Family Heritage Conservation in Thonburi


The following is a copy of an article I originally posted on, February 01, 2013:


the old family home

I took this picture at the beginning of 2013 from inside the family compound where my Thai cousins live. It’s in Thonburi, off the Taksin Road, a few hundred yards south of Wong Wien Yai, the big roundabout with the memorial to King Taksin at its centre. In the foreground is the original family house, made of teak wood, but it has been gradually decaying and in recent years has become dilapidated.

The residential landscape is changing rapidly and there are now emerging some brand new high-rise buildings, mainly accommodation blocks. This one (which I hadn’t seen any trace of two years ago) is in the same soi, on land that used to be partly occupied by a primary school. Many of the new occupants have been drawn by the improved transport connections offered by Wongwien Yai BTS – no longer is there an hour-long wait in rush hours just to cross the Sathorn bridge as you can glide along in the sky train in a few minutes!

The land has been a naturally fertile environment, rich in vegetation, so when earlier generations made their homes here it was the most natural thing to plant seeds and to see everything grow so fast. Just imagine that when my grandparents moved here in the 1930s they were just finishing the Taksin Road, and this area was covered in orchards (with no vehicular access at all). Despite the heavy urbanisation of the area in recent decades, the family plot remains very green – my grandfather loved to cultivate all manners of plants and trees and more recently, in the 1990s, one of my cousins used to cultivate plants to sell in offices. That business is gone, but the tropical vegetation remains as a refuge from the concrete jungle.

However, what to do with the old teak house? It is quite dilapidated and there’s no one living there any longer – the last resident was my Aunt Umpai, who passed away just over a year ago. She used to live with her cats, many of which she had rescued, under the house because she had become too frail to climb the stairs.

my aunt's home under a house

She often expressed embarrassment at how dusty and untidy it was, but in fact she was orderly, a discipline that came with her being a school teacher – in English grammar! She lived the last years of her life for her cats – she wouldn’t stay to converse for very long before asking to be excused so that she could feed them or otherwise tend to them.

However, when she passed away she left a lot more of significance to the family and a reminder of this came unexpectedly along an alley way. There’s a shortcut from the house down an alley – it’s quite narrow, but not narrow enough to prevent motorbikes weaving in and out. There’s graffiti on some of the walls, not pretty to look at, but turning a corner I was struck by the following:

Thai graffiti message: preservation

The message (ช่วยกันรักษา) is a bit unexpected, even ironic in this setting as it basically means: “Let’s help each other to take care [to preserve]”. However, it was really pertinent to Aunt Umpai as she was someone who really cared about preserving heritage and she had become the custodian of family history. The next morning I started to explore the little home under the house, which still has many items, thinking that there may still be left behind some family heirlooms. I was especially interested in written materials – books, magazines etc – most of all in any family archives. I was fortunate to have with me as an assistant my niece, Baidoei, as she could translate for me (I struggle with reading even a few words, especially if they are handwritten). She remarked that some documents contain old Thai characters/letters with which she was unfamiliar.

We found many items lining shelves in bookcases and stacked up in piles, quite a number relating to Aunt Umpai’s teaching: various dictionaries, including Pali-Thai because she was interested in learning the meaning of the many Pali terms used in Thai. However, most of the reference materials concerned English language. In fact guests at her cremation ceremony were all given copies of the New Model English-Thai dictionary by So Sethaputra [published in 2547], with a brief memorial tribute inside. This was a contemporary twist on a distinctive and fascinating Thai tradition of cremation volumes. These volumes are really valuable for researching Thai family history, but I think they are still underused. See e.g. Grant A. Olson, 1992. Thai Cremation Volumes: A Brief History of a Unique Genre of Literature, Asian Folklore Studies,Volume 51, pp. 279-294,

And it seemed fitting that nearby these educational materials were piled up dozens of cremation volumes; we guessed that these would have been mainly colleagues and other people known to Khun Da (my grandfather). Most of the older items related to his life and work, including photographs – quite a few with Khun Yay Somboon, his wife, when they were young. There were accounts from his time in the army and then the prison services, some certificates of honour, including royal decorations and booklets of speeches given in the early days of Thailand’s new constitution. There were some surprising finds, including a book with signatures of various notable figures, but I didn’t look closely to see whether it was actually an autograph book or just a collection of cuttings. Another volume was to commemorate the official opening of Thailand’s Southern Railway, probably another interesting story that will never emerge.

Some items belonged to Fuengsin Sarayutpitag, my mother, including some school certificates, particularly a couple for Triam Udom Suksa, a preparatory school for entrance into Chulalongkorn University. There was also a book given by a friend, Khun Suchard, entitled วิธีทำงานและสร้างอัจฉริยภาพ , which means something like: Methods for Developing a Remarkable Aptitude in One’s work. It was by Poonsak Sakdanuwat (พูนศักดิ์ ศักดานุวัฒน์), who wrote commentaries on the Buddha’s life and also was interested in methods of mind development for business; the publisher was Wattana Panit (โรงพิมพ์ว้ฒนาพานิช). The book has a dedication about developing one’s career in a noble manner and it is dated 24 December 2501[1958], when she reached 22 years of age and was studying for her B.Ed. This discovery made me reflect that there might be quite a few literary items that Mum left behind when she came to the UK, in addition to the scrapbooks, which only arrived many years after she had emigrated, whilst we were in Hagley.

Unfortunately, many items had been damaged by insects, some completely ravaged. I collected a few of these and brought them into the home of my cousin, P’ Laem, who had already salvaged some of the most important objects. However, there still remain others of value and I have been wondering how best to preserve them. The old house cannot remain for long in its present state, so my cousins and I are trying to figure out how to proceed; I feel there’s some urgency to remove what’s left and store this safely, at least temporarily. But what about the longer term? My mother left me a plot of land, part of which is located under the old house. To actually own it I would have to acquire Thai nationality, but I am already considering the possibility of building a small house partly devoted to family history for all my relatives to use.

Here I can take inspiration from another pile of books: Aunt Umpai was evidently impressed by the work of Mom Rajawongse Kukrit Pramoj, who was deeply committed to the arts and especially to Thai cultural traditions. I’d like any house to be largely of traditional design, but combined with modern conveniences and especially a library that has modern means of protecting its contents. It should also be harmonious with its surroundings and I’d like to retain the pond which partly covers the land.

I may be able to find some ideas from MR Kukrit’s Bangkok home, which has become a heritage museum. I’ve visited it and found it very appealing, especially the ponds in close proximity to the buildings.

MR Kukrit Pramoj's Heritage home

 MR Kukrit Pramoj's Heritage home: Lily pond and pavillion

The work on MR Kukrit’s home is ongoing and you can see the current projects on their Web site .

There are numerous options. For example, should this be a carbon-neutral eco-home? In reality much will depend on the wishes of my relatives and no my budget…!

Siam in the 16th and 17th Centuries: Encountering the French missions


The following is a copy of an article I originally posted on, September 04, 2011:


This opening paragraph comes from Relation du voyage de Mgr. de Béryte, vicaire apostolique du Royaume de la Cochinchine (Account of the Travels of The Mgr. [Bishop] of Beirut, Vicar Apostolic for the Kingdom of Cochinchina), compiled by Jacques de Bourges, published in 1666 and made available as a Google eBook.

Drawing on my schoolboy French, a translation might be:

I do not believe that there’s a country in the world where one finds more religions and whose practice is more permitted than in Siam. Gentiles, Christians, and Muslims, who are all divided into different sects, are at complete liberty to follow such worship as seems best to them. The Portuguese, English, Dutch, Chinese, Laplanders, Peguans, along with people from Cambodia, Malacca, Cochinchina, Champa, and several other places on the Septentrion coast, all have established themselves in Siam. There are nearly two thousand Catholics, the majority Portuguese, who have come from various places in the East Indies, from which they were driven, and have taken refuge in Siam, where they have a separate district making up a suburb of the city…

Thailand’s reputation for openness goes back a long way!  Yet, I was still surprised by the plurality of the situation described here more than 300 years ago. Quite a distinguished case of ‘multiculturalism’ (about which contemporary discussions might suggest that it’s a recent phenomenon!) What is not clear from this picture, though, is whether there developed much in the way of cultural exchange and integration among the communities. The compartmentalising suggests each group went its own way and the various accounts I’ve read so far seem to confirm this and they often relate complaints about each other and contrary points of view, especially among the Europeans.

I’m interested particularly in the East-West encounter, which in this period was concentrated in Ayutthaya, the old capital of what was then termed ‘Siam’ (which appears to have had external origins, which I may try to explain vis-a-vis ‘Thai’ and ‘Tai’ in another post). It was missionary zeal that drove much of the first two centuries of expeditions and settlements – and the religious institutions seemed often to be better informed and coordinated than the state-sponsored trading companies. Today the deep-rooted influence of the West is often characterised in terms of the material trappings of globalisation, but arguably more persistent effects are evident in the education system, where many schools still have a Christian foundation and this is more my focus here as I try to explore its origins and development in these early accounts.

This means having to keep practising my French language skills as most of the written accounts relate to the experiences of the French.  Given this predominance of materials it’s difficult to draw a non-partisan view.    Among the French records, Martin’s accounts are probably the most valuable for the meticulous attention to detail (recording a constant stream of news in the manner of a ledger, even leaving blanks as placeholders for figures that were still to be determined).  However, his background and allegiances do colour his interpretation.   There were a few other travellers who passed by without having involvement, one of whom was the German naturalist and physician, Engelbert Kaempfer – I look forward to reading his A Description of the Kingdom of Siam 1690(Itineraria Asiatica: Thailand). At least the task is made somewhat easier by electronic publishing; in sponsoring large scale digitisation of old texts, Google has been providing marvellous support for this historical research.

Among the few scholars who appear to have studied the materials from this period in depth is Michael Smithies, a historian. He has published extensively and I’ve already availed myself of a copy of his book, A Resounding Failure: Martin and the French in Siam, 1672-93, published by Silkworm Books. The back cover summarises its importance: “François Martin, from his unique viewpoint as director of the French trading outpost at Pondichery, provides a careful analysis of the motives of the persons involved in the French colonizing venture.” And there were many players in this theatre!

Prof. Smithies original studies were in French and his teaching of French (and Indonesian) in Papua New Guinea earned him the honour of being received into the French Order of Academic Palms (I don’t know the UK equivalent, but it’s a notable decoration). In an interview for Bulletin No. 17 Amopa 79, 2005-6, he relates his career development. In particular, he joined the British Council in 1960 and was immediately sent “as a matter of urgency” to Thailand as Director of English studies. He recounts that he had to monitor the work of dozens of teachers, and assist in teaching at different universities in Bangkok.   At that time my mother (then Fuengsin Sarayutpitag), recently graduated from Chulalongkorn University, was teaching English as a foreign language at the newly established Thonburi Technical College. She knew a “Mr. Smithies” and I expect it was the same man. It would be nice if this could be confirmed.

Whilst Smithies was familiarising himself with Thai culture (it was about 10 years later that he started to devote himself to scholarly research in this field), my mother was undertaking the complementary activity of delving into Western culture. And this is the general perspective that I’m trying to keep in mind as I look at this confluence, in which my mother was inextricably involved for the rest of her life.

The Far East continues to be a source of attraction for French missionaries, as evident in a trailer for a film ‘Ad Vitam, La Grande Aventure des Missions Etrangères de Paris en Asie’. The excerpt includes a brief historical explanation by the archivist, Fr. Gerard Moussay, who describes the origins of M.E.P.: in the 16th and 17th Century the Vatican gave the kings of Spain and Portugal the right to nominate missionaries across the world, but with the kings becoming increasingly ineffective in carrying this out, bishops called Apostolic Vicars were appointed, the first two being Mgrs. François Pallu and Lambert de la Motte.

Regarding present day attitudes, Fr. Etcharren, Supérieur Général of MEP, emphasizes that being a missionary means carrying a message that’s “not ours” and requires always humility.  He offers us another glimpse into how the early period is viewed in a short speech he gave on a recent visit to Thailand (see another video), in which they celebrate 350 years in Ayutthaya.  He recounts the arrival of the first missionaries in 1662:

Ce Lieu d’Ayutthaya a été dès le début d’abord un lieu de prière, de contemplation et de réflexion missionaire. Lorsque les missionnaires sont arrivés ici, ils ont commencés par faire une retraite et puis ensuite un synode de réflexion. Les valeurs qui ont émergé lors de ce synode d’Ayutthaya sont des valeurs missionaires qui sont toujours d’actualité.

In English (again I translate):

This place in Ayutthaya was from the outset firstly a place of prayer, contemplation and missionary reflection. When the missionaries arrived here, they began with a retreat followed by a synod of reflection. The values which have emerged from the synod of Ayutthaya are the missionary values which are still current [today].

This gives the impression that there has been continual activity, perhaps suggestive of serene and steady development, but it’s not been like that historically because inevitably there has been a lot of political involvement.

From the accounts of de Bourges (cited above) and others, the Kingdom of Siam might have seemed an opportunity ripe for successful missionary endeavours.   The French were certainly encouraged to invest a lot in developing their presence in the region; Martin relates in 1675 about Mgr. Pallu, Bishop of Helipolis:

This great prelate, whose probity and sanctity Europe, Asia and America admire, had embarked in Siam on a vessel of a private French merchant to go to Tonkin, to devote the rest of his strength to the conversion of the infidels. (II,13, translated by Smithies)

There were many ‘gains’ in some parts, but efforts were in vain in Siam (and Martin merely echoes the uncharitable remarks, which sound like those of a bad loser):

I also learnt from letters from Siam that the French Missionaries made many conversions in Tonkin and Cochinchina.  Things were not the same in Siam, although this place was like an entrepot for the other missions and from where they were supplied with all essentials.  This was attributed to the stupidity of the Siamese, a brutal people to whom one could not explain the mysteries of the Christian religion.” (II, 86, translated by Smithies)

Even so, efforts gathered pace as we also learn from Martin that under Louis XIV, the French were by the mid 1680s emboldened to issue various demands to the Siamese king, Phra Narai, including his conversion from Buddhism to Christianity.   The bishops attempted to win over the king through rational argumentation, but the king simply concluded that Christianity – alongside other religions – was basically good and he felt no need to change his own Buddhist affiliation.

Meanwhile, the French military presence continued to grow until it was all too much for some members of the Siamese court: in 1688 there was a revolution and the French were formally ejected under a treaty of ‘honourable capitulation’. With a formal trade embargo then introduced and enforced for about 150 years, there was a lull in the nation’s engagement with the West – we have to wait until King Rama IV before formal ties with these nations are resumed.  However, I expect that smaller scale developments continued and it may be interesting to find out more about them.