O’Neil guides her reader around the world that exists behind the modern tower blocks and traffic jams.
Bangkok: A Cultural and Literary History
By Maryvelma O'Neil
Published by Signal Books, 2008
Available at Asia Books, Bt795
Reviewed by Tony Gorton
SPECIAL TO THE NATION
Bangkok's beauty in the eye of the beholder
Her small shrine can be visited behind Wat Mahabute on Sukhumwit Soi 77/7, not far from the On Nut stop of the Skytrain.
Mae Naak's importance to 21st-century Bangkokians is just one of many surprising details in Maryvelma O'Neil's "Bangkok: A Cultural and Literary History", which seeks to help the visitor understand the capital through the eyes of its resident Thais and farangs.
By foot and by public transport, O'Neil guides her reader around the world that exists behind the modern tower blocks and traffic jams, along the way recounting the history and stories behind palaces, temples and markets.
Just off Thanon Maha Chai, a little bridge over a canal takes you to Wat Thepthidaram, or the Temple of the Angelic Daughter, built by King Rama III for his daughter. O'Neil's account of the temple is complemented by the words of the great poet Sunthorn Phu, who was ordained here as a monk: "The gable was cast in Cantonese style, describing various birds in motion" and "Chinese lions were frightful to look at, shaking their bodies and showing their fangs."
Sunthorn Phu saw the destruction of past Thai capitals as being in accordance with the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence. Reading Bangkok this way, O'Neil observes, the more the city changes, the more it becomes what it truly is.
After the introduction's brief, clear outline of Thailand and its capital's history up to the present day, the book is arranged in five parts - City of Kings, City of Temples and Shrines, City of Merchants and Missionaries, City of Art and Food, and City of Modernity.
A chapter is devoted to the Oriental Hotel, where celebrity guests have included authors like Joseph Conrad, James Michener, W Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward. You can look over the Author's Wing of the hotel and then dine at the Lord Jim Sea Food Restaurant, or relax in the gardens with a cocktail and enjoy O'Neil's descriptions of the eccentric, if not downright outrageous, behaviour of many of the owners, managers and visitors.
The stories O'Neil tells of home-grown authors' lives can be thought-provoking. Feminist novelist Suwanee Sukhontha wrote a tale in which a wealthy woman gets out of her car in the middle of a traffic jam and raises her hand to shade her eyes. Her large diamond ring flashes in the sun, catching the eye of a thief, who swoops with a knife, cutting off ring, finger and all.
Spookily, in 1984 Suwanee was stabbed to death while stuck in a traffic jam. The book has a useful glossary, a chronology of the Bangkok kings, an index and a section on "Further Reading". A separate listing of all the many works of literature and travel writing cited and referred to would be helpful; many, especially those by Thai writers, have not been included in the "Further Reading" suggestions. Identification of the photographs would also be helpful, and the quantity and quality of the maps could be improved. A larger-scale map of the city would have been most welcome.
However, this is a stimulating, informative book, strongly recommended by this reviewer. Bangkok is overwhelming and chaotic for most new arrivals but O'Neil manages to bring together the city as a harmonious whole.
For those already familiar with the Thai capital, these pages reveal a fresh perspective on the city through the imaginations of those who have re-created it in the written word.
Tony Gorton has a BA in Southeast Asian Studies from SOAS, University of London and an MA in History from the University of Wales. At present he is adjunct Professor of History at Pepperdine University, Lausanne, Switzerland.