This illustrated guide to America’s 300-year presence in Thailand is admirably modest about old glories and honest about the bad guys.
The Americans in Thailand deserve full credit for offering a fair and honest appraisal of themselves in “Americans in Thailand”, an exhaustive and valuable compendium of the men and women from the Land of the Free who made their mark on the Land of Smiles. It includes the “ugly” variety right alongside the worthy Yankee heroes who’ve earned mentions in the annals of Thai history. Most Thais and expatriates can list a good number of Americans who’ve come to prominence in Thailand, from the missionary Dan Beach Bradley and pioneering entrepreneur Robert Hunter (of Chang and Eng fame) to the CIA spooksturned-groundbreaking businessmen Jim Thompson and Alexander MacDonald, to the esteemed author William Warren and the royally favoured tycoon Bill Heinecke.
They’re all fully profiled in “Americans in Thailand” alongside shorter visits with the endless succession of writers. You have Graham Greene, who described the original “Ugly American”, Carol Hollinger (“Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind”) and Jack Reynolds, who wrote “A Woman of Bangkok”, the original bar-girl novel. But there are scores of names that will be unfamiliar to most people, even to their own countrymen. The founder of the Neilson Hays Library, for example, or Edward Strobel, the general adviser who guided Rama V’s hand in dealing with slavery, gambling and European colonialists.
Genevieve Caulfield established the Bangkok School for the Blind. Architect Robert Boughey designed Q House and the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Harry “Heine” Aderholt was the brigadier general who kept Air America flying. As to the US war in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, Thai-American relations get a detailed and candid examination in the chapter called “Armed Americans”. Once revealed, the truth about the two nations’ cooperation during that period, it begins, “proved to be both the glue which strengthened it and the centrifuge that eventually pulled it apart”. Among other surprises, Ulysses Grant spent five days in Siam in 1879, during a world tour following his presidency.
The Civil War victor was in Singapore when King Chulalongkorn invited him to pay a visit and is quoted as subsequently saying that, of all the places thus far on his voyage, “I have seen nothing that has interested me more than Siam.” The first Americans to visit Siam were likely Captain Stephen Williams and his ship’s crew. Williams came in search of sugar in 1818 – three years earlier than the history books currently place the first American arrival – and went home with an order for Yankee flintlock rifles. The Bangkok Post (founded by Alex MacDonald) and its archives played a primary role in the creation of “Americans in Thailand”. The newspaper company must be congratulated on an eminently collectible resource and an immensely engaging history. ‘Americans in Thailand’; by various authors. Published by Didier Millet, 2014. Available at leading bookshops, 1,300 THB (hardback).