Friday, February 22, 2013

Off the Beaten Track: Thailand in My Bookcase

We're pleased to host Caron Eastgate Dann as our guest poster this week. Caron is a writer, university lecturer and journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of The Occidentals (as Caron Eastgate James), a novel set in 19th-century Thailand, and the non-fiction book  Imagining Siam: A Traveller's Literary Guide to Thailand. Caron was born in New Zealand and also brought up in the US and the UK. She lived in Thailand in the 1990s, where she worked as a teacher and a journalist, before returning to Melbourne in 1999. She blogs regularly at

I have an entire bookcase devoted to my collection of more than 200 books in English on Thailand. I have novels and short stories, travel writing, travel guides old and new, architecture, politics, history, memoirs by Western expats, popular culture, academic studies, picture books, children’s books and more.

My publisher used some of the books in my collection to form a montage for the cover of my non-fiction book, Imagining Siam: A Traveller’s Literary Guide to Thailand. This was problematic, as it took a year to get all the copyright permissions to use the covers—I even had to find the original designer of my own book’s cover and ask him if we could use it (he said yes).

My bookcase.
For my collection, I scour second-hand stores, online as well as brick-and-mortar bookshops, for likely volumes. I also buy new books in English about Thailand as they are published.

I started to collect these books when I lived in Thailand in the 1990s. The original Asia Books store on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, with its rickety stairs leading to several floors of books, was my haven in those days. I also belonged to the Siam Society, which had a library of 20,000 books on South-East Asia and which would allow me to borrow books for a month at a time.

Before I wrote my historical novel, The Occidentals, set in 19th-century Siam, as Thailand was known then, I did six months of full-time research, which meant reading and indexing all the relevant books I could find. In those days, before the internet, this meant compiling a hand-written index-card system, which you can read more about here.

In this blog, I would like to share with you some of the titles from my treasured collection.

Best find
One of my most exciting finds was a small, innocuous-looking book with a plain purple cover and what looks like the title part of the original dust jacket cut out and stuck to it. I bought this book for $88.80 US in 2006, via the internet from a bookseller in Ohio.

The book is a short novel called Simo: The Story of a Boy of Siam. The author is Pastor Dan F. Bradley, born in Siam in 1857, the son of the missionaries Dan Beach Bradley and Sarah Blachly Bradley. The book was first published in 1899 by The Ram’s Horn Company, Chicago, and is thought to be the first English-language novel set in Siam.

The first novel written in English
that was set in Thailand.
The title page says that Bradley is the president of Iowa College (now Grinnell College), so this edition of the book must have been published during his presidency, between 1902 and 1905, though there are no dates within, only that it is copyright 1899, to the publisher, Fred’k L. Chapman.

Most unusual
Walt Disney’s Siam (1958) is a bizarre book written to accompany Disney’s Oscar-winning 1954 film of the same title in its documentary series The World and Its Inhabitants. Its author, Pierre Boulle, was the same one who had written one of the best known novels set in Thailand, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1952). Boulle is a strange choice, since his dark prose in that novel is the opposite of a Disney treatment.  Boulle went on to write Planet of the Apes (1963).

Walt Disney’s Siam is written as a strange, fantasy-style guided tour, translated from Boulle’s French. It reveals itself to be also an anti-communist tract (the Cold War was at its height at this time). The Chinese in Thailand are presented as living in “smelly hovels” in “dirty and narrow” alleys where they run “miserable shops” (Boulle 1958:48). In comparison, the Siamese are presented as a simple yet happy people (close to the European stereotype of the noble savage), whose educated class speaks Western languages and wears European clothes.

I find this to be quite a sinister book, despite (or perhaps because of) its Disney logo that conjures associations with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. My copy appears to have been a library book, and inscriptions in the front say “Bangkok 1964” and “Presented by Mr. and Mrs. R. Davey, October, 1981”.

The elephant in the room
Yes, it’s Anna Leonowens, the school teacher who was employed to teach some of the royal children and wives of King Mongkut in the 1860s, and whose story was made famous in the romanticised musical, The King and I.

Leonowens has been vilified for telling lies about herself and for sensationalising aspects of her time in Thailand and criticising the King. I don’t want to elaborate on that here, as I have written about Leonowens extensively in Imagining Siam and in an upcoming article in the Journal of Oriental Studies Australia.

I do have multiple editions of her books, including The Romance of the Harem and The English Governess at the Siamese Court, though my budget doesn’t extend to purchasing a first or early edition.
I also have many books about Anna, including both editions of the most recent biography, Bombay Anna, by the US academic Susan Morgan. (Get the second edition published by Silkworm Books, which has interesting updates on the first  edition, published by University of California Press.)

My most interesting vintage book in this section is actually more about Anna’s son: Louis and the King of Siam, by W. S. Bristowe (Chatto & Windus, 1976). This is the first book that alerted me to the fact that there was more to Anna’s real story than was portrayed in the largely fictional The King and I. I borrowed this book many times from the Siam Society in Bangkok in the early 1990s, then made do with a photocopy that a friend kindly made and bound for me. I was delighted when, in 2007, internet shopping allowed me to buy a copy of the first edition for myself.

Most beautiful
I have glorious picture books on Thai architecture, food, maps and travel. Three of my favourite in this category are:

Thai Graphic Design, compiled by Anake Nawigamune (River Books, 2000).
I bought this book while visiting my old home town of Auckland, New Zealand. My friend from school days, Yvette, was taking me on a tour of the best second-hand book shops there, and I saw this book on display in the window. I am interested in the design of logos, film branding, and so on, so this suited me perfectly and has a marvelous retro feel to it.

Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture, by Philip Cornwel-Smith, photos by John Goss (River Books 2005, second edition 2008).
I worked with the author of this book, Phil, at Bangkok Metro magazine in the late 1990s, so I was curious to see his book. It didn’t disappoint. Apart from Phil’s amazing attention to detail in finding out about myriad aspects of Thai popular culture, the funky design and hundreds of photos are terrific. When I worked at Metro, one of the many mysteries of life in Thailand that we liked to discuss was why the cats all had short, twisted tails, and why it was so hard to find out why. I was amused to see Phil had researched this phenomenon, and in Very Thai he concludes that it is a genetic deformity, and, thankfully, not a result of mutilation.

The Grand Palace, by William Warren, photos by Manop Boonyavatana (The Office of His Majesty’s Principal Private Secretary, 1988).
I sourced this book online and was lucky to find a pristine copy. Warren and Manop were given extensive access to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, to many areas not open to the public, including the Inner Palace, or Nang Harm. The large-format book contains intriguing photographs inside the old residences of the many wives of King Chulalongkorn, who ruled from 1868-1910, and who was the last Thai king to keep what westerners call a “harem”.

Travel guides
It’s difficult to find old travel guides. This is because they are often updated regularly, and people throw away their old copies and buy the new one. Luckily, I kept my first Lonely Planet guide to Thailand (1990). It’s interesting to compare that older volume with the later guides. Discussion of guides formed a chapter in my book, Imagining Siam.

I was lucky enough to find a copy of a 1950 book, A New Guide to Bangkok, published in Bangkok by the Hatha Dhip Company and compiled by Kim Korwong and Jaivid Rangthong. It is a revised, illustrated edition of the original 1949 volume that was an almost-instant sell-out.

It’s great that some publishers in Thailand are reprinting classic old guides as well as travellers’ memoirs, and these are an important part of my collection, too. The Kingdom of Siam 1904, by A. Cecil Carter, for example, was reprinted by the Siam Society in 1988, while The 1904 Traveller’s Guide to Bangkok and Siam, by J. Antonio, was reprinted by White Lotus in 1997.
Antonio’s guide reminds us how difficult travel used to be in tropical countries such as Thailand:

The Occidentals and its German translation.
At a place called Puei Heng, some six days’ journey by bullock cart from Pak Preo through the jungle, there are numerous mines of stephanite…Travel in the interior to the foreigner is fraught with great difficulty and inconvenience…For instance, whenever business necessitates a visit to the interior, the system employed is to procure kwien [sic] (bullock carts) in which travellers deposit their luggage while they make the journey on ponies and, by easy stages, meet the caravan at certain spots where they may tie the pony to the back of the kwein in which they may accommodate themselves in case of rain” (Antonio 1997:57).

I could go on and on about my collection: amazing memoirs by intrepid explorers in centuries gone by; modern travel tales of east meets west; historical and contemporary novels released by publishers that recognise Thailand can be the setting for a million fabulous stories; a small but growing collection of writing in English by Thais; superbly researched scholarly books; histories and collections of historical photos.

Many of the older books I have reveal Western prejudices and assumptions of superiority that seem so wrong today. Yet I believe these books should continue to be read uncensored, because they are part of a literary and cultural history that should not be rewritten, but that can provide valuable lessons in our progress (or otherwise) toward non-racist thinking and a more inclusive, peaceful world. 


  1. Dear Susan, I understand your passion for Thailand and admire your willingness to dig deep for your research. I suspect that your passion extends to these cherished books themselves, their own backstories. I really connect with your piece as I too have a beloved travel library and sometimes just walk by and say hello to my books. I look forward to reading your work!

    1. Yes, you're right, I do love the books themselves. Sometimes they have some interesting marginalia, or an inscription that makes them all the more intriguing.

    2. Oh, that's a reply from me, Caron—strange that it doesn't say so. I must have hit the wrong button!

  2. Caron, like Diana I can relate to your passion for collecting books about your cultural setting. I have a bookshelf filled with books about Iran (lots of cookbooks, too). The oldest one, though, is a German translation of British explorer Freya Stark's travelogue about her trip to the Valley of the Assassins in the 1930s. Thanks for sharing your bookshelf with us!

    1. Freya Stark wrote an interesting introduction to Leonowens's book The Romance of the Harem, renamed Siamese Harem Life, in 1953.
      Iran fascinates me and I would love to travel there one day. I had a friend from Tehran who gave me a different view of the country to the stereotypical one we so often see in the popular media. And cookbooks—yes, I have a fair few Thai cookbooks.

  3. What a wonderful look at history and culture through the various facets of English books about a place. I collected many similar books when I lived in Pakistan about the sub-continent. I agree that the original works need to be read uncensored and un-edited because they give insights into the global culture of the time.

    I visited Thailand years ago and loved it. I can't wait to read your novel, The Occidentals.

    Having grown up around the globe myself, I have made it a point to keep tabs on the countries I once called home. Since so many of the countries I lived in are now off limits due to the political situation, one of the ways I've kept a connection is through literature.

  4. Thank you for your kind comments, Jenni. Yes, I agree, travel writing is a great way to keep in contact with a country. I know very little about Pakistan, but I've been thinking lately that I should read some writing about it. What would you recommend? Afghanistan also fascinates me. I have a beautiful Folio Society edition of Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, so I must get around to reading it.

  5. Dear Caron
    I am an Australian photohistorian former Senior Curator Photography National Gallery of Australia and would love to hear any snippets about photography in Thailand in the mid 19th to mid 20th century especially related to Francis Chit the Thai professional photographer Anna Leonowens is a complex character, no worse than mot travel writers of the time. Gael Newton