Kanchanaburi stages a musical based on the life of Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu
He died some 35 years ago but Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu – a Thai merchant and member of the underground resistance known as V Organisation during the Japanese occupation of Thailand during World War II – is still remembered in his homeland, and no more so than in Kanchanaburi.
His story was brought to the small screen in 2013 in the Thai PBS drama “A War Hero Named Boonpong of Death Railway” with Ruangsak “James” Loychusak portraying the hero. Now, four years on, James is back, this time playing Boonpong in the musical “Death Railway Hero the Musical” as part of Kanchanaburi’s annual sound and light extravaganza.
“Kanchanaburi’s River Kwai Bridge week takes visitors back to the construction of the historical bridge and the lives lost. This year, for the first time, the activities will include a musical. The aim is to remind us, particularly children and youth, of a true war hero, Boonpong,” says Bavornsak Vanich, deputy governor of Kanchanaburi.
“Ambassadors from nine countries have accepted our invitation to attend the opening ceremony.”
The musical has been put together by Index Creative Village, which has a wealth of experience in organising the event.
“The more we researched the life of Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu, the more we were amazed by his courage. He received the highest praise from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom who presented him with the George Cross and rank Lieutenant Colonel of the British Army. Australia initiated a foundation, ‘the Weary Dunlop-Boon Pong Exchange Fellowship’, which offers scholarships for Thai medical students, as an expression of gratitude for Boonpong’s help to the prisoners of war. We are very proud of this Thai hero, who risked his own life to help others. So, we decide to create this musical based on his story,” says Kriengkrai “Mok” Kanjanapokin, the company’s founder and chief executive.
Boonpong was a Thai merchant and member of the underground V Organisation during the Japanese occupation of Thailand in World War II. Boonpong used his contract with the Imperial Japanese Army as a cover to supply the canteens of Allied POWs working along the Kwai Lo River. He smuggled medicine, money and contraband food to the POWs and is credited with saving thousands of lives during the building of the Burma Railway.
Although Thailand made peace with the Japanese after being invaded, the underground movement remained active. One prisoner recalls how Boonpong was the merchant with the lowest prices and the smallest mark up. However, he performed other services risking his life and those of his family. He lent money, provided extra medicines and ran messages. With access to medicines, the death rate of the prisoners was reduced from five a day in May 1943 to one a week by the following November.
After the war, Boonpong was attacked by the Thai police and Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop, another hero of the POW camps, ordered a report on the condition of the man who had done so much for prisoners of war. In 1947 he was facing dire financial difficulties and a POW association organised a collection for him. Shortly afterwards Boonpong started the Boonpong Bus Company. In 1948 he was awarded the MBE by the British Government.
The Australian medical scholarship was later named in honour of him and Sir Edward, both of whom were portrayed in the documentary, “The Quiet Lions”, in 2006. Boonpong also figures prominently in “Beyond the Bamboo Screen”, a collection of anecdotes by Scottish POWs.
James is joined on stage by Candy Rakkaen, who plays his wife Surat and Chomputhip “Eclair” Temthanamongkol as their daughter Panee. Stephen Thomas portrays Sir Edward.
“When the drama was being shot for Thai PBS, I had the chance to meet Boonpong’s daughter Panee, who was an elderly lady by then. I also visited the war hero’s family in Kanchanaburi and Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. The TV production reflects the brutal cruelty, suffering and adversity as well as a hidden moral. In a scene from Hellfire Pass, the prisoners of war worked drilling the mountain for a train to pass through all day and night long. They were hungry and at risk from wild animals as well as from the cholera epidemic,” says James.
“The musical is a little more difficult for me as I have to sing much of the dialogue in front of a live audience.”
The show is under the overall supervision of Marut “Tor” Sarowat and features a script by Thanavadee Stityuthakarn and music composed by Sarawut Lertpanyanuch. Nipon Wannamahin directs.
“I would like all Thai people to see this light and sound musical and acknowledge the high morals this hero displayed during the war. How would it have been without Boonpong? We can’t deny the cruelty of war but at the same time we can celebrate the morals, courage and sacrifices of our war hero, Boonpong,” says Tor Marut.
On stage from tonight
- “Death Railway Hero the Musical” starts today and runs through December 3 at River Kwai Bridge, as part of the River Kwai Bridge light and sound week in Kanchanaburi Province.
- Tickets cost from Bt300 to Bt1,000 at www.ICVPapp.com/kanchanaburi.
Find out more by calling (083) 989 6780 and (083) 989 6824.