Life in Bangkok at the end of 19 th Century

Luciano Gerolamo Gerini


A characteristic tract, common to all those fascinating peoples is, by no means, their modernity. They are open to the new and to diversity, curious, in the highest and more scientific sense, non affected by distances or the poorness of the communications, absolutely free from the colonialist spirit, which was so widespread then as it is now. On the contrary they were highly provided with a true and fair collaboration mood and with a deep and participating interest in life of the Country which they choose to live in.

I think that’s precisely the true reason why we feel these people are so close to us and compels us to study their lives first and their adventures and intuitive natures.

Indeed I had such a will to know them better, that it drew me to try to give a sketch of the real world in which they lived for such a long time: Bangkok at the end of 19 th Century.


The City


Bangkok, not yet a big city, was reachable from Europe by sail and steamer, especially by French Messageries Maritimes on the line Marseilles - Singapore, and then to Bangkok with one of the frequent Postal -Steamers.

Bangkok’s Harbor was on the Me-Nam River, virtually in the middle of town but, due to the lack of depth of the river, ships were obliged to charge for a half in Bangkok and then go south, passing through the Paknam bar to complete the charge before sailing to open sea.

Populated by a million inhabitants or so, if we count also the villages around it, more, netted by «klongs» (channels) that were true water-streets, in the same way as in Venice, Bangkok had a good (at least for those times) street-net on the ground.

Locomotion means where carriages, horse-driven carts, coaches, victorias, and there was buggies. Starting from 188 also a tramway, and the ubiquitous and widely used trishaws.

Even in those days traffic was frantic. In a very amusing page from the diary of Emil Jottrand, a Belgian - counselor of The Royal Justice Ministry describing the traffic, it is sufficient to substitute for carts, coach, victorias, buggies and trishaws, today words, cars, pickups, motorcycles, buses, tuk-tuks to have a picture of the traffic of yesterday.

The City proper with the old Royal Palace laid on both Me-Nam banks, mainly on the eastern one, was half surrounded by the wide river’s bend but the expansion ran south on the same bank where Consulates, Embassies, Businesses and Public Buildings were continuously springing-up melting European and Thai styles.

This clime and sanitary conditions as described by Col. Gerini in a letter of 1887, to a friend of his: «Healthy clime, one of healthier of the Indies - no epidemic diseases - a little cholera every 6/7 years, but not in an epidemic form and that almost never hits Europeans - time by time a little dysentery and intestinal colic during the hottest months , a little fever, but very rare during rainy-season - cases, but rare, of liver pain - those disease hereupon exposed are absolutely non frequent among Europeans ...» I think this is yet a good sample of those men’s fiber!

The population has split almost in half between Thai and Chinese, with ten percent Indians and Malays.

In 1887 we have almost 450 European residents: the biggest community is German with, more that 130, followed by English, Americans, Danish, with almost the some number of members 50/60.

Italians and «triestini irredenti» (people from Trieste that fled the Austrian rule) - as precisely noted by Col. Gerini - were 18, besides him, a Civil Engineer (Carlo Allegri), an Orchestra Conductor, three mechanic technicians, a wireless operator, and the others mostly business men and civil and public contractors. Among the latter a fellow particularly springs up out of the chorus Mr. Grassi, the most important Civil and Public Contractor of Siam in those times. A real tycoon, with his brother and brother-in-law at the head of a real impressive firm, not only in the civil building field but also in public works: they even built a section of the Thai railways. For few months, at the end of 1886, also Gerini worked as a technical designer and he was and remained always in a friendly relationship with Grassi brothers, when everyone went one’s own way. The Italian Consul of the time... was a Swiss man, owner of one of the most important business firms of Bangkok. Of course there was also an Italian Embassy, but business and civil matters among European residents were ruled only by the Consul as Justice of Peace.


Every day life


It is useful here to give some financial hints. First of all, something which not everybody knows, the exchange currency, as almost all over South-east Asia, was the dollar, not the United States’ one, but the Mexican Dollar.

This coin owes its status to a peculiar characteristic that, in the financial world firmly linked it to the gold parity myth, which made it highly prized. Its value was identical to its weight in gold, thus you could be sure of its integrity and sure to receive the right value.

Siam, of course, had its currency that was, like now, the Bath, in those days internationally known as «Tical». The Bath or Tical had a forced parity with the Mexican Dollar on the basis of sixty cents of dollar per tical. The Italian Lira, those days was worth (more or less like the French Franc) a quarter of dollar or, better to say, a twenty Italian Lire gold coin worth 5.26 Mexican Dollars.

How much earned a European in Siam? From a Col.Gerini letter to a friend we learn «Europeans, employed in His Majesty’s Service or in private jobs, earn a monthly fee varying between 120 and 300 dollars, 150 dollars are regarded a fair fee, 200 an excellent one»

In order to have a useful touchstone I can say that, almost in the same period (1887), the Town Clerk of Cisano sul Neva had an annual fee of nearly two thousand lire, that is approximately 500 Mexican Dollars. We can, therefore conclude that a middle Italian clerk earned in Siam, four times the fee of a colleague of his, at home. Going further in the comparison and having in mind a few considerations on the prices of that time, I was led to assume an exchange rate between the lira at that time and today was based on a multiplier of fifteen thousand: we have now a sufficient outline for continuing to read Col. Gerini’s letter.

«For living here - he went on telling his friend - a single man, in order to live comfortably, spends on average: For renting a wooden house on pillars or a masonry made one of a single floor upraised from the soil, consisting in 2 or 3 rooms, a kitchen, a bath room a.s.o. 15-18 dollars per month - Chinese servant or Chinese cook 12 - Food 1 dollar a day that makes 30 dollars a month - Linen and underwear ironing 5 - Wine, preserves, cigars a.s.o. 20 - Clothing, footwear, a.s.o. 10 - Coach, boat, a.s.o. 10 For a total amount of approximately 120 dollars per month, living comfortably, without nor luxury neither meanness. Being two, husband and wife, is possible to be well off with 150 dollars per month» - and a few lines further - «Proper Hotels for Europeans you can find only one, The Oriental Hotel, where board and lodging cost 2 dollars a day per head»

Another peculiarity of the daily life was the way of settling transactions. The very use of coins was reserved for small shopping with non usual suppliers, the most used way of payment was the check. In order to avoid issuing a lot of checks for little amounts an account was established for every regular suppliers: for every single payment the buyer or his servant, signed a sort of I.O.Y named chit (clear contraction of cheque). The account was settled at regular unfeivals by issuing a check against the return of all «chits» issued. Often we can find similar accounts entertained between people in relationship either living both in Bangkok or in far towns like Singapore or Hanoi and even remote places like Milan, London, Paris; those accounts were settled regularly against exchange of the signed balance sheet.

As for the working hours in Siam (and also now in Thailand), if possible, the hottest middle day hours were avoided. They started very early in the morning, stopping at 10 or 11 and starting work again at 6 p.m. going often on till 11 or 12 p.m.. Rolin Jaequemyns, the Belgian nobleman, juridical advisor of H.M. the King Rama V, in his diary has more than a page of complaints of the habit of The Court and The King’s Counsel to meet from 6 till 10 a.m. and then again from 8 p.m till well over midnight: his Nort-European neat biological clock just couldn’t adjust to such odd working times and often slept him in bed with stress and weariness.

We notice that never in any of his writings, Col. Gerini, for instance, complain about the change of habit to which he was obliged nor do we find any trace of the numerous (and sometimes also harsh) criticisms of the habits and mentality of Siam’s people, that are, on the contrary, so frequently found in the diaries of Belgians, Germans and Englishmen, let alone Frenchmen who were, at the time, frankly hostile to Siam.


Social Life


In Bangkok, Europeans were frequently found at the Oriental Hotel’s halls but also in a few clubs fashioned in the British way. There was the Union Club, one of the most frequented, of United States origin but regularly attended by Italians (Col. Gerini was an ordinary member of it) and Englishmen; there was the German Club, perhaps the one with the greatest number of members, but the most exclusive too; the Danish Club and even an Italian Club, that, however, had a short life. The President was Ing. Carlo Allegri and for some time its secretary was a Mr. Pentimalli, clerk of Siam’s Railways, who, fired for some supposed irregularities wrote a harsh letter to the President, who resented it, and sued for libel in the Consular Court of Justice, represented by the Consul E.H. French, the first such suit ever un of the lawsuit The Siam Observer gave a wide report and eventually Allegri won and Pentimalli was convicted, but given a lenient sentence.

At the Clubs they had conversations, listened and played music. On Siam’s or Homeland’s festivity days they had festivals and balls. With regard to the Union Club, Mr Jottrand, in his diary, complains that often these activities were attended by young women a bit too daring for his taste, but we must add that he was in Siam with his wife. Very often it was at the Club that one spent the hottest hours of the day, the central ones, chatting, doing business, reading newspapers and why not?, having a few drinks.

On that subject, H. E. Gérard André, in his winning foreword to «Old Puket», imagines being at the Kata Boat House in the company of Rev. John Carrington, Mr. Bourke and Col. Gerini and, as the first two eminent scholars sup Coca Cola the third one who prefers a «whisky, settled for MeKong». The picture is very evocative and poetically perfect, but it’s very unlikely that Col. Gerini would have ordered a whisky at all. Indeed, besides champagne, that was very appreciated, even at H.M. Court and by local dignitaries, amongst whom Charles Heidesec was the favorite brand, fashion drinks, amongst our fellow countrymen were a lot more traditional: good white or red Italian wine for dining, between meals it was Vermouth, of several kinds while after meals Fernet, straight, with soda, with mint syrup and or «on the rocks», won the palm.

Not only were the few Italians the only to make use of those products. One of the most important drugstores of Bangkok, run by Italians, was Fusco, who sold, along with the pasta (...how would it be lacking?) the Italian olive oil, its tour de force, as we see in its advertisements. A son of Fusco, for a while, also had an Italian restaurant in Bangkok.

Now let us go on reading another of Col. Gerini letters, this one in 1887 to his father:

«With regard to entertainment, we have had plenty of it these last days and this due to the ascending to the throne of the elder son of the King as actual Crown Prince. We had religious ceremonies, processions, addresses, a ball and a garden party [in English in the letter] or giardinata, as we should call it, but, instead using a foreign term, call it a festival. It took place in the King’s garden, where twenty or so pavilions were built, provided every savoury eatable stuff that one’s fervid mind could imagine. In each pavilion a Royal Prince did the honors of the house, inviting everybody to get in and to happily offer sacrifices to Bacchus or Ceres and to other, more or less divine, Goddess. In a pavilion they made a present to the guests of a flower, in another of a fragrant essence flask, and in others again of cigars, fans, sweets, a.s.o. Of music there was more than enough, I grant you, and it was not lacking nor in the future ones neither, or in that of even more distant future ones. In short, as you can see, also us, we have had our Carnival, nor does the merrymaking seem to have yet an end, since in those days is the Chinese New Year festivity, in a few days more we will have the Siamese one, then the ceremony for the cremation of the late Uncle of the King, later on the Pagoda’s one, then the Elephants hunting and so on and on till next June, even if at this time we will rest»

Obviously, not all the life in Siam was festivals, balls and garden parties. The remarks in Gerini’s diary testify to us days of serious tension, like the months subsequent to the famous French-Siamese gun shooting incident at Paknam, that found him in charge of a Regiment stationed in Bangkok in defence of the Capital City. Also less frivolous are the pages of his Bang-ta-pan diary (beginning 1889) when, in a week, for no less than three times, he writes to have found himself pacing under the water pelting down... from the roof. But even here, the next day, we found him shooting peacocks and then green partridges.

We find also remarks as follows. «Had a boy affected by Kurat disease visited by our doctor. He tells me that it’s a sort of eczema - almost all boys from Bangtapan are affected by it on the legs, face and even on the heel-«


A temporary conclusion


For a number of reasons that it would be too long and out of place to resume here. I am still far away from having an exhaustive picture of the life of Col. Gerini: Uncle Colonel, as he was for me and for the last two generations of Gerini, a personality that, for us, merged the two dimensions of legendary and familiar and of whom, in the end, we really knew very little. The research that I started led me to acquire flashes of detailed knowledge in a general picture of formal and indirect awareness for sure historically correct but faint and colorless the human grounds. Many times in those years I remembered, the last page of «Il Nome della Rosa» where, the then old Adso, comes back to visit the site where there had been a great monastery, and in the remain fire and ruin, still finds here and there, a piece of parchment, a sheet, the margin of a missal, a scorched page, wreckage without meaning for anybody but him, whom, even not having had that possibility, was for a very moment nearer than anyone to gain the knowledge, almost the essence, of the great library and so, for him, those butts of learning become the epitome of the whole library.

As for me the search will go on with the hope that one day I will be able to make public its results, but today, based on the acquired evidences I think it’s possible to draw a first, provisional, conclusion, at least on the specific argument I choose to speak about: how life in Bangkok, at the end of the last century, and I think I can say that, as in any other place in the world, at any time, it depends mainly on the soul and the mood of who express it.

Colonel Gerini, like – I belive I can say most of our fellow countrymen involved in that fascinating adventure, looks at the world around him in a respectful way, with curiosity and with an open mind: looking to new habits and customs so different from his own, he didn’t pronounce summary or biased judgments. Instead he tried to realize the reasons for them and he was able, in this way, to draw parallels and to find connections, more than differences and opposites. He regarded Siam as a new and fascinating Country which granted a lot of good opportunities to smart and keen people not pretending that it should passively get in line with European rules and, on the contrary, was hoping for a fast overcoming of technological gaps that still separated it from Europe and actively worked to reach this goal, in full regard of its ancient traditions.