Among the people that always show up at the annual football game between Chulalongkorn University and Thammasat University, there is probably no one who knows every step and particular of the event from start to finish, down to the very last second, than Boonpachakasem "Jeng" Sermwatanarkul.
The 52-year-old man possesses a stern demeanour, but he can also exhibit the complete opposite: laughter and a warm, family-like disposition. As the person who is credited with coming up with routines for Chulalongkorn University's cheerleaders _ a series of complex arm-and-body gestures that has been a tradition for over 30 years _ Boonpachakasem is sure to appear at this Saturday's football event to give support to his juniors.
A Chulalongkorn cheerleader himself during his time as a Communication Arts student 32 years ago, Boonpachakasem started refining the traditional routines when he was in the position of an "elder leader" _ the one who had to train the newcomers for the games in the following year.
"Before the 37th game [that he was in the cheerleading squad for] there had been cheerleaders already, but their dances and routines were somewhat all over the place," he explains. "They didn't look the same when they danced, so I had to establish exact positions and movements, such as how to stand and the angle of their arms when held out, so everyone looked more refined and in sync. For the fast songs, I improved on the structure that was already there, but I was the one who thought of all of the routines for the slow songs in the upcoming games."
As a communications student, Boonpachakasem is a very articulate man who can express ideas not only in words, but also with body language. According to him, all the moves in the routines have a purpose to communicate; sometimes they represent symbols such as the prakiew (the insignia of Chulalongkorn), dome (the symbol of Thammasat) or dharmacakra. Movements are also inspired by navy flag signalling, ballet and traffic police.
Boonpachakasem, back row, second right, in his 1981 cheerleading team.
But for new songs, the seasoned cheerleader even headed to schools for the hearing-impaired for inspiration. He derives more moves from sign language and even hopes the dance will touch a whole new group of people. University level hand-cheerleading does leave a mark beyond the university's gates and has a trickle effect down to middle and high schools, where arm and hand movements are now common.
Being a leader of all the leaders, this cheerleader from the 1981 games finds it essential that he return to see his juniors every year.
"Just by looking at still-training newcomers, I immediately know what's wrong and how it can be fixed. The ones who have only been cheering for a year can't spot these things yet, so it helps when old cheerleaders who have a lot of experience come in to help out. We're like a family and students that have already graduated, still come back from time to time," he laughs and adds, "I guess the only good thing [about] being old is that you have so much knowledge and experience!"
After all, a cheerleader is cultivated from the concept of sacrifice. "The words we drill into all our cheerleaders are sympathy and sacrifice. They need to learn to be sympathetic and to take other people into consideration," the past cheerleader recounts. "They get all that through training, where psychology also plays a part. They can't show up late because if they do, their teammates have to take the punishment while waiting for them, so it also teaches them to be extremely disciplined."
Boonpachakasem is a former diplomat, but today he heads his TV programming and event organising firm, 189 Communications Intelligence. In fact, he has also been requested to be the producer of the annual football game for some years, thanks to his solid experience with the traditional games _ he knows what happens at every moment from the crack of dawn till the moment the lights in the stadium go out. "I know what will happen and what to do should something go wrong."
While it is understandable that he puts his labour into these activities out of love for the tradition and preserving the cheerleading legacy, one thing to take note of is that he does not make a single baht from it.
"There'll always be that one person who has to sacrifice in order to continue the history and tradition. If that person has to be me, I think it is something one should be proud of." Having no family of his own or any children, it is easy for him to devote his efforts to this institution. "What's also as important as sacrifice, is your readiness to sacrifice."
The other reason he still tries his best to keep the tradition going is more personal.
While doing research about its history, Boonpachakasem tried to track down the very group of people who first initiated the traditional football game that is now watched not only by the students and alumni, but is broadcast on television to the whole country. After going through the Yellow Pages and calling up a few names, he finally managed to contact an elderly man who took part in organising the first game: Busaya Simasathira. Boonpachakasem visited the man and asked him to come and watch a match. To his surprise, the old man did come, despite his frail health.
"As I was taking care of him during the game, I suddenly felt water on my hand. It was his tears! And he said to me that the football games have evolved into a great spectacle and that he wanted to thank me for contributing to it. He also hoped that I would continue to keep the tradition and spirit alive. I still do this because it's my personal promise to him."
This year's CU-TU Traditional Football Game will happen on Saturday at Supachalasai National Stadium. It will be the 69th annual match, and 96 years since the founding of Chulalongkorn University.
About the author
- Writer: Parisa Pichitmarn
Position: Life Writer