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)

Thainess, ‘Luk kreung’ & The Siam Renaissance

The Siam Renaissance (Thawiphop, dir. Surapong Pinijkhar, 2004) is a movie about a young Thai woman named Manee/Maneechan (Florence Vanida Faivre). She is from the early 21st century and educated in France but with the help of a mirror she is able to travel back and forth in time.

Hence, she visits Siam’s early modern past and then goes back to the present. The movie is adapted from the historical Thai novel “Tawipob” (Two Worlds) by Tamayanti which is also a love story. Thus, the movie can be classified as historical and romantic film because apart from time travelling, Manee finds valuable lessons in life and love along the way with soldier Dhep (Rangsiroj Panpeng).

The Siam Renaissance

The Siam Renaissance (photo credit: viki.com)

Scene from The Siam Renaissance, Manee & Dhep (photo credit: viki.com)

Being in 19th century Thailand at the court of King Mongkut (r. 1851-1868), Manee criticizes the Western influences in modern Thailand. When asked by two nobles at the court, she generally presents the ‘farang‘ (Westeners) and tawan-tok (the West) as a threat to Siamese cultural identity. Thus, it seems that her point of view is in accordance with Thai nationalist discourses.

Although we know that Thailand has never been colonized, there have nevertheless been strong Western influences. Hence, the movie also raises the question what Thainess is or rather what remains of it considering these influences. In addition, it also deals with the question of Thai national and cultural identities and points out ambiguities implied in a modern construction of Thainess which is devoid of Western contamination.

Here is a trailer to the movie. By the way, you may also watch the full movie with English subs here.

Florence V. Faivre in the part of Manee is interesting in the context of this film, since she is luk kreung (Thai-French), considering the fact that Thainess in brought into question by the threat of the farang Other. That is to say, it might appear weird that a half-Thai (who is herself partly farang) expresses nationalistic thoughts. However, we must also note that in the movie the protagonist Manee is supposed to be a full-Thai woman. Nonetheless, since the film dwells very much on her beauty and often focusses on her body and facial features, we may assume that she, Florence Faivre, as a luk kreung, represents the Thai beauty ideal of the day.

Focussing on Manee's beauty (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

Focussing on Manee’s beauty (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

Nonetheless, the half-Thai actress might also reiterate the message for the Thai need to accommodate and to move with the times but above all the movie is about a young woman’s quest for her identity.

Manee's transformation (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

Manee’s transformation (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

This is emphasized in the scene when Manee/Faivre is transformed from a traditionally dressed lady of the Siamese court to a kind of ‘farangized’ guest at the French diplomat’s residence. The film pays very much attention to Manee’s transformation. Thus, she is shown rotating behind a screen until her naked form is revealed. She is then bathed and massaged in a traditional and aestheticized Thai manner. Finally, she is dressed in a Victorian garb.

Manee farangized (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com

Manee is farangized (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com

However, despite her outer appearance, the protagonist Manee is and remains essentially Thai at heart. The point is that she may look and seem to be half-Thai and hence, all the prettier for being so in contemporary Thai viewers eyes. Nevertheless, her core and heart are completely Thai through her performance of the protagonist Manee. For this reason, we might be justified in claiming that the movie is not so much about the ‘farangization‘ of Thainess than it is about the ‘Thai-ization’ of the farang.

The Thai-ization of the farang (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

The Thai-ization of the farang (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

In other words, we may argue that the Siam Renaissance shows how the concept of the powerful West is stripped of its foreignness in order to become part of modern Thai selves. This might seem a controversial topic. What do you think about it?

Yours, Sirinya

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