A Skeptical Impressionist: Charles Buls and His Siamese Sketches

by Kenneth Champeon, May 25, 2001 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

A review of Siamese Sketches, Charles Buls, trans. Walter E. J. Tips, [White Lotus, Bangkok, 1994].

Following upon the success of his Croquis Congolais, or Congolese Sketches, the Belgian Charles Buls, then former mayor of Brussels, traveled in 1900 to Siam to compile a similar survey of its life and people. Staying there for but a month, he yet amassed a remarkable collection of descriptions and insights, published as Croquis Siamois, or Siamese Sketches, the following year.

Siam was then ruled by King Chulalongkorn, or Rama V, whose legacy is to have rejuvenated his nation with Western ideas. Only through doing so, he thought, could Siam defend itself against the English encroaching from India and the French from Indo-China. Belgium in particular was invited to fortify Siam's judicial system, described in the chapter "The System of Justice."

Like the accounts of many other learned men encountering foreign countries, Buls' is a document of conflict. He does not know whether to condemn, praise, or dismiss the Siamese. Controversially, he does all three, and con gusto; more controversially, he does the same to the Europeans.

Describing the houses of Siam, for example, Buls employs the words "vulgar" and "miserable." The canal is "the universal cesspool." At a temple he finds "an unbelievable amount of dirtiness." Elsewhere he remarks that "all the women are ugly and especially horrible the old women...." He flees a gambling house because of the "fetid smell of yellow men."

Before condemning the "fetid smell" of his archaic, provincial worldview, consider that elsewhere in his Sketches, Buls evinces a kind of premature cultural relativism. Though he believes unsurprisingly in the "preeminence of Western people over Asian people", his "preeminence" is one of power, not necessarily of morality. "The people here do not seem to be awaiting the happiness of the marvels that an arrogant Western civilization has brought them." This arrogance of the West, "the same arrogance that makes us believe we possess the only truth and the only way to happiness" is a recurring theme. Of course, it is Buls' arrogance also, but he sets himself above the "drunken, corrupt, vulgar, roguish adventurers, sent off by Europe" to plunder foreign lands. If Buls' is a racist, he is also a critic of colonialism during its heyday.

Against the "brutal ways" and "rough manners" of the Europeans, Buls attests to the serenity and civility of the Siamese. They are generous, respectful of their elders, "very formal among themselves, and of a refined civility." While lauding the enterprise and exactitude of the many Chinese in Bangkok, he betrays some preference for the carefree Siamese. The Chinese "shout a lot and work; the Siamese, gentler, pass by silently."

His tendency to doubt the self-aggrandizing of his own civilization also informs his comparison of Christianity and Buddhism. With a skepticism beyond the powers of missionaries still roaming Thailand, he places the two religions on an equal footing. Indeed, he admires Buddhism because it lacks Christianity's evangelizing zeal. "There is no more tolerant cult." While Buddhists in Europe would be "denounced as henchman [sic] of Satan by our priests...and stoned by our peasants," the Buddhists welcome Jesus into its pantheon of saints "worthy of veneration."

There are few aspects of Siamese life that Buls does not address. He peers into houses of prostitution eerily resembling those of present-day Thailand; he tours the prisons; appraises the architecture; attends a royal procession; witnesses a Siamese funeral; rides the new railway; and marvels at the Ayuthia elephant round-up.

The accounts are exhaustive. Sometimes they are exhausting. Like many travelers first encountering Asia, Buls is occasionally bolted away with, his otherwise potent prose degenerating into tedious lists. In one sentence he enumerates 23 fruits and vegetables to be found in a particular market. Apparently unpleased with this feat, he brings the number up to 27 not two paragraphs later.

In his defense, Buls wrote during the infancy of photography and well before the televised image. He has no other recourse at times but to describe every last feature of a room that nowadays would be communicated more directly and informatively on film. The result is that Siam appears more exotic than perhaps it was.

But Buls does more than catalogue. He also offers many predictions of Siam's future, some startlingly accurate. Remarking on the fruitful coexistence of the exacting Chinese and the dreamy Siamese, he predicts that the luk chin, the children of Chinese and Siamese parents, will exemplify modern Siam. "Of this combination of imagination and reason...will perhaps be born the inventiveness that is lacking", he claims, "in all the Asian peoples."

This prediction has been borne out. While ethnic Chinese still direct Thailand's commerce, the Sino-Thais are its visionaries. The "gentler" ethnic Siamese, meanwhile, have largely not benefited from the country's move into the ranks of the Newly Industrialized Countries.

Buls moves from issues of ethnicity to those of gender. While the status of Thai women remains unacceptable to many, both foreign and Thai, it is far better than that of many of Thailand's neighbors. Buls may have foreseen their advance when he wrote that "Siamese women seem to possess energy sources that are lacking in their husbands." Thai men, "vain and unstable", watch their women increasingly marrying foreigners offering more outlet to their "energy sources". Even the deplorable, billion-dollar sex-tourism industry enriches women preferring it to less lucrative occupations.

Buls closes his lively book with a question still pertinent a hundred years later, in an age which has seen colonialism's demise and neo-colonialism's rise. Siam feared the English and the French. Thailand fears the World Bank and the IMF. It struggles to demonstrate that its indebtedness to these two monolithic "Western" entities is due to their heavy-handedness and not to Thailand's lack of discipline. "The Siamese people, gentle and intelligent, will they protect themselves...with a new courage against their native sluggishness? Or will these foreign germs be murderous for them, like those that ferment in the swamps of the Menam?"