What if we could go back 120 years to ask Bangkok residents what their life was like then? How did they (notably the foreigners) regard the city, what were their fears and concerns, how did they entertain themselves, how did they earn their living, how did they travel, how did they stay healthy?
Of course, these residents are long gone. Fortunately, they recorded their daily lives in the Bangkok Times newspaper, which was issued each afternoon. Steve Van Beek has excerpted 160 pages of these articles from 1890 to 1899 and folded them between two covers to produce News from the 90s: Bangkok 1890-1899. What makes them particularly poignant is that these are not modern historians looking backwards but are the words that flowed from the pens of the reporters who experienced them. It gives their observations a particular relevance.
Revealed is a vivid city with a dynamic populace that displayed a profound engagement with events, a fascination with novelty, and a hope for the new century. The reporters brought the era alive with perceptive writing leavened by droll humour. Listen to people much like ourselves telling in their own words the challenges of grappling with a complex world.
It would be a mistake to think that these people were simpler versions of ourselves or that they were quaint foreigners adrift in a tropical paradise. Instead, they were fully-formed people who were fascinated by their surroundings, with new technology to better their lives. Their enthusiasm was often untempered by caution (or armed with our hindsight) as suggested by their numerous and often bizarre applications of electricity and radioactivity to age-old ailments.
It was also the period when railroads began stitching together the capital and distant provinces and when the faraway world was impinging on their daily lives. As they reached out, they often collided with that world, and found their sovereignty threatened by the colonisers. King Chulalongkorn’s state visit to Europe in 1897 was an attempt to convince foreign leaders that Thailand was an advanced nation that was quite capable to handling its own affairs, thank you. All these were reported faithfully in the Times’ pages.
Steve Van Beek previously explored Bangkok in the pages of his highly-regarded Bangkok Then and Now where, as the title suggests, he juxtaposed photos of the city taken at the advent of the 20th century with pictures taken in 1999. What they revealed were the often-dramatic changes that have taken place over a century.
Among the book’s most popular items were news stories taken from the Bangkok Times newspapers of 1900 and 1901. These proved so popular that he returned to the library to read every issue from 1890 to 1899, extracting stories that often read like serials: a situation unfolds over weeks as new information emerges, much as we deal with the world today. As such, it makes for fascinating reading not only about an antique age, but about our own as well.
Interlarded with serious stories were snippets that reveal a finely-honed scepticism, rendered with humour. These are a few examples of both: A man was badly upset yesterday in jumping from the Bangrak express. A piece of durian held under his nose brought him round, however, and though much affected he is still alive.
June 16, 1899
The King in the city On Tuesday afternoon His Majesty was out inspecting the improvements that are being made in the City, and it is whispered that he was not slow to suggest plenty of others that might be made with advantage. The King got over a good deal of ground, both driving and walking before he returned to the palace at six o’clock.
April 28, 1898
Eleven children apiece, says a German savant, is the whole duty of woman – two before 20 years old, five between 20 and 30, three between 30 and 40, and one thereafter.
August 31, 1896
A day or two ago a thief stole a couple of iron boxes belonging to Mr J Lawson, of the Royal Railway Department. Any Asiatic found wearing six white shirts and $150 [$3,947 today] worth of jewellery, and possessing 370 ticals, is probably the man.
May 4, 1892
The Mongkhoan Theatre billed a special programme for Thursday and a crowded house was the result. If very long – the villain was not unmasked nor virtue rewarded until 8 o’clock the following morning – the play was a very good one.
September 25, 1897
The sedulous manner in which divers of our readers, for month after month, ignore trivial obligation connected with this paper is worthy of a more exalted cause. The forgetfulness should not be carried to too great a length, however, because, besides being inconsiderate, it puts us to great inconvenience. We do not like to be continually referring to so delicate a matter but it is essentially necessary for the success of our business.
April 17, 1894
A Nevada hunter spent three months looking for a grizzly bear, and the man’s relatives have spent three months looking for him. They found the bear.
May 7, 1892
Connie Gilchrist, the burlesque actress was married to the Earl of Orkney on the 19th ultimo. It is stated that no fewer than four real, thoroughbred British noblemen are engaged to marry ladies on the variety stage. One can scarcely fancy that the usually somewhat chequered career of a music-hall artiste is an altogether adequate training for the drawing room but things are changing rapidly nowadays, and from what we humbler folks occasionally hear concerning our aristocracy, the introduction of an average serio-comic lady into the upper circles may even have a refining and elevating tendency.
August 27, 1892
Old gentleman (dictating an indignant letter) – Sir my stenographer, being a lady, cannot take down what I think of you; I, being a gentleman, cannot think it; but you, being neither, can easily guess my thoughts.
May 30, 1899
Very few sporting men in the Far East can claim such a record as that of a French missionary at Meutong, on the coast of Cochin China, who is said to have bagged no less than 40 tigers during his stay there. He is said to have shot as many as two tigers in three days, and in some cases to have potted his victims from the verandah of his house.
September 21, 1892
The attention of the public is directed to the notification, appearing in another column, with regard to the repairs of the roadway in Oriental Avenue. Individuals intending to mutilate themselves with a view to damages are warned that their cases will be considered by a cold-hearted Danish tribunal.
April 13, 1892
To press one’s hat to one’s bosom has long been regarded on the stage as a respectful act in approaching a superior, and one that is especially appropriate to lovers when declaring their passion. Who would imagine that this simple and spontaneous movement could be turned to the purpose of obtaining a surreptitious portrait? A firm of opticians have devised what they call a “Hat Detective Camera” which is craftily constructed with this object. It is provided with a complete apparatus weighing only 2½ ounces, which can be fitted into a hat, the operation being conducted through the ventilating hole. The moral for those who do not desire to be photographed is – beware of hats with holes in the crown.
November 30, 1892