Vestiges of European Colonialism

British consul house
Near the former British Consular Building, Chiang Mai, Thailand (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I harbor a certain fascination for the colonial period of world history (1492 to 1961+), because the antics of the colonizers – mostly European –  provide endless examples of how our world to this day still bears the scars of that tumultuous and turbulent time. Few regions of the world escaped colonial domination. Amazingly enough, Siam/Thailand was one of them. Hemmed in one side by the British in Burma and on the other by the French in Vietnam, Siam nonetheless hosted a number of consular officers, including one particularly fascinating soul named W. A. R. Wood (William Alfred Rae Wood), whom I discovered by chance while sniffing out the well-stocked bookstore in the Chiang Mai airport.

Wood went out to Siam in 1896 at the raw age of 18, as a Student Interpreter for the British Consular Service. And he basically never left, marrying a Shan woman (Boon Chitrapricha) and fathering two daughters. Fortunately for us, he wrote a highly entertaining memoir – Consul in Paradise* – before he passed away in Chiang Mai at the advanced age of 91. Mr. Wood writes that his book ”contains no information which is likely to be of practical use to anybody,” but merely consists ”of a little of the froth collected by a cork which has floated for 68 years on the seas of Siamese and Anglo-Siamese life.”

None of this occurred to me when I hired a taxi driver to cart me around in the intense and stultifying heat of Chiang Mai. One of the things I wanted desperately to see was the old British consulate, prominently displayed on Nancy Chandler’s intricate and heavily illustrated map of Chiang Mai. So off we went, speeding by mopeds and other such vehicular nightmares on the street near the Mae Ping River. Creeping along, the taxi bearing the brunt of exasperated honks and close calls with fenders and bumpers, we came upon what could possibly be the old consulate. In my mind’s eye, I’d visualized it as an immense colonial structure, whitewashed, stately, bearing signs of British India.

Instead, according to a Chiang Mai forum, “the consulate was modelled on Britain’s standard foreign office design for tropical countries. Spacious verandahs were installed on the upper and lower floors to catch the river breeze, and the dining room was cooled by a punkah – a wooden board with a fabric fringe suspended from the ceiling that rotated by pulling a rope.” It is now part of a 5-star hotel, the Chedi Chiang Mai.

Flanked by a bodhi tree, its base tied with colorful bands of cloth, celebrating the Buddha, another wooden structure resembled nothing less than a huge tinderbox waiting for a match. It turned out that this was NOT the consulate, but it still was a building worthy of a photo. As Michael Smithies wrote in 2003 in the Afterword of Wood’s book,  “The tale of the British consular building hardly bears telling. In one of the British government’s misguided attempts at penny-pinching, it sold the old building by the river. Then there were legal complications, the details of which are sketchy, and it seems to form part of the compound of a riverside restaurant now, though without being used or repaired. Wood must be turning in his grave.”

Indeed he must be.

Wood devoted very little ink to food, unfortunately, but Consul in Paradise nonetheless proves to be a very engrossing read, providing sympathetic first-hand insight into the culture and beliefs  of the times.

*Another book by Wood is A History of Siam (1924).

© 2014 C. Bertelsen