Lacquerware: a national treasure maintained by the Vichaikul family
Mae Patch finally reopened her office and showroom space in her home to visitors for the first time since the pandemic in June 2022. However, when compared to the longevity of the lineage of lacquerware makers from which Mae Patch originates, the closure was but a blip in time. Recognized as a national handicraft teacher since 2014, Patchara Sirichancheun (Mae Patch) says the Vichaikul family has been around since the time Chiang Mai was established 700 years ago.
“During the battles between the independent kingdoms of the region in the early Lanna period, we crafts people were forcibly relocated from Chiang Tung in what is now the Shan State of Myanmar to the area south of Chiang Mai gate now known as Wualai,” said Mae Patch. “Ours was one of the ten craft families relocated to the Wualai community. The other families were mainly silversmiths, but our family made lacquerware. When we established our own business, we decided to use my great grandmother’s last name for our Vichaikul Brand. My mother belongs to the sixth generation of lacquerware makers.”
Mae Patch’s pride in her heritage is evident in her eyes. Though the craft she practices is now rare, she has faithfully continued the tradition, maintaining the local wisdom of her ancestors passed down the centuries.
“Lacquerware craftmanship is like a treasure that previous generations in my family have passed down to us. Who else would love the livelihood of our ancestors as we do? It has such charm; nothing is done by machine,” she said.
A thriving time for handicrafts
“The mid 1970’s was a prosperous time for the Wualai area,” Mae Patch said. “Visitors who came to Chiang Mai would come to see the lacquerware of Vichaikul and the traditional silverware of Wualai before going up the mountain to see Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. When tourism grew and the old road to Sankhampaeng turned into a handicraft heritage route that could handle larger volumes of tourists, Vichaikul lacquerware also moved to this area; but when the economy started to decline, we moved back to our current location on Nantharam Road.”
In 2002, the abbot of Nantharam Temple brought all the master craftsmen in the area to work together at the temple and created a museum of lacquerware because he did not want the craft to disappear from the community.
“The Vichaikul family is rather like a lacquerware cooperative since we give work to the community and gather their products to sell on their behalf. We buy all the raw materials including lacquer and various woods, but we depend on the handiwork of the artisans in our community. No piece of lacquerware is completed by one person. There are the bamboo basket weavers, the lacquerers themselves, and then the artists who paint the exterior designs. They used to come here by bicycle and work together, but now they work in their homes, while we manage the deliveries between each house during the production process.”
To become lacquerware
Lacquerware is a craft practiced by the Tai Khoen people who migrated down from the north. The basic structure is made from wood, mainly from bamboo, which is light in weight. The piece is then coated with multiple layers of a black tree sap, which is the lacquer, until the surface is smooth and shiny. Then local patterns are painted on before a surface finishing is applied. The classic gold leaf finish is called ‘Lai rod nam bid tong’, which basically refers to the process of washing excess gold leaf off; this process allows the patterns in gold that remain to shine against the black lacquer background, making a beautiful unique hand-crafted product. The other traditional finish is the ‘Lai kood boran’. More modern patterns include using acrylic paint to create the ‘Lai paint acrylic’ style, and broken eggshell to create ‘Lai pleuak khai’.
Mae Patch described the initiative to create a sustainable source of lacquer that was made during the bicentennial celebration of Bangkok. At that time, renovations to many temples required large amounts of lacquer, as did repairs to the Thai Royal ceremonial boat. The then crown princess led the conservation effort, appointing the government departments of industry and forestry to initiate lacquer tree planting projects around the country to set up a sustainable source of this culturally important raw material. In Chiang Mai, tree saplings were given to Karen people to grow and farm for a sustainable living in Om Koi District.
“We mainly use the lacquer from Om Koi district, but if supply is insufficient, we buy it from Burmese merchants, who deliver it to us here at Whichaikul. We declare this correctly, of course. Recently, Lacquer prices have risen due to the troubles in Burma and difficulty in transportation.”
Mae Patch says that season and climate play a big role in making lacquerware. “The lacquer we use produces the best results in hot and humid conditions like that of Chiang Mai during the rainy season. The red lacquer that we use for traditional textile storage boxes is made using ‘chard’, which is added to the lacquer to get the red finish. Bamboo structures coated in lac and chard is a classic Chiang Mai style of lacquerware,” said Mae Patch.
Artistry in unique designs
Mae Patch told us the charm of lacquerware patterns lies with the individual artists who paint them, and who have accordingly earned acclaim and admiration from people far and wide. The unique patterns on Vichaikul lacquerware were honored with a certificate of artistic talent from the Ministry of Commerce in 2015 -2016, which made Mae Patch very proud.
“The pattern that earned the award was inspired by antique coins that have a hole in their center. We used this shape and added the Thai Kanok design into the circular rings, and then we added the traditional Prachumyarm pattern, which is also known as the coin pattern. These are well-known designs uniquely found on Vichaikul lacquerware. They are believed to have the power to uplift and bring wealth and prosperity”
Adapting while keeping local identity
“Vichaikul has two product ranges at present; one is the conservation range for a certain group of clients who buy these items to use in traditional Buddhist ceremonies or rituals paying respect to seniors. The other product range includes modern products that yet honor our local identity. These include everyday gadgets such as mobile phone cases, wireless chargers, key chains and name card holders. We even make modern handheld clutch bags.”
“We are constantly adapting. In one project combining craftwork and science, we worked with the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) to develop a surface sealant that would protect painted lacquerware patterns from rubbing away. We now use this coating on our products, which is another unique aspect of Vichaikul’s lacquerware.
Beauty and marketability
Once we heard that the country was opening again after the pandemic, and tourists and local customers who might be interested in Vichaikul lacquerware would return, our group of salah (local craft artisans) gathered to refresh our ideas about what to make to meet market demands.
“Though we have received many awards, if our work is just about conserving our craft while not being financially sustainable, this won’t help us very much,” said Mae Patch. “But when we make beautiful things and they sell well, this stimulates new ideas about what we should make. If a beautiful piece can sell for tens of thousands of baht, it inspires us to make even more beautiful pieces that can sell for hundreds of thousands of baht. Vichaikul’s craftsmanship is not at issue. We have many skilled local artisans making our unique products, which are as elaborate as they are beautiful.”