Bangkok (1890-1910)/ Reform and Reinforce, the Dual Meaning beneath Bangkok’s Road Construction
The road construction of Bangkok bears dual meaning, to reform and to reinforce.
Compared to the reinforcing nature, the reforming nature of the roads is easier to understand.
Instead of being the royal reservation, the road as an urban infrastructure not only took an active part in changing the cityscape and facilitating the economic growth, but also contributed to promoting a westernized life pattern. Trams, automobiles and new programs like postal service and hospitals were made possible because of the construction of roads. The roads not only penetrated the inner city, but also thrusted out of the city wall, expanding the urban footprint and connecting the capital with the other provinces. The city was no longer a self-contained sacred city centered to the Grand Palace, but a modernized one with multiple centers connected by the road network.
These all reflect the road’s reforming nature that help transform Bangkok to a modernized city.
The reinforcing nature, on the other hand refers to the king using the road to glorify absolute monarchy.
On the King’s 40th anniversary of coronation in 1908, large parade was held along the royal Ratchdamnoen Avenue. There the king delivered a speech, in which he described his state policies as “opened up Siam to Western innovation, while at the same time not denigrating time-honoured Siamese customs.”
If the western innovation refers to the advanced technology and capitalism, then we start to ask, what’s the “time-honored Siamese customs” that the king tried to preserve?
If the front side of a coin writes “Thailand as a colony”, the back side is exactly what the king meant by “Siamese custom”: Thailand as a stably united country.
Although Thailand is the only country not being colonized in South East Asia, its independency is based on the agreement between the Britain and France instead of its self mighty. Thus the top-down westernization carried out by the king, as is commented by Terwiel (Terweil, 1983), were “inspired by both the wish to imitate the colonial powers and fear of those same powers.”
For this, the legitimacy of the monarchy as the country’s absolute ruler and Bangkok as the national capital under the king’s rule became an urgent message to be delivered in order to reiterate Thailand’s independence.
This gives the road construction in Bangkok a second meaning apart from being the symbol of westernization: the hymns to the royal glory.
Along with the establishment of the royal palaces, like in the Dusit District, the royal roads bear more symbolic meaning than economic performance. They are the showcases of the prosperity of the monarch that welcome everyone’s visit.
By integrating the royal glory with the urban infrastructure, the king was trying to concretize the idea of Thailand as a united nation and arouse the citizen’s patriotism.
As Terweil writes, “the country was stable, many people were earning more than before, and this was seen to be directly linked to the fact that the country had a virtuous king.” His display of wealth was a symbol of Siam’s well-being.”
By reforming the urban texture and urban living, the king was trying to bring the western advancement to the city; and by reinforcing the legitimacy of the monarchy, the king was trying to erect the image of Thailand as a unified independent country.
KORFF, R. (2004). Thailand. Bangkok: Place, practices and representation. By MARC ASKEW. London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. xvii, 358. Tables, Maps, Plates, Bibliography, Index. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. 35, 177-179.
PORPHANT OUYYANONT. (1999). Physical and Economic Change in Bangkok,1851-1925. 東南アジア研究 / 京都大学東南アジア研究所 編. 36, 437-474.
STERNSTEIN, L., & DANIELL, P. (1976). Thailand: the environment of modernisation. Sydney, McGraw-Hill.
TERWIEL, B. J. (1983). A history of modern Thailand, 1767-1942. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press.