Thai speaker to translate for us. 

The conversations started in English with me asking questions (to my associate), my associate translating them to Thai (to the Thai speaking Burmese immigrant), to Burmese (with the Burmese immigrant asking the question to another immigrant). Then the whole process was reversed for the answer. Playing this polyglot game of telephone was not easy. (Note that when I work this way I never use direct quotes because too much is lost in the three way translation.)
A Burmese migrant goes into his tenement in Mahachai

The tenements the Burmese live in are not that different from the tenements immigrants in the US live in. They're small - usually just one room that the entire family shares. Most are kept spotlessly clean. Every family has a TV (usually playing Burmese music videos) some have air conditioning, which most people can't afford to use because electricity in Thailand is very expensive (it's the reason I run my a/c in Bangkok sparingly). Laundry hangs from the lines in the courtyards. If it weren't for the Burmese music blaring from nearby tea shops, you'd think you're in an immigrant community in the US.
A Burmese mother in a quiet moment with her daughter

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