The hand of fate

Long-running children's TV show Chao Khun Thong wraps its lessons in old-school charm

Even though beauty sleep would have been preferred, Thai children used to drag themselves out of bed every morning to be greeted by Khun Thong, the chatty mynah bird that started a show which should by now be considered part of Thailand's national identity, Chao Khun Thong.

For the next half-hour, children between two and 12 became glued to the screen as they joined in upbeat Thai-style songs and learned everyday life lessons about the world and Thai culture with their favourite characters such as Cha-ngon (Puzzled), the buffalo, Hang Dab (Sword Tail), the Thai dog, and Khon Loy (Driftwood), the lazy crocodile. But the part of the programme which all children looked forward to most was when the puppets acted out a folk tale.

There was, of course, a moral at the end of every story, but even that didn't feel annoying with all the cute puppets delivering the message.

While American mums and kids can rejoice that Sesame Street and PBS are not going to get cut _ as Mitt Romney threatened in the first presidential debate _ the face of Thai children's programmes is on less stable ground. Probably the longest-running children's show on Thai television, puppet show Chao Khun Thong Hua Jai See Chompoo is entering its 23rd year at a time when television has changed dramatically from its beginnings.

Kiatsuda Piromya, the 57-year old executive director and producer of the programme, tells us that she has no expectations about the future. "There is uncertainty everywhere and the future is dependent on many factors."

For someone who spearheads a programme that focuses on teaching children about culture and morality, one would probably expect a conservative and reserved lady, silk-clad and with a tight bun. We met the complete opposite.

Dressed in a white mini-skirt, dark shirt and violet shades, she is far from being a preachy bore; Kiatsuda speaks loud and clear with bursts of laughter that have the vivacity and mannerisms of a fiery young adult.

"You have to be a bit naughty here to make good programmes for children," she says, pointing to her heart. "People who have no fun at all wouldn't be able to do that."

Over the past 22 years, Chao Khun Thong has practically never disappeared from our screens _ a major achievement considering the frequency with which stations shuffle and axe programmes. The only time the show ceased to air for around half a year was in 2007 _ when Kiatsuda was sick and Channel 7 was going through managerial changes.

Today, the show plays for a mere 15 minutes every Saturday morning at 6am, as opposed to being aired every day for 30 mintues at 7am in the past.

''There are many different shows these days and everyone wants a piece of the station's time.'' Kiatsuda says, explaining that she does not speak for Channel 7, but is simply elaborating the fundamental rules of running a business.

''What both our team and Channel 7 is doing is to really giving back to society. They could have made more money by cutting us out and giving the slot to other programmes, but they didn't.''

The puppets at the shoot are clearly tired and worn out, but this is merely a reflection of the way the Chao Khun Thong team operates. ''We run on a different system to other programmes. Channel 7 hires us to produce our content and pays for everything. It's obviously not very business-supportive because not only do they not make any money, they also have to pay. My show doesn't have much of a budget and for now, this is all we can achieve.''

Regardless, it's one of the main reasons the programme has survived for so long. Another reason is the unwavering commitment of Channel 7 and the Chao Khun Thong team to giving something to society and children. Moreover, ''the show has nothing to hide and no hidden agendas. We're giving something good to you and what we've produced is sincere and really comes from the heart, I think audiences can perceive that,'' says Kiatsuda.

''We don't have any commercial interests and never allow product placements,'' Kiatsuda added. ''I'd love to do more and expand on making songs because they reach children easily. My programme is sloppy at times because the budget is so low. It's like we're selling rice and curry, not steak.

''Nevertheless, we choose the curry with ingredients that have all the nutrients, and no MSG. It's food that can make you grow all the same.''

Although Chao Khun Thong clearly packs a message, it's also rich with elements of fun. ''When there's no content to it and only fun, it's ridiculous. And when it only has matter, it's boring.''

Kiatsuda thinks of her puppets that look like bananas used in folk tales a long time ago. ''We don't just bluntly teach kids about the different types of bananas. The talking banana puppets in the story are much more fun to watch. When it's discreetly hidden within the story, the message seeps in and is absorbed better.

''Some kids remember certain scenes so well and that means that the show really reaches them. I really don't understand why some shows need to make kids sound so dumb and not even able to enunciate properly! Children's shows are supposed to teach children to speak clearly and be more thoughtful. They're supposed to be more grown up, not infantile!''

Kiatsuda has a less than glowing view of today's children's reality shows, whether they are about cooking or being ordained. ''It's really fake how they make kids say all these things. It should be something real where they take the children to a camp and they aren't trying to make money out of children.''

Obviously, the resolute aspect of the programme, which teaches children about Thai culture, is still planted firmly within the content of the show despite the changing times. Though there have been some superficial changes _ today, for example, no backdrops are needed as they are all digitally added _ the show's essence has barely changed. ''The goodness in this world doesn't change, it's just the way to present it that changes. But in order to keep up with the times, our content focuses on broader issues, such as global warming.''

Ultimately, the charm of Chao Khun Thong is surely its ability to disguise so much culture and lessons among enjoyable matter. Cuteness, perhaps, is key. ''We want to be Thai by heart, not by form,'' Kiatsuda explains. ''We are Thai and what we do is Thai. Being respectful to elders, this is Thai. There is Thainess everywhere all the time.''

You can also kiss goodbye to any hopes of seeing animation because Kiatsuda wants to stay true to the art of puppetry, which requires acting skills, an ability to express feelings and emotions, and a fine voice as well as puppet mastery. The producer does a bit of everything, and is the voice of Khun Thong herself.

But running a show, no matter how small, is no picnic, and the quest to sow the seeds of goodness in today's children may be harder than ever. A mother herself, the producer wants to emphasise the content about loving and helping others, which is something she finds rare in children these days.

''I think it's very worrying how children are so selfish and suicidal nowadays. People's hearts have changed, along with how they raise children.''

Times change but Kiatsuda's stance is still the same. ''I want to be, even if only a small part, the reason children feel that they must depend on each other, and realise that we can't live alone. I don't want children to think that humans own the world. This world belongs to all living creatures _ trees, humans, elephants, tigers, dogs, insects and even germs. A balance is created when we think about others as well. Our programme has always stood firm for what we believe.'' When asked to give some sound advice for raising children, she bursts into laughter.

''My grown-up son and daughter aren't perfect and are drunk every day,'' she says with a chuckle. ''I'm no expert or psychologist, but I'd like to give my message to the CEOs of media companies that what we do isn't purely business; you need to have a heart for the public all the time. Be sincere and stand for what you believe. Children's programmes are even more different, because you are building a person. If the base is good, then they will grow up to be good adults.''

Some favourite characters from Chao Khun Thong .

About the author

Writer: Parisa Pichitmarn
Position: Life Writer