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Bangkok Then and Now
The stereoscope was invented in the 19th century as a novel way to lend perspective to photographs. Two identical photos taken from slightly offset lenses and then placed side by side in the stereoscope gave the viewer a three-dimensional image of a scene which a single photograph could not convey.

Similarly, this book has adopted a stereoscopic vantage point to portray the changes wrought over a century. Placing a photograph taken at the beginning of the 20th century next to one taken at its end, vividly and succinctly communicates a sense of the dynamic changes - and the enduring elements - that Bangkok has experienced.

Most of the photographs are from the National Archives. Unfortunately, the backs of most of the pictures contain but brief penciled commentary and subsequently-added educated guesses as to subject and location; rarely is the date noted. For the author, the attempt to identify the locale in order to take a matching photo often turned into a detective hunt, trudging through Bangkok's labyrinthine streets and lanes for hours until landmarks began to emerge that matched those in the photos. A frequent reward was the discovery of a neighborhood he hadn't known existed or a chance encounter with Thais who became intrigued by the search and joined in the search. More often then not, hours of perspiration were rewarded with a triumphal "Ah-ha!" as what had been an obscure photo sprang to life as a reflection of the great city's past. Sadly, many of the sites in the photos could not be identified and must remain in the storage cabinet to await the day when a serendipitous stroll through a new district triggers the memory of a photo lying in a file folder.

Another key element of the book is the bits of news from the Bangkok Times of 1900 and 1901. On an idle afternoon in the Siam Society library in 1979 I stumbled across bound volumes-which, alas, have since crumbled to dust-which fascinated me for what they said about an epoch and a city... and for what they tell us about ourselves. I eventually scoured every page of every edition for those two years, culling the most intriguing items, typing them on a broken-down typewriter, and offering them to the readers of the Bangkok Post in a fortnightly column called '1900' and '1901'. I'd always believed the stories deserved a more permanent place in local lore and thus had squirreled them away for 20 years until the arrival of the idea for this book. For me, they most poignantly supplement the photographs give an added dimension to the histories of the end of the 1800s, one not found in books.

This book is by no means a complete history of Bangkok. Vast amounts of printed sources and photographs survive but that material reveals two vastly different perceptions. While the Thai writings and photographs deal mostly with people - notably the royal court - the foreigners were intrigued by things and by places. Thus, this book essentially reflects a European perception of Bangkok, reflecting Western sensibilities and pre-occupations at the dawn of a new century.

© Copyright 2016 by Steve Van Beek
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