Under Foreign Skies: Lea Laarakker-Dingjan

This programme is part of the series Under Foreign Skies
Lea Laarakker-Dingjan
Lea Laarakker-Dingjan (© Eric Beauchemin)

“Under Foreign Skies” is a series of portraits of Dutch people doing remarkable work abroad.

Over 20 years ago, Lea Laarakker-Dingjan and her husband moved to Thailand. Shortly afterwards, Lea took in two foster children who came from an isolated and neglected village near the Cambodian border. Lea visited the children’s parents and was so appalled by the levels of poverty that she decided to do something. She decided to help the villagers revive their tradition of silk weaving, but the project proved to be much more complicated than that.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: June 7, 2006


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Under Foreign Skies – Portraits of Dutch people doing remarkable work abroad”. The programme is presented by Eric Beauchemin.

I thought sometimes why I’m doing this, but I got attached to the village. I saw the children born, I saw them growing up, and I knew them more and more. So I started to love them.

Lea Laarakker-Dingjan was born and raised in the southern province of Limburg in The Netherlands. She became a fabric designer and married a telecommunications engineer who worked for the Dutch electronics multinational Philips. He often was sent off on short-term contracts abroad. In the final years of his career, he worked several times in Thailand and became enamored with the country and decided to retire there. On one of his final trips, he took his wife, Lea, along to see if she too wanted to live in Thailand. She did, and over 20 years ago they settled in the Thai capital, Bangkok. Lea was in her late 30s and wanted to remain active. Eventually she started a community project in a village in a province bordering Cambodia. It was fate, says Lea, that decided her to work in this particular village.

I came in contact with that village because two of our foster daughters were born and then when I saw it, I thought… We visited the parents and I thought it would be nice if we could do something for the women and they can stay there in the village because what I saw is that there were only older women and children and the younger women had to go to Bangkok and things like that. And I thought as a fabric designer, I do something with weaving. But at the moment I started with weaving, I got the first grant from the Royal Dutch Embassy, I realised it didn’t work. If there is no infrastructure, there was no electricity, nothing, people had no ID cards and things like that, could not go to school, had no medical care, then you can’t do anything. So then in fact to do something with weaving, I saw myself as a development worker. I started with water supply, information about health, looking after the children going to school, ID cards, and things like that. It just worked like that. EB: Do you have any type of background to be able to do this? No, I had no background. It was just in fact managing a big household and I still feel like that. I am born in a village in The Netherlands, in the south, and grew up in a big family and in fact, I recognise a lot of things, only this family was a little bit bigger. You were with 54 families, approximately 300 people, and I had to do something on the infrastructure. But the reason that you chose this village is because the two foster children that you adopted came from there. Yeah, they came from there and that was the only reason, and it is along the Cambodian border. They had some problems during the Khmer war because they are near, they are also Khmer people but they are born in Thailand so that they are the Thai-Khmer people, but they had contact. It was the area where King Sihanouk when he was in Thailand was living as well, so they were attached to that as well. There was also an area in that time that was a little bit neglected by the government and that was just political side.

EB: So you started setting up infrastructure and then what did you do? I started first with water pumps. Then I started with water jars to get the rain when the rain would be there and to inform people about health and things like that. I got a Thai friend and she was very good with food and she came to help me for several months to inform them about food. We started to do small vegetable gardens. I started to help the farmers with farming, with more integrated farming and things like that and during that time, I got time also to talk about weaving, and to pick it up again. It was totally neglected because of poorness and then we started to grow mulberry trees which didn’t succeed and still doesn’t succeed because I found out that the soil is too poor. So we do that now in another village. And then slowly on, to say that children should go to school, that learning would be a profit for the future and things like that. EB: Did the villagers accept you immediately when you arrived there? Not at all. They knew that I got money from the Dutch embassy. It was a very small grant, but they knew that I did not use it all and I kept it as a housewife in the purse, but they said no, no, no, give us the money then we go to the market and we buy some things and then by talking and every time talking to them and have meetings and then slowly on they realised that they had to do something. But for them, they were so long poor that for them it was something which would continue and then we started to weave, we had a teacher every six weeks. And then they didn’t want to weave and so we paid them to weave, to learn the weaving. And then afterwards when they were indeed weaving, the silk weaving, and they realised that they could get money, then slowly on they realised that they could improve their life. EB: Did the area have a tradition of weaving? Yeah, the area has a very good tradition of weaving in this area of Thailand which I would say always has the best silk yarn. It has a ?? because of the heat and the drought there, it has very strong silk yarn and it is yellow and the culture of the weaving is a very strong part of it. In fact it is the communication. A piece of woven cloth is given, with a wedding piece of woven cloth is used with funeral cloth, is given as a friendship token and things like that. It’s very important. The patterns are very important as well because that talks to the people. EB: But they had simply lost this tradition because of poverty and the political instability in the area? Yes, indeed. They lost it mainly because of poorness and the poorness was because of political instability as well but also they were a little bit forgotten. The village where I started was very isolated. It had no road to go. The last two kilometres you had to walk and things like that. So it was just isolated and lived on itself. And you could see that people were also not used to communicate with other villagers because they were so isolated.

EB: Did you have trouble communicating with them? Yeah, in the beginning, because they are speaking…because most of them never had gone to school, so none of them was speaking Thai or writing or reading Thai and they were all speaking the Khmer language. They were speaking the lower Khmer language which is also spoken in the south of Cambodia which is slowly Khmer but also difficult to understand. So I had to learn that and then slowly on when the children went more to school and they of course did understand the Thai language, but never were talking the Thai language, and then slowly on they started to talk the Thai language to me because for me it was more easier the Thai language because I learned the Thai language. So slowly on we communicated. It was very, very difficult. It must have required a great deal of perseverance on your part in the beginning. Yes, it was. It was indeed. EB: Did you think at one point that it may not actually be worth it to spend so much time and so much effort to help this village? Yeah, I thought sometimes why I’m doing this, but I got attached to the village, not only because of the people but also because it’s a wonderful area over there. It’s not touristic at all. It’s still not touristic at all because in fact there is nothing to see. It’s like the Friesland from The Netherlands. It is flat, it is dry and there is nothing to see. In Friesland there is a lot to see, but not over there. There are fields and fields and fields and that is it and it is very dry. But you get attached to the people and so, and more and more I came to understand the fabric and the ways they were working with, so that I got attached to the people I saw, the children born, I saw them growing up and I knew them more and more. So it was…I started to love them, so that was in fact, yeah…

EB: When you first started the weaving, were there old people in the village who still remembered how do to the traditional weaving? Yeah, most of them they knew very well and when we could, with a grant, we could build 10 weaving looms, the traditional weaving looms as is used for hundreds of years already, because I insisted to do that and also with the hand shuttle, not with the automatic shuttle or what is now used a lot, but we don’t do that. And then the old people came and they recognised and they said, oh no, you have to do it like this, and you have to do it like that. And from all parts of the village they came and were sitting the whole day and were telling to do it. And you saw they came up with them. They came with old pieces. They said no, this has to be done like that and this is that name and that is that name. So it was very interesting. You saw some communication between the older and the younger women. You saw also younger women coming back who really loved to stay in the village and have their own family and things like that. And then in the meantime, the older people became more and more involved because they were the ones who still remembered this weaving. EB: So it gave the old people also a lot of prestige? Yeah, it’s still, it’s still. The old people there….that’s anyhow a tradition in Asia, but definitely here in Thailand that the old people are the ones you listen to. And the grey hair is the one with wisdom. Or even although they have no wisdom, but they have wisdom because they have grew hair. That’s it. And so now it’s the younger generation who are teaching the younger people how to do it. Yeah. We have several women who we educated. We have several we sent to groups where they were very good weavers, sometimes 200 kilometres from the village. And then we sent them for two or three weeks to learn more the difficult parts of the weaving and also to make the looms and the combs and things like that. And then, slowly on, the other people became more involved and they told us how we had to degum the silk yarn in a traditional way which was not chemicals but with the waste of coconut trees and things like that. They were working together so it made a community…the community became stronger in my feeling. But where was all the money coming from to do this because to build water pumps, to get all these other things going, you didn’t have enough money from the grant that you got from the Dutch embassy. No, what I did because I was involved in The Netherlands with all kinds of women’s groups, so every time when I went to The Netherlands, I had talks at the Rotarys, and the Lions and things like that, and they heard my talk and then they were giving some money. It was not so much. Once it was a lot with Rotary Helmond, they gave us a big grant for 35,000 guilders and we could work for years with that amount. In that way I did it, and that was the biggest grant we got and then the Wild Goose from The Netherlands has helped us several times as with Visponce, and then I went to Hilversum to the Wild Goose and they helped us with that and I got the money in that way. And by talking and in the time, after a few years, when I could sell the products, then we could do it from the weaving. And looking back now, doing this for 18 years, I calculated last year that 80% of the total project which is now involve 5 villages is done by out of the weaving. It is earned by the weavers themselves and 20% is done by donations. EB: You were talking about Wild Goose, it’s the Wild Geese programme which is a short TV programme on Dutch television which tries to raise funds for projects in the Third World. So you started off in this one village and then you decided to spread out and go to other villages? So after several years, because we had a study foundation, we did water supply, we were doing health care, we have staffing with rice bank. Rice bank is a bank which instead of money, they work with rice, and other groups they saw it, and they thought we would like to do that as well with that farang, and a Western person is a farang. And then they came and they asked and sometimes we said we give it a try. We made a programme. We said we first have to make six metres by yourself and see if you can do it and if the quality is good enough, and then we decide if you can join the group yes or no. So slowly on, the group became bigger but it was not easy because sometimes we started with a village and then we had 72 women who would like to weave and we had left over 6 because for me it was also important to bring high quality. It had to be high quality. When you make poor quality, you will be always poor. The aim was to make a high quality silk. And nowadays we have 11 silk excellence awards from UNESCO and we are really recognised now because of the quality. And that works. And now they understand but in the very beginning, they didn’t understand and there were weavers who were very angry and they said I weave my whole life and my mother was a weaver. What are you think you are? And I said well this quality is not good enough to sell, and I’m looking in that way. So that was the biggest problem. And I also by the years experience that it takes a weaver who really does her best 7 years to bring a good quality of fabric, hand-woven fabric.

EB: Did you have experience in weaving yourself? No, I’m not a weaver, I’m a fabric designer. I know how the weaving goes and I can weave, but I’m not a weaver, but I’m a fabric designer. That is often mistake when you say fabric designer, they think you can weave as well and you can work on patterns on computers as well. Well that’s not. I’m just an old-fashioned fabric designer. I sit with the weaver. For example, now we do a lot of old traditional designs. We do that into contemporary designs. I sit with the weaver for days and we make try-outs on the looms, and we change every time, and then we do that together, and that works out very well. But she has to weave them because she knows more how she can change the thing what I think should have been done. EB: So you had a background in this Holland. This is what you had been doing in Holland. Yeah, yeah. I worked with lace and prints. I’m sure one of the big obstacles that you faced was marketing the silk. What did you do? The marketing is still a problem. It is in the meantime a foundation and there are five villages involved. We have a cooperation and the cooperation belongs to the foundation as well and we have a small shop now in Bangkok and there we do sell the product but the marketing, we like to market now also abroad and we are working on that because Thailand has a lot of silk. But it is not always high quality silk and some people they don’t want to pay for 100% silk and if you don’t want to pay for 100% silk, then you get 90% silk and 10% synthetic. That kind of thing you have to know because you don’t see that at the fabric, so it is very difficult to explain to the customers, to say that this is 100% silk and that it therefore has the price, even though it is not expensive in many eyes and ears, but it is more expensive than the more cheaper made, factory made silks. And we are really now a craft-weavers group. It’s high craft. And they really do nice things and that is not always easy to market and also because we cannot make products 500 metres, exactly the same colour. It’s impossible. The loom cannot do have more than 40 to 50 metres and silk reacts very much to colour. One time when it is a little bit darker than the other time, and it’s also the climate has influence, and we don’t use any toxic chemicals and so we cannot interfere…sometimes we have to do it on a natural basis and that all is very difficult to market. But we have quite a huge group of people who just admire the silk and buy and do well, but we are working on marketing abroad as well. Via the Internet. Via the Internet. We just found a person. She’s Dutch and she lives already a long time here as well and she is going to do the marketing via Internet.

EB: How has this changed the life of the villagers? Well, when I look around, I know of course all the families. I have seen the children born, people die, marriages and things like that, so you know all…So when I walk to the village, I know all these people. Some families have taken it up very, very well. They also have no debts. They really make out something. Some families not. They really. They have debts. They would like to have more than they have, some money then they buy a motorcycle with high interest and things like that and become more poor because of these kind of things. EB: You were saying debts, right? Debts, yeah. And then what you see is that they also improve their houses. There are no children anymore who are not going to school. They’re all going to school and it is also common to go to school now which was not common 18 years ago. So you see that very much improved and the first car has come into the village as well. It’s a 3rd hand or 4th hand car, very old, but there is a car as well yeah. EB: Do you see that the children also want to further their education, go on to secondary education or to university? Yeah, we have sponsored a long time the primary education. But then the law in Thailand changed and that’s not necessary anymore. What we do like in big families, we see if the uniforms are still clean and if they need new uniforms. That’s the only thing. The secondary school, we look if the children need it. Some weavers make more money than the other ones, not because they cannot weave but often it is because they have more debts or things like that. Then they go to secondary school, often in the beginning it was only 3 years because in Thailand you go for three years, then you do an examination and then you can go for the further 3 years. So now we have several at university: one already finished the university. We have one boy who at the moment is studying fashion design. We have two girls who would like to do fabric design because ? so they see as well. Several for doctor, several for technician, auto reparateur, and things like that. EB: So are a lot of the young people leaving the village as a result of this? Well, there is quite a group of children in the village but the village is small, but the young people also like to go out. So many of them get jobs somewhere else, like in Ayutiya, you have all these Taiwanese and American companies and things like that. There they are going to work, and they like it. And what they do have now is they have a choice. If they like to stay in the village, they can do it. They can join the weaving group or agriculture group or whatever they like. Or when they don’t want to do that, they go then somewhere else but they can make a choice now. It’s not so that they have to go out of the village to make money for the family because the family has no money. That’s not any more the case.

EB: Does this project give you a lot of personal satisfaction? Yes. I like it very much. I still love it very much. I love my work. I do it still as a volunteer. I love it very much and it gives me a lot of satisfaction. It gives me also a lot of nuisance when I see that things are not going as I would like them to go, and I’m still faster in my things than they are, but this is the Asian way of life. Then they say to me shai-yen-yen that means “keep your heart cool” when I get a shai-ron-ron that means my heart is becoming hot and that’s not good they say. So I learn a lot from them and I still enjoy it very much. I do like it. And I always love to go to them. The drive to the village takes me a day. I still like to go to the village, to stay there and things like that and to be there with them. I think also that I have a lot of fortune because as a fabric designer, we plant the mulberry tree, we do the whole serie culture, we do the weaving and we do the design and then we also do the sales. So it’s like a holistic thing. And I think that’s a very lucky thing. I don’t think that many people do have that, so I really love it. EB: How much time do you spend in the village? Every time 14 days. EB: So half your time is in Bangkok and half your time is there. Only now for example they are harvesting the rice, and then they don’t have any time to come to work on the weaving cloth. So then I’m not going. So for example I go next month again. I’m up and down. EB: Do you have your own hut out there? Since a year, I have my own bedroom. I always slept on the ground. We had a small office thanks to some help from several groups in The Netherlands, we could build a very small office, a one room office with a store room and a kitchen. And I was always sleeping in the store room on the ground. And now since a year, I have a small bedroom attached to it as well. So the village became very enthusiastic when they saw I said I need an own room for myself because I never have any, any privacy. And then one of the guys made for me a Western bed because he said you have to sleep in a Western bed. You can’t sleep on the ground any more. So he made from solid wood a bed. You can’t move the bed at all, it is so heavy. So I have my own place now and it is very nice. So I can sometimes be on myself because the Asian culture is always to be together. So I was never really alone but sometimes I need to sit alone and read a book and things like that.

EB: Are they still surprised to see you going back and forth and maintaining your interest in the work that they’re doing in the village? Yeah, I don’t think that they are now surprised. Many many years ago, I understood from one of the villagers that probably I had a very bad life, I was a very bad person in my former life, so I have to do something good, and they think that Buddha looked well to them and did send me. So for them it’s very simple. But they do realise by the years that they have got a lot of help, indeed, yes. EB: So they do not take it completely for granted, but they do take quite a lot for granted as well. Yeah. EB: And how has all of this changed you as a person? Yeah, that is, it’s not easy to say. It has made me a happy person. It has given me some roots in a different culture, although I’m from a different culture, you never get 100% the roots. But I think I like that by myself, I really have a food in the earth here which I do like. I’m a farmer’s daughter. I need attachment with the soil where I live and I think I got that and that makes me feel very happy, and I think with what I do for my work, designing to have it work out like this and I’m a totally free person. I can do in the way that I design. I have no boss above me to say, no Lea, you need to do like this and like that. I do completely as I like, as I think is the best way. So it’s a huge part of freedom. And I also have experienced that if you work like this with people that you can give a help peace and freedom as well. What I have learned and I am very happy – I don’t know if I would have learned that otherwise – is that when people have a more relaxed life because they can rely on the nature around, they can rely on some work, even though they are not rich, that you can be very peaceful and I found that out when they were at the Sunday staff when they wish to have a temple. And then we started to build a temple. And then you saw the peace that they had to have their own temple as well, so that they were recognised by the Buddhism, because you are recognised as a village when you have a temple as well. To see that all I think that makes me very happy. I think I’m very happy person with that. But many people would think, well you’re retired. EB: Why don’t you just go ahead and enjoy life? Why do all this work? Well, I do think that. Sometimes I’m so angry that I think it doesn’t work. So after 18 years, I think my goodness it doesn’t work out as I would like that it work out. Then for example I make a trip and then I’m on the trip and then I feel homesick. I never had that feeling. So it has given me a feeling to belong to them as well. And has at least changed me so far that I had already my whole life red hair but also my temperament was quite a hot temperament and I lost that totally there because people have their own patient way of walking and talking and I got adjust to it. It has given a lot of freedom and peace as well, yeah. I think that has changed me a lot, not to judge people straight away. Just to wait and see what the reality is. EB: And when you go back to Holland, do people see these changes in you? Yeah, people who know me they see the changes in me. People who do not know me, they start to talk in English to me. They think I’m not Dutch. So I probably don’t look Dutch any more. But people who know me, friends, they say you have changed, yeah. I always have been very active and I’m still active but on a completely different way, yeah. EB: Do you have plans to return to Holland or are you going to pass the rest of your existence here? I don’t want to say the rest of my life here, I don’t want to say that. To return to the Netherlands totally, well, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. So I go to the Netherlands once a year mainly, sometimes twice a year for a shorter time, or once a year for a little bit longer time and after a few weeks, I feel that I have to go back home and then home is here. So I don’t know yet. Sometimes I think I go back to the Netherlands. It’s easier, everything works, but then I have to call somebody in the Netherlands, a company or insurance or whatever it is, and then I get the line from that you have to dial that number, you have to dial that number, and that kind of thing, and you are 10 minutes on the telephone before you are somewhere. And then I have completely the wrong person or so. There is no connection any more. Here I pick up the telephone and I can call straight away to the person who I like to talk to. That I don’t have in the Netherlands any more. Then when I don’t know what is under number 7 or 6 or whatever it is, then I’m completely a stranger there. And I see also the vegetables are changing in the Netherlands, people are changing, and I have changed of course as well. So I don’t think I will settle down in the Netherlands any more. I don’t think so. You’ll probably stay here then. Yeah, perhaps, yeah, perhaps. But I don’t want to say it now because there is still…I still like to keep it open. I think it’s still too dangerous to say no I stay here.

Lea Laarakker-Dingjan in conversation with Eric Beauchemin. “Under Foreign Skies” is a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.


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