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Thursday, January 28, 2016

WAS ANNA WHY THAILAND AVOIDED COLONIZATION?

Thailand is one of my very favorite travel sites, and I have been there more than 25 times.  Bangkok, of course, but on the Eastern and Orient Express to Singapore and through the sugar industry up north into Chiang Mai, where I managed to avoid malaria and lectured to the engineering students of Chiang Mai University.  I've also given short courses and talked at King Mongkut's University of Technology and Chulalongkorn University.  Thus, The King and I about Anna Leonowens had special meaning for me, as the King was Mongkut, or Rama IV, and his eldest son was Chulalongkorn, Rama V.


We are now familiar with the latest revival of the King and I (who was Anna Leonowens),  now playing on Broadway at the Lincoln Center, starring Kelli O'Hara as Anna and mostly Ken Watanabe as the King of Siam (above).  Daniel Dae Kim (Lost and Hawaii 5-0) will be King on May 1.  From HuffPo:

This production is based on what Siam was actually like, not what 1950s America thought Siam was like.

Turns out Kim starred as the King seven years ago at the Royal Albert Hall in London seven years ago

Well, anyway, I initiated this posting after watching two films last night, the 1946 Anna and the King of Siam (this is the entire 2 hour and 3 minute presentation) with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison and the 1999 Anna and the King with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat.  Neither featured the music of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, which became The King and I with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner on Broadway in 1951, followed by the 1956 film version with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.  This sequence was actually initiated by Gertrude Lawrence's agent who felt that the 1944 novel by Margaret Landon entitled Anna and the King of Siam showed promise as a musical.  Cole Porter declined, but that Dunne/Harrison film convinced Rogers and Hammerstein to write the songs.

My original intent was to feature Anna Leonowens as an extraordinary female, up there with Maria Theresa.  I long wondered why Siam, now Thailand, avoided colonialism.  Those films suggested that Anna was the reason.  Well, after I did some research, I came to a conclusion that there was too much sensationalism and obfuscation about Anna's writings and her life in general.  Mind you, the topic and those times, during the era of the American Civil War, in a country such as Siam, would try to discredit what a foreign woman reported.  All those films and books above suffered through bans, and much of this continues today.  Don't in  any way try to embarrass the royal family when you visit Thailand, for the repercussions can be severe.

Yet, much of Leonowens' (this is her at the age of 74--she passed away nine years later in Canada) life, some of course understandable, was just avoided or a lie or conveniently adjusted to accommodate the storyline, for:
  • she was probably Eurasian.
  • never lived for any period in England before moving from Singapore to Bangkok, 
  • her husband was a clerk and not a famous military officer and
  • was not in Siam when the King passed away, probably from malaria complications.
I can go on an on, but the fact of the matter is that Siam largely maintained independence during those colonization days by smartly serving as a buffer between Great Britain and France.  How much influence did Anna have?  Probably significant in her six years of service to the King, and the real truth might yet be to come.  And, was there ever a physical relationship?  He would have been in his 60's and she in her 30's.  For sure, she was the first westerner to influence the 39 wives/concubines and 82 children of King Mongkut, and no doubt inspired King Chulalongkorn, who had 153 consorts and 77 children, while ruling for 40 years.

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