ICH as a Metaphysical Product: The Case of Wualai Silversmith Village in Thailand

Firing up silver molds in Wualai Village, Thailand © Ratchada Sukka

Wualai Silversmith Village is located along Wua Lai Road, Hai Ya, Muang, Chiang Mai, Thailand. The village is well-known for handmade silver products. People in the village have been making silver goods for a hundred years, after they moved from Bagan (an old city in Myanmar). After farming, most of the villagers spend their free time as silversmiths. Family members are involved in creating silver products for trade and their daily life. Almost every household is also a workplace for creating silver goods.

Necklaces, bracelets, paddles, and trays are some of the most common products of the Wualai Silversmith Village. However, the silver bowl or salung is most representative of their identity. In the past, these silver products were used to represent family wealth, especially for a grand occasions. With unique and sophisticated patterns and styles of the villagers’ silver products, for example, Kratin flowers, pineapples, twelve zodiac signs, Ramayana figures, and animal patterns, Wualai silver products became famous.

Forging a silver bowl in Wualai Village, Thailand © Ratchda Sukka

In May 2018, I went to the village to observe the process of making handmade silver bowls and interview a number of silversmiths. The silversmiths explained that there are many steps in making a silver bowl, and it takes days or weeks to finish one. The most difficult stages are forging and carving. A few days are commonly needed to forge a silver bowl by hitting silver coins or bars. Those responsible for forging should be demonstrably strong, patient, and resilient against hot temperatures.

On the other hand, there are two kinds of carving expertise. One in creating the patterns; the other is in detailing the bowl to be seen as three-dimensional. Not everyone easily learns and practices these skills. This impracticality is why it is difficult to continue the practice of creating silver products in Wualai. In addition, the cost of materials has also caused a decrease in practitioners and successors.

Wualai silver handicrafts, Chiang Mai, Thailand, with English subtitles

The local government is now concerned about safeguarding this intangible cultural heritage element. To act upon the problem, they created a silver product safeguarding network, which includes schools, temples, and other relevant institutions. Local knowledge on making silver products has recently been introduced as a part of academic curriculum. Relevant pedagogical programs are offered in schools, temples, and non-formal educational centers. The Ministry of Culture of Thailand also promotes the safeguarding of silverware as a metaphysical product or something priceless and invaluable. This is specifically helpful to the Wualai walking street, a space built by the villagers to commercialize their products. The Wualai walking street is visible every Saturday, beginning in the late afternoon and ending before midnight.