When Claus Gundersen of Scandinavian Society Siam started planning for a walk through the old EAC legacy in Bangkok with Poul Weber as special guide, he had no idea that over 40 people would sign up. When on Sunday 1 November 2015 we all met at the Mango Tree Restaurant in Charoenkrung Soi 36 near the Oriental Hotel, there were in fact 10 people who had come too late and were promised that a second tour would be arranged at a later time.
Before the many Danes, Swedes and Norwegians and one Finn started out on the walk, Poul Weber gave an overview of what we were about to see and told an ultra-short version of the whole story about the rise and fall of The East Asiatic Company. The company was unique because it was founded in Bangkok ten years before it established itself also in Copenhagen.
The walk from the restaurant to the old EAC Headquarters in Charoenkrung soi 40 passed by the old house where it is believed that H.N. Andersen – the founder of the company – lived. The house is today a Chinese restaurant, owned by the Oriental Hotel. Other houses in the vicinity are built in the same style and used to be residences for foreigners in Bangkok around the early 20th century.
Before arriving at the EAC building itself, a visit was also paid to the Catholic Church and Assumption Commercial College behind the EAC building. From here, it was clear to see the lack of maintenance of the EAC building. Weeds were growing out of every crack on the upper floors and their roots were causing the plaster to fall off like flakes and reveal the brick wall inside.
The building was in 1992 at first rented out to one of Thailands’s richest men, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, who among other companies also owns the Beer Chang brewery. In 1997 the building was sold to him. But it is still empty. Without maintenance it will not be many years before the decay will be so substantial that the state of the brick wall inside will be deteriorated beyond the point where it can be restored.
When we reached the river, the gate was unlocked as a group of students from the commercial college were taking graduation photos on the romantic setting. That gave us an opportunity to shoot a group photo on the stair leading up to the buildings first floor. If we had been allowed to enter – which is deemed to risky – we would have found the old Managing Director’s office to the right. Strangely, the only window in his office offering a view a the busy Chaophaya River – was in his privat toilet.
Next stop was a ride with the local commuter boat – the orange line – from Oriental pier down the river to the temple Wat Rajsingkorn, immediately before we reached Asiatique – the old EAC warehousing area and the adjacent Wat Phya Krai sawmill, which was where Poul Weber worked himself when he first arrived Bangkok.
Before going there, however, we turned left on Charoenkrung and entered from Charoenkrung Soi 72/5 the protestant cemetery to visit some of the many Danish and a few Swedish and Norwegian graves there. Here, Claus Gundersen took over as tour guide since he has been involved in the renovation of a number of graves together with the founder of the SSS Heritage Section Flemming Winther Nielsen, whose grave we of course also visited. Claus explained that the cemetery was established in 1853 as a gift from King Mongkut (Rama IV) to the protestant community in Bangkok.
In particular, Claus showed us the grave of Peter Andersen, who was H.N.partner in Andersen & Co. – the forerunner to East Asiatic Company. Peter Andersen died of a kidney disease in 1894, only 39 years old.
Other prominent people we visited were Frederik Købke, ship captain, shipowner, customs inspector and agent for Lloyd’s, as well as Danish Consul in Thailand in 1868 – 79. Also Jennie Nielson Hays was highlighted. She was from Aalborg and was a nurse in Siam, where she married the American medical doctor Thomas Heyward Hays. Jennie died in 1920, og as he was among the leading ladies behind Bangkok Ladies Library Association, her husband built the still busy and popular Neilson Hays Library in her memory.
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Of interest in particular to the Swedes, Gregers Moller presented the grave of the most prominent Swede from those days, Viktor Virgin. He was an engineer from Charmers Technical University who built the huge amount of canals that you will pass over when you drive north east out of Bangkok from Rangsit to Nakorn Nayok. These canals are still crucial to the rice production several times per year in the area and has played a role in Thailand becoming the largest rice exporter in the world. Viktor Virgin became the highest decorated Swede ever in Thailand, given first the title of nobleman, then finally the highest title any foreigner can obtain. On the headstone, you read his Thai title and name on top – Phra Yantravidya Varyindra – possibly meaning “great master” or “great teacher” – and then underneath in bracket his Swedish name Viktor Virgin. In 1924 he resigned his Swedish nationality and became if not the first then at least one of the first foreigners to be naturalized a Siamese. Sadly, Virgin and his great role in modernizing the Kingdom is today largely forgotten.
After the cemetery, we went to the Asiatique to hear Poul Weber recall how the area looked when he first arrived here in 1960 and how he and the other Danes working in EAC lived in those days. The warehouse buildings are still intact and contain hundreds of small shops selling antiques, gifts, interior decor items, food and other items that make the area popular to visit for tourists as well as local Bangkokians. On the front towards the Chaophaya River it still proudly reads “The East Asiatic Company Limited” on each warehouse facing the river.
Asiatique is – like the old EAC Headquarters – owned by Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, who at least has turned this old EAC asset into a real treasure.
Finally, Claus had booked tables in the restaurant Joe Louis, located in one of EAC’s old bachelor messes, where Poul Weber told us lively anecdotes about his life as a young Dane working with EAC. In those days, for instance, you could only party on either beer or champagne – wine was not available.
He also told an interesting detail about the history of the Wat Phya Krai temple. It was for a century hiding a 5 tons heavy solid gold Buddha – without anyone knowing about it. The temple was built in the last half of 1700 by the Krairikh family who moved the Buddha statue there from Ayutthaya to avoid that it should fall into the hands of the Burmsese. To further disguise it, it was plastered over so it looked like any other brick and mortar Buddha statue. Later, the temple was deserted and in 1907, King Chulalongkorn transferred the area The East Asiatic Company. It was not until the Buddha statue was about to be moved to another temple, Wat Traimitr, that by accident the statue fell over and the plaster cracked off – revealing the 5 tonnes of gold inside!
Unfortunately the staff in St Louis managed to destroy the good impression of a great day in good company. When some of the participants left around 7 in the evening – others were still not being served their main dish – or even a second glass of beer. But never mind, if you walk in the foot steps of this guided tour of the old Bangkok on your own – following the route described above – you can just enter St. Louis to see how it is renovated – and then go to eat your meal somewhere else in any of the nice restaurants in Asiatique.
Great photos from the outing are found following this link:
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