Trips to Siam and Laos: a lost photo album

A Royal Copenhagen vase representing the little mermaid was the genesis of this current research. The vase was presented to Tan Heng Soon, my late husband’s father who retired as a comprador with the Danish East Asian Company at their place of business in Penang, Malaysia.

[Digital photo: author’s collection]

The company operated at No.3 Weld Quay in George Town, Penang and the service life of this comprador extended from 1930 to 1953 and is listed on the baseplate. The following collage contains a few views of the company’s property in George Town over the years.

[Top: by permission “A Guide to George Town’s Historic Commercial and Civic Precincts”; bottom right, courtesy Marcus Langdon; bottom left,
2021, captured by drone.]

I have researched aspects of the culture and history of my late husband as the Baba of Straits Settlement Penang and have always been fascinated by the connection between Europe and this Peranakan family in Malaysia. . The term comprador may not be well known beyond Asian circles nor the idea that Western merchants relied on Chinese compradores to conduct their business. The word “comprador” is derived from the Portuguese word for “buyer”. A comprador was characterized by fluency in English, business relations, personal trust and a special role as a mediator. These bicultural intermediaries were social, cosmopolitan leaders and their children were educated in the West. As such, they fulfilled the role of critical agents in the colonial enterprise. The colonial society of Penang was very cosmopolitan with the advantage of being on the route of the major western shipping lines. It quickly becomes an important warehouse, that is to say a port, a city where goods are transported for import and export, for collection and distribution.

The Danish East Asian Company, founded in 1897 by HNAndersen, began with shipping and trade, and in 1902 acquired at least one teak logging concession from the Siamese government in the province of Phrae. The company operated under the Royal Danish Flag, being authorized to fly the “dovetail flag”, and their records are currently held by the Danish National Archives. As Covid 19 for the moment excludes any hope of consulting these archives, I looked for other leads.

An interesting Danish East Asian photo album held by the Libraries of the University of Côte d’Azur and which provides a photographic record of the company’s operations in Thailand in the early 20th century has presented itself and is now available for reference work. The visual recording chronicles a trip to Siam and Laos with travelers / staff linked to both the Danish East Asiatic Company and L’Est Asiatic Francaise, an affiliate founded in 1902.

The journey begins in Bangkok and passes through Uttaradit north to Phrae, the teak forests of northern Thailand and from there to Laos. The album contains many photos of the inhabitants of these regions. Then traveling by boat, travelers descend the Mekong using small wooden boats bearing the flag of the Compagnie française d’Asie Orientale. Although the photographer is not currently known, the composition and framing of the images suggest that a professional was hired to record this expedition. Many of the 352 photographs contain a handwritten description on copper in English and the library archivist at the University of Côte d’Azur has provided a full summary as well as a map of the trip.

Small clues suggest a possible dating of this trip between 1902 (date of founding of French East Asia) and 1910 (a photo of the gunboat La Grandière which sank that year appears on a photo). Further work is underway to determine a more precise date for the trip.

The album’s visual recording vividly documents the journey starting with a series of images of the Danish East Asian sawmill in Bangkok. Situated on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River, wide angle shots, in sullen tones, show the interior of the sawmill with a large number of workers. The photos show a large sawmill with a large sloping roof; details reveal the mechanics of the operation, including saws, pulleys and chains. Danish East Asia, like other companies involved in the teak industry, has classified the product into quality designations, for example, top quality, oriental quality, etc. A variety of clothing styles are visible on the workers, suggesting different roles. The camera looks out, towards the wide stream that the teak rafts claimed for transport. Each sawmill had its own dock with a crane to unload logs before moving them to the sawmill.

[Université Côte D’Azur Bibliotheques]

The journey continues with images of floating barges, flying the Danish flags of East Asia and French East Asia, and at times the strong and rapid current in the river can be clearly seen. The “scorpion tail” boats with a silhouette at the bow perhaps guiding the towline captures some idea of ​​the procedure. Extensive views of the river with dwellings and temples are recorded. The photos show floating barges in Paknampoh on the Menam River. According to the Bangkok and Siam, Directory of 1914, an assignment post was located at this site where transit duties were levied on all logs the size of a market. (p.120).

At Phrae, the photos capture the interior of the East Asian office and the European and Thai employees. Social life is recorded with games of tennis and polo as well as post-game relaxation when travelers are seen being served drinks. A particularly evocative image appears when travelers are framed while camping in a temple. Formal tables and chairs are set with camp beds and stretchers, all in front of a Thai Buddhist deity. In the foreground, a sports bag with the marking of the Danish company of East Asia (OK), clothes and tensioned nets, a pith helmet and two rifles nearby.

[ Universite Côte D’Azur Bibliothèques]

A related photo shows two travelers resting / reading pineapples that have been bought and eaten. The location of a temple for the installation of the encampment may initially seem problematic and the archivist’s description… “Group of Westerners” merits further examination. Centered in the photo, the middle figure dressed in white and wearing glasses is not European but possibly Thai or Lao. His appearance is that of a military or naval figure, and lends a sense of status to the ambiance. Could it be a Thai dignitary and therefore emblematic that this camp is officially sanctioned?

The role elephants played in the teak industry is well documented in the album. As the travelers set off on their journey, we see a large team of elephants with canvas-covered palanquins bearing the company’s name. Elephants, mahouts and a large retinue of servants begin the expedition north. Daily life is captured with scenes showing elephants feeding, resting, breaking camp in the morning, and free-roaming elephants crossing a creek. A very visual image is that of the anonymous photographer capturing an image of a European, framed by the elephant’s palanquin as he prepares to take a photo. An interesting moment as a photographer perceives photographer. Elephants have been instrumental in the logging operations of Danish East Asian society and there are many photos to show their vital involvement. One image shows two elephants rolling a teak log to prepare to descend the river.

Another image shows elephants working… digging… wood. The word of Burmese origin refers to the process of accompanying the logs as they descend from the river by pushing them into the water.

[Université Côte D’Azur Bibliothèques]

Other photos refer to the construction of bridges with the participation of elephants and mahouts as well as a crowd of curious observers.

Some of the most exciting scenes are available as travelers embark on the long descent of the Mekong River. Gunboats and steamboats catch the photographer’s eye; the ‘LaGrandiere’ which served on the Mekong between 1893 and 1910, when it accidentally sank. Also views of the ‘La Garcerie’ and ‘Trentinian’, the latter being taken on board by travelers for part of their river journey. The views of the impressive natural landscapes and rapids downstream from Khemmarat are particularly powerful. About thirty photos focus on this magnificent region, today called the “Grand Canyon” of Thailand with holes in the rock giving birth to miniature lakes. Thrilling images record towering cliffs, swirling whirlpools and everything that surrounds the travelers’ barge.
The Khone Falls, part of the border between Laos and Cambodia, captivated the photographer’s eye and captured powerful images of thundering white water.

[Université Côte D’Azur Bibliothèques]
[Université Côte D’Azur Bibliothèques]

These images are among the most dramatic on the album; the awesome power of nature must have affected travelers.
Other areas of research remain and questions still need to be explored and resolved. The identity of the photographer remains elusive, as does the way in which the album found its way to the Libraries of the Université Côte D’Azur. (Personal communication from the archivist). The temple camp scenario arouses interest, as do the explicit links between Danish travelers from East Asia and La Compagnie Est Asiatique Française and a more precise dating of the trip. But for now, the little mermaid is safe in my custody.

I would like to thank Dr Amnuayvit Thitbordin who directed me to the Danish East Asian Photo Album and whose 2016 thesis: “Control and Prosperity: The Teak Business in Siam from 1880 to 1932 provided valuable primary research.
The Libraries of the University of Côte D’Azur which hold the photo album in their collection and the archivist, Antoine Hiemisch helped me to open a window on the history of the Danish East Asian Company.

Anne C. Tan.
November 2021.

About Emilie Brandow

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