“Sometimes we cannot select our lives,” says Pathana Boupha, “the life selects us.” A diminutive, bespeckled doctor by trade, Pathana is the founder of Luang Prabang’s Boupha Antiques. A woman possessed of vision and determination, meeting her is not an experience easily forgotten.
On my first journey through Laos some three years ago, I made my way to the country’s old royal capital, Luang Prabang. Following a particularly fruitless endeavor to acquire details about the town’s history, I accidentally came across an antique shop housed in an old French mansion. The owner, a bright and talkative woman, is heir to a colorful family history and the inheritor of an outstanding collection of Lao antiques.
For three years I’ve remembered Pathana, and on a return to Luang Prabang this spring I sought her out. She was easy to find, living as she does in an aging manor nearly ajacent to the town’s famous Wat Vixoun temple complex. “My great grandfather built this house” says Pathana. He was the head of the province many years ago and was famed as a warrior and a magical monk who discovered a crystal-handled sword under a tree set ablaze by lightning. The sword was said to protect him in battle and indeed, he lived to raise a family and a fortune to bequeath to his heirs.
The house, built in 1934, is an excellent example of French/Lao colonial architecture, with sky blue doors and shuttered windows, a steep-pitched roof embellished by ornamental eave brackets, crumbling plaster floral relief work and decorative mouldings above door jams and windows. Her small shop is housed on the second floor off the southeast side of the building.
Pathana opened Boupha Antiques in 2000. At first she says, “Nobody came to my shop.” But in time, those interested in the history, culture and lifestyle of the Lao people began lingering, for she is a woman with many interesting tales to tell. Not only will Pathana share stories of her own families fascinating history, she is happy to educate visitors about the arts and peoples of the region.
Pathana tries to learn as much as she can about the items in her shop, reading voraciously and gathering data from the people who sell their handicrafts to her. “I try to learn everything, like the story of the textiles, the story of the many meanings of the symbols, and the stories of the many beliefs of the Lao people. I have many stories that people like to know,” she exclaims. I asked her to retell me some of those interesting tales and to explain to me how she went from being a doctor to an antique dealer.
Pathana’s great-grandfather was a high ranking official in the Laos government back in the days of French colonial power. During his tenure he acquired wealth for his family later used and expanded upon by his grandson, Pathana’s father. Pathana’s (now deceased) dad, was a lover of antiques. Professionally, he was an attorney for the last King of Laos. His job was to manage the finances of the previous King’s gaggle of wives. Apparently all 18 of these aging ladies were card players with a penchant for losing. For the Boupha family, his position was beneficial in two ways. In addition to winning the favor of the King who no doubt hadn’t the patience for a dozen-plus women’s spending frenzies, Pathana’s father also had access to fine objects d’art when those women needed fast cash for their games of chance.
Known in his time as “the millionaire of Luang Prabang”, her dad had a definate eye for beauty (a charateristic she quite obviously inhereted), and a head for business (a quality she admits she did not receive). Using his seed money both inherited and earned, he endeavored in two areas: money-lending and aquiring antiques, both of which were great successes. He built a Laos fortune lending money, and a collection of fine antiques bequeathed to his family.
“My father liked quality. He had good taste and he collected textiles, silver, many things.” He collected for the aesthetic pleasure of beautiful things, but in the years of political turmoil when the Pathet Lao overthrew the monarchy and the currency had been dramatically devalued, it was Pathana who encouraged him to turn his passion into a business. While her father never had a shop, circumstances and his daughter’s encouragement motivated him to sell-off some of his substantial collection.
Before his death Pathana’s father bequeathed his remaining collection to her. “My father has eight children and I am the seventh. But before he died he gave the biggest part of his heritage to me to keep for the family. I didn’t want to accept because I worried that my brothers and sisters will not be happy with me.” But eventually she did accept and has since proved that her father hedged his bets correctly.
While the political and economic life of Laos has stabilised since the mid-1970’s, the country remains quite poor. Pathana is a doctor by profession, her husband Samphong a government employee. They have two children and were, prior to Boupha Antiques, living on the sum total of US $60.00 per month. After eight years of this, she knew that she must do something else. Her health was paying a price for the stress she endured, she was professionally unfulfilled and financially under constant pressure. She claims, “Being a doctor was hard. I cannot work as a medical doctor. I am too sensitive. I get stressed and lose my cool easily.”
Motivated by these stresses and perhaps some creative inspiration, she took a risk and follow her father’s footsteps. She began with money-lending and realised quite painfully that this was not her forte after losing something equivalent to $40,000.00 US in 1996. A big loss by American standards, a shocking fortune in Laos, the world’s XX poorest country.
“Life is learning” she says of the experience, and determined woman that she is, picked up the pieces with renewed effort and went into the antique business, where it is evident she has faired far better and clearly, where her exquisite taste has brought her success. “Now I am learning to have patience in life. I pray and meditate every day. I try to be happy every day and I like this shop because I am happy here and can help my family.”
Boupha Antiques is packed with beauty and arranged in a way that allows the eye to travel pleasantly from one alluring item to the next. The prices and selection vary from small, contemporary jewelry and scarves to old works with collectors’ price tags. Within the shop you can find many antiques and old photos that are not for sale as well as a large assortment of antique and reproduced handicrafts from silver work and textiles to bells, Buddha images and betel nut sets. There are even a number of Vietnamese Dongson drums and several sets of Burmese opium wieghts. Tribes whose handicrafts are available include primarily Hmong, Lao Lum (lowland Lao), and Tai Dum (Black Tai), although she claims to carry items from approximately 45 different hill tribes in all.
But Pathana, now 47 years old, is a woman torn. She says that it pains her to sell the hierlooms and precious inheritences of those whose misfortunes have forced such sacrifice. She prays that what she is doing is ultimately beneficial, for it brings needed income to the families who must sell to her for needed cash.
“When I sell antiques I don’t feel good” says Pathana. “But I must sell because if I sell only new things I cannot get by.” I asked her how she lives with the conflict and what, if anything, she might do to help the situation. She replied, “The first thing I would like to do is preserve the antiques that come from my family. If I can do more I would like to preserve the antiques of Lao people and culture, because antiques each have a story and a meaning within them. I want to preserve all the things.”
Her goal to establish a museum in order to house the old arts of Laos, while at the same time increasing the output of quality reproductions made using traditional methods and symbols by contemporary artisans. This endeavor, should she manage it, would provide stability and income for local craftsmen and quality products of historic significance to collectors, while slowing the exodus of heirlooms and artistic heritage that plagues impoverished cultures everywhere.
Although opened only five years, since my last visit many more visitors to Luang Prabang have discovered Boupa Antiques. She has since been featured in the Thai magazine Dichan and is included in both the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide to Laos. With this increased recognition, Pathana has been able to commission some high quality reproductions of old textiles to sell. These fine works of art are becoming quite popular and allow her to provide a market for today’s artisans, improve her own earnings, and take the first steps toward making her dream of preserving the old a reality.
In the face of such obstacles as political upheaval, financial loss and family fears, Pathana Boupha has managed to turn her life around, building a business just on the brink of thriving and one that has the potential to support her family and the surrounding area’s tribals artisans. “This is the law of karma that I do this shop. I want to do the business so that I can make a better way of life for my family and for the Lao people.”
Let us hope so, for the sooner she can preserve the many precious items that come her way, the richer will be the heritage of those Lao yet to come. Given Pathana Boupha’s track record of turning obstacles into stepping stones, the chances look good.