Channel 3 TV’s production of Si Phaendin (Four Reigns) Part I by Paul Trafford

Si Phaendin (Thai สี่แผ่นดิน) by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj is a defining work of Thai culture, originally produced as a series of newspaper columns in the early 1950s.  It’s a form of historical fiction that conveys aristocratic life adjusting to change during four reigns from Rama V (King Chulalongkorn) through to Rama VIII (King Ananda Mahidol).

Chulalongkorn, Queen Saowapha & sons (photo credit quod.lib.umich.edu)

Chulalongkorn, Queen Saowapha & sons (photo credit quod.lib.umich.edu)

We follow the fortunes of the central character, Phloi (alternatively spelt ‘Ploy’), initially as a young lady brought up in the Inner Court of the Grand Palace under the tutelage of a princess, before leaving this sheltered existence to set up household life and family outside.  Many of the attitudes to culture and tradition, especially of older generations of Thais, can be better understood through this novel. It has been rendered in English as Four Reigns by ‘Tulachandra’, published by Silkworm Books some passages are translated verbatim, but others are summarised, quite often omitting conversations, and in some cases there is a re-ordering, so it’s quite liberal!

M.R. Kukrit also wrote dramatic works so he knew about performance and the narrative lends itself to theatre; hence in Thailand there have been many productions on stage and screen. In particular, there have been several TV productions that extend to dozens of episodes, generally following the text closely.  (Google Translate is quite reasonable for getting the gist.

Si Phaendin (credit: thaiticketmajor.com)

The cast of Si Phaendin: The Legend Musical (credit: thaiticketmajor.com)

With Four Reigns in hand, there’s an opportunity for students of Thai language to practise listening and observing many facets of Thai life as told through this the story.  Such is its reputation as being of public service that the Channel 3 TV production has been made available on YouTube, all 79 episodes. The actors speak clearly and, what’s more, the online version even omits all but ‘ticker tape’ advertising!  Of course, we can’t cover such a mammoth series in one or two blog posts, so here we shall explore a selection of scenes that highlight encounters with Farangs (Westerners) or Farang culture and their respective influences.

But before delving into the story, let us introduce the theme tune, which is indicative of the nostalgic tone towards times gone by. The lyrics were gleaned from another YouTube post.

With the help of a Thai family friend, an approximate translation is:

“People have life and a body,

having been born [human],

whether as a woman or a man.

The great benefactor,

more than any other, is the realm.

 

It is the land for living beings,

dependent on each other and living together.

Whoever is like the land

is kind to life from birth to death

 

In times of suffering that come by,

they say that in such distress it is like

our suffering visits the body;

when the body is in distress, our suffering is nearby.

[Yet] we can be happy, however we are.

 

When times are good, we are well

and in times of distress, this should ease.

Your benevolence is great and long-lasting;

our duty is to repay the realm.”

<repeat last 2 verses>

Now we come to the scenes.  We’ll introduce them as a series of themes, roughly in chronological order, with references to TV episodes in parallel with chapters and page numbers in the Silkworm edition of Four Reigns given in square brackets [].

The first intimations of Western influence appear in the form of various customs and objects that have been introduced by King Chulalongkorn.  Regarded as one of the greatest Thai monarchs, he made considerable effort to engage with the West, travelling widely through Europe around the turn of the 20th century and sending many of his children to be educated there, leading to significant modernisation.

The royal visit to Europe in 1897 is given as a backdrop in Si Phaendin at a time when Phloi is more absorbed in other matters; as narrated at the start of chapter 8, the elders of the court are sceptical:

“… Now it was being whispered in the Inner Court that His Majesty Phra Chao Yu Hua would be leaving for Europe!  Many elderly people refused to believe it.  It was unheard of, they said; no Thai king had travelled to that remote continent, it was not traditional, not according to royal custom…”

It’s depicted a bit differently in Episode 7 of the TV series, where we see Phloi and her close (and mischievous) friend, Choi, attending to Sadet, the princess, in her quarters.  It’s presented as a dialogue, where Choi seeks confirmation from Sadet about the plans for Phra Chao Yu Hua (the king):

We see a few material results of these encounters, which by and large don’t flatter the Europeans!  For example, we see Phloi offering a box of cigarettes to Sadet, but she becomes annoyed when she sees only two compared with a full box the day before [Ch. 8, p. 106]:

(How times have changed!  The smoking has been censored – was that in the original series or in the upload to YouTube?)

Yet, there was significant and useful technology and ‘know-how’ that could be learnt from Farangs.  On one occasion Sadet enlists Phloi to help her sort through a collection of old photographs [Ch. 10, p. 121].  This is depicted in Episode 9:

Not included in the English translation, but presumably in Si Phaendin, Sadet explains that some were taken by Farangs because in those days there weren’t people around who knew how to do it, but then the Farangs came to teach.

(Phloi is not very attentive as she is distracted by romantic thoughts.)

And the narrative describes how at times this knowledge challenged existing belief systems, particularly astrology.  In Episode 20 [Ch. 18, pp. 248-9], there is an account of the sightings of Halley’s comet, which orbited the Earth in 1910.  Prem, Phloy’s husband, wakes her up to take a look:

For most Thais such a sight had major astrological significance, striking fear into the hearts of the superstitious, particularly in relation to the monarchy.  Hence Phloi wonders anxiously, “What’s going to happen?” Prem, who has been keen to ingest Western knowledge, tries to reassure her, “Probably Nothing … I’m told by people who study farang textbooks and know about these things that it is a natural phenomenon, though a rare one.  Even so, I can’t help feeling uneasy either.”

A bit later, he adds some detail, explaining that it orbits every 75 years .But it’s only the subsequent announcement that King Edward VII of England has passed away, that Prem and Phloi feel relieved.  Their reflection is typically Thai: Prem reports he’s gone to heaven … and must have accumulated much merit that even Thais could see the sign.  Phloi wonders why this should be so, at which Prem explains that Britain has many colonies – India, Burma, etc., so they need an astrological sign for the whole world [Ch. 18, p.250].

In a later scene, Phloi experiences very severe labour pains and becomes unconscious [Ch. 20, p.270].  The Thai midwife seemingly is unable to help any further, so Prem brings in a Farang doctor, who saves her life. Four Reigns describes that when she comes to, she first sees a beard!  But the TV series only shows the scene downstairs with Prem woken up by the baby crying before the doctor (who does have a beard!) comes into view to give the news: he congratulates on the birth of a girl, but this is the last child that Phloi can have (Praphai):

Being English he’s served a nice cup of tea!   (As he’s not a native speaker and has just a bit part, this is probably not easy for the actor.)

In addition to scientific knowledge that resulted from contact with Europe came industrialisation.  One of the key areas of modernisation was transportation, which developed very rapidly.  Thus we come across the humble bicycle [Ch. 12, p.151].  Naturally, the privilege is first granted to royalty, so Sadet has a go, gamely assisted by Choi, but she doesn’t find it easy, so she then hands her bike to Choi.

Phloi herself is subsequently the recipient of her own bike which comes via her brother Pho Phoem – “one of the best makes (German, you know)”, he grins.

He’s rather coy about how he came by it (it’s not something he could afford) as it’s a delicate matter; Choi eventually gets him to admit that it’s from Phloi’s (at that time unwanted) suitor, Prem.

Then there’s the railways, described in the preceding chapter, p. 135.  At the instigation of the British the first surveys were carried out in the late 19th century, but the Thais were wary of undue influence so Germans were also brought in as a counterweight and very soon the railway network was brought under State control.  (For historical details see: Peter Sek Wannametthee’s PhD thesis (1990)

So His Majesty the King is seen taking the train from Hualamphong for the trip to Bang Pa-In, the famous floating palace towards Ayutthaya:

 

However, that train is anachronistic by about 50 years!  On screen we’re seeing the Pacific 824 made by the Japanese following the end of the Second World War.  It’s still very popular for outings on special occasions.

But perhaps the most significant addition (because Thailand’s railway network never grew very much), was the motorcar.   Zooming ahead to the reign of Rama VI (King Vajiravudh), Prem is a keen member of the king’s entourage and embracing just about any innovation and finding an excuse for often expensive and odd fashions.  Thus, in Episode 22 [Ch. 19, p. 262], we find Phloi in conversation with her brother Pho Phoem, flush with his newly awarded title of ‘Luang’. She hears a horn and asks, “What’s that sound?”.  Venturing outside, she sees her husband arrives in a newly acquired chauffeur-driven car.   Phloi asks if it belongs to her husband.  Conscious that it might not be approved, he insists “It’s ours.”

(That’s another anachronistic prop: I’m no expert, but it looks more like a 1930s (Austin?) model, but the period in question is just before start of WW1, i.e before 1914.)

For more insight about Si Phaendin and its adaptation check out Paul Trafford’s blog.