Concubines with Cameras: Royal Siamese Consorts Picturing Femininity and Ethnic Difference in Early 20th Century Siam
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WHO is the woman in this early 20th-century Siamese photograph? Is the scene a tableau taken in an elite woman’s toilette, as one source suggests? Where and when was this image captured, and by whom? What do we make of her style of dress, the dressing table, and her amazingly long hair? The answers to these questions provide not only a rare glimpse inside the rarefied atmosphere of the Siamese king’s harem on the cusp of the twentieth century, and the lives of the women who lived there, but also new insights into the social and historical significance of elite photography in Bangkok at the turn of the twentieth century.
As it happens, the above image is that of a royal consort, taken by a royal consort. This photograph was taken during the period often referred to as Siam’s “Fifth Reign,” which lasted from 1868–1910. Those familiar with the era of Thai history know of King Chulalongkorn’s passion for photography, which was shared by many other Siamese elite males. But few know that photography was practiced by a number of the king’s concubines and female children as well. The photographer in this instance was Chao Chom (royal consort) Erb Bunnag, descendant of a family which had been prominent in Siamese politics since the sixteenth century. The photograph’s subject is another royal consort, Princess (later High Queen) Dara Rasami, who had come to Siam’s royal harem from the neighboring kingdom of Lan Na (today’s northern Thailand), and whose long hair signals her ethnic distinction from the Siamese. In this article, I will discuss how this photograph provides historical insights on several levels. Firstly, it evidences the photographic activities of a handful of female elites in Siam around the turn of the twentieth century, and their role in representing royal women, who had heretofore been hidden behind palace walls, visually to a Siamese viewing public. Secondly, the image reflects the ways in which the roles of Siam’s palace women were shifting in tandem with changes to Siam’s political structure, and the attendant evolution of Siamese elite women from producers of elite culture to consumers and arbiters of taste. Lastly, these images serve to illustrate how Dara Rasami’s gender and ethnic difference figured into the “crypto-colonial” discourses of Siam’s elites, and the deployment of photography within a larger project of delineating and reinforcing the boundaries of what was “siwilai” (“civilized”) and what was not.
The Fifth Reign is celebrated by contemporary Thais as a time when Siam managed to fend off colonization by European powers, and its elites undertook the modernization of the country. A number of scholars have analyzed the techniques deployed by Siamese elites in representing their civilization as ‘modern’ to European standards, or “siwilai”: Mapping (Thongchai 1999), palace architecture, art collecting, dress and photography (Peleggi 2002). More recently, Herzfeld has brought a new analysis of the significance of these activities to bear in his conception of Siam as a state marked by “crypto-colonialism,” which he describes as “the curious alchemy whereby certain countries... were compelled to acquire their political independence at the expense of massive economic dependence, this relationship being articulated in the iconic guise of aggressively national culture fashioned to suit foreign models.”
While these scholars provide important context for the period under analysis in this article, none discusses the role of the royal harem, or “Inner Palace,” in tracing the Siamese construction of crypto-colonialism or siwilai. By examining the photographic activities of a particular royal consort, Erb Bunnag, I intend to demonstrate that palace womens’ photography was not a mere curiosity of nineteenth-century Siamese elite culture, but rather reflective of a significant moment in Thailand’s cultural and political history. During the same era in which royal concubinage was losing ground politically, it was rapidly morphing—via photographic imagery—into a powerful tool of crypto-colonial discourse. At the same time, as Siam grappled with the new ideologies of imperialism and racial inferiority espoused by European colonial nations, a Siamese ‘hierarchy of civilizations’ became necessary, and Erb’s photographs of the ethnically different Princess Dara Rasami illustrate one means of its construction. In this context, Erb’s photographs served to not only render palace women visible to the general viewing public of Siam for the first time, but also to showcase royal women as exemplars of “modern” (read: Western) femininity—and to locate certain consorts in a new siwilai hierarchy. Via their adoption of Western cultural markers of dress, accessory objects, and leisure activities, palace women were re-made into crypto-colonial icons of eliteness for a growing Bangkok bourgeoisie.
Political Prominence of the Bunnag Family and the Roles of Palace Consorts
Erb Bunnag was one of 153 women who served as a royal consort to Siam’s King Chulalongkorn, who reigned from 1868 to 1910. As a Bunnag, Erb was a member of a clan which had had been closely linked to the Siamese crown in various official capacities since the early sixteenth century. Erb’s uncle, Chuang Bunnag had been one of King Mongkut’s highest-ranking ministers, serving after the king’s death in 1868 as regent for Prince Chulalongkorn until he came of age in 1872—effectively ruling the kingdom for four years. Erb’s father, Tet, was governor of the family’s home province, Petchaburi. Thus Erb’s family was particularly prominent both at court in Bangkok and in local political life.
Bunnag women had been linked maritally to the Siamese royal family since the later sixteenth century, during the Ayutthayan era (1350–1767). By the nineteenth century, the Bunnag family’s political clout was better represented among the population of the king’s concubines than ever before. Among the 153 women who served as royal consorts in Chulalongkorn’s reign, a total of fifteen came from various branches of the Bunnag family; seven were Tet’s daughters. Of these seven, five were known as “Kok Oh” or “the Oh Clique.” This group, comprised of five sisters born to Tet and his wife Lady Oo between 1868–1887, was called the “Oh Clique” because their names all began with the same letter: their mother’s first initial, the Thai letter “oh” (อ): Ohn (อ่อน), Iem (เอ่ียม), Erb (เอิบ), Aab (อาบ), and Uen (เอื้อน).
The shared letter of the sisters’ names hints at another aspect of elite Siamese family life: polygyny. The “oh” beginning their names signaled their descent from Tet’s highest-ranking wife, Lady Oo. But in addition to her, a total of twenty-nine consorts lived in the Bunnag family compound in Petchaburi. Erb’s eldest sister Ohn Bunnag was the first of the sisters to become a royal consort in 1885, having caught the king’s eye while serving as a lady-in-waiting in another consort’s household. After giving birth to her first child in 1886, Ohn received her own residence inside the palace, where her sister Iem came to wait upon her. Five years later (1891), their sister Erb joined Ohn’s entourage at the age of twelve; the next sister Aab arrived in 1894, joining her elder sisters and young nieces in Ohn’s residence. Their youngest sister, Uen, did not enter palace service until a full decade later, in 1904. Like other royal consorts, the Oh Clique lived in the Grand Palace in Bangkok, within the double-walled area called the “Inner Palace,” the section of the palace reserved for the King’s consorts, their ladies-in-waiting, and their children—which was forbidden to outsiders.
How did the Siamese Inner Palace work, exactly? The institution of the Inner Palace remains poorly understood in Anglophone scholarship. Anna Leononwens, author of An English Governess at the Siamese Court, famously described it as the Siamese king’s “harem.” However, the use of this term belies the multivalence of the Inner Palace and its myriad socio-political functions. In addition to creating linkages between local noble families and the crown, the Inner Palace also assisted in securing the loyalties of neighboring kingdoms, by bringing consorts from Siam’s peripheries into marital alliances with the king at Siam’s capital “center,” Bangkok. The social advantages of the Inner Palace were not reserved solely for elite women, however. The palace offered a variety of avenues for women to improve their standing within Siamese society, even if they were not consorts themselves. Once a royal consort gave birth to the king’s child, she was awarded her own residence within the palace, where she assembled her own entourage: ladies-in-waiting, cooks, maids, and servants. Women of any social level could fill these roles, but their attachment to the palace provided great prestige and status.
Additionally, since the space of the Inner Palace was off-limits to men, women handled all the administrative, judicial, and ceremonial duties there. Although a woman’s family lineage certainly played a part in her status and title upon entering the palace, it was her own demonstration of initiative in performing her palace duties which could bring her promotions in rank and income, as well as royal gifts of luxury items, jewels, and land.
We might understand the Inner Palace as a literal example of Herzfeld’s ‘zone of cultural intimacy,’ in which Siam’s royalty could obscure part of the apparatus of political power behind palace walls, shielding it from the view of Siamese commoners and Westerners alike. At the same time, royal consorts enacted ties of kinship between the palace ‘inside’ and the provinces and vassal states ‘outside’, ensuring the loyalties of Siam’s nobles and tributary polities, if not its citizens. However, when the thetsaphiban system of administration was instituted in 1897, the kinship ties created by royal concubinage were supplanted by a Western-style, ‘rational’ system of administrative bureaucracy in the provinces—and the important political roles enacted by consorts began to decline rapidly in significance. At the same time, however, the increasing visibility of consorts—especially via photography—served to move royal consorts from an (inner) political realm to an (outer) cultural one, “fus[ing] together notions of decorum, bodily comportment, sexual mores, and respect for law and order, producing the appearance of a relatively docile citizenry on which modern nation-state governance depends.” Thus even as their political import was declining, palace women became vehicles for discourses of crypto-colonial cultural mores beyond palace walls.
During this era, royal consorts—their share of the royal aura not yet diminished—were transforming themselves into exemplars of bourgeois culture. In the interstices between the move away from marital alliance towards the complete implementation of local, bureaucratic administration, the shift taking place within the Inner Palace becomes visible through the photography of the era—especially that of royal consorts themselves. As Anne Maxwell describes in the European context, photography began to turn women into “both the recipients of the consumer gaze and its perpetuators. ...[T]hey were the main bearers of the new culture of mass consumption...” Erb Bunnag’s status as both royal consort and skilled amateur photographer perfectly embodies that of the elite woman as both consumer and producer of Siamese “bourgeois” culture—and the standard-bearer of crypto-colonial culture in early twentieth-century Siam.
Erb Bunnag: Concubine with a Camera inside the Siamese Palace
Following her entry to the palace in 1891, Erb embarked upon a highly successful career as a royal consort, despite the fact that she did not bear any children to the king. Erb’s fortunes took an upward turn in the later 1890s, a period which coincided with the suburbanization of the court. Following the king’s return from European travels in 1897, he ordered that land be purchased in the Dusit district for the construction of a new residence similar to the “garden palaces” he had seen in Europe. There he intended to escape the crowded and overbuilt space of the old royal palace by creating a park-like landscape, where spacious lawns lined with trees and khlong waterways separated the residences of the king and his favorite consorts. Upon the completion of the first royal pavilion at Dusit Park in March of 1899, Erb and the Oh Clique were some of the first royal women to stay there.
The Kok Oh sisters became particular favorites of the king, and were appointed to special positions within the king’s entourage. Erb and her sisters Ohn and Iem were part of a small group of consorts and wives chosen by the king to accompany him in his travels both at home and abroad. These Oh Clique sisters accompanied the King on several trips in the early years of the twentieth century, including the king’s 1901 and 1906 trips to Java, Indonesia, and Singapore; a 1902 trip to the summer palace at Ayutthaya, and a tour of Siam’s central provinces in 1906.
Consort Erb herself was a particular favorite of the king. Following the king’s move to Vimanmek Mansion at Dusit Park in 1902, Erb’s sleeping quarters were relocated to the chamber adjacent to both the king’s bedroom and wardrobe closet on the third floor. Erb was also placed in charge of several special events at the palace, such as the state visit of a Shan princess from Burma in 1906. Though she was never promoted any higher than the rank of royal consort (Chao Chom), these additional duties improved her standing within the palace, and ultimately earned her and her sisters a royal grant of land adjacent to Vimanmek Palace in the Dusit district on which to build their own residence.
Starting in the late 1890s, royal women gained access to the same photographic technologies that were popular among their elite male counterparts at the time. The earliest photographic images of royal women and their activities in the palace are difficult to date precisely. However, the landscapes visible in the majority of such photographs of palace women indicate that they were taken on the grounds of Dusit Park—and thus, taken sometime between 1901 and 1910. These photographs chronicle the activities of the Kok Oh sisters and other high-status consorts as they engaged in picnics and outdoor meals, bathing in the khlongs, and even photographing each other. As such, these images reflect the Siamese elites’ adaptation of various European notions of the ‘Victorian ecumene’ to the Siamese context: eliteness in suburban settings, appropriate leisure activities, and domestic femininity.
These activities reflect the court’s regular engagement in leisure pursuits—particularly outdoor activities—similar to those of their Western elite counterparts. Coincidentally, due to the ideal lighting conditions of the outdoors, such activities lent themselves to photography as well. Nonetheless, the outdoor nature of many of these activities did not automatically render them publicly accessible. Despite their suburban spaciousness, the grounds of Dusit Palace, like those of the “Inside” of the old Grand Palace grounds, were still walled off from the outside, and remained off-limits to all but the King, his consorts and their children. Thus the activities of royal women were photographed almost exclusively by the consorts themselves.
In addition to outdoor activities, consorts also photographed themselves and each other in a variety of domestic pursuits. Second-youngest Bunnag sister Aab’s culinary talents in the kitchens at the king’s Ruen Ton residence were documented in a number of photographs.  We also find images of royal consorts taken inside nearby Vimanmek Mansion, working at hand embroidery as well as at sewing machines (Figure 9).
In addition to recording the myriad ways in which women passed their time within the palace, a number of images record the Bunnag sisters themselves engaged in visits with their high-ranking male relatives—father Tet Bunnag (whom Erb is photographing in Figure 1) and later, his son and successor, their brother Tien. Images like these reflect the prominence of family and domestic activities in the daily lives of the Bunnag sisters. However, images like Erb’s also functioned to free the activities of royal women from the constraints of their walled-off quarters, rendering them newly accessible to eyes outside the palace. As such, these images begin to construct royal women anew in a ‘modern’ mode consistent with Western mores: as predominantly managers of the ‘private’ domestic domain, and engaged in leisure pursuits available—and appropriate—to the Siamese gentlewoman.
Among the Bunnag sisters who served as royal consorts to King Chulalongkorn, the best-known photographers were Erb and her sister Uen, as well as Ohn’s daughters Oraprapun Ramphai and Adisai Suriyapha. A number of their photographs of domestic palace life have become familiar to the Thai viewing public at large over the intervening decades. Probably the most famous of these images is the one taken by Erb of King Chulalongkorn cooking on the rear porch of his Ruen Ton residence at Dusit. (See Figure 10) In this photo, the king’s attire greatly contrasts with the uniforms typically worn in his official portraits. Here, he wears no shirt or jacket, but only a loosely wrapped lower garment called a pha khao ma—an outfit which could be worn by any Siamese commoner. His pose is casual and unguarded; the king is shown sitting on a chair as he bends intently over a wok, stirring it with his right hand while he smokes a cigar or cheroot with his left. The overall scene has a relaxed and contemplative feeling, as if one is present with the king in an intimate domestic moment. It is unsurprising that this photo is frequently seen today in restaurants throughout Thailand, in the area of the shop reserved for venerating an image of the king, past or present. The intimacy of the image affords the viewer a vicarious closeness to a much-revered monarch, while simultaneously rendering him all the more human and accessible via the quotidian quality of his dress and activity.
The Wat Benchamabophit Photography Exhibition and Contest of 1905
Up until the first decade of the twentieth century, Erb and other Siamese royals took photographs largely for their own amusement and viewing. However, in 1905, royal photography became visible to Bangkok’s general public via a photography contest and exhibition held during the annual temple fair at Wat Benchamabophit. This event rapidly became a major social event where royals and commoners alike could mingle in a carnival-like atmosphere, and it was attended by thousands of Bangkok’s citizens. The 1904 fair had featured a temporary photo booth; its popularity with the crowds led to the organization of a photography exhibition and contest at the 1905 fair. For this contest, Erb intensified her photographic activity around the palace, a fact reflected by the sheer volume of her photographs which remain in the archive.
In conjunction with the exhibition and contest, a newspaper was published listing the names of the event’s “supporters.” From this listing we find that both Erb Bunnag and Dara Rasami served together on the “Division of Photography” along with one of the king’s elder brothers, who was well-known for his photographic experience. This was the group in charge of arranging the photography exhibit itself. In addition, Dara Rasami also served as a senior member of the four-person “Wash and Print” committee headed by one of Chulalongkorn’s daughters, Princess Malini Noppadara, and staffed by two other younger princesses. Thus we can see that both Erb Bunnag and Dara Rasami were intimately involved with the photographic processes involved in mounting the 1905 exhibition/contest, and that they likely were very familiar with each other as well. As members of this photography group, Dara Rasami and Erb demonstrated their alignment with the siwilai aims of the palace’s younger generation.
More importantly, the 1905 contest also represents a likely moment for Erb to have exhibited some of the many photographs she had taken of her sisters and nieces in the palace, as well as the series of Dara Rasami photographs. As the contest approached, palace folk residents would have been particularly on the lookout for novel and aesthetically pleasing subjects to capture with their cameras. Dara Rasami’s presence at Dusit palace provided Erb with easy access to a rare and exotic ‘foreign’ subject: a “Lao” woman, rarely seen in Bangkok. That Dara Rasami opted to participate in the photography 1905 contest signals her general support of photography; sitting for Erb’s camera was likely a small favor to her friend. Nonetheless, the ways in which Erb posed and shot her subject provide insight into the Siamese view of Dara Rasami’s difference and how it figured into the crypto-colonial discourse of siwilai.
A Hierarchy of Images: Photography and “Siwilai” in Early 20th-Century Siam
Such images reveal Erb’s familiarity with contemporary European standards of photographic portraiture. As Siam’s royal elite had been utilizing studio photography with increasing frequency starting in the 1880s, Erb’s vision developed in tandem with the photographic culture in use all around her in the palace. Posed photographic portraits had been utilized by the king, his high queens, and children since the 1880s for use in representing the royalty both within Siam and beyond. Many of these portraits are instructive as to how they reflect the royal family’s familiarity with the camera, as well as the photographic standards of the time. Take for example several photographic portraits of Queen Saowapha: her gaze is carefully reserved, directed out of the image frame as though she is looking into the near distance. Her poses evince studied nonchalance: her body is usually angled slightly to the camera, while she often holds her hands in gestures seemingly borrowed from European royal portraits. In one portrait (See Figure 11), she holds a folded fan; in Figure 12, the seated Saowapha holds one hand under her cheek, seemingly oblivious to the viewer’s existence (even while her husband and five sons look directly at the viewer). Saowapha’s poses reflect not only her awareness of the camera’s gaze in the context of photographic portraiture, but also the agency of the Siamese elite subject in re-directing this gaze. In this instance, Saowapha’s pose echoes those utilized by European royals, in whose eyes the Siamese wished to be seen as equals. In tandem with architecture and dress, photography became one of several modes of royal self-representation that the Siamese utilized in their efforts to appear siwilai to both Europeans and Siamese. These images reflect the deployment of photography as an instrument of crypto-colonial discourse.
These representational practices reflect a visual turn towards the process of “self-civilization” Siam had begun in the 1850s, when King Mongkut signed a series of unequal treaties with Western nations guaranteeing them economically advantageous trade in Siam. As an exemplar of Herzfeld’s notion of “crypto-colonialism,” Siam’s nominal independence from formal colonization came at the price of its complicity in the process of colonizing itself—a thesis familiar to students of Thailand’s “semi-colonial” status. By the turn of the twentieth century, Siam’s elites had already experienced several decades of “self-civilizing,” an undertaking which Peter Jackson describes as “...not achieved by applicable processes of ‘emulation’ or ‘cultural knowing’. It was imposed as an explicit requirement of the regime of capitulations.” The Siamese, having witnessed Western willingness to utilize gunboats in the imposition of “civilization” deemed necessary amongst their neighbors, understood the implicit threat of not becoming siwilai fast enough. This process began in Siam under King Mongkut, Chulalongkorn’s father, who in the 1850s established a dress code at court that required Siamese subjects to wear shirts and shoes, and additionally employed an English governess, Anna Leonowens, to educate his children in both English language and European customs.
King Chulalongkorn, like his father, imposed new standards of dress early in his reign, as well as various rationalizing administrative practices, in order to make Siam siwilai. At the same time, Chulalongkorn instituted new dress standards for courtiers as well as official ministers and bureaucrats, whose new uniforms blended Siamese-style trousers (chongkrabaen) and European-style military jacket (a style known as ‘raja pattaen,’ perhaps referencing its similarity to the uniforms utilized by the British colonial Raj in neighboring India, which Chulalongkorn toured in 1871). Amongst royal consorts, sartorial style also began to align with European standards of feminine style: Note Queen Saowapha’s lacy Victorian-style blouse, complete with puffed sleeves and ropes of pearls (Figures 11 &12 ). Such blended styles reflect the Siamese attunement to Western cultural standards, at the same time adapting them to fit local standards and aesthetics. Following the 1893 Paknam Crisis, during which Siam was forced to cede its Lao territories east of the Mekong River to the French, these processes accelerated. In 1897, Siam implemented a new mode of governing its peripheries known as the thetsaphiban system, which instituted a local, “rational” Siamese bureaucracy in each of the newly demarcated provinces of the country, much like the colonial bureaucracies of the English, Dutch and French which Chulalongkorn had seen first-hand during his travels to Singapore, Java, and India—thus satisfying the West’s “explicit requirement” that the Siamese reshape themselves in the form of a colonial nation.
At the same time the Siamese were implementing numerous elements of Western cultural modernity, rapidly evolving photographic technologies allowed Siamese elites to become photographers themselves. And what better vehicle for expressing and transmitting crypto-colonial notions than photography: that technology which obscures the conditions of its production, though appearing transparently obvious all the while? Photographic images of Western modernity—particularly of fashionably dressed elites, more clearly gendered clothing and hairstyles, sexualized women and “inferior” ethnic peoples—traveled easily once untethered from the bounds of their original contexts, circulating globally via ‘print-capitalist’ flows of newspapers, magazines and postcards. The circulation of such images efficiently transmitted Europe’s new ideals of eliteness, femininity, and ethnic stratification to the Siamese elites by showing, not telling; the seamless surfaces of the photograph foreclosing the possibility of the image’s untruth or unreality, showing supposedly merely whatever was before the lens. Accordingly, in Erb’s images we begin to get a sense of the ways in which the Siamese elite photographer’s “eye” framed images in a crypto-colonial way: utilizing imagery in the same way as their Western colonial counterparts, though with Siamese elites cast as the colonizers, and the lower social (and ethnic) orders as their subjects.
Nowhere is this practice better evidenced than in images of a young tribal boy named Khanung, taken during the same era as those of Dara Rasami. Khanung was a young orphan boy from the Semang tribe, adopted by King Chulalongkorn during a state visit to Siam’s southern provinces in 1906. Evidence indicates that the king saw this adoption as his own personal experiment in civilizing a savage: “That year , King Chulalongkorn had the desire to raise the [tribal] child that had lived in the jungle, in order to try and see whether this training could make a [jungle person] progress into a [regular person] or not.” Chulalongkorn himself wrote a play about the boy’s imagined tribal life, describing the Semang’s physical appearance, way of life, religious beliefs, eating habits, merry-making, dressing, hunting, and courting. Thai scholar of dramatic arts Mattani Rutnin likens the King’s depiction of Khanung and his people to the manner in which his European contemporaries described the “noble savage” in their novels and plays. Khanung’s depiction in a number of royal photographs functions similarly. In Figures 13 and 14, Khanung appears dressed only in a loincloth, in poses suggestive of anthropological or scientistic imagery of the era. In another, Khanung appears in costume, clothed in the fancy dress costume created for him to wear as he played the starring role in Ngo Ba (Figure 15), the dance-drama based on his life story which was written by King Chulalongkorn. The child’s un-selfconsciously smiling face plays perfectly into the Siamese gaze upon him as a compliant member of an inferior racial group, so deployed to make knowable an entire ethnic group to Siam’s elite inner circle. The images of Khanung demonstrate how via photography, the ethnically different people found in Siam’s territories could be properly situated as “non-siwilai” by self-described modern Siamese elites in Bangkok, thus justifying the crypto-colonial exercise of Siamese rule over the ‘savages’ at their peripheries.
Erb’s Portraits of Dara Rasami in Comparative Context
The images of Dara Rasami are at once similar to and distinct from those of Khanung. As I will argue, these images—while placing Dara Rasami on a much higher social plane than Khanung—serve to illustrate how her femininity, intertwined with ethnic inferiority, functioned in the elite Siamese worldview. Here it will be productive to compare and contrast the images of Dara Rasami to formal portraits of Queen Saowapha, considering three of their main elements: first, the setting and/or backdrop; second, distinctive elements of dress and hairstyle; third, the interrelated issues of pose and gaze.
Firstly, let us consider the intimate, staged dressing-table backdrop. Where might Erb have gotten the idea for such a setting? The setting is somewhat unusual compared to most of Erb’s other palace photographs, its very “staged-ness” contrasting with her many casual “snaps”. The setup, which includes a chair positioned before a European-style dressing-table laden with crystal perfume bottles, and two separate mirrors, shares many elements in common with studio photography of its day. Research into photography in other parts of Asia has turned up examples of images with a similar arrangement of sitter, dressing table and mirrors taken by studio photographers in both Japan and Java (Indonesia) around the turn of the twentieth century. Given Erb’s interest in photography, it is possible that she was exposed to such settings via magazines and postcards, which circulated photographic imagery throughout Southeast Asia. Erb may have seen such images on display at photo studios in Java and Singapore during one of the King’s journeys abroad, since the royal party frequently visited the studios of European photographers while traveling. Within the context of Siamese palace photography, however, this setting is unique to this particular series of photographs of Dara Rasami: My research has turned up no other images of other Siamese royal consorts utilizing this setting, or anything even vaguely similar to it.
As referenced earlier in this article, Siam’s elites had become almost obsessive consumers of European clothing, arts, and household items during this era. The items utilized in the setting for this photograph clearly display Siamese elite tastes around the turn of the twentieth century—and their adaptation of Western aesthetic standards to the palace context. In terms of reflecting back to European imperial agents a desired level of “civilization,” this setting is practically a Siamese recitation of what material items constitute a “modern” elite woman’s personal accessories and cosmetics. (That it reflected Princess Dara Rasami’s actual personal cosmetic habits is highly doubtful, however.) Such a setting reflects the photographer’s expectation of her audience, and the creation of a context considered both appealing and appropriate in which to situate a noble female subject.
The furniture utilized here also emulates tableaux created in European photographers’ studios of the day: A pair of Oriental carpets underfoot; a straight-backed wooden chair with woven rush seat positioned before a full-length standing mirror with a vase of cut flowers; and a dressing table laden with an assortment of cosmetic or perhaps perfume bottles, as well as a smaller tabletop mirror. The plain black backdrop also serves an important function in the image: by disappearing behind the subject, it keeps the viewer’s focus fixed upon the woman in the foreground, followed by the secondary images available within the mirrors behind her. As Figure 16 shows, the backdrop also obscures the actual location of the photo shoot (which is outdoors in front of Vimanmek Palace), convincing the viewer that they are looking at an interior view (until one notices the trees visible in the mirrors’ reflections).
The dressing-table imparts an impression of intimacy, implying that we are within the private chambers of a royal consort, in a space devoted to personal grooming and dress—an ‘off-limits’ space even within the ‘off-limits’ space of the royal palace. The setting works in tandem with the image’s second important element, the mirrors, which further serve to position and reinforce the setting as an intimate, private one. By providing alternate views of the subject’s face and/or hair, the strategic placement of the mirrors extends the viewer’s experience of intimacy with the subject. Via mirrors, the viewer can see more aspects of Dara Rasami’s appearance than she can see herself—through the seemingly accidental, even surreptitious glimpses available in the mirrors surrounding her.
Here issues of bodily comportment and dress are intertwined. Dara Rasami’s dress and hairstyle, which differ greatly from those of her Siamese contemporaries, are clearly on display in these images. This is arguably the most significant aspect of the images, and ostensibly also the motivation for their creation: the exotic appeal of Dara Rasami’s ethnic distinction in the otherwise ethnically homogenous environment of the Siamese royal court. As I will discuss in the next section, this depiction of difference illuminates the Siamese elite concern with a “hierarchy of civilizations,” and its deployment as a part of Siamese crypto-colonialist discourse.
The Politics of Being an Ethnic ‘Other’ within the Siamese Palace
Dara Rasami’s ethnic difference is identifiable in this context primarily through her distinct manner of dress and hairstyle. In contrast to her fellow Siamese consorts, Dara Rasami continued to wear the textiles, style of clothing and hair of her homeland from the time of her entry into the Bangkok palace as a consort in 1886 until she left Bangkok in 1915. These sartorial choices were informed by both cultural and political considerations. In Dara Rasami’s homeland, a woman wore the textile pattern and garment styles of her hometown or village, even in the event that she married and relocated outside her village. This was done primarily as a means of acknowledging her matrilineal clan and placating its spirits.
Distinct textiles featured prominently in the system of political alliances between Lan Na and its neighbors as well. When noblewomen of Lao or Lan Na kingdoms were sent as consorts to the rulers of neighboring states, they brought their textile traditions with them, continuing to dress in the style of their home culture even after they settled far away. In this context, the use of distinct textiles by women within Lan Na courts indicated the power and reach of the ruler’s influence into the surrounding territory. Thus, in the court traditions of Dara Rasami’s homeland, a noblewoman’s use of “local” textiles was a marker of a ruler’s political reach, and was a practice to be maintained, rather than homogenized.
During the era of her arrival to the palace (the mid-1880s), Dara Rasami’s sartorial difference within the Siamese court related directly to her political status as a consort who had come to Siam to support such an alliance. Her homeland, the kingdom of Lan Na, had long been aligned with the Siamese, who helped to liberate Lan Na from Burmese domination in the 1780s. But as Lan Na’s forests attracted increasing attention from British and Burmese loggers in the 1850s and ‘60s, the kingdom’s loyalties to the Siamese came into question. A rumor spread between 1881–82 that a British officer had approached the king of Lan Na, Dara Rasami’s father, to extend an offer of adoption from Queen Victoria—a move which, it was feared, would extend British territory from upper Burma into Lan Na.
When this rumor reached Bangkok, the king of Siam acted quickly, sending his half-brother—a high minister—to arrange the king’s engagement to Dara Rasami. That minister, Chao Phraya Pichit Prichagon, traveled to Chiang Mai with a royal gift of diamond earrings to seal the agreement that Dara Rasami would come to Bangkok and become the king’s consort when she turned thirteen (four years later, in 1886). Thus, Dara Rasami served a dual role in the palace: both diplomat and hostage to a political alliance between the two neighboring kingdoms.
That Dara Rasami continued to dress in her native style over the decades she lived in the palace was unusual. There had been only one other consort who had come to the palace from Lan Na during the Fifth Reign: Chao Chom Manda (Consort-Mother) Thipkesorn, who was a cousin of Dara Rasami. After entering the Siamese palace, Thipkesorn had cut her hair short, and started dressing in Siamese style. Dara Rasami always dressed in her native style, even while she served in another royal consort’s entourage. However, as the princess of the royal house of Chiang Mai, Dara Rasami had entered the palace at quite a different level from Thipkesorn, serving as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Saowapha herself; thus Dara Rasami’s display of difference appears to have carried a different value than Thipkesorn’s.
Once she obtained her own residence in 1889 (upon the birth of her daughter), Dara Rasami required the ladies of her entourage also to wear Lan Na hairstyle and clothing, and to speak the Lan Na dialect there as well. These distinctions earned Dara Rasami and her household the moniker “Chao Lao” within the palace. Hairstyle was another point of difference. Whereas Siamese consorts wore their hair in a short-cropped “flank” style (like Erb’s hairstyle), the Lao women wore their hair long, pulled back and wound into a bun at the base of the skull. While this hairstyle seems to indicate “femininity” to Western eyes, it is important not to impute such value to a Siamese reading; rather, to Siamese eyes this hairstyle instantly declaimed one’s ethnicity as “Lao.”
At the same time Dara Rasami herself utilized certain elements of “traditional” Lan Na culture in ways consistent with her native culture, she freely adapted certain elements of Siamese as well as ‘modern’/Western dress and technologies, such as photography, to her own purposes. To posit that Dara Rasami’s adherence to practices which emphasized her ethnic difference reflected modern notions of identity would be anachronistic. At the time of her entry to palace life in 1886, such modern notions of ethnicity and national identity were still very new to the Siamese. I suggest that Dara Rasami’s sartorial distinctiveness signified differently during the early part of her career than in its later decades. Upon her arrival in the Siamese court in 1886, her distinctive dress and hairstyle served to remind the Siamese of their northern neighbors’ persistent cultural difference (and, at that time, sovereignty). By the first decade of the twentieth century, however, Dara Rasami’s role as a representative of local ethnic difference gained an entirely new significance as the Siamese envisioned a crypto-colonial hierarchy of civilizations.
The idea of ‘ranking’ the Siamese in comparison to neighboring peoples—indeed, against the various ethnic and tribal groups within Siam’s own territories—is clearly expressed in elite writings of the time. In the journal Wachirayanwiset, published in 1896, Siam’s elites discussed the differences between these groups in terms of their association with urban life. Here, the Siamese discussed how to rank themselves and “others” within Siam’s borders hierarchically, according to whom was considered “civilized” and “uncivilized”:
“Both chaopa and chaobannok were two categories of the Others of the more siwilai elite. The chaopa were the uncivilizable; the chaobannok were the loyal, backward subjects. The gazers were the educated elite in the city, the people and space of siwilai and charoen [progress]...”
Notably, however, Princess Dara Rasami’s particular ethnicity—that is, Lao—occupied an ambiguous niche somewhat lower than the Siamese:
“It should be noted that there were peoples who were described in one way or the other between the two categories. The prime example was the Lao (people and regions). ... Writings about the Lao during the period we are discussing mostly described them in details like chaobannok. At times they were mentioned as non-chaopa, similar to Thais. Yet, Lao people were also mentioned as chaopa and some accounts dissected Lao customs and described them topically similar, to the description of chaopa... For the Thai elite, the Lao were somewhere between the two kinds of Others.”
As a Lao woman within Siam’s most elite circle, Princess Dara Rasami’s representation of “civilized” Lao-ness through hybrid dress problematized the discourse of siwilai as it applied to Siam’s northern periphery. I suggest that the difficulty of locating the Lao people among the categories of chaopa, chaobannok, and siwilai related directly to Dara Rasami’s presence as a siwilai Lao within the Siamese palace.
Nonetheless, however, whether Dara Rasami’s people ranked as “somewhat backwards” or “uncivilizable,” what is relevant for our purposes is that they ranked distinctly below the Siamese in their construction of ethnic hierarchy. I suggest that Erb’s photographs of Dara Rasami reflect the Siamese perception of Lan Na or Lao as a lesser ethnic status. This ranking is expressed in two ways. Firstly, there is the intimacy of the photographs’ setting, which was unique to these images of Dara Rasami. Despite the availability of the accessory items and opportunity, this setting was never replicated for any other of King Chulalongkorn’s Siamese consorts. Secondly, the images focus on the visible markers of Dara Rasami’s ethnic difference: her dress, and particularly, her hair. However, these images were but one part of a broader discourse of Lao ethnicity during this era. Another part of the discourse which proved very powerful in locating Lao-ness—and especially Lao femininity—is that of Sao Khrua Fa (“Miss Butterfly”), the Siamese adaptation of the operetta Madame Butterfly.
Dara Rasami as Madame Butterfly: Picturing the “Northern” Woman
At the same time all things ‘foreign’ became all the rage amongst Siamese elites, stories from the West such as Cinderella and the Arabian Nights became fodder for creators of Siamese dance-dramas. Once introduced in the palace, these productions could go on to great success when opened to the public; the king’s approval was endorsement enough to guarantee a production’s success. One such production—which has a direct bearing on our discussion of Erb’s photographs of Dara Rasami—was the Siamese adaptation of the Italian operetta Madame Butterfly, entitled Sao Khrua Fa.
Having been impressed by Puccini’s Madame Butterfly during his 1906 tour of Europe, King Chulalongkorn assigned his half-brother, Prince Narathip, to create a Siamese version of the work. In the Prince’s adaptation, the roles of the American soldier and Japanese woman are transposed in a uniquely Siamese way: the American soldier becomes a Siamese man, while his Japanese lover becomes a maiden from—where else?—Chiang Mai. The actors were dressed in costumes appropriate to contemporary characters, with the heroine dressed like Dara Rasami herself: long hair worn pulled up in a bun, a lace blouse on top, phasin skirt below, worn with stockings and shoes. This production, entitled Sao Khrua Fa, became a huge hit when it was first staged in the summer of 1909. In the following letter, King Chulalongkorn wrote about its popularity to Dara Rasami, who was visiting her hometown of Chiang Mai at the time:
“Talking about ‘madness,’ the courtiers are now ‘mad’ about [Prince Narathip’s opera], every person, every name, from the masters to the servants. Since you left [for Chiang Mai], ... the men who did not see [Sao Khrua Fa] are very frustrated. It’s up to [Prince Narathip], whether he will perform the play again after having performed it in the royal court at the Pridalai Theatre. If he does, the audience will be large. In the past, I went to [his] theatre, and there were not more than 500 present. But since he has performed in the Royal Palace, there are not enough seats. This happens only to the plays which have been performed in the palace and are later performed outside. The money collected from outside performances is over 10,000 baht. Prince Nara exclaimed that it was due to ‘the glorious virtue of the king.’”
As the usual takings for a week-long performance run at a Bangkok theatre averaged around 1,000 baht at that time, we can see that Sao Khrua Fa was hugely popular with Bangkok’s theatre-going populace. 
We might see this performance of Lao “other-ness” through dance-drama as domesticating an otherwise exotic ethnic identity for Siamese consumption. At the same time, Lao difference is literally feminized: Lao ethnic identity and femininity are fused together in the figure of Sao Khrua Fa (Miss Butterfly) herself. The tragic heroine is depicted here as a naïve “northern beauty:” innocently bewitching, yet vulnerable to Siamese seduction, conquest and betrayal. As crypto-colonial discourses go, the message of this drama could hardly be less cryptic: to make plausible the need for the Siamese to exercise their colonial-style authority over the Lao territories in the interests of paternalistically “protecting” the culturally “backwards” people there.
As previously discussed, while discourses of Dara Rasami’s ethnic difference had carried political value within the palace earlier in her career, her role as a political hostage ensuring her homeland’s loyalties had declined with the implementation of Siam’s new, semi-colonial administrative structure in the governance of its provinces. In the era following this change in 1897, Dara Rasami’s role evolved to that of cultural “other” within the palace, whose ethnic difference—yet close proximity—became an exotic commodity upon which she could profitably trade. After Sao Khrua Fa’s successful debut in 1909, Dara Rasami was enlisted once again in the depiction of exotic Lao-ness. When Prince Narathip began work on a revamped version of the old dance-drama Lilit Phra Law, which was originally based on an old Lao story, King Chulalongkorn sent parts of Narathip’s script to Dara Rasami for her to review while she was traveling. Mom Luang Tuan, who was Prince Narathip’s wife and also musical director for her husband’s theatrical productions, visited Dara Rasami’s palace household to learn Lao vocal styles and instruments from her in order to enhance the northern setting of the play. “[Princess] Dara Rasami was pleased to have Mom Luang Tuan visit her often for instruction in Lao musical intonation. This resulted in the palace playing Lao songs more often.” In addition, since part of the Prince’s specialty was incorporating “foreign” elements into his productions to enhance their appeal with audiences, it was only appropriate that Phra Law’s dancers also “dress in Lao-Thai costumes, dance and sing to Lao-type musical tunes, and speak with touches of Northern dialect.” Through their relationship with a Lao “other” residing within the palace—Princess Dara Rasami—authentic Lao cultural elements could be utilized to create an exotic appeal for Narathip’s plays to a popular audience outside the circle of elites within the Inner Palace.
There is, however, another event which contributed to Siamese notions of Dara Rasami’s Lao-ness, particularly as it related to her long hair. As previously discussed, Dara Rasami traveled to her hometown of Chiang Mai for several months in 1909. Due to the political necessity of keeping her in Bangkok to ensure her relatives’ loyalties to Siam, she had not returned home for a visit to her family since she entered the palace as a consort in 1886. However, with the consolidation of British and French control in the territories surrounding her homeland at the end of the twentieth century, the circumstances keeping Dara Rasami from returning home had disappeared. When her half-brother, then governor of Chiang Mai, visited Bangkok in January of 1909, the princess requested permission to make her first-ever return visit to her hometown.
King Chulalongkorn granted her request, additionally granting her the funds necessary to make the long journey by train and riverboat north to Chiang Mai. Just before her departure from Bangkok in April 1909, she bade a formal farewell to King Chulalongkorn at the Samsen Road train station, adjacent to Dusit Palace. On this occasion, she deployed a gesture which quickly became well-known around Bangkok. Before the king and the assembled retinue, she “let down her muan [hair bun] and ‘wiped’ the king’s feet [with her hair] in the northern custom, bursting into tears.”
The Siamese cultural proscription against touching the feet, much less with the hair on one’s head, goes only part of the way towards explaining the emotional and cultural import of this gesture. Dara Rasami’s farewell references a particular northern episode that had occurred just a few years earlier (1903), a story still well-known in Chiang Mai today: the tragic love affair between a Chiang Mai prince and a Burmese woman named Ma Mia. When, in this story, the ill-fated lovers are forced to part, Ma Mia “washes” her lover’s feet with her tear-soaked hair. This story provides the additional context necessary for reading Dara Rasami’s performance of this “foot-washing” gesture. As such, Dara Rasami’s deployment of this grand gesture on departing Bangkok for Chiang Mai can be read as both personal and political discourse: it expresses both her personal attachment and gratitude to King Chulalongkorn, and serves as a reminder of the Ma Mia incident (and its additional Burmese element) to point up her long-standing political loyalty as his consort.
Dara Rasami’s deployment of this gesture on her departure in 1909 may well be what provoked Erb’s interest in photographing such a toilette scene in particular. To be sure, a Lao woman unpinning, unwinding and combing out her knee-length hair undoubtedly would have been an exotic bodily practice, unknown to most Siamese in that era. Certainly, to witness Dara Rasami in such an act would additionally allow the viewer to share in a moment of intimacy with a royal consort until then reserved for the king himself.
However, if indeed Erb shot these photographs following Dara Rasami’s return from Chiang Mai in 1909, there is yet another factor to consider: that of the subject’s changed status. Following her departure to Chiang Mai, King Chulalongkorn took the extraordinary step of promoting Dara Rasami to the rank of high queen, adding a potential element of royal status to Erb’s images.
Newly-promoted Queen Dara Rasami had professional portraits taken during her visit to Chiang Mai in 1909, and they pose a significant contrast to Erb’s images of her. In these images (see Figures 28 and 29), Dara Rasami poses in a setting analogous to that of her Siamese counterparts, with a similar level of dress, dignity and remove from the camera’s gaze.
In these images Dara Rasami projects the dignity of a high queen, while simultaneously affirming her ethnicity via her dress and hairstyle. The items utilized here are not random props: in both images, the carved box resting on the tabletop next to Dara Rasami is a gilded betel-box, the insignia of her new queenly rank. The new queen’s outfit here includes elements drawn from both Lao and Siamese elite cultures: Firstly, a phasin skirt made from luntaya (a textile which references Chiang Mai’s history and proximity to Burma); a high-necked lacy Victorian blouse in the style favored by Siamese royal consorts, complete with the diagonal bunting utilized by high consorts who had been decorated with the order of the Chula Chom Klao; a folding fan; and a plethora of jewelry, including hair ornaments, brooches, bracelets and a necklace encrusted with diamonds. Two different sets of furniture are used in these portraits. In the first (in Fig. 22) the chair in which Dara Rasami sits resembles an elephant howdah—suggesting the traditional ride of Asian kings; while in Figure 29 her chair appears to be a high-backed wooden chair (or similar), which lends a modern air to the portrait. The tablecloth and backdrop also appear to be different, suggesting that the two portraits may not have been taken at the same time (though Dara Rasami’s dress and jewelry appear identical in every respect). The most interesting difference between the two portraits, however, is the direction of Dara Rasami’s gaze. In Figure 28, her serious look is directed into the camera lens, while in Fig. 29, she directs her gaze away from the camera and out of the frame, suggesting greater remove from the viewer. The setup of both these shots is completely consistent with photographic portraits of high-ranking Siamese royal consorts, such as the images of Queen Saowapha Phongsri previously discussed. Here, Dara Rasami’s dignity is clearly on display: there is no illusion of intimacy with the photograph’s queenly subject. Yet we also find a number of contemporary Western elements (such as the chair, table with brocade tablecloth, lace blouse, etc.) combined with decidedly Lao ones (Dara Rasami’s hair and phasin skirt). Taken together, these elements produce an image of a siwilai Lao woman as dignified and modern as her elite Siamese counterparts.
Erb Bunnag’s career as a photographer of her fellow consorts came to a close following the death of King Chulalongkorn in 1910, at which time the women of the Inner Palace were dispersed from the palace at Dusit. Erb and her sisters moved into the compound they had built nearby, where they lived for the rest of their lives. As for Dara Rasami, she continued to live in her Dusit palace residence until 1915, when she retired to Chiang Mai. The image of the ‘northern beauty’ popularized by the Siamese Madame Butterfly, Sao Khrua Fa, however, has persisted in the Thai imagination down to the present day. Following the wildly popular dance-drama of 1909, Sao Khrua Fa migrated into cinematic form, where it has been made and re-made for new audiences over the past several decades—most recently for television. Thus contemporary media continues to keep alive the trope of the exotic and beautiful yet tragic ‘northern’ heroine. Surprisingly, it has even been embraced by the people of Chiang Mai as an element of their self-perception, and is still deployed today as part of the city’s self-promotion as an ‘exotic’ destination for Thai tourism within Thailand.
Lady Erb’s images of Dara Rasami help explain the confusion of Siamese elites as to where to place the Lao in the hierarchy of siwilai: was she ‘backwards’ or was she siwilai? Certainly the latter Chiang Mai portraits fully embody Dara Rasami’s queenly rank within the palace, and the possibility of reconciling her ethnic difference with her royal status. On the other hand, Erb’s images of Dara Rasami depend upon an intimacy with a subject sought out for her ethnic difference, and an emphasis on her most exotic feature: her long hair. Yet when comparing the two sets of images, Erb’s portraits of Dara Rasami remain more engaging for their staged intimacy and informality, despite (or due to?) their subject’s cryptic expression. While Erb’s portraits allow us to see Dara Rasami’s role in constituting an exotic feminine “other” that played into Siamese crypto-colonial discourse, the images get us no closer to an understanding of Dara Rasami’s motives, desires, or notions of her own ethnic identity. Foreign outsider or palace insider, diplomat or hostage, mere consort or Queen: who, indeed, was the woman in the mirror?
Dr. Leslie Woodhouse studied in Thailand from 2004–05 as a Fulbright IIE fellow, and completed her Ph.D. in Southeast Asian history at the University of California, Berkeley in 2009. She is currently an adjunct lecturer in Asian history at the University of San Francisco, California.
All images courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand, unless otherwise noted. The author would like to thank Khun Chuy and Khun Suphap of the Photo Archive division of the National Archive of Thailand in Bangkok for their knowledge of the archive and very helpful assistance in locating many of the images that appear in this article. Thanks also to Professor Penny Edwards of the University of California, Berkeley, without whose funding resources this research could not have been completed.
- National Archives of Thailand: Photograph Division, Bangkok, Thailand.
- Prince Damrong Rajanubhab Library & Archive, Bangkok, Thailand.
- Wikipedia page on the women of the Kok Oh (Thai-language):
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- Bunnag Family Lineage Club website (Thai-language):
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- Luntaya textiles in the collections of the V&A Museum, London U.K.
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Here I reference Michael Herzfeld’s notion of “crypto-colonialism,” which he defines as “the condition in which the very claim of independence marks a symbolic as well as material dependence on intrusive colonial power,” in the absence of direct colonial experience. See Herzfeld’s The Body Impolitic, Cultural Intimacy, and his recent essay in The Ambiguous Allure of the West, Harrison and Jackson, ed’s. (2010)
The primogenitor of the Bunnag line, Sheikh Ahmad Qomi, traveled from Persia to Siam in the late sixteenth century, arriving in the capital city of Ayutthaya sometime between 1595 and 1605. See the Bunnag Lineage Club’s website, http://www.bunnag.in.th/main.php.
Lady Oo’s five other daughters (who did not become royal consorts) also had “oh” names: Em (เอม), Uan(อ่วน), Im (อิ่ม), Ob (อบ), and Ai (อาย). Her four sons’ names shared their father’s first initial, “T.” See Kanthathip Singhanet, [ดร. กัณฑาทิพย์ สิงหาเนติ], Tracing the Consorts of the Kok Oh [ย้อนรอยเจ้าจอมก็กออ]. Bangkok: Wiraya Turakit, 2006. See also the Thai-language Wikipedia page devoted to the Kok Oh: http://th.wikipedia.org/wiki/ เจ้าจอมก๊กออ.
Petchaburi had been the home of the Bunnags since the emigration of their Persian ancestor, Sheikh Ahmad Qomi, to Siam in the late sixteenth century. Male relatives who did not become ministers to the Siamese king oftentimes were appointed to provincial rulership of the area, including Tet’s brother, Tiem. Bunnag See the Bunnag Family Lineage Club website, http://www.bunnag.in.th/english/index.html
Ohn had two daughters by King Chulalongkorn: Princesses Oraphrapun Rampai (b. July 7, 1886) and Adisai Suriyapa (b. Feb. 14, 1890). Royal consorts received their own separate residences upon the birth of a child.
Besides the King himself, no other males over the age of twelve were allowed access to the “Inner Palace” unchaperoned. Even royal pages on official business there had to be accompanied by a female guard. See Malcolm Smith, A Physician at the Court of Siam. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1982.
These lower-ranking women were not required to live within the palace. Women employed in the palace who had husbands and families of their own, lived elsewhere in the city, commuting to the palace to work in a noblewoman’s household. See Naengnoi Saksing (Mom Rachawong) and others [ม.ร.ว. แน่งน้อย ศักดิ์ศรี ... [และคนอื่น ๆ]: Architecture of the Grand Palace. Vol’s. 1 & 2 [สถาปัตยกรรมพระบรมมหาราชวัง], Bangkok: Office of the Royal Secretariat, 1988.
The thetsaphiban (or “monthon”) system supplanted the traditional system of tribute and vassalage that the Siamese kingdom had utilized in the past. See La-ongsri, Chawali Na Thalang, Charnvit Kasetsiri; Kanchani. Siamese Vassal States Under Rama V [ประเทศราชของสยาม].Bangkok: Samnakngan Khongthun Sanapsanun Kanwichai: Munnithi Khrongkan Tamra Sangkhommasat læ Manutsayasat, 1998.
Herzfeld, Michael, “The Conceptual Allure of the West: Dilemmas and Ambiguities of Crypto-Colonialism in Thailand, in The Ambiguous Allure of the West. Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, Rachel Harrison and Peter Jackson, editors. Hong Kong: Silkworm Books and Hong Kong University Press, 2010.
As noted in the memoir of Dr. Malcolm Smith, who served as physician to the Siamese court during this era, King Chulalongkorn fathered no children after he turned 42, which was in 1895. (Ibid., 1982) Typically, a consort’s best chance for improving her status was to have a royal child, but she could also advance via performance of other duties within the royal household. See Sara Miphongit [สาระ มีผลกิจ], Ratchasamnak Fai Nai Samai Rattanakosin [ราชสำนัก ฝ่ายใน สมัยรัตนโกสินธ์]. Krung Thep: Samnakphim Miusiam Phret, 2008.
Khanthathip (2006), p. 284; also see p. 46 of Sivarak, Sulak. [ส. ศิวรักษ์]. Interview With Mom Chao Jongjitrathanom Diskul, by S. Sivarak. [สัมภาษณ์ ม.จ. จงจิตรถนอม ดิศกุล.] Bangkok: Khlet Thai Ltd., 1986.
This event was also a point of contact between Erb and Dara Rasami. As a native of Siam’s northern province of Chiang Mai, Dara Rasami was enlisted to act as a translator for the Shan princess, as “their languages were mutually intelligible.” Sulak (1986), p. 72.
This residence, completed around 1906, was known as “Suan Nohk,” or “The Outer Garden.” Following King Chulalongkorn’s death in 1910, the Kok Oh sisters moved there, where they subsequently lived out the rest of their lives. The eldest Bunnag sister, Ohn, lived there until her death in 1970 at the age of 102. Khanthathip (2006).
Peleggi uses this term to describe the dominant nineteenth-century Western worldview in Lords of Things: The Fashioning of the Siamese Monarchy’s Modern Image. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.
Here it is important to note that even so, royal women still had their entourages and household staff in attendance, and royal ministers, officials and other government employees could also visit—albeit only with chaperones. See Naengnoi (1988).
Ruen Ton, or “wooden house,” is a traditional Thai-style wooden house built on stilts over the khlong waterway adjacent to Vimanmek Mansion. It is still there today, although not accessible to the public.
Several of Erb’s photographs from this era were part of the 1905 photography exhibition and contest at Wat (temple) Benchamabophit in Bangkok, where many of the Siamese royal family entered their photos as well. Erb’s involvement in this contest will be discussed in greater detail in the next section.
Though this image is most often a photograph of the current king, the choice of royal image displayed often reflects the shop owner’s identification with a particular king’s attributes. The most frequently chosen royal images are either of King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868–1910) or the current king, Phumiphon Adunyadet (1947 – present). Incidentally, duplicates of this and many other “royal” photographs can also be purchased cheaply from Bangkok street vendors near the Grand Palace, many of whom also specialize in the sale of stamps and coins to collectors.
The expenses of building this particular temple prompted the king to hold a “temple fair” to raise funds from the general public, starting in December of 1899, which due to its success became an annual event. Peleggi (2002), p. 93.
This photography contest was opened to members of the general public, and entries were accepted from 123 contestants, including a number of foreigners both Western and Asian; nearly half of the 395 images were submitted by Siamese royals and consorts themselves. Winners of gold, silver and bronze medals were decided by popular votes tallied at the exhibition; unsurprisingly, one of King Chulalongkorn’s own photographs won the gold medal. See Anek Nawikkamune [เอนก นวิกมูล]. History of Early Thai Photography.[ประวัติการถ่ายรูป ยุคแรกของไทย]. Bangkok: Sara Khadi Publishing, 2005.
The first (and best-known) of these was the Bowring Treaty, named for John Bowring, the British governor of Hong Kong, who brokered the agreement in 1855 with Siam’s King Mongkut (1853–1868). Similar agreements with the French, Dutch, American, and other Western powers were rapidly signed.
Although Anna herself claimed to have been born in England, she was careful to conceal her actual mixed-race heritage. See Susan Morgan’s recent biography of Leonowens, Bombay Anna (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008). Following Leonowens’ tenure at the palace (1862–67), Siam’s royal sons continued to be educated exclusively by Westerners: American missionaries, English schoolmasters, and foreign schools (such as the Raffles School in Singapore). See Wyatt (1968).
An interesting account of these travels is also available via the Thai Public Relations Department website, at http://thailand.prd.go.th/view_monarchy.php?id=5313.
A well-written account of this incident can be found here: http://www.paknam.com/history/paknam-incident-1893.html.
From Chulalongkorn’s introduction to Bot Lakhon Ruang Ngo Pa lae Brachum Klong Supasit [The Play ‘Ngo Ba’, With Collected Verse Proverbs]. Bangkok: Khurutsupha, 1968, 1–2. (Translation by Mattani Rutnin.)
The author has identified two other images contemporary to Erb’s images of Dara Rasami which also utilize a strategically-placed mirror to emphasize the subject’s face or hairstyle; one from Japan and another from Batavia (Jakarta), Java, Indonesia. The Batavian image can be found in Eric Jones’ book Wives, Slaves and Concubines. A History of the Female Underclass in Dutch Asia. DeKalb (IL): Northern Illinois University Press, 2010.
Dara Rasami was about nine years old at the time. As I explain in greater detail in my dissertation (Woodhouse 2009), it appears that Dara’s parents had heard of Queen Victoria’s “adoption” of the Sikh prince Maharaja Duleep Singh in 1854 (for more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duleep_Singh). I posit that Dara’s parents essentially invented the “adoption” rumor to gain political currency with Bangkok.
This difference in sartorial choices may have more to do with the differences between the womens’ status than anything else. As Dara Rasami was the daughter of the sitting king in Lan Na at the time, it may have been more important for her to continue representing her difference within the Siamese court than for her (relatively unknown) cousin. I have not yet found data to indicate whether Chao Chom Manda (Consort-Mother) Thipkesorn reverted to her native dress on receiving her own household in 1884 (when her son was born).
“Chao” being a low-level honorific title, technically meaning “lord,” which was assigned to every consort (“chao chom”) regardless of birth; “Lao” being the broad category into which the Siamese lumped the kingdoms to their north and northeast, including those at Lamphang, Lamphun, Nan, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, etc. These peoples shared the Lan Na (or khon muang) dialect, and had a long history of exchanging women in marital alliances; they thus shared much more culturally with each other than they did with the Siamese. Thanet Charoenmuang [ธเนศวร์ เจริญเมือง]. People of the Muang [คนเมือง]. Chiang Mai: Center for the Study of Social Issues, 2001.
From Thongchai (2000): “The Quest for ‘Siwilai’: A Geographical Discourse of Civilizational Thinking in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Siam.” Journal of Asian Studies 59, No. 3, 528–549.
King Chulalongkorn wrote about Madame Butterfly in his letters home from Europe in 1906–07, which were collected and published in the volume หนังสือไกลบ้าน [Letters Far from Home]. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University European Studies Programme, 1997.
Interestingly, there is also evidence that Dara Rasami disapproved of the drama’s message. Not only did she request that palace women be shown Sao Khrua Fa separately from the men, she also wrote her own musical dance-drama entitled Phra Loh Waen Kaew (Lady Crystal Ring) also called Noi Chaiya. This play centers on a woman who rejects her parents’ choice of husband, and chooses to run away with her lower status lover. Though this play was produced by Dara Rasami herself for performances within the palace, it never garnered the same attention as did Sao Khrua Fa, and consequently it was never performed in public. Mattani (1993), ibid.
From King Chulalongkorn’s personal letter to Dara Rasami dated 2 July 1909, collected in Prayut Sittiphan, รักในราชสำนัก รัชกาลที่ ๕ [Love in the Royal Palace of the Fifth Reign]. Bangkok: Saradee, 2000.
Romaniyachat Kaewgiriya (Mom Rachawong), and Pattanachat Raphiphun (Mom Rachawong) [ม.ร.ว. รมณียฉัตร แก้วกิริยา, ม.ร.ว. พัฒนฉัตร รพีพัฒน์]. [ดารารัศมี:สายใยรักสองเผ่นดิน [Dara Rasami: Tie of Love between Two Kingdoms]. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 1999: 88.
She had not even been allowed to return home to Chiang Mai to attend her father’s funeral in 1897, due to instability in the region. Kanchanachari, Nongyao [นงเยาว์ กาญจนจารี]. Dara Rasami: A Royal Biography of Jao Dara Rasami [ดารารัศมี พระประวัติพระราชชายา เจ้าดารารัศมี พร้อมพระนิพนธ์คำปรารภ โดย สมเด็จพระเจ้าพี่นางเธอเจ้าฟ้า กัลยาณิวัฒนา]. Published in conjunction with the Dedication of the Phra Rajajaya Chao Dara Rasami monument at the Station of the 5th Border Patrol, Camp Dara Rasami, Changwat Chiang Mai, 27 January, 2533 . Published by Tridi Printing, Ltd., 1990. [กรุงเทพฯ: คณะกรรมการจัดทำหนังสือ], 1990: p. 32.
Luntaya is recognizable for its distinctive “wave” pattern. See examples in the collections of the V&A Museum, London: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O10875/silk-acheik-luntaya/
This residence, completed around 1906, was known as Suan Nohk [สวนนอก], or “The Outer Garden.” The eldest Bunnag sister, Ohn, lived there until her death in 1970 at the age of 102. Khantathip (2005), ibid.
See http://th.wikipedia.org/wiki/สาวเครือฟ้า, last accessed Feb. 12, 2012.
See Nidhi Aeusrivongse [นิธิ เอิยวศรีวงศ์]. “Sao Khrua Fa: A Dream that Came True” [สาวเครือฟ้า ฝันที่เป็นจริง]. Sinlapawatthanatham [ศิลปวัฒนธรรม] Vol. 12, No. 6, April 1991, pp. 180–185; also Ratana Pakdeekul [รัตนา ภักดีคุล]. Images of Northern Women From Late 25th to Early 26th Centuries (B.E.) [ภาพลักณ์ “ผู้หยิงเหนือ” ตั้งแต่ปลายพุทธศตวรรษ ที่ 25 ถึงต้นพุทธศตวรรษที่ 26]. M.A. (2000): Chiang Mai University, Department of History.s