It’s easy to scoff at all the nonsense found on Facebook, but then you would miss out on the absolute gem that is Chiang Mai Memories.
The public group was setup in 2016 when Frans Betgem, who works in the tourism industry but has long had a passion for history, was contacted by an Oliver Backhouse, his grandfather had worked in Chiang Mai for the Bombay Burmah Trading Company, and he sought more information of his grandfather’s time here.
“At the time there were some people on the forum Teak Door who were sharing old photos and information, but nothing dedicated to Chiang Mai in the English language,” said Frans over a cup of coffee, fittingly, at the Chiengmai Gymkhana Club. “I had been collecting old photographs for a while and had spent some time with legendary photographer Boonserm Satrabhaya so I thought that there may be some interest in a page which shared such information and photography. I have since found that there is significant interest. We have many regular contributors who are very knowledgeable and the aim now is to become an archive of Chiang Mai’s past which is accessible to everyone.”
On any given day, any of the group’s over 1000 members can enjoy a selection of fascinating and pithy slices of history: a series of photographs featured in National Geographic magazine of Akha and Yao (Mein) villagers from the 1930s; a photo of a beautifully bound ‘Land of Smiles’ book by W.A.R. Wood, which apparently was the name of the famous ‘Consul in Paradise’s’ first print; a photo of bell-bottomed tourists visiting Doi Suthep temple in the ‘70s; or a photo of Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation employees swilling beers from pewter tankards on the balcony of one of the company bungalows on Doi Suthep in the 1930s. It’s all just fascinating.
But no one is as fascinated as Frans himself, who took off for the summer to the UK this year to delve into the National Archives in London. He stopped off to visit the grave of Louis T. Leonowens, son of Anna, from King and I fame and spent hours squinting at old documents in the British Library, reporting that he has found all sorts of new documents and photographs about Chiang Mai which he will be sharing with group members now that he has just returned.
Citylife will be featuring monthly stories of days gone by, selected by Frans on our website, www.chiangmaicitylife.com, and to kick start it all, we have asked him to choose his three favourite stories to share this month:
“Ten British Hawker Hunter jet fighters of the 20th Squadron of the Royal Air Force based in Singapore flew to Chiang Mai in June, 1962. There had been concerns over communist insurgents spilling into Thailand from Laos and the Thai government appealed to the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), created in 1954 for the collective defense of Southeast Asia against communism for help. By the time the squadron arrived in Bangkok it appeared to have been a false alarm, but the government was anxious and the squadron was sent to Chiang Mai, where they stayed until November. During the time here, Prince Vajiralongkorn and Princess Ubonrattana visited the jets at the Chiang Mai Airport, you can see the young prince, the current King of Thailand, peering into the cockpit. HM has had a lifelong passion for flying, and one has to wonder whether this was the moment that passion was sparked. Each day a reported 200 people or so came to the edge of the airfield and eventually an open day was planned, featuring flying and static displays.”
“I love this photos of the arrival procession of King Prajadipok (Rama VII) and Queen Rambhai Barni in Chiang Mai on January 22nd 1927. They stayed here until February 5th and visited McCormick Hospital, McKean Leprosy Hospital, the Chiengmai Gymkhana Club, the Prince Royal’s College and Doi Suthep, amongst others.”
“On the left, you can see the old Railway Terminus Hotel, opposite the train station, which is now the Railway Park. The hotel was demolished in 1959, a new hotel was built and opened in 1963 and was also demolished in 2002. The photos were by famous Chiang Mai based Japanese photographer Morinosuka Tanaka and sent to me by Oliver Backhouse and Giles Colchester in the UK.”
The Business of Teak
“The Bombay Burmah Trading Company, formed in 1863 by the Wallace Brothers, became involved in teak logging in Siam in the 1890s, eventually closing operations in 1959 when the government nationalised forestry. These pictures were made in the 1920s in the Mong Hang area just across the border from Chiang Dao in Shan State taken by Morinosuke Tanaka, and the reason I selected them was because they are the highest quality pictures of teak logging operations I have ever seen.”
“I want to find pictures that have not been digitalised and shared online yet. Of each picture I want to find out who are the people on it, where the picture was made and when,” added Frans.