January 7, 2008

Book review: A Physician at the Court of Siam

A few days ago I finished reading A Physician at the Court of Siam by Malcolm Smith (Oxford in Asia Paperbacks, 1985, 164 pages). First published in 1946, it's gone out of print, but I picked up a used copy on Amazon a while back. Took me almost two years to get around to reading it. I'm glad I finally made the time.

Malcolm Smith served as a court doctor for Queen Saowapa Pongsi
(พระองค์เจ้าเสาวภาผ่องศรี, alternately spelled Saovabha Bhongsi), one of the four royal consorts of King Chulalongkorn, and mother to Kings Vajiravudh and Prajadhipok (Ramas VI and VII), and thus he has some extremely unique and rare insights into palace life during his time in the country's history. Smith arrived in Siam in 1905, and maintained a private practice outside of the palace in Bangkok while constantly being on call for the Queen. After Rama V passed away in 1910, Saowapa became Queen Mother, and she retained Dr. Smith as her physician in an unofficial capacity until her death in 1919.

If Smith's account concerned only his years in Siam, it would be of great value. But he combines his personal account with a great deal of research, particularly on the history of the Chakri Dynasty, in addition to the period of his own experiences. The main character in many ways is Queen Saowapa, as she is the member of the royal household whom Smith came to know best. He writes of her eccentricities in a fascinating level of detail and candor. The book reads very quickly, and fortunately lacking much of the ethnocentrism of so many earlier Western accounts. While one can tell that Smith views the typical Southeast Asian laid back attitude towards work and efficiency with a predictable Western distaste, he has enough objectivity (and perhaps enough distance, writing the book many years after leaving Siam), to avoid treading too far into "noble savage" territory like so many of the early Westerners in Siam who have left us their stories to read. And since he did not travel to Thailand as a missionary, his account makes nary a reference to religion at all. So we are spared the supplications (so typical in early Western accounts) for the expeditious redemption of the ignorance-shrouded, hell-bound souls of the heathen Siamese.

This book is perhaps unlike any other in its details of Siamese court life, excepting Anna Leonowens' An English Governess at the Court of Siam, the book (presented as fact but mixed with plenty of fiction) which formed the basis for Margaret Landon's 1942 book Anna and the King of Siam (even looser with the facts), which became further distorted in the 1946 film of the same name, and again into the cartoonish
(if not unenjoyable) Broadway musical and film The King and I and finally culminating in the utterly preposterous 1999 endeavor Anna and the King. Smith seems to be the more neutral and thus reliable source. He even gets in a mild dig at Leonowens (keep in mind they were not contemporaries--she arrived in Thailand 40 years before he did). He writes of her unflattering portrayal of King Mongkut, "we need not believe all that she said; her books, particularly her second one [Romance of the Harem], show that she was gifted with a vivid imagination which at times took charge of her pen" (p. 42).

Much of Leonowens' negative portrayal of the monarch's private life stems from her extreme displeasure with polygamy. On this point Leonowens and Smith could not disagree more. In fact, Smith goes so far as to include a chapter in his book defending the practice in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Siam. He examines the hyperbolic estimates
by what he terms "irresponsible" writers of the size of the Siamese kings' harems, and compares those estimates with the official chronicle to debunk them as uninformed. He also makes an attempt to defend the inbreeding, ahem, "consanguineous marriage" practiced in the Siamese royal family, as in many a royal family worldwide (his employer Queen Saowapa was the half-sister of her husband King Chulalongkorn--children of King Mongkut by different wives). Smith's take on these issues makes for a compelling alternate perspective, even if his defensiveness struck me as odd.

In all, I recommend Smith's book as a quick read that will easily sustain the interest of anyone with the slightest inclination for Thai history.

My typical modus operandi for selecting new reading material is to start several books at once. Right now I've started National Identity and its Defenders: Thailand Today, edited by Craig J. Reynolds, a collection of articles on the shaping and maintenance of the Thai national culture and identity which is already turning out to be utterly fascinating; Mo Bradley and Thailand, by Donald C. Lord, a book of ever-increasing rarity about Dan Beach Bradley (of Bangkok Recorder and first Thai-Thai dictionary fame); and Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, which has been recommended to me by a couple of people. It remains to be seen which will succeed in drawing me in before the others.

If you have any book recommendations, please leave a comment, or write me at the email address at the bottom of the page.


  1. It's amazing how many people want to 'fix' the problem in Thailand of as you stated continuing up to Today. I have found the Thai's tend to nod their heads, take the bible's and crucifixes being doled out by pious NGO's (along with any free food or Baht) then go to the Temple and pray to Buddha.

    " So we are spared the supplications (so typical in early Western accounts) for the expeditious redemption of the ignorance-shrouded, hell-bound souls of the heathen Siamese."

  2. Right, I think it's an issue of perspective and attitude. I know it can be a contentiuos issue. I've also met my share of Westerners who get mighty angry at the presence of Christian missionaries in Thailand at all, which I think isn't quite called for.

    What I find tiring is the black and white dichotomy. Saved vs. unsaved, which I find in America just as much. "Are you saved yet?" I don't believe it's that simple, and I even though I am one flavor of Christian (to give you an idea of where I'm coming from), I don't buy at all that whole nations of people are damned for not confessing Jesus Christ. I've known way too many "saved" Christians who deserved to go to hell (based on their actions) to think that.

    So in 19th Century writings this concept of the "heathen" who is helpless to avoid his damnation without the saving light of the white man is a common theme that gets tiring, because I--as a believer--think they've got the picture wrong. I guess the line for me is that I don't have a problem with evangelism, but I do have a problem with condescension, and with framing everything in black and white--if you're not with us, you're against us (i.e. going to hell). Heck, I don't even believe in the concept of hell as fire and brimstone, unending punishment (but that's not to say I don't believe in retribution for one's actions).

    I've probably only muddied the waters further with this comment, so I hope I haven't opened too big a can of worms. Thanks for reading, JC. And by the way, the irony of your initials amuses me. :)

  3. Something happen with my post as my quote was supposed to be placed behind the problem of''

    It just reminds of how Columbus justified his trip to America to the queen by stating he had found a nation of heathens to baptize. I think it's alright to discuss your religion with others but not alright to feel a sense of moral righteousness and superiority. After the final bell who knows who the real judge is going to be?
    There is irony in my initials but they are my actual initials! I post as wasabi on thaivisa.

  4. this looks really interesting. i've been very interested in first person experiences with the most influential periods of the world history. granted thailand isn't considered a "powerhouse" it holds a special place in my life. hope i can find to read this one.