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Bangkok Then and Now
Review Quotes
This is what reviewers said about Bangkok Then and Now.
Outlook Section, The Bangkok Post,
page 4, December 11, 1999. A Labour of Love

Author deserves a medal for presenting to
Thais of all generations a record of their city then and now
Reviewed by Normita Thongtham

Steve Van Beek's Bangkok Then and Now is a window on the Bangkok of yesteryear, when there were more canals than roads and people traveled by boat, rickshaw, or trams drawn by horses.

It is not a book about the author talking with people about what Bangkok was like at the beginning of the century and writing about it.

It is a book about the people of that period reaching out across the century to tell us about themselves, their lifestyles, the city at that time, and their problems, through small news items gleaned by the author from the crumbling pages of the newspaper of the day, the Bangkok Times.

It is about people whose perceptions of their city and their concerns about life are, in many ways, the same as our own. Then, as now, people were complaining about traffic congestion, climate change, and air and water pollution, which only goes to show that nothing has changed much during the past 100 years.

The book, in fact, has three elements: a well-researched commentary in the easy-to-understand, straight-to-the-point writing style of the author, arranged in short chapters that wrap around the little news items in neat boxes, and pictures of Bangkok Then and Now.

The black-and-white pictures of Bangkok in the past are placed alongside colour pictures showing what the same places look like at present.

All three elements - the commentary, the news items, and the pictures - combine to make the old Bangkok jump back to life.

And thus we see people - the men wearing hats and sandals and the women in jongkraben holding baskets of betel nuts - walking on streets empty of traffic save for a few rickshaws or cow-pulled carts. Even Rajadamnoen Avenue was devoid of traffic in the 1900s.

Then came the automobile, and we see people gathering along the street to gawk at a passing motorcar.

Even then there were many foreigners in Siam, which was Thailand's name at the time, but they were not tourists - there were no tourist facilities then. They were Chinese immigrants who came here in search of greener pastures, Persian traders, Arabic mercenaries brought by the French, Japanese hired as advisers by the Royal Court, Laotians, Mons and other travellers who had fallen in love with Thailand, married local women, and settled here.

There were Europeans and their families, either sent by their companies or to work in the foreign legations.

We can almost sympathise with them as they coped with the tropical heat--men in their suits and women in their petticoats and long skirts--as there were no air conditioners at the time, no refrigerators, and no cultural diversions. Mail from home took months to arrive, and a home leave meant one full year because the trip by ship alone took two to three months.

Then came progress: electricity, telephones, more roads, and new buildings. Even as recently as 1933, we can see the Siam Society sitting all by itself in an empty field. Then we are jolted into reality as another picture shows the Siam Society today, hemmed in by its towering neighbours on busy Sukhumvit Road which, at the beginning of the century was a rural area considered too remote from the city centre, Rajadamnoen.

Rajadamnoen Nok Avenue itself was built in 1900. A news item in February 1900 says, ``We understand that the new boulevard running from the City to Dusit Park is to be opened by His Majesty on the 1st of April and the opening will be the occasion of considerable festivities. The new road is to be called Thanon Rajdamnern or King's Walk.''

Some captions are little stories--and gems of information--by themselves, such as the one that accompanies a scenic picture of people rowing boats in a rural setting and the sculpture of a dog's head adorning a bridge.

The caption reads: ``The view south from the Chang Rongsee Bridge over Klong Lawd on Bamrungmuang Road. The area owes its name `Rongsee' to the proximity of a sawmill that once operated nearby. The `Chang' (Elephant) of its name, refers to the Saphan Chang or `Elephant Bridges' that were built after the reign of King Rama I. By 1887, 15 of them spanned canals on key city roads. They were so named because they were sturdy enough to support the weight of elephants... The original bridge was modified in 1887, and again in 1910. Decorating both ends of the Chang Rongsee Bridge are sculptures of dog's heads, indicating the Chinese lunar year in which the span was rebuilt, 1910.''

So, now you know, those of you who have been wondering what the sculptures of dog's heads are doing there at the bridge. But the little boats are nowhere to be found in the colour picture beside the old one; instead, cars line the road that now runs along the canal.

Bangkok Then and Now gives us a glimpse of Bangkok at the end of the 19th century, the city's perimeters in the year 1900, the street life, the inhabitants, and the municipal services available at the time.

It tells us what it was like to live in Bangkok at the beginning of the 20th century, and gives us a window on an antique age, the European quarter, and the lifestyles, fears and concerns of the people who lived in the city, both Thai and foreign.

But as I read the book, I see another picture: that of the photographer and author walking along the back alleys of Bangkok, an old picture in hand, painstakingly searching where it might have been taken.

In all, the book is illustrated with 108 old pictures and 73 new ones, plus maps of the Bangkok of 1901 and its modern-day version. It was a real labour of love for Steve Van Beek to trace each and every one of all the old places, so that he could present to Thais of all generations a record of their city then and now.

As a friend commented, ``Only Steve could do this. He deserves a medal.Bangkok Then and Now

The streets in the new pictures are not so jam-packed with cars as in real life during rush hours, but this is a minor omission. The photographer must have taken the pictures on a Sunday or a holiday, when there are less cars on the streets, otherwise he wouldn't have been able to take his pictures.

As the old millennium ends and a new one begins, Thais need something to remind them of the past so that they can understand the future better. Bangkok Then and Now serves this purpose brilliantly. The book is a precious legacy that every Thai can leave their children--and their children's children.
Glimpses of what made news in the early days:

* On climate change: ``It seems doubtful if even that useful personage, the oldest inhabitant, can remember so lengthy an extension of cool weather as we are having at present. Instead of a few mango showers in January and February, and otherwise unbroken drought and heat till into May, we have right along the weather that one expects after the breaking of the monsoon. There certainly has not been anything like it for the past 15 years. Is the climate change and the terrors of the hot season becoming a thing of the past? Or shall we have to pay for the present pleasant weather by a long delay in the coming of the monsoon?
- March 1901

* Air pollution: ... the nuisance created by the manuring of market gardens in Bangkok will soon be done away with. The evil smell caused by the manure... often completely spoils some of the best drives in Bangkok and it is injurious to the health of those who reside in the immediate neighbourhood of these gardens.
- July 1900

* There are some expert hat snatchers up in the City. On a tramcar last evening, one of them paid his three att and, when the car was passing the Badman store, snatched a toupee off the head of a Japanese passenger and had disappeared before anyone could stop him.
- September 1900

* After reading the instructions... for treatment of persons struck by falling electric wires, a good many people will object to being resuscitated and will prefer death. The process is to lay you on your back, and pull your tongue vigorously in and out of your mouth at a rate of twenty times a minute for an hour. This is the penalty we pay for the telegraph, the telephone and the electric tram. Let us go back to the dear old days of the two-penny paper and the stage coach. It was a much happier world then, and nobody seized your tongue and pulled it out twenty times a minute in the name of humanity.
- August 1901

* Advertisements: ``The Bangkok Times has the largest circulation by far of any newspaper in Siam. It is also borrowed and stolen more than any other periodical ever published. No bogus advertisements are found in the Bangkok Times.
- July 1900

* Warnings: ``We have received a visit from Mr G.M. Schilling, an American who says he is walking round the world for a wager, and one of the conditions of it is that he must not pay for anything. We have heard that yarn before and we have seen lots of people who do not pay. Usually, they do not walk, either.
- February 1901

* Words of advice: ``When a man claims to be a reasonable man and assures you of the fact in a voice that can be heard for the distance of four blocks, don't question the assertion: Go away.
- June 1901

* Announcements: ``The royal charter for the Royal Bangkok Sporting Club has now been granted and the negotiations completed.''
- September 1901

* Fears and concerns: There have been five deaths from smallpox in Windmill Road (Silom) in the past four days and there are at present at least a dozen more cases of smallpox now in the same street. The majority of those attacked are children. There is also one case of cholera. Bangkok is, of course, never free from smallpox but at present there seems to be something of an epidemic.
- January 1900
And from "The Nation":
"Written with remarkable wit and tied together deftly with the magic of a master storyteller"
- The Nation

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