Mr. Saenee is a old-school painter. He creates portraits of people with a brush and oil.
He is hidden on a side street in Songkhla, Thailand. His style is closer to sketching than painting. He seems to always use nubby brushes. Brushes with the hairs worn down almost to the metal band which claps them to the thin wooden stick.
The Painter squeezes out paint. Mini mountains of creamy pigments. Light chocolate. There’s very little pink and red. He’ll use these paints for coloring the skin in his portraits. “Westerns have pink skins. Asians have brown skin,” says the painter.
He stared at the old black and white portrait – stretching his neck forward a little. Then he looks down to his pile of paint and darts the stubby brush into one pile and then another. Rubbing it around, mixing the colors. Then with a creamy color he likes, he starts to sketch at the canvas with his stubby paint brush.
The Painter spends days, weeks, working on a portrait. A little white mixed in with creamy yellow and brown. He’ll feather the texture of an old man’s hair one day. Smooth the skin of a young woman the next. And lips. Are they curling upwards in a slight smile? Are they flat or even frowning? When he paints, he looks and meditates on people in old photographs. I wonder how this changes how he looks at people who are alive?
Nan arrives from across the bay where she lives in a one-room, concrete house adorned with a thin tin roof to keep off the tropical rain. Like every morning, she rides the ferry through the water towards a pulsing green light perched over the landing in Songkhla. That’s where we meet.
The sky over this city in southern Thailand turns faintly blue as the sun awakes. The sea air is thick but refreshingly cool before the day’s coming heat. I follow Nan into the old town, trailing puffs of grey exhaust squirting out from her old scooter. Her preschool daughter sits nestled between her legs on the seat in front of her. She slows to maneuver around a Buddhist monk wrapped in bright orange cloth and parks in front of the market. There she receives a plastic bag filled with fresh vegetables for the restaurant and places it in a wire basket mounted to the front of her scooter. Five blocks later, down Nagm Nagm Road, Nan parks her scooter outside a two-story shophouse. She walks briskly with her things, carrying her daughter towards the building. She passes from outdoors through a side door into the shelter of a kitchen with an extraordinary high ceiling. The walls are pastel blue.
Inside, on a shelf almost directly across from the entrance to the door, rest three framed photographs, as if observing the work below. Two of the pictures are clearly older, grainy, and in black and white. The third picture is in color. It’s of a woman in her last years with fleshy skin and short black hair. The old woman isn’t frowning, but she’s not smiling either. Her’s is an expression of reserved silence. In the lowest corner of the picture, is the year she was born and the year she died: 2477 – 2558.
Nan comments in a matter-of-fact tone, “Ms. Leekpai was an old maid. That’s why there aren’t any men at the shop.”
Nan sets the vegetables on a table. Her daughter greets the other women in the room, clasping her small hands together forming the Wai and bowing slightly at the waist. The child first pays respect to the skinnier of the two women. The thin cook returns the child’s greetings. “Sawadeekaa” she says and then goes back to preparing an oversized pot of hot tea. The child pivots to the other woman, a short, squat cook. The fat one simply nods affirmatively back to the child. Her hands are full. The right hand gripping a spoon, scraping off bite-sized chunks of sticky, minced meat from a small plate into a large pot of boiling rice soup called joh* (also known as congee or rice porridge).
“First you cook rice in a big pot. Then boil the knee-joint for the soup in another. Later add pork liver, soy sauce and fish water. You can’t use new brands in plastic bottles. They have a smell. Can’t use them. We get our fish water in a tin gallon drum.”
After the round cook finishes scraping the plate clean and lowers the gas to simmer, she turns around. Over a table she lifts up a knife and cuts.
“Our pork is tender. We chop and clean the pork everyday. We don’t buy pork already chopped at the market. We chop it right here. Then season the pork a long time. It’s a very old recipe. Buy the ingredients and chop everything up. We order everything at the market. Everything is fresh everyday. They deliver the pork in the morning and collect the money in the afternoon. I get the vegetables. Our *joh is delicious, clean and inexpensive. Fresh and delicious everyday.”
Steam from the pot drifts soothingly upwards like incense from a slowly smoldering jos stick. Nan’s little girl sits crosslegged on a stoop drawing colorful lines which resembling the swooping arched roof of a Buddhist temple. The skinny cook sets short glasses onto a tray, one after another, while the fat one feeds bits of pork and large knobs of garlic into a meat grinder. Their repetitive movements are meditative, while the three iconic faces watch out from their framed photographs across the kitchen.
Nan hurriedly loops a blue apron around her neck. Carrying a tray of condiments she run-shuffles through a single large door into the front of the restaurant.
In doing so Nan passes under a sign written in old-fashioned Thai script that reads “Thai Island”.
“Ms. Leekpai’s parents ran the restaurant before she took over. They named it Thai Island, but not even Ms. Leekpai knows the name’s meaning. Nobody knows.”
The restaurant dining room is simply one large room. Stuck to the wall are old calendars with pictures of the Thai royal family. The King, wrapped in golden embroidered cloth holds a septer. Underneath, the floor is covered in cracked tiles with antique brown and yellow geometric patterns. Massive four-legged tables sit over the tiles. Each table seats six and is covered with an easy-to-clean vinyl table cloth.
“Mrs. Leekpai wouldn’t consider renovating. She said new things can’t compare with old quality. Everything’s stayed the same. Use the same ingredients, the same recipe. Because we’re the same workers. Back when Mrs. Leekpai was alive we opened at 5:30 AM. Now we open at 6 AM.”
From her tray, Nan sets out clear jars of hot green peppers, crucibles of shaved fresh ginger, plastic bottles of soy sauce as well a plastic napkin dispenser.
“I work in the front. I work in the back. I wash the dishes. Take the money. Serve food. Make tea and coffee in the back. Everything. I do everything. We all have many jobs.”
Tables decked, Nan hurries again farther forward to the entrance of the restaurant. There she unlocks a tall, foldable metal door opening Koh Thai to the street. The morning sun reflects off the surrounding two-story buildings and lights up Koh Thai’s interior pastel-green painted walls.
“We’re open from 6 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon. We only close two days a year. Chinese New Year and Thai (pray day family “duh syrup”). We do it like this in her family until now.”
Though the kitchen door come the fat and skinny cooks. They carry in – one handle each – a heavy metal pot of joh. They waddle carefully between the tables. The pot is steaming hot. Finally at the front of the store, in a corner niche with a view of the street and the restaurant, the cooks heave the pot up to a serving stand.
A frail, bent-looking, fourth woman gives a quiet nod, ladle in her right bony hand. She stands one step away from the edge of the restaurant’s front stoop to the street. She’s dignified but aged, lips pressing flat together without expression. Her face echoes the same reserved expression as that in the colored photograph overlooking the kitchen.
“Ms. Leekpai was the boss. She passed away when she was 81. Now, her sister took over, but she’s tired. We’re all tired. It’s only us. Because there’s only one crew. Four people. One person starts at 3 AM, the lady with short hair. Not the skinny one. The fat one.”
Ms. Leekpai didn’t have children. Her sister also never married. There’s only their nephew left.
A first customer walks in. He only has time to speak the briefest word of greeting before Nan calls his order out.
“I just remember what they want. Remember everyone. They don’t need to order. It’s one reason they come back. Some people first come in small. Then they come back all grown up. We can’t remember all of them but they remember us. They smile and call us ‘auntie’. They’ll say: ‘Auntie, You’re still alive?’ Nan says without humor, “Of course I’m still alive!”
As Koh Thai’s first customer of the day sits down, the old sister mechanically reaches for a clean bowl with her left hand. Her right hand stirs around in the pot with the ladle. With purpose she draws the handle up, out of the pot and tips joh into the bowl. Then she dips the handle down again, fishing up two extra, clumps of salted pork. With the contents of the bowl just right, her right hand releases the handle into the pot. Then she takes an egg from the rack overhead, cracks it just so and slips the yolk into the bowl. Casting the shell aside, she sprinkles freshly chopped green onions over the surface.
“48 now. I’ve been here almost 30 years. After middle school. We used to serve other dishes too, but stopped 10 years ago, when Ms. Leekpai got old. Her nephew wanted her to slow down. He wanted her and her sister to close the store. Instead, the sisters decided to only sell joh. Mrs. Leekpai said it seemed a shame not to earn a little money from the store. There’s only the nephew left. He lives in Bangkok. Maybe he’ll close the restaurant. But the owner must take care of the workers. Ms. Leekpai always felt for her workers. She wanted to help us.”
As the last green onion drops into the bowl, almost if choreographed, Nan rushes forward. She softly takes the bowl it from the wrinkled sister’s hands and scoots to their awaiting first customer. He crinkles his eyes in thanks, then leans in over the steaming bowl and begins to eat. Nan rushes away but then back to the table once again, this time carrying a small plate of sliced up bread (palenco) and a half-sized glass filled with weak tea.
Soon, two more early morning customers stop in, walking past a yellowing sign at the store’s entrance on the wall. In Thai it reads “Joh with egg 35 Bhat”, “Joh without egg 30 Bhat”.
“The owner pays me 250 Bhat each day. And I get another 3000 per month. So all together more than 10,000 Bhat. That’s 11,500 Bhat a month. I think, I’m not rich yet. If I was rich, I’d be the owner. Sometimes, I want to quit, but since I’m not rich yet, I stay on. I have a husband and children. When I had my youngest baby, I didn’t work. Two months. After that I took her to a nursery close to the store. When she was three, Ms. Leekpai said she can come and stay at the store. No need to pay for the daycare anymore. She can play around here. Don’t have to pay for daycare. Daycare cost me 8,000 Bhat a month. Almost one month’s salary to cover diapers, food and daycare.”
The restaurant fills up, as the day grows. Cars and scooters rumble louder and drown out the quiet of the morning. Except for the traffic, there’s only the soft clank of spoons against bowls and Nan’s voice. She barks out orders and seems to be perpetually in motion. Filled up, Koh Thai’s customers have a look of comfort in their faces. They wave Nan over to pay. She takes their money to the front, makes change from a plastic basket next to the old sister and then carries the rest back. It’s not until 10 AM when the crowd – all at work now – dies down. The old sister sits down and rests.
“Sometimes Ms. Leekpai went out to take her break. She’d come back with a snack. Give it to me in secret. Say, ‘I left something in the bicycle basket for you outside.’ Ms. Leekpai was a good person. Everyone in that family is kind.”
“She’d always ask me about my family. Pester me. She wanted to know every detail. I have a son. He’s at the academy. He’s studying to be a policeman and he’ll graduate this October. At the end of the month, Ms. Leekpai would always check with me to make sure I have the money for his tuition. I’d always say I have enough, because I didn’t want to bother her. She’d slip a few bills into my hand and say, this is for his schooling.”
Nan reaches into a pocket in her apron and pulls out a small picture.
“I built a house. If we’d borrowed the money from a bank we would have had to pay interest. But they didn’t charge me interest on the loan. The house was finished last year.”
The Thai sun climbs almost directly overhead, but the restaurant’s old-fashioned floor tiles are still cool. Nan carries a plastic tub to the kitchen filled with bowls coated in globs of uneaten joh.
“If I finish early, I go back early. If somebody is finished washing dishes, they go home. Sometimes I stay late. I’d stay late into the evening with them – with Ms. Leekpai. Somebody had to stay with them when they felt tired or sick.”
“Ms. Leekpai stayed at the hospital fifteen days. When she found out, it was too late.” Nan pauses and press her already thin lips together before continuing, now in a whispering voice, “She had cancer. Colon cancer. She found out after it had spread. She lost a lot of blood but nobody took her to the hospital. Didn’t want to go. Asked for ice.”
“I took care of her at the hospital. All day and all night. The shop didn’t close. Her sister worked at the shop every day. Wasn’t anyone else to take care of her, so I did. At the hospital here in town. Nobody changed with me at night. I was so tired. Everybody else said they were busy. Nobody came to help at the hospital. Finally her nephew in Bangkok moved her to Bangkok. She passed away two weeks later. I felt for her.”
“They closed the shop for one month. Because she passed away. January 5, 2015. And they opened again. It was sometime in March. Can’t remember the date.”
Nan sets down in front of me a bowl of steaming hot joh with egg yolk. I spoon a mouthful and raise it to my lips.
“They’re like my family. I don’t work here because of the money. I want to help them because they also helped me. If not for them – They did everything for me. Now I have a life like this, because of them. Nobody has a life like me.”
Outside the day is hot. From the shade inside Koh Thai, I eat my breakfast and watch people pass on Ngam Ngam road. Pinching a piece of bread, I press it to the bottom of my bowl soaking up a last bite. In my mouth, I commit the smell, taste and texture to memory.
“That’s what makes the soup sweet. Even if someone else has the same ingredients, nobody does it like us at Koh Thai. The best. Made everyday. Many people say, You haven’t visited Songkhla, if you haven’t eaten our joh.“
Nan leans in, looks directly at me and smiles for the first time that day.
“You love it! Am I right?”