Major Roy Hudson: 50 Years in Chiang Mai

Major Roy Hudson reflects on his 65 years in Thailand, 50 years of them spent in Chiang Mai during which time he became a legend in the expat community.

By | Thu 1 Jul 2010

Major Roy Hudson, like his ancestors before him, and his children and grandchildren today, has always looked, and wandered, beyond the green shores of England. For 50 years now, Chiang Mai has been his home and many of us residents will have seen him either sitting on his favourite barstool at The Pub – where he has been a patron for over forty years – or, most likely, have read any one of his articles or letters to the Bangkok Post and other publications under a smorgasbord of nom de plumes raising concern over one issue or another which Thailand has faced this half century.

I have known Major Hudson, and frankly, been terrified of him, for over thirty years. In my childhood, he was mostly to be found nursing a beer on the veranda of the Chiengmai Gymkhana Club with his fellow ‘old farts’, shooing away pesky children. In my youth, as I became friends with his daughter Amanda, we used to giggle over our eccentric fathers, both of whom while solidly ensconced in Thai life, have steadfastly maintained their Britishness. As an adult, I have come to respect him and see that while a stickler for all things correct (there have been numerous letters to our publication over the years pointing out a variety of mistakes), Major Hudson thoroughly enjoys good company, delivering his wicked sense of humour deadpanned to any of us fortunate enough to be regaled with stories past, and is a walking encyclopaedia on all things Chiang Mai. He is now in his 90th year: he still makes his way to The Pub, health permitting, has the memory of a computer server, and with his own grandchildren to adore, has mellowed with age.

Born in Argentina in November 1919, where his father was working for Argentine railways, young Hudson was always a sickly child, suffering from frequent bouts of asthma. His health finally forced his return to England where he attended boarding school. Hudson joined the Borough of Bournemouth for three years before enlisting to join the Royal Engineers Territorial Army in 1938. By mid-1939, war was inevitable, Hudson was commissioned as an officer, and his unit was called up to its war station at the Isle of White. He was 19 years old, “a perfect age for war”. After a year and a half of manning lights for the fort’s two guns, and fed up with night duty, Hudson signed up to go to India. “I left on a troopship for India in early 1941,” said Hudson at his home behind Wat Suan Dok, his table strewn with books, newspaper clippings, references, a handy magnifying glass and numerous awards and trophies, in preparation for our interview. “Being an officer I went first class, and with gin at six pence a glass, the six weeks passed in splendid form. I joined a unit called the Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners and proceeded to spend the following months in India enjoying the refreshments at the club in Poona.”

By December 1941 he was in Burma…and at war. He spent the remainder of the war in Burma, in a unit which fought from the southern provinces all the way to India. It was near Rangoon where Hudson took part in one of the more notorious incidents of the war. “There was a 600 metre bridge which our unit had to blow up after three brigades had retired over it and before the Japanese attacked,” said Hudson. “The commander in charge had a Victoria Cross from WW1 but was suffering from a split arse [I didn’t ask him to expand on this] and was on strychnine injections, which meant that he should have reported sick. However, he gave orders over the telephone wire to demolish the bridge after only two brigades had crossed, leaving some 7000 of our troops on the wrong side. Known as the Battle of Sittang Bridge, though some survived by makeshift rafts and rope bridges, many more were drowned or met very sordid endings at the hand of some unfriendly Burmese. This issue is still used for debate at Staff Colleges. Thank goodness I wasn’t the one to actually plunge the lever to blow up the bridge, as I had just left a few hours before due to exhaustion. You had to do what you were told during the war, but also take a great amount of responsibilities as well. It was normal for me as all my friends were in the same boat; there was no time to be afraid. Most of us were products of the War Boom, with our fathers having fought in the Great War.”

After five years, and VE Day “without having to succumb to one sick day”, Major Hudson flew back to England for the first time in 1945. Feeling restless and unfinished, after only ten days back home, he decided to return to help end the war in Asia and was on board a ship, two days out of Bombay when news of Hiroshima arrived. “We all received a free bottle of beer to celebrate, but I was more interested in finding my unit, which I believed was still somewhere in Burma.” On arrival in Rangoon Hudson heard that his unit had left for Bangkok, and on September 15th 1945, he arrived, for the first time, to Thailand, at Don Muang airport.

“It was a strange situation because we came in as victors, and while the Thais were forced to declare war against us, they were still on the Japanese side,” reflected Hudson. “The Thais and indeed the Japanese were incredibly helpful in all matters and my unit requisitioned accommodation opposite the Suan Pakad Palace where we were royally welcomed by the prince and princess in residence, who were that night celebrating their wedding anniversary. There were dancing girls, candle lights, fine food and free flowing Mekong. One of our chaps pressed 10 rupees into the princess’s hand as a tip and the next day I was called up by the commander of the British troops in Thailand and given quite a talking to. I was told to go and apologise to the princess, who ended up having a fantastic sense of humour and enjoyed receiving her first tip. We became fast friends after that. We had a hell of a time in Bangkok as we were rich compared to the Thais at the time, who were so poor that when the British commander decided to have a ball to commemorate the end of the war, only 300 out of 500 guests invited could come because the remainder didn’t have good enough clothes to attend, and those who did had holes in theirs – these were the 500 top people in Bangkok!”

After visiting Thailand on leave a few times after the war, and having studied Thai in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, Major Hudson knew he wanted to live here and arrived in Klong Toey on his 40th birthday. Teaching at a school in Thonburi, he received his first residency papers – registration number 1 – an old passport-like document he still uses, much to the amusement of immigration staff, today. He had been to Chiang Mai a couple of times on reconnaissance, and was warmly greeted by the family of the British Consul, and it wasn’t long before he decided to leave Bangkok to make his way to the north. “I arrived on the last day of the Winter Fair, for many years, the largest event in Chiang Mai’s calendar on the 6th January 1960.” Being the small town it was then, he was soon part and parcel of the tiny society of Chiang Mai, and was offered a job teaching English by Ajarn Kraisri Nimmanhaeminda. “That is how I met my wife Arpawn,” he smiled. “She was head mistress at a kindergarten in Lamphun and had come in with a friend to learn English, and while teaching her, I suddenly found that I was falling in love! We were married in my house in Nong Hoi with the acting consul as a guest and WAR Wood (author of Consul in Paradise) as the guest speaker. Amusingly, the other day a man stopped my son Eric on the street in Bangkok and asked if he was related to me. It turned out that he was a local veterinary officer who attended our wedding 50 years ago!”

“There were very few expatriates living in Chiang Mai then,” he continued. “In 1968 the US Consulate General put out a telephone directory which included 100 expatriates, many of whom were working for Air America, Chiang Mai University, the Illinois Group and the Overseas Missionary Foundation. Bill Young [whose father Harold Mason Young founded the Chiang Mai Zoo], Dorsey Traw, a member of the Church of Christ Mission, and myself are the only three remaining from the list. All of us farang were, of course, members of the Gymkhana Club, and that is when Donald Gibson [ex British Consul], Dick Wood [whose father founded the club, and who was a member until he passed away in 2002 – a continuous membership of father and son for 113 years] and I formed the COBRA Club.”

I well recall my own fascination with The COBRA Club as a young girl (a proud acronym for the more prosaic Chiang Mai’s Old Bums’ Reunion Association), which met at Gymkhana periodically, and used to intrigue my eavesdropping ears with great stories of war and accompanied naughtiness. The club seemed to have had so many criteria for membership that no one else was allowed to join. Try as he may, my father was allowed to sit outside the circle only on one occasion, a great honour for a non-member (especially one who had ignominiously been too young to have faced action during the war). “You see, we kept making up rules which excluded any possible new members,” Hudson said with mischief. “Other rules of the club were that we were to always argue and drink beer, no subject could be put forward except as a form of complaint, and to never, never give interviews to the press.” – hence my reluctance and intimidation in asking Hudson for an interview until now that both Gibson and Wood have passed away.

Life in Chiang Mai for the Hudsons was idyllic, and quiet. Within a few years of marriage, they produced a son and a daughter (both of whom are now married, and incredibly successful in their careers – Eric retired at the ripe old age of 37, having worked in banking, and Amanda works for UNICEF in Geneva). Arpawn’s family had land on Tha Pae Road and that is where Hudson Enterprises was set up in 1965. “Tha Pae was the epicentre of Chiang Mai in those days and business was good. We sold books, plane tickets, insurance – Hudson Enterprises was an insurance representative for decades and, though greatly reduced, still receives commission today – hill tribe crafts, Kodak cameras, as well as being the first shop on the road to be air-conditioned. Arporn also opened her own kindergarten, Daroonrak Hudson, which is still open (though for sale) today. Hudson wrote prolifically, publishing his own Hudson’s Guide to Chiang Mai, Hudson’s Chiang Mai Directory, a variety of maps and of course, his numerous letters and articles for the Bangkok Post [incidentally, it was at his suggestion that the letters section of the Post is titled PostBag]. The only local Thais we met in those days were members of the Gymkhana Club or visitors to our shop, of which there were many, both locals and those from Bangkok. There were lots of Rhodesians in tobacco in those days, and that is what made The Pub very lively on any given evening. The consulates were also very good at organising parties and while we didn’t have much in terms of luxury goods, we would go down to Bangkok once in a while to stock up on cheeses and such.”

Today the Hudsons are finally retired, and enjoy frequent visits from their children and grandchildren. Though their health fluctuates, on good days husband and wife are relatively active and social, enjoying lunches with friends, or in Hudson’s case, lingering drinks at his favourite watering holes.

Hudson recently celebrated his 90th birthday at his son’s villa at the Four Seasons in Mae Rim, giving a humorous speech reflecting upon the 65 years since his first arrival in Thailand, his 50 years in Chiang Mai and his 50th wedding anniversary.