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Thai television's queen of mean
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  1. #1
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    happy

    Thai television's queen of mean
    Seth Mydans/NYT The New York Times
    Saturday, January 18, 2003

    BANGKOK She smiles, which is disconcerting. Smaller than she looks on television, and dressed in bright red with her hair drawn into a little bush, she looks surprisingly innocuous.

    This is the woman who has sent a shiver through Thailand with her cold glare, her sharp tongue and her public displays of contempt.

    She is Kritika Kongsompong, 37, and until she was pulled off the air last month, she was the black-coated host of the Thai version of "The Weakest Link," a British quiz show whose central feature is the humiliation of its contestants.

    "Is that best you can do?" she would say in her low, flat voice, or, "You're just pretending to be smart, aren't you?" or, the final insult: "You're the weakest link. Please leave."

    She was merciless.

    "There was an occasion when a contestant broke down and cried in front of me," she recalled not long ago.

    "But I just ignored her."

    There is a word here for that kind of behavior, and it is, "un-Thai." This is a look-the-other-way culture of smiles and soft words, of compromise and conciliation, where it is considered bad form to say what you think.

    The series stirred a rather un-Thai ruckus as soon as it began a year ago. Columnists, scholars and public officials raised a chorus of epithets, calling Kritika a witch, uncivilized, "the host from ####." Her behavior was "a dagger in the heart of Thai identity."

    "If we accept this program, then that means we accept that it's all right to hurt and destroy other people," a youth counselor, Umporn Boontan, told a newspaper.

    "Stressed out!" cried Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, after watching an early episode.

    The show was a national phenomenon. When it ended its run it left behind two legacies - the phrase, "You're the weakest link!" and a new celebrity, the menacing Kritika.

    She is a pop icon now, invited as a guest on television game shows. In place of "The Weakest Link," she is the hostess of a new, milder program, "Rich Every Day," in which she switches back and forth between grim and nice.

    An accidental star whose day job is lecturing on marketing at Thammasat University, Kritika has become a player in Thailand's culture wars, an advocate for straight talk and assertiveness.

    "Sarcasm can be fun!" she says. "I get annoyed when I see people who are too soft."

    This is a difficult time for Thailand as its intricately woven culture of hierarchy and deference gives ground to the hard-knocks roller derby of modern life. The economic growth of recent years has brought Western hustle and directness. Traditional social order, family structure and moral values have begun to fray.

    Some Thais are searching now to define what they call a "post-Western" society, adapting rather than copying foreign ways. Some want to resurrect an idealized self-sufficient past, governed by Buddhist gentleness. There is also a streak of panicked xenophobia that led one official recently to call for a ban on teaching foreigners the Thai arts of massage and kick-boxing.

    "My show goes against all that," Kritika said in an interview at the university. "It doesn't support the loser. It confronts conflict. It doesn't harmonize friendship. That's real life where only the strongest survive, and some people don't like to listen to that."

    In her classroom, she paces like Madonna with a headset microphone, prodding and sometimes taunting her students, urging them to stand up for themselves, look people in the eye, compete. Indeed, it was her students who told her she would be perfect for the role on "The Weakest Link."

    Surprisingly, she is a homebody, dedicated and docile, the traditional Thai wife of a military officer.

    "I have three children, if you count my husband," she said the other day. "Every morning I make his breakfast for him and I prepare his underclothing and I prepare his uniform and his shoes and his toothbrush and I put toothpaste on his toothbrush by the sink."

    If he told her to, she said, she would quit her work and stay at home. "I don't believe in women's rights."

    Kritika is, quite literally, a hybrid of Thailand and America. She was 13 when her parents divorced. She followed her father to Washington where he owned restaurants. It was after she graduated from George Washington University that she met her future husband, a military attach at the embassy of Thailand.

    He was a son of a general, Sunthorn Kongsompong, who was a leader in 1991 of Thailand's last military coup and, until his recent death, a highly unpopular man here. Kritika said her married name added to the public shudder when she first went on the air.

    As the weeks passed, comedians began imitating her style, so she invited them on for a special episode. Kritika began firing impossibly difficult questions at them. "The comedians started freaking out," she said. "Then the producer came on and said, 'It's just a joke.' So that's when people saw that I was just doing my show." Nevertheless when the year's contract was up, its producers breathed a sigh of relief and took it off the air. It had been hard to watch, but it had made its point.

  2. #2
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    This is sad. The last place where human dignity still has some meaning is slowly becoming just another country infected with degenerated Western ideas...

    I agree that this lady is very un-Thai; her behavior is the antithesis of all the values that makes Thailand so unique and precious. Caring for others' feelings? Embracing one's need for care, love and compassion? These don't seem to mean anything to her. She renounces Kreng Jai in her public life, replacing it with senseless humiliation of others. The fact that she does not behave in a similar way at home indicates that she is very well aware of the serious distructive nature of such behavior, and she doesn't want to suffer the consequences in her private life... but inflicting it to others is all OK, as long as it brings money and fame to the table.

    This is the other thing that I don't really understand... why are people like her enjoying such fame? It is not unusual in countries such as the USA, where decent behavior is an anomaly rather than the norm, but in Muang Thai... it is just strange to me.

    Just look at the last couple headlines on this board. The traditional Thai way of life is fading, this is inevitable. But knowing it doesn't make my feeling less sad; it is like standing outside the last oasis in the endless desert, watching as water gradually disappears under the intense heat of the merciless sun.

    But as the saying goes, everything good once has to end, to really understand how precious it was when we had it. And that is why I am also very happy whenever I find any leftover traces of this precious treasure: Siam.

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