Un Sio San

Un obtained the dual Bachelor degrees in Chinese Language and Art (film and television production) of Peking University and dual Master degrees in East Asia Studies and Asia Pacific Studies of University of Toronto with the research field in literature and movies. She won the Henry Luce Foundation Chinese Poetry & Translation Fellowships and had been the village residing poet in the Vermont Creative Studio. She was invited to attend many international poem festivals such as the one held in Portugal and worked as the lyricist of Macao’s first original indoor opera A Fragrant Dream. She published some collections of poems in Cross-Strait regions, and has been engaged in academy and publication for long time and writes columns for media organisations in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao.

Rose of the North: an aggregation of independent bookstores and creativity in Thailand

06 2020 | issue39

I used to have very little expectation for Chiang Mai, the so-called Rose of the North in Thailand. But it turned out to be a place full of amazement.  

Chiang Mai is a historic city in the country. However, it also has a thriving scene of creative markets and cultural and creative villages. The city is vibrant with a hipster vibe. When I was strolling around in the city, I walked into an independent bookstore named Ranlao Bookshop by accident. I happened to bump into their 20th anniversary party that day.

Most of the customers at the majority of bookstores in Chiang Mai are tourists from other countries. They mainly sell books in English. In contrast, Ranlao Bookshop sells mostly Thai literature, picture books and manga. There are also world classics in Thai and local cultural and creative products in the shop. What impressed me the most was, as low-key as the bookstore might look, it is actually a hub connecting different cultures. On the wall inside the bookstore, you can find letters written by Thai authors to the bookstore owner. At the door, folk singers are performing for free. If you go upstairs, you would discover an EDM party that is also free of charge. You would meet local professionals, intellectuals, hipsters, college students, local residents wearing slippers, tourists and visitors who are passing by. Inside and outside the store, there are over ten cultural and creative booths, selling local snacks, enzymes drinks, organic fresh produce and cultural handicrafts from Chiang Mai. Some of the brands here already have a certain degree of reputation. There were some former cultural and creative industry workers who now run brick-and-mortar stores telling me that they came here to simply celebrate their friendship with Ranlao Bookstore’s owner, to thank the owner for supporting them when their brands were unknown by anybody. They were very grateful for the bookstore owner for providing them with the chance to consign and promote their products at Ranlao while facilitating an exchange platform that inspires.

There are three things to look at to examine whether an independent bookstore is successful or not: past revenue, book selection and curating preferences, and a broad network that connects communities, different social groups, and people who share different interests and values. An independent bookstore is not isolated from the world. As an independent bookstore, you would focus more on aggregating creativity, linking neighbouring communities and artists across the city.


 Chiang Mai's independent bookstore Ranlao Bookshop and local cultural and creative stalls

We have had quite a lot of discussions on cultural and creative spaces, which mainly talk about the tangible and intangible aggregation of creativity. Tangible aggregations are mostly big communities (such as the Pier-2 Art Centre in Kaohsiung, Taiwan), city blocks (like Wudaoying Hutong in Beijing), office towers or factories (PMQ – Staunton and The Mills in Hong Kong) and cultural and creative villages (like Chiang Mai’s Baan Kang Wat). Intangible aggregations could be online communities. Internet influencers, similar to cultural and creative enterprises, focus on building up fan loyalty and increasing the number of followers. I wonder whether there are any other alternatives to tangible and intangible aggregations of creativity.


There are many reasons why cultural and creative villages in Hong Kong and Macao find it hard to further develop themselves. Besides factors such as the rent, visitor flow and the lack of diversity, operating in relative isolation is also a great shortcoming for them. Challenges brought about by the publishing industry decline and the emergence of digital books and online bookstores have made it necessary for physical bookstores to diversify. Independent bookstores are also gradually transforming from shops to aggregations of creativity, which are both tangible and intangible. Sitting right next to Broadway Cinematheque in Hong Kong, famous independent bookstore Kubrick offers a café and book clubs for hipsters. In addition to that, Kubrick provides consignment service for local organic food as well. It also supports the development of local picture book artists through efforts such as offering book cover design service and holding picture book exhibitions. Pin-to Livros, a popular independent bookstore in Macao, is an important consignment sales channel for cultural and creative products (especially publications, music albums, literature merchandise like pins with literature themes) from neighbouring regions while serving as a platform for cultural exchange (such as seminars, interviews and mini-concerts).


The success of a cultural industry policy lies in whether we can create an environment that is full of creativity,” Sirion Hrimpranee, director of the Policy Research Department of the Thailand’s National Knowledge Centre, said in an interview. Art audience has become a modern tool in a global post-industrial society that helps transform spaces. Governments across the globe have been promoting policies such as integrating art in public spaces and bringing art into communities, hoping that citizens will become actively involved in the cultural making instead of being mere recipients. But most of the efforts are only making art more available like bringing in art performances or setting up art installations. There is a lack of consistent and in-depth efforts. Only when we combine artist communities with residential communities can we build a substantial ecosystem. As major cultural and creative concentrated areas work hard to develop and online platforms continue to emerge, the government needs to consider more of the aggregating power that independent bookstores have when coming up with policies for cultural and creative industries.