Scandinavian Society Siam is giving away the last remaining books from its library to its members and members if the Danish Thai Chamber of Commerce. The event will take place at Grundfos Thailand on Saturday 5 June 2021 in the afternoon.
Below is the historical background of the rise and the fall of The Scandinavian Library.
Dansk Samfund Siam was established in 1920 and one of the first things the society did was to establish a library with Danish books. It is believed that the books were from the beginning and for many years located in the EAC building in Oriental Avenue, Bangkok. It also makes a lot of sense since this is where the majority of the Danes were working anyway. But we lack confirmation of this assumption.
In 1930, the Danish engineering company Christiani & Nielsen was established in Thailand. At one point over the following decades, it is believed that the library was for some reason moved to be located at the office of Christiani & Nielsen. Possibly from the EAC. Again we lack solid confirmation of this which is based on a personal recollection of one of living historians of the Scandinavians in Siam, Peder M. Joergensen.
Meanwhile, the library changed in 1953 its name from the library of Dansk Samfund Siam to the library of Skandinavisk Samfund Siam (Scandinavian Society Siam). Following the name change the library acquired a lot of Swedish and Norwegian books as well, mostly by taking over personal book collections when members left after their time in Thailand came to an end.
In 1973, twenty years later, there is evidence that the library was moved to the office of the Norwegian company Thoresen. A small note in the newsletter of the Scandinavian Society Siam mentions that the library of the society is located in the Thoresen Building, 448 Suriwongse Road in Bangkok.
In 1986, the board of the Scandinavian Society Siam planned to move the books to the SAS Office Building in Siam Square in Rama 1 Road. We don’t know if the books were until then still at Thoresen building or had meanwhile been kept somewhere else.
But the number of books were apparently more than the location could hold, so one Sunday in 1986, a fair was held in the garden of the old Intercontinental Hotel on Rama 1 Road where many of the activities of SSS took place.
Ib Ottesen, a long time resident of Bangkok who had in 1978 together with Jørgen Lundbæk opened Mermaid Rest in Sukhumvit Soi 8, recalls the sale:
“It was a day with lots of activities for kids, there were food and drinks for the grown ups and there were booths with various things for sale from Scandinavian companies. Two or three big tables were set up with all the books that the library of the Society would no longer have space for,” he tells.
“The books were packed in the red Duty Free plastic bags of the Copenhagen Airport and there were well over one hundred of these bags with around 20 mixed books in each bag. A bag was sold for 100 Baht.”
“The sale did not go well. People wanted to buy one or two books but being forced to buy a whole bag to get the one book they were interested in, was not ideal. By the end of the day when the fair was about to close down, the tables were still full of unsold books.”
“I asked the remaining members if anybody wanted to buy more books. The answers wese ‘no’.
“OK. In that case I will buy the rest,” I said – to the great relief of the representatives of the library.”
“I asked my staff from Mermaid’s Marine Services to pick them up and had them all delivered to the old Mermaid’s Rest in Sukhumvit Soi 8 – opposite to the later Stable Lodge. There I had several meters of bookshelves built in along the wall of the restaurant and the books were put up there for decoration until the restaurant closed down in 1991.
Later, when Ib Ottesen opened his Jomtien Boathouse hotel in October 2002 in Jomtien, the books found a perfect new home there in a corner of the restaurant with a few Hemingway style soft chairs in front. If in Pattaya, you must treat yourself to a look at these rescued old books and enjoy a delicious Scandinavian meal in the restaurant.
Back in 1986, after the sale, the remaining books of the library moved into the SAS Building in Siam Square in Rama 1 Road. But was it from Thoresen or from somewhere else? We don’t know.
We do know that Chairman at that time, Lars Staermose, wrote in the Bulletin – the magazine of the Scandinavian Society Siam – that the move of the library to the SAS Building in Siam Square was now complete. That was in August 1986.
In the next issue, in September 1986, it was explained that in order to lend the books you should enter the side entrance and walk up to the fourth floor. Here you could borrow a key from John Sylvest. If you came on a Wednesday between 10 and 11 you would probably meet Bitten Askjaer-Jensen who was the board member in charge of the library.
In 1993, SAS moved from the office in Siam Square to Glas Haus on Sukhumvit. The board of SSS was at that time looking at various options – including asking Siam Society whether they were interested in housing the library – but then came a solution from above.
In March 1993, the Swedish Church was established in Thailand by its first Vicar Tommy Qwennerberg and his wife Monica. The first location of the church was in a townhouse in Prompak Gardens in Sukhumvit Soi 49/6 in Bangkok. Tommy and Monica Qwennerberg were keen to take over the homeless library of the Scandinavian Society Siam and relocate it to their combined home and Church Meeting point.
It was part of the agreement between the Scandinavian Society Siam and the Swedish Church that the church had no responsibility for the books and was not obliged to follow up on which books were returned and which books were not.
By the end of 1996, the Swedish Church found a more suitable location in a villa in Sukhumvit Soi 33. The vicar couple was now Olof and Maria Olsson who renamed the villa “Scandinavian Church in Bangkok” and here, the library was given a prominent place. When you entered the villa the first room to the left was where all the books were kept. A protokoll was on the table in the living room, where you could enter the date and which books that you had borrowed or returned.
The room was not big enough to keep all the historical records, old photo albums, book keeping papers and other old board records, which had previously been stored in the library. Instead, they were kept in a tool shed in the back of the garden. This remained the case during the years after Olof and Maria left Bangkok and during the years of their successors, Marita and Ulf Claesson.
Ulf and Marita Claesson took over as vicar’s in 2000. In an attempt to give new life to the library, they contacted the public library system in Sweden and arranged a delivery of several boxes of used Swedish books from Swedish libraries that were popular among Swedish readers – in particular families with young children. To make room for the new books, some of the old books had to be given away.
In the spring of 2001, Stig Vagt-Andersen and Bent Laasholt were about to open the Admiral’s Pub & Restaurant in Sukhumvit Soi 18 in Bangkok. When Stig Vagt-Andersen heard that the old books were about to be discarded, he went to see the vicar and asked if he could take over the lot. Stig had been manager at Ib Ottesen’s Mermaid Rest in Sukhumvit Soi 8 and remembered vividly the wall of old interesting books that Ib had put up in the restaurant.
The vicar hesitated. He wanted the members to have a first chance to select books they liked before Stig would be allowed to take what was left.
“It was sad,” Stig Vagt-Andersen says.
“That way, a complete collection of one Norwegian writer was split up and likewise, a complete over 100 year old Nordic Conversational Lexicon was destroyed because a couple with young children had taken out two volumes so that their kids could colourize the many nice black and white illustrations.”
Stig took them first to Pattaya until the Admiral’s Pub & Restaurant opened in September 2001 in Sukhumvit Soi 18 in Bangkok and the books could be put up in the library of the popular Scandinavian meeting point.
Fifteen years later, when Admiral’s Pub & Restaurant in 2016 had to move out of it’s great location, Stig Vagt-Andersen packed down the books and still keeps them until today “ – awaiting a more suitable place where the books may survive,” as he puts it.
“Many of these books have been in Thailand for over 120 years, having traveled here along with the many Danish officers and forestry officials, gendarmes, railway engineers or cement engineers,” Stig Vagt-Andersen explains.
“They were carefully packed in zink chests and moved along as prized possessions by boat and on elephant back or pony upcountry where they were read in the dark tropical nights in the warm shine of oil lamps. They have survived termites, flooding, tropical moisture and regular wear and tear in the care of their owners or borrowers. How can we just sell these treasures as used paper for recycling?”
In 2003, Lennart and Lis Hamark replaced Marita and Ulf Claesson and took over the now more modern and more Swedish library. Lis and Lennart were in charge of the Church when the tragic Tsunami struck over Christmas in 2004. Many of the survivors drowned their grief and survived their traumas by finding relief in reading some of the books in the library. Some of them took the books that they were reading with them when they went home.
By the end of Lennart and Lis Hamark’s term in the spring of 2009, the Swedish Church abroad had already decided not to renew the rent of the villa in Sukhumvit Soi 33 in Bangkok when the lease expired in January 2010.
The actual closing down and moving out was to be the first task of their successor, Lovisa Moller, who took over in April 2009. She explored various solutions to allow other Nordic associations and chambers to take over the villa, but by October 2009 that year no solution had been found and it was clear that the building would be handed back to its owner.
By that time, a rescue operation in 2008 had already salvaged the old archives and records that had moved along with the library to the Swedish Church back in 1993 and had been kept in the tool shed in the back of the garden of the villa in Sukhumvit Soi 33 since 1996.
The Norwegian Embassy staff Trygve Guntvedt who was originally educated as a Librarian was in charge of this operation and spent weeks sifting through the material, writing a catalogue of the content and finally shipping it all off to the National Archives of Denmark and the National Library of Denmark in Copenhagen.
The material had to be split up since National Archives of Denmark in Copenhagen declined to accept parts of the material which was classified as printed matter. Trygve Guntvedt instead asked the department for small printed matters “Småtrykksavdelingen” under the National Library of Denmark in Copenhagen where he had as a young student incidentally been working for a while. Here, the head of department agreed to receive and keep together this part of the archives.
Finally, on 12 June 2008, the moving company Asian Tigers picked up the whole shipment and moved it to the two recipients. Nine moving boxes marked A – I were delivered to the National Archives at “Landsarkivet for Sjælland mv.”, Jagtvej 10, 2200 Copenhagen N. Five moving boxes marked J – N were sent to the “Det Kgl. Bibliotek”, Copenhagen, Denmark. This material may be retrieved here: http://www5.kb.dk/da/nb/materialer/smaatryk/index.html
18 months later, in January 2010, the Swedish Church moved out of the villa in Sukhumvit Soi 33. Again it was Asian Tigers which was tasked with packing all the books in the library down in moving boxes. It is believed they were stored in the apartment of Lovisa Moller.
In 2012, the Danish businessman Jorgen Lundbaek opened his Hotel Mermaid in Sukhumvit Soi 29 in Bangkok. Jorgen offered that the SSS books could be placed in the meeting room on the 11th floor of the hotel which was not used much. For the next almost ten years the books were safe here – but seldom served any readers.
In 2021, Jorgen Lundbaek died and the heirs wanted to utilise the penthouse floor better. A sign by the elevator had for ten years said “Scandinavian Society Library 11th Floor”, but the new management of the Mermaid was apparently not aware of who the books belonged to, so they asked the Danish Embassy if they would take responsibility for the books. Otherwise, the books and furniture would be disposed of, as the hotel was in the process of renovation including the library meeting room. The embassy asked Executive Director Michael Andersen of the Danish Thai Chamber of Commerce who knew that the books were left over from the library of the Scandinavian Society Siam.
Michael Andersen arranged together with the Scandinavian Society Siam and the Danish company Grundfos that the books could be stored at Grundfos premises for a few weeks until an event could be arranged, where members of both organisations could come and freely pick any books they found interesting.
This event became fittingly the Constitution Day of Denmark, the 5th of June and this is where we stand today.