The Bunnag Family: Thai People of Persian Decent

It is a fact that in the period of the Ayutthaya  Kingdom, i.e. the early 17th century, Persian people migrated to Thailand. They were mainly traders and merchants. These people of Persian decent were referred to as ‘Khaek Ma-ngon’ (แขกมะหง่น) or ‘Shia Muslim’ which is ‘Khaek Chaosen’ (แขกเจ้าเซน) in Thai. Over the centuries, most of the Khaek Ma-ngon converted to Buddhism and were integrated into Thailand’s society.

Consort Samlee Bunnag [Rama 4] with her daughters around 1880, (photo credit: teakdoor.com)

Consort Samlee Bunnag [Rama IV] with her daughters around 1880, (photo: teakdoor.com)

The Bunnag family

Some of the Thai families of Iranian decent have been very influential in Thai public life. In this context, the Bunnag (บุนนาคfamily is most well-known and established up until today. Their ancestor is Shaykh Ahmad Qomi who came as a merchant to Ayutthaya in 1602 and stayed in Thailand for 26 years.

Yarinda Bunnag (photo bk.asia-city.com)

Contemporary actress, singer & architect Yarinda Bunnag (b. 1980). She was in the movie The Red Eagle starring alongside Ananda Everingham (photo: bk.asia-city.com)

The Bunnag family was acknowledged as a Siamese Royal Family in the early Rattanakosin period. They were most powerful in the 19th century. The first patriarch of the Bunnag, Akka Mahasena, was a close friend and confidant of Rama I who married five of Bunnag’s daughters as royal consorts. Thus, the Bunnag also influenced the succession in the Chakri dynasty. However, in the late 19th century the Bunnag’s power was restricted by King Rama V (Chulalongkorn).

Bunnag sisters and children sharing a meal on the veranda of the king’s residence at Dusit Palace. (image courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand, quod.lib.umich.edu)

The Bunnag family, sisters and children sharing a meal on the veranda of the king’s residence at Dusit Palace. (Image courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand, quod.lib.umich.edu)

The Bunnag daughters were royal consorts for centuries. Even during the time of King Chulalongkorn’s reign, the Bunnag sisters were concubines at the Royal Court. In this context, you may remember my article about Dara Rasami who was a Princess of Chiang Mai at the Siamese Court.

The Bunnag sisters, royal consorts, notice that they all wear a short hairstyle*

The Bunnag sisters, royal consorts at the time of King Chulalongkorn (Image courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand, quod.lib.umich.edu)

Dis Bunnag (Prayurawongse,1788–1855 ) was a son of Akka Mahasena. He was an important political figure and played a decisive role in the ascension of King Mongkut (Rama IV).

Prayurawongse, Dis Bunnag (photo credit: Watprayoon, wikimedia.org)

Prayurawongse, Dis Bunnag (photo: Watprayoon, wikimedia.org)

He became the kingdom-wide regent under King Monkut being granted the title of Somdet Chao Phraya Borom Maha Prayurawongse. One of his sons, Chuang Bunnag, became the regent for King Chulalongkorn.

Sri Suriyawongse, Chuang Bunnag (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

Sri Suriyawongse, Chuang Bunnag (photo: wikimedia.org)

Finally, we may say that the Bunnag family has been very influential in Thailand’s history. There are in fact some other Thai families of Persian decent which trace their ancestry back to Shaykh Ahmad. These are for instance the Ahmadchula families.

Yours, Sirinya




Phuang Malai: Thai Floral Garlands

One of the most beautiful and artful things in Thailand is the Phuang Malai (พวงมาลัย). This is the Thai traditional garland which is the most common of all the country’s floral creations. These traditional garlands range from simple to highly complex arrangements and are placed as offerings on shrines, temples or are given to special guests as a sign of respect. What is more, the Malai is also frequently used on auspicious occasions.

Phuang Malai

Phuang malai garlands being constructed in Pak Khlong Talat flower market, Bangkok (photo: Irene2005, wikimedia.org)

Phuang Malai garlands being constructed in Pak Khlong Talat flower market, Bangkok (photo: Irene2005, wikimedia.org)

The Thai garlands are created by stringing various flower combinations together that depends on seasonal blooms and on the artist’s imagination. The mixture usually includes one or more fragrant flowers like jasmine and rose buds.

Thai garlands at Bangkok Pak Khlong Talat (photo: Deror Avi, wikimedia.org)

Thai garlands at Bangkok Pak Khlong Talat (photo: Deror Avi, wikimedia.org)

It is said that the first recordings of this kind of Thai floral art dates back to the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). He mentioned fresh flower garlands in his work about the “Royal ceremony in 12 months”. Later in the Rattanakosin Era, the Thai flower garland became an important ornamental ceremonial object on special occasions.

Worshipped elephant at Wat Kham Chanot near Ban Dung, Thailand (photo: Mattes, wikimedia.org)

Worshipped elephant at Wat Kham Chanot near Ban Dung, Thailand (photo: Mattes, wikimedia.org)

There are different kinds of Malai pattern. For example, there is ‘Creature Malai’ which means that the floral arrangement has the shape of an animal. Then there is the ‘Chained Malai’ which is made from rounded Malais connected to form a chain and similarly, there is the ‘Braided Malai’ which means that two rounded garlands are connected and decorated with a pine-shaped malai on each end.

A Malai (photo: Garland in Thai culture, FB page

An artful Malai (photo: Garland in Thai culture, FB page)

In the ‘Vine Malai’ the garlands are arranged in a vine shape. A garland is a ‘Laced Malai’ when silver and golden threaths are inserted inside and outside the wreath. A special Malai is the orchid one which means that only orchids are used to create the garland.

Thailand Bangkok Pak Khlong Talat flower market (photo: ovedc, wikimedia.org)

Floral arrangements at Bangkok Pak Khlong Talat flower market (photo: ovedc, wikimedia.org)

In Thai culture, the Malai is commonly used as an offering, a gift or souvernir. Thus, we can generally distinguish between three main uses of these garlands which are Malai chai deaw (มาลัยชายเดียว), an offering to show respect at a shrine or temple, for instance. Then there is Malai song chai (มาลัยสองชาย), this is when a traditional Thai garland is given to and draped around the neck of a person to emphasize the importance of that person.

Pak Khlong Talat - flowers and vegetables market, nightime, Bangkok (photo: Deror Avi, wikimedia.org)

Pak Khlong Talat – flowers and vegetables market, nightime, Bangkok (photo: Deror Avi, wikimedia.org)

Finally, there is also the Malai chum rui (มาลัยชำร่วย) which is a souvenir malai. This is a small garland given to people as a souvenir. Thus, Malai chum rui may be compared to the lei in Hawaiian culture. Today, the Malai may also be a fashionable accessory (though many Thai people dissapprove of it). For instance, Thai fashion designer Rotsaniyom use small floral garlands for shoe decoration.

The Rotsaniyom Malai collection uses traditional Thai flower garlands as shoe decoration

The Rotsaniyom Malai collection uses traditional Thai flower garlands as shoe decoration (photo: Rotsaniyom, FB page)

At the Bangkok International Fashion Week 2015, I also spotted some interesting and edgy interpreations of the Thai floral garland. Caption this.

Edgy incoporation of the phuang malai at the BIFW 2015 (photo: Amat Nimitpark)

Edgy incoporation of the phuang malai at the BIFW 2015 (photo: Amat Nimitpark)

A hairstyle and face decoration inspired by Thai floral garlands, BIFW 2015 (photo: Amat Nimitpark)

A hairstyle and face decoration inspired by Thai floral garlands, BIFW 2015 (photo: Amat Nimitpark)

Phuang Malai as an edgy fashion accessory BIFW 2015 (photo: Amat Nimitpark)

Phuang Malai as an edgy fashion accessory BIFW 2015 (photo: Amat Nimitpark)

Summing up, we may say that Phuang Malai has various forms and functions in Thai culture. In my opinion, it is the most versatile, elaborate and amazing Thai art form. Hence, next time you’re in Thailand, get yourself some nice flower wreaths 🙂

Yours, Sirinya




The Thai Human Imagery Museum

The Thai Human Imagery Museum (พิพิธภัณฑ์หุ่นขี้ผึ้งไทย) is the first museum of fibreglass models in Thailand. It is located in Nakhon Chaisi, Nakhon Pathom Province, Thailand. In fact, it is not exactly a wax museum since the models are all created from fiberglass. The reason for this is the hot tropical climate of Thailand. All models look amazingly authentic in every part of their bodies, including skin, limbs, eyes and even hair.

Thai Human Imagery Museum

The enlightened monk Luang Poo Mun Bhuridatta.Considered the true and prime leader of all monks dedicated to Kammatthana practice (Buddhist insight meditation) in Thailand

The enlightened monk Luang Poo Mun Bhuridatta. He is considered the prime leader of all monks dedicated to Kammatthana practice (Buddhist insight meditation) in Thailand*

The figures mainly depict scenes from Thai life and culture from past to present. For instance, there are representations of the daily life of farm labourers, slaves, gamblers and even a man reading a Thai newspaper. What is more, there are various Thai history sets. Among them are for example the Chakri Dynasty Kings. Furthermore, there are models of famous enlightened monks, poets, politicians, aristocrats and artists. In addition, some prominent foreigners of history can also be found there, among them for instance Mahatma Gandhi.

Mahatma Gandhi - Father of the Indian Nation*

Mahatma Gandhi – Father of the Indian Nation*

This museum was created by artist Duangkaew Phityakornsilp and a group of Thai artists. They spent more than ten years creating the life-like fibreglass figures. Their aim was to promote and conserve Thai tradition, art and culture (‘Thainess’) for future generations. Thus, I would like to focus on some highlights of the exhibition.

The Royal Images of Chakri Dysnasty King Rama I – VIII.*

The Royal Images of Chakri Dynasty King Rama I – VIII.*

These are the Royal Images of Chakri Dynasty King Rama I – VIII. The first King, Phra Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke, who was the first Chakri Dynasty King, established Bangkok as the capital city of Thailand in 1782.

King Chulalongkorn*

King Chulalongkorn*

In 1868, Chulalongkorn was coronated at the age of 15. He was determined to abolish slavery. Hence, King Chulalongkorn bought a number of slaves with his own money and set them free as gesture of goodwill so that his subjects might follow his example. Thus in 1905, he declared the end of slavery in Thailand. It took 37 years to achieve this noble aim.     

Abolition of slavery was King Chulalongkorn's aim*

Abolition of slavery was King Chulalongkorn’s aim*

The museum also introduces traditional Thai games. Thailand is known for many games such as the famous Manohra Play, Kite Flying, Post Seizing Monkeys (Ling Ching Lak) and Fish Entering Net (Plaa Long Uan) which date back to the Sukhothai period. Among the young, these games are still popular even today. Additionally, the museum presents four sets of Thai traditional children’s games which are called a’ree-ree khao sarn’, ‘maeng mum’, ‘cham chee’ and ‘khee chang chon kan’.

Khee Chang Chon Kan, a traditonal children's game*

Khee Chang Chon Kan, a traditonal children’s game*

There are also traditional Thai games for adults such as ‘Bald Head Smashing’ (“Hua Larn Chon Kan”). This game is very old and recorded in the “Sumudkhot Kham Chand”, a noted Thai literary piece from the age of King Narai.

'Bald Head Smashing', "Hua Larn Chon Kan”*

‘Bald Head Smashing’, “Hua Larn Chon Kan”, depiction at the Thai Human Imagery Museum *

However, the museum is also concerned with arts. For instance, you find there a figure of the famous musician Khru Ee-ah Sunthornsanan. He was the first leader of the Musical Group of the Publicity Department. His songs became very popular by the name of “Suntharaporn”.

Khru Ee-ah Sunthornsanan, the first leader of the Musical Group of the Publicity Department*

Khru Ee-ah Sunthornsanan, the first leader of the Musical Group of the Publicity Department*

Summing up, we may claim that the Thai Human Imagery Museum can be compared to Madame Tussauds. However, it is less concerned with popular than with traditional culture and with preserving and presenting Thainess 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

*photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram@knack66

(Reference: rosenini.com)




The Old Customs House – Nostalgia in Bangkok

The old Customs House is a group of historic buildings located right at the banks of the Chao Phraya River at Soi Charoen Krung 36. It is also referred to as Sunlaka Sathan. In the past, this House was the gateway to Thailand because ships from foreign countries had to pass through this customs area when they entered the city. The House is also called ‘Rong Phasi’ since the tax was referred to as ‘Rong Phasi Roi Chak Sam’.

The Old Customs House in Bangkok

Customs House in Bangkok*

Customs House in Bangkok*

After Thailand’s economy had changed from monopolized to free trade since the Bowring Treaty in 1855, King Rama V (r. 1873-1910) gave orders to built the Customs House in 1888. Hence, the building was designed in Neo-Renaissance-style by the Italian architect Joachim Grassi (1834-1904) and completed around 1890.

Bang Rak fire station in Neoclassical-style*

Bang Rak fire station in Neoclassical-style*

Thus, it can be considered a significant building constructed in a Western style and belonging to the early period of modern architecture in the reign of King Chulalongkorn. In addition, the building is very prominent because of its proximity to the Chao Phraya and the fact that the complex is reflected on the surface of the river. Nevertheless, some decades later, in 1949, the custom office was transferred to a new port at Khlong Toey.

An example of fine architecture*

Rundown today but an example of fine architecture*

Consequently, the House was transformed into the Bang Rak fire brigade station. Since then the building has been neglected over the decades, it is rundown today. However, it can still be considered a fine piece of architectural nostalgia in modern and busy Bangkok. Although the fire station appears to be decayed, it is still full in function.

The fire brigade station*

The fire brigade station*

What is more, this place is a popular setting for photographers and some people choose this place to take wedding photos. In addition, it has also been a popular backdrop for movies. For instance, some scenes of ‘Killing Fields’ directed by Roland Joffé (1984) and Wong Kar Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’ (2000) were filmed there.

A popular backdrop for photographs and movies*

A popular backdrop for photographs and movies*

Nowadays the building is owned by the Natural Park Public Company Limited and Silverlink Holdings Ltd. It is still unclear whether this building will be renovated or demolished to give way to a more contemporary structure. In my opinion the building is certainly worthy of preservation.

A colourful door*

A colourful window*

However, the Customs House in Bangkok, the abandoned building with its historical, architectural and aesthetic value will charm you at a first glance for sure 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

*photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay

(Further reading: Alisa Dechar, Preliminary Study of The Existing Conditions of The Customs House For Adaptive Reuse, Silpakorn University 2005)




Dara Rasami – A ‘Foreign’ Princess at The Siamese Royal Court

Dara Rasami (in Thai: ดารารัศมี, also spelled ‘Rasmi’), born in 1873, was a Princess of Chiang Mai and a descendent from the Chet Ton Dynasty. Her parents were King Inthawichayanon and Queen Thipkraisorn Rajadevi of Chiang Mai. Dara Rasmi Na Chiang Mai, as she was officially called, became a princess consort of Siam by marrying King Chulalongkorn (Rama V of Siam). They had an only daughter called Vimolnaka Nabisi who, however, died at the young age of only 2 years 8 months.

Later, the Princess was promoted to the rank of High Queen ‘Chao Chom Manda Dara Rasami’.

Princess Dara Rasami

Recently promoted to the rank of High Queen, Dara Rasami poses for a formal portrait in her hometown, Chiang Mai. Note that she wears a phasin [skirt] made from a Burmese court textile calle*

Recently promoted to the rank of High Queen, Dara Rasami poses for a formal portrait in her hometown, Chiang Mai. Note that she wears a phasin [skirt] made from a Burmese court textile calle*

King Chulalongkorn’s marriage to the Princess of Chiang Mai was mainly a strategic alliance. In the 1860s and 70s Siam became increasingly concerned that the British might colonize the Kingdom of Chiang Mai since they had already taken neighbouring Burma. In addition, there was also a rumour that Queen Victoria intended to adopt Princess Dara. Hence, the Siamese court became alarmed that the British wanted to take over Lanna. Consequently, the King’s brother, Prince Phichit Prichakorn, was sent to Chiang Mai to forward the King’s proposal to the princess. In 1886, Dara became a concubine to the King, entering the Siamese Royal Court.

Dara Rasami in front of her dresser, unwinding her hair. All images courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand*

Dara Rasmi in front of her dresser, unwinding her hair. All images courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand*

However, the princess who came from Chiang Mai was not really accepted at the Grand Palace but rather disparagingly referred to as a ‘Lao Lady’. She and her retinue were also teased that they ‘smelled of fermented fish’. Nonetheless, Dara and the ladies in her entourage were not to be deterred by these circumstances. In fact, they stuck to their northern style clothing and long hair. Thus, they did not adapt their appearance to the fashion of the Siamese court where the ladies wore short hairstyles at that time.

A princess with 'exotic appeal' and ethnic distinction*

A princess with ‘exotic appeal’ and ethnic distinction*

As a matter of fact, Dara’s appearance, her way of clothing and her extremely long hair, differed greatly from that of the Siamese ladies at the court. Thus, her ‘foreignness’ or ‘exotic appeal’ is strikingly on display in a series of photographs taken by Erb Bunnag who was also a royal consort.

The Bunnag sisters, royal consorts, notice that they all wear a short hairstyle*

The Bunnag sisters, royal consorts, notice that they all wear a short hairstyle*

Dara is portrayed in front of a dressing table and mirrors which evoke an atmosphere of intimacy. The viewer gets the impression that he is in the private sphere of the princess. It is also interesting to note that Dara’s face is often reflected in the different mirrors and thus seen from different angles, a fact that she did not seem to be aware of.

Dara with loose hair and face reflected in different mirrors*

Dara with loose, floor-length hair and face reflected in different mirrors*

These photographs stress the ‘foreignness’ of the princess and point out that she is different and does not really fit into ‘the otherwise ethnically homogenous environment of the Siamese royal court’ (Leslie Woodhouse). It is primarily her amazingly long hair that signals Dara’s ethnic distinction from the Siamese ladies. This fact is particularly on display in these photos. In a broader sense, this presentation also indicates what can be considered siwalai (‘civilized’), adjusted and what not.

Long hair as a signal of ethnic distinction*

Long hair as a signal of ethnic distinction*

In other words, Dara is presented as feminine, however, her way of dressing and styling does not seem to be in accordance with Siamese ‘siwalai’ standards. Thus, it is hinted at her ethnic inferiority. Nevertheless, she stayed more than two decades at the court but a few years after King Chulalongkorn’s death in 1910, Dara asked King Rama VI for permission to go to Chiang Mai for retirement. Her wish was granted and she returned to her hometown in 1914 where she continued her royal duties to the Lanna people. She died at the age of 60 in 1933.

Here is a video clip summing up the most important stages in Princess Dara’s life.

Finally, we may say that Princess Dara Rasami can be considered a ‘foreign’ and ‘other’ concubine at the Siamese Royal Court. In fact, she had the status of ethnic inferiority which is also displayed in contemporary photographs.

Yours, Sirinya

(*photo credit: National Archive of Thailand, pictures retrived from quod.lib.umich.edu)

(Reference: Leslie Woodhouse, Concubines with Cameras: Royal Siamese Consorts Picturing Femininity and Ethnic Difference in Early 20th Century Siam, Volume 2, Issue 2: Women’s Camera Work: Asia, Spring 2012)




The Concept of ‘Siwalai’ in Late 19th Century Siam

You’ve probably come across the term ‘siwalai‘ (ศิวาลัย) in some way or other. Just think of the ‘siwalai‘ dress that we’ve dealt with in the context of traditional Thai dresses or the Siwalai garden (Suan Siwalai, สวนศิวาลัย) which is situated in the Grand Palace, Bangkok. The Siamese notion of ‘siwalai was first introduced in the reign of King Mongkut (r.1851-1868) and can be regarded as a modified version of the English word ‘civilized’.

Boromphiman Mansion is part of the Grand Palace and is situated in Siwalai garden (photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org)

Boromphiman Mansion is part of the Grand Palace and situated in Siwalai garden (photo credit: Andreas Hörstemeier, wikimedia.org)

The Notion of Siwalai

Thus, the meaning of this term ranged from etiquette to material progress in the sense of new bureaucracy, infrastructure, electricity, judicial system as well as dress codes, grooming and appearance. However, it is interesting to note that the Siamese quest for ‘civilization’ was primarily a transcultural process in which Western practices and ideas had been adapted, transferred and incorporated into the Siamese setting.

King Chulalongkorn and Family, dressed in Victorian fashion (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

King Chulalongkorn and family, dressed in Victorian fashion, around the 1890s, photograph of a painting made more than 100 years ago (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

In other words, this led to the phenomenon that Western and Siamese aspects were mixed and combined together. For instance, this is shown in clothing: ladies of the court had assumed the hybridized fashion of combining Victorian lacy, high-collared blouses with traditional jongkraben pantaloons (wrapped trousers). Queen Saowapha (also written ‘Saovabha’) who was the chief consort of Chulalongkorn also wore this kind of mixed fashion.

Queen Saowapha, clothed in part Siamese, part Victorian fashion (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

Queen Saowapha in 1902, clothed in part Siamese, part Victorian fashion (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

For this reason, ‘siwalai’ might be regarded as a technique that could provide Siam with equally civilized standards to the West. Nonetheless, additionally to its display of civilized standards to the West, it also served as a local legitimization for the symbolic powers of the Siamese elite. That is to say that there was a gap between a ‘siwalai’ Westernized public domain and a private domain which remained Thai and local. However, generally we may say that the quest for civilization served as a project for self-confirmation as well as of constructing occidentalized images of Siamese prestige. Thus, we may also claim that Siamese siwalai never had the intention to imitate all features of Western civilization.

It is more the case that distinctively Western features were adapted in order to create something new that was nevertheless completely Siamese. Hence, things and aspects labelled as civilized were considered as prestigious and authoritative. Referring back to the example of fashion, the following clip shows how Western fashion was adapted to fit in a new Siamese style considered as ‘civilized’. What is more, it is also interesting to note that today the Siamese Fashionista group tries to encourage young Thais to dress traditionally again.

Finally, we may claim that siwalai was in fact a kind of elite mimetic resistance to the West and not an attempt of farangization and westernization respectively. What do you think about this topic?

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Rachel V. Harrison & Peter Jackson eds. The Ambiguous Allure of the West. Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, 2010)




Ekaterina ‘Katya’ Desnitskaya – The Russian Princess of Siam

Ekaterina ‘Katya’ Desnitskaya was born 1886 in Lutsk, Ukraine. The story of her marriage to the Siamese Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath has intrigued many people over different generations, since a marriage between a Russian lady and a Prince of the Siamese Royal Family was considered impossible and unimaginable at that time. Hence, the couple and in particular Katya, who is also called the Russian Princess of Siam, had to face a lot of opposition and also undisguised anger of the Siamese Royal Family. In fact, their marriage was regarded as a “a national dynastic catastrophe” quoting Chakrabongse’s full brother Prince Pradjadhipok.

‘Katya’ – Russian Princess of Siam

Ekaterina Desnitskaya who became the Russian Princess of Siam (photo credit: viola.bz)

Ekaterina Desnitskaya who became the Russian Princess of Siam (photo credit: viola.bz)

Thus, who was the young Ukrainian lady who made such a bold step? Since Katya’s parents died relatively early in her life, she went to St. Petersburg in 1903 where her older brother Ivan studied.  Thus, as young teenager, she already graduated as a nurse from the Sisters of mercy courses.

Ekaterina met Prince Chakrabongse around 1905 when he had already been living seven years in Russia and had even become Colonel of the Russian Army. As a matter of fact, the Prince spent most of his youth in Russia because his father King Chulalongkorn sent him there. The King was concerned with modernizing Siam, for this reason he sent some of his sons abroad.

Ekaterina Desnitskaya and Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanadh (photo credit: viola.bz)

Ekaterina Desnitskaya and Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath (photo credit: viola.bz)

Prince Chakrabongse immediately fell in love with Katya. However they were separated for a while because of the Russian-Japanese war where Katya served as a nurse. Finally in 1906 the couple married in an Orthodox church in Constantinople. This was very unconventional since the Prince was a Buddhist. Nonetheless, the Prince had not asked his parents’ permission to marry the young Russian lady because he knew that they would be vehemently against their alliance.

Certainly, you remember my recent article about Prince Chula Chakrabongse – well, then you know that he is the only son of Prince Chakrabongse and Ekaterina who was born 1908 in Bangkok.

Ekaterina Desnitskaya and her son Prince Chula (photo credit: songkran.eu)

Ekaterina Desnitskaya and her small son Prince Chula (photo credit: songkran.eu)

However, Katya was not acknowledged by Prince Chakrabongse’s parents and hence, she became a kind of outcast of the Siamese Royal Family. Nevertheless, Katya was able to ‘build bridges’. She began to wear Siamese dresses, mastered Thai language and after all, the King grew fond of his grandson Prince Chula and accepted him as ‘flesh and blood’. This was because the King felt that the little Prince looked more Thai than European.

Prince Chula and his mother Katya (photo credit: blog.i.ua)

Prince Chula and his mother Katya (photo credit: blog.i.ua)

After King Chulalongkorn’s death Katya was awarded official status and became Mom Catherina Na Phitsanlunok, named after the province that her husband was responsible for. About ten years Katya lived happily in Bangkok with her husband Prince Chakrabongse. However, finally the Prince had a love affair with his young cousin Princess Chavalit. Thus, Katya decided to get divorced and go to Shanghai in China where she helped refugees from the Soviets- it was the time of the Russian revolution.

A short while later in 1920 Prince Chakrabongse died at the age of 37 and Katya returned to Thailand to attend the funeral. Nevertheless, it was also a tragic situation because she was not allowed to take her son, Prince Chula, with her. Mother and son were separated and both were very unhappy and sorrowful about this. Prince Chula did not become King but was sent to Britain where he spend his youth and studied while his mother married again and moved with her new husband, engineer Harry Clinton Stone, to the USA. Mother and son remained in contact by constantly writing each other letters.

Summing up, we may say that it was a tragic love and marriage between Katya and Prince Chakrabongse. Their granddaughter, Narisa Chakrabongse, wrote their story down and the result was the novel ‘Katya & the Prince of Siam’ published in 2013 by River Books Press.

What is more, there is also a ballet version of their story. Here is a short clip to give you an impression 🙂

Finally we may say that Katya, the Russian Princess of Siam, certainly was a courageous and strong woman. For her time, she, a European lady, made a daring decision to marry a Siamese Prince and to move to Thailand where she was a stranger. In addition, Katya, who is also the great-grandmother of Thai ‘royal rocker’ Hugo Chakrabongse Levy, proved to be very flexible and adapted herself to the ways in Siam.

Yours, Sirinya




Thai ‘Royal Rocker’ Hugo Chakrabongse Levy

Last time I was in Thailand, I went to the house of my grand cousin and that was the first time I saw a music video of the Thai singer and songwriter Hugo Chakrabongse Levy who is an internationally acclaimed musician. The wife of my grand cousin asked my if I knew Hugo and she told me that he is related to the Thai royal family. Hence, I became curious to know more about this artist because he is part-Thai and proficient in both English and Thai. Thus, he sings songs both in English and Thai language as well.

Royal Rocker Hugo*

Royal Rocker Hugo*

Hugo Chakrabongse Levy’s Story

Hugo Chakrabongse Levy, born 1981 in England, is the great great grandson of King Rama V (Chulalongkorn). Hugo was raised in Thailand and his Thai name is Chulachak Chakrabongse. His artist name is the mononym ‘Hugo’.

Hugo Chakrabongse Levy*

Hugo Chakrabongse Levy*

In fact, Hugo’s mother is M.R. Narisa Chakrabongse, the daughter of Prince Chula Chakrabongse and granddaughter of ‘Katya – The Russian Princess of Siam’. Hugo’s father is the British-Jewish songwriter Allen Levy. When Hugo’s parents divorced, he moved with his mother to Thailand. In his adolescence, he became a singer in different bands and also worked as an actor in various Thai soap operas. As a matter of fact, Hugo’s music was not very popular in Thailand at first when he started his career with the band Siplor in 2001. However, he was recognized in the USA and became famous. Today, the CNN even calls him the ‘royal rocker of Thailand’!

Making independent music at first in Thailand, Hugo later turned more to mainstream music, claiming “take The Doors, The Beatles or even our very own Carabao. They are all popular mainstream bands and no one would ever doubt their credibility. That’s what I want to do.”(Hugo quoted from CNN)

Hugo became particularly recognized when his song ‘Disappear’ was featured on Beyoncé’s album “I Am…Sasha Fierce”. Hugo also featured the song ‘Disappear’ beautifully with Thai-Belgian singer Palmy. Hence, Jay-Z signed Hugo to his label Roc Nation. Thus, Hugo became very popular with his cover of Jay-Z song “99 Problems”. It was Hugo’s first single and it became a great blues song because it was additionally featured in the romantic comedy ‘No Strings Attached’ with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher. What is more, Hugo has been in some commercials like for instance this one for JASPAL.

In 2013, Hugo had the starring role in Young Bao the Movie which is about the life and times of Thailands most famous Rock band Carabao.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjQsuEoDXh0

Today Hugo lives both in the USA (New York) and in Thailand. In fact, he feels very much attached to Thailand. He says that he wants to come home and enjoy an early retirement with his family and friends in Thailand.

One might be justified in saying that Hugo is not a typical Thai singer. However, do you like his music and do you accept him as a Thai musician?

Hugo Chakrabongse - example of a distinctively mixed heritage (img.kapook.com)

Hugo – example of a distinctively mixed heritage (photo credit: img.kapook.com)

I think Hugo Chakrabongse Levy is kind of special because he is recognized in the Western world and also in Asia. Hence, he is one of the Thai celebrities with mixed origin. In my opinion, this is a great and special achievement 🙂 He seems to feel home in both worlds.

Yours, Sirinya

*photo credit: Hugo, FB page




John Thomson: Pictures of Old Siam

“His [Thomson’s] photographic style can be perceived from the beauty of his works. Back then when all he had was natural light, he still managed to get the beautiful photographs”

(Paisarn Piemmettawat, the exhibition’s organizer’s assistant)

John Thomson: the crown prince of Siam (Rama V)

John Thomson photography: the crown prince of Siam (Rama V)

John Thomson Photography

Recently I’ve come across an interesting article in the Bangkok Post. It is about a photo exhibition of the Scot J. Thomson, born in 1837, who was one of the first photographers in the Far East.

young Siamese prince

A young Siamese prince

The National Gallery on Chao Fah Road in Bangkok now shows 60 of Thomson’s black and white photos of old Siam. These photos were taken in 1865 – 1866. The exhibition is called “Siam Through The Lens Of John Thomson”. It started on 10. January and runs until 28. February 2015. You have free entry to this exhibition.

Siamese nobleman Racha Chaya

Siamese nobleman Racha Chaya

The photographer arrived in Bangkok on 28. September 1865. Thus, the exhibition marks the 150th year since his arrival in Siam.

Siamese Buddhist bonze.

Portrait of a Siamese monk, 1865

While staying in Siam after living and travelling some other places in Asia like Ceylon and Malaysia, Thomson took photos of the King of Siam, members of the royal court but also of ordinary people. Hence, he also documented village life.

L0055805 Siamese boatman, Siam [Thailand].

A Siamese boatman with his oar.

 

siamese teenager with topknot

A Siamese youth with traditional topknot

What is special about Thomson is that he was the first (Western) photographer to be allowed into the Grand Palace and to take photos of King Mongkut, Rama IV. The King was very much impressed with his skill of taking photos.

800px-Thomson_King_Mongkut_of_Siam-762x1000

King Mongkut, Rama IV, in European attire, 1865

 

L0055542 The 1st King of Siam, King Mongkut, in state robes, Bangkok

King Monkut in traditional Thai attire and regalia of royalty, 1865

Hence, there is a very special picture of a procession taken in front of Wat Pho because the situation was that the King called everyone to stay still so that Thomson could take photos of this event. In fact, this is a rare picture of a historical moment that displays the greatness of Thai tradition.

king of siam and procession

The king and his procession in front of Wat Pho

What is more, Thomson also took photos of the city of Bangkok and Ayutthaya.

the chao phraya river as seen from the main spire of Wat Arun

The Chaophraya river viewed from Wat Arun

thomson_1

The pictures in this post are all taken from the Wellcome Library, London. They also have more photos of Thomson’s travel to other parts of East Asia.

Well, the exhibition is over but there is now a new book called ‘Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson’ published by River Books. If you are interested in history, old Siam and John Thomson’s photography, I strongly recommend you check out this work 🙂

Yours, Sirinya