Orchid Press is a specialized publishing house devoted to high quality publications on pan-Asian topics. Since their inception in 1981, they have had trouble getting their specialized and more intellectually focused books onto local shelves. In response they opened their own store last month. Orchid Books is on the 4th floor of the Silom Shopping Complex (adjacent to Sala Daeng BTS). Not only does this new store carry titles under the Orchid Press umbrella, but it is also a champion of many local independent publishers, including Silkworm, River Books and White Lotus.
At the Opening, we had a chance to speak with the Director of Orchid Press, Chris Frape. Speaking with him, one immediately realizes how different book publishing is from most industries. The sense of rivalry and animosity towards “competing” companies is peculiarly absent. A sharing, fostering atmosphere replaces it, which Chris attributes to the nature of the commodity traded-knowledge.
(MM): Orchid Press was founded by Hallvard Kuloy in 1981. Tell us a little about his vision.
Hal grew up in a very rural Norweigan setting and books were an early escape from a somewhat cloistered life on the family farm. Later, Hal spent a significant part of his career working and living in Asia, a region and a population that he came to admire and love. So I believe his initial motivation was drawn purely from a love of books and of reading, and also from a desire to increase the availability of more high quality material on the Asian region. Later, though, Orchid Press evolved somewhat, to include a role as a vehicle for expression of his social and political views.
(MM): I may be wrong, but it seems that you have more titles devoted to Burma than any other country. Is there a reason for this?
You are absolutely correct-our list typically contains some 30% plus titles focused broadly on Burma. The reasons for this date back to Hal Kuløy’s time in Nepal, where he met and became friends with a young scholar and his wife, Michael Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi. When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma to lead the democratic forces to electoral success in the late 80’s, Burma suffered through its own ‘Tiananmen’, during which the democrats and their student supporters were slaughtered in the streets in the hundreds, or more.
Hal was profoundly enraged by this act of brutality and spent a significant portion of his remaining years as an activist in support of his old friend and her objectives. Orchid Press, post 1988, became one of the vehicles of this activism. The thought was (and is) that any efforts to retain the spotlight on Burma, its rich traditions and the essential civility of its culture in the eyes of the world can assist in the Burmese people’s struggle against their military oppressors. The present Burmese government perpetuates what it does when the world is not paying attention, so one of our main objectives is to contribute in our modest way to maintaining the world’s awareness of Burma and the plight of the Burmese.
(MM): Have you been publishing material in other languages besides English since the inception of the company?
Yes; we have published material in Burmese, Thai and French-admittedly fewer non-English books than we would have liked to have, but we remain open to proposals in languages other than English and specifically in SE Asian languages.
(MM): What is the idea behind opening the bookstore?
We believe that, despite the wide choice of retail book outlets offering Western language material in Bangkok (much better than most cities in the region), there was an opportunity for a shop with more serious focus on Asian topics. As one example, there are many foreigners visiting Thailand who have an interest in Buddhism, yet there are few if any outlets offering a wide selection in this area-so this is one of the areas our shop will emphasize. We are also building good selections on Asian arts, politics and culture, and development issues, all areas that we believe are of interest to Western residents and visitors as well as Thais who read English, for which there is less than adequate coverage in some other outlets.
(MM): Why is independent publishing important in this day and age?
I think independent publishers foster a diversity of views in society and facilitate minority opinions to be heard and considered. They tend, each in their small ways, and cumulatively, in a significant way, to counter the worldwide trend toward dominance of all social discussion by corporate giants and powerful political and religious entities. I think the positive effects of diversity in gene pools are well known and that a similar effect is apparent when there is able to be a diversity of opinions on cultural, social and political issues-it produces a more creative, nuanced and ultimately stronger society.
(MM): What’s the biggest challenge an independent publisher faces in Thailand now?
Despite the doomsayers, I think Thailand remains a remarkably free and attractive environment for independent publishers. The presence of so many small publishers here, and the richness of their output, is testimony to this fact. Thailand is attractive to independent publishers for many other practical reasons-a pool of well educated employees, reasonable costs, a competent printing industry. So I would not say that there were any major challenges to independent publishers that are specific particularly to Thailand—it’s a good environment for us all.
(MM): Many people complain that books are an obsolete medium, and that no one reads anymore. What is your reaction to that?
To those people I would suggest that they attend the annual book fair in Frankfurt. Once one sees the energy generated by some 8 to 10 thousand publishers in one venue, I think it becomes apparent that the book industry and the book itself is far from obsolete and will be with us for many years, even generations, to come.
(MM): What kind of responsibility, if any, do you feel independent publishers have to the public?
Independent publishers have a responsibility (among others) to do their utmost to ensure that they report the truth, to facilitate the expression of diverse opinions, and to ensure that what they publish will not abet or foster the social ills that plague our society. To some these may sound like platitudes, but I believe that they are real responsibilities, which all ethical publishers confront daily.
(MM): What is the biggest threat the free press faces in Thailand?
Attempts to muzzle independent expression of all sorts, including the press, are, I believe, usually a reflection of an administration’s own internal insecurities. Such attempts occur today all over the Middle East, it occurs in the USA, and it is occurring now in Thailand. The extent to which such attempts succeed is directly related to the intellectual maturity of the population they administer. Thailand, and particularly Bangkok, has a well educated and articulate intellectual elite, and these are the people who are thwarting efforts to limit press freedoms.
(MM): How do you propose the press fight that threat?
The press, and also independent publishers, have a moral obligation to support those in society battling to maintain freedom of expression. Of course it requires some courage as such efforts involve risk, financial and otherwise. But what sort of success does one have if it is achieved while kowtowing to those who would silence independent expression ? I think it would be a hollow success at best and the society that results in yielding to these sorts of pressures would not be a society most of us would want to live in.