Child angel dolls fraught with superstition

Thai officers will be strict about people carrying “Child Angel” dolls due to fears they could be used to smuggle contraband such as drugs, the national police chief said yesterday.
PHOTO: Reuters

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the current craze for look thep (child angel) dolls is that it's fraught with superstition, recalling the kuman thong baby amulets that have lingered since the Ayutthaya Period - despite being made from dead babies' body parts.

At least kuman thong are normally kept discreetly in the home, as a household divinity. In sharp contrast, the child angels are being cuddled in public, pampered in restaurants and beauty parlours and given regular passenger seats on commercial flights.

The doll assembled in a factory and the amulet fashioned from flesh share several similarities. Both are treated as actual children. The owners believe they will bring them luck and wealth. Monks are asked to bless them.

But no one goes shopping with a kuman thong, or dresses it in purpose-made clothing, or orders a separate meal for it at restaurants. The child angel is not so much a lucky charm as a member of the family.

Nang Kwak, the beckoning female figurine, is commonly seen in shops, luring customers and thus prosperity. A decade ago there was the frenzy over Jatukham Ramathep amulets believed to guard against danger. No such precursor foretold the arrival of look thep, which became a social-media firestorm last year courtesy of their celebrity owners.

Thanatchapan "DJ Pukko" Booranachewawilai of 94 EFM at A-Time Media set out to buy a kuman thong. "But a fortune-teller introduced me to the look thep and I thought it was adorable," says Pukko, invariably accompanied these days by a doll named Nong Wansai.

When he first took it home, he says, the magic was instantaneous.

"I'd bought the doll new clothes and right away there was a message on my phone reinstating a job that had been cancelled. Then I prayed to Nong Wansai to get me a bigger job, and a friend called to say a director wanted me to star in his movie! I wasn't sure about this one, so I told Nong Wansai that if I got a call about the job right away, I'd buy her a one-baht gold necklace. And, unbelievably, I got the call!"

Siraporn Soonthornnet, 30, the mother of a teenage girl, has also been "parenting" a pair of look thep for the past four months - Ramruay and Poonsap - but she insists she doesn't follow trends.

"The way I connected to them was miraculous. I loved them at first sight and immediately wanted to adopt them," she says. "I raise them as though they're my own children and I'm not shy about taking them everywhere. Anyone who'd feel ashamed about doing that just shouldn't adopt one."

Siraporn paid Bt3,600 (S$143.73) for each of the dolls, both already bearing the marks of a monk's blessing. She hasn't noticed anything supernatural, but does feel a close bond to them.

"My husband doesn't mind and my daughter plays with them like they're her little sisters. I feed them real food and sweets and milk. At night I clean them with a cloth then dress them in pyjamas and then pray with them before tucking them into bed.

"Most often I take them to the temple to make merit. I don't think this is blind faith. If you look after them with love and goodwill, the child angels will bring you good fortune. Sometimes I ask them to help me with my online sales and promise them a reward."

Child-angel retailing really took off for shop owner Det-a-duh Nachariyanukul six years ago. The buyers are usually middle-aged women or "lonely people" in need of companionship, he says.

The price ranges from Bt100 to Bt10,000, depending on the quality of the material. He's sold limited-edition dolls for Bt10,000 that are now worth more than Bt100,000.

Det-a-duh tells customers that they don't need to feed the doll or take it with them when they go out. "It needs only good merit to keep it powerful."

Some owners obviously do want to take their dolls out - and in high style. Thai Smile Airways made global headlines last month when it agreed to sell regular passenger seats for child angels, complete with meals, the first airline to recognise the fad.

The move prompted urgent discussions among authorities concerned about air-related security. National police chief General Chakthip Chaijinda demanded strict guidelines to stop criminals from smuggling drugs and other contraband on board stashed inside the dolls.

Thai Smile has told its cabin crews to treat the dolls like human passengers, from full service to reminders about fastening seatbelts. Customers can of course request an aisle seat or one by the window so the child angel to gaze out toward Heaven. Seating arrangements are important as well since passengers sitting nearby might regard the dolls - superstitiously - as potentially evil, as in the cinema devil doll Chucky.

"Nok Air will treat the child angel like any doll," says chief executive Patee Sarasin. "We don't encourage passengers to purchase individual seats for their dolls - it's expensive, after all - but we can't stop them from doing it."

"Bangkok Airways doesn't do anything special for the baby doll - we treat it as a doll," says Arisra Sangrit, a senior media-relations manager for the airline. "As long as the doll makes it through the security check and doesn't break any civil-aviation rules, the airline has no problem accommodating the dolls."

Bangkok Airways has seen passenger peculiarities before. Travellers have been known to book seats just for their designer handbags.

Several Bangkok restaurants are ready to serve children's meals to the dolls, and shops stock clothing and jewellery specifically for look thep. There are even beauty salons and nurseries catering to their whims.

Child angels are most welcome at the Hot Pot buffet-restaurant chain, whose managers are savvy enough to know they come in different sizes. Just like real kids, look thep under 110 centimetres in height dine for free, while the adult price applies if they're taller than 130cm.

The chain even has a heads-up for the "parents": "Please be aware that your child angel might not appear cute or adorable to other people." And, for other diners: "Please treat child angels as if they were cute little children."

After dinner, it's off to a show. BEC-Tero Entertainment is happily selling look thep seats for its "Disney on Ice" performances at Impact Arena from March 30 to April 3. However, if they're under 90cm in height and can sit on their owner's lap, they can get in for free.

No, says Dr Jesada Chokedamrongsuk, director-general of the government's Mental Health Department, this is not mental illness. It's purely a matter of personal belief. Nevertheless, he says, Thais should be more circumspect about their tendencies to both believe in the supernatural and to follow popular trends.