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Not all smooth sailing

Pattara Danutra

THE WANGLEE FAMILY: Now among the top-ranking families in Thai business circles, the Wanglees are descendants of Chinese traders who arrived by sea last century The family’s colourful and, at times, tragic past is brought to life in a book penned by one of the clan.

A boat has always been a popular metaphor for a person’s life, its journey across the oceans likened to life’s ups and downs. For Chinese immigrants last century, though the metaphor had a particular poignancy as they came to Thailand by boat, often during a harrowing journey in their quest for a new homeland and prosperity.

Among these immigrants in the 1870s were the pioneer generations of the Wanglee family.

Now recognised as one of Thailand’s most successful merchant families of Chinese descent, the fortunes of the Wanglees over the years read like a boat’s journey, one in which the captain’s skill is not the only factor in ensuring smooth sailing, but also the weather and waves.

However, the family’s colourful past and its capable captains and navigators may have remained simply family, Khunying Chamnongsri Rutnin (Hanchanlash), who has the Wanglee blood from her mother’s side, has also brought it to the public in the form of an intriguing book.

Duj Nava Klang Mahasamut (Like a Boat in Mid-Ocean), now stands on the bestseller shelves on major bookstores. After the initial public release of 5,000 copies a few days before January 1, the second edition is now planned.

“Originally, the book came out 1994 as the commemoration book for the cremation of Mr. Suvil Wanglee, chairman of Nakornthon Bank and president of the Board of Trade, who died when the private plane he was piloting crashed.” Explains Khunying Charmnongsri, who as the only relative involved in the literary field, was given charge of the project.

Soon after the book was distributed to those who attended the cremation rites, the family was overwhelmed by its reception, not only from serious sinologists, but also from general readers who found it highly enjoyable.

Contributing to its success is the vivid narrative and colourful anecdotes spanning the 130 years of the Wanglees in Thailand and generations further back in China. Just as important is the personal approach and creative handing of family biographics by the writer, who is a recognized poet, writer and story-teller.

“The reception by the readers was very good, I and Pimprapai Pisalbutr, the Wanglee niece who had helped me with the research, were contacted by readers who wanted to give me additional information – like leads to more research, related data, untold anecdotes – oh, all kinds. They became very useful for the present revised edition.”

Though given free rein to write the history of her mother’s family, Khunying Chamnongsri was limited by the short period she had to complete the research and writing. The reason? At the cremation rites held seven days after Suvit Wanglee’s body was recovered, guests were given cards stating that they would be able to pick up the commemoration book from all branches of Nakornthon Bank in four-months’ time.

“Actually, I started out trying to do something much simpler than a family saga.” Khunying Chamnongsri explains. “I just planned to put together an extensive photo essay on the history and businesses of the family. When I got down to it, though, I found only few old photographs. In desperation, I turned to the family history.”

At first, the imaginative author regarded the project as mainly a fact-gathering mission, and felt depressed. “Pi Suvit’s brothers and sister felt rather sorry for me. In fact, Supachai and Arunee Wanglee cooked me a lamb-chop dinner in an effort to cheer me up. At the dinner, another brother, Suthep, jokingly told me not to be so down-hearted and told me stories he heard from the Chinese grandmother who migrated to Hong Kong when Japanese were about the invade Kwangtung.

“Like how the burial place of the great-grandfather and great-grandmothers – one Chinese, one Thai – were broken into and the bodies left on the hills twice – once by thieves, and years later by the Red Guards. Anyhow, when the coffin of our grand-father who died in Thailand was being carried in the night to his village in China, a mysterious band of armed men appeared and wordlessly accompanied the thoroughly scared cortege to its destination.

They were actually bandits who wanted to guard the body from corpse-snatchers who took bodies for ransom. The Wanglees were well loved as philanthropists, you see.

“That was encouraging and when asked if I would like to go to this tiny village to find out more, I jumped at the offer!” she recalls.

A trip was made to the Tenghai districts in eastern China for the opening of a school building donated by descendants of local families who lived in Thailand. The site was not far from the Joykoy village, the hometown of the Wanglee family since the late-17th century. There she found a wealth of unexpected information including the name of an ancestor who appeared in the family tree as “the uncle whose head was lost.”

“I followed that lead with some difficulty and finally learnt that the man was beheaded for his role in a farmers’ uprising against the Manchu Dynasty. The family reclaimed the body for burial, but the head was never found!” she says.

Through an interpreter who accompanied her from Thailand, the writer interviewed people, visited ports, burial places and homes of earlier Wanglee generations.

“Just about everyone in the village were relatives – they welcomed us as cousins through I couldn’t understand a word of Chinese and was wearing my usual Thai pha nung skirt. The emotion, warmth and excitement on both sides told me then and there that the book’s viewpoint would have to be personal as well as historical.

“In the course of writing, my feelings and approach were strangely ambivalent – I was both an insider and an outside of the clan. The Chinese family biographers – a man and a woman in their 50s – treated me so warmly as a new found cousin, and yet my mother’s name wasn’t even in the official family tree which went back for generations.

“Only sons were recorded. Strictly speaking. I was not a member of the family. But emotionally, I was.” Says Khunying Chamnongsri.

Unlike other family history books, Like a Boat in Mid-Ocean does not portray only historical facts. The six centuries of history of the Wanglees which the writer was able to trace is interspersed with stories not directly relevant to the family. For example, there’s a chapter on rue hua daeng, or red-headed boat (a popular vessel for Taechiew migrants coming to Thailand before the advent of the steamship), Chinese goddesses who protect sea travellers, and the social context of immigrant Chinese merchants in Thailand.

Apart from the author’s personal reflections interwoven into the narrative, the book has a substantial bibliography and appendix. As a result, what started out as a family history has tuned into a combination of quasi-social documentation and personal narration by a writer with a gift for storytelling and an elegant prose style.

Two discoveries made during her research make an amateur historian like Khunying Chamnongsri feel especially proud. Both concern books

The first was a set of more than 100 old Chinese books gathering dust on a family bookshelf. Nobody knew that they were, in fact, tomes on major classical Chinese literature and philosophy, collected by Tan Chue Huang the founder of the family who came in his merchant vessel to settle in Thailand 129 years ago. The philanthropist-cum-merchant was also a serious literary reader.

The second set, and the most significant of the two discoveries, was the funeral book of Tan Siew Meng of the family’s third generation in Thailand. It reports on the meetings of the Sino-Thai Chamber of Commerce of which he was president before and during World War Two.

It contained many messages from Thai dignitaries including the west-learning Kuang Abhaiwong, who took the helm of the government at the end of the war, confirming the patriotic acts of Tan Siew Meng during the Japanese occupation.

The memory of the assassinated Tan Siew Meng, the second member of the Wanglee family to hold the position of president of the Chamber of Commerce, had always lain under the doubtful shadow of being a traitor to the Chinese community. It is because among other seeming acts of collaboration was the Chamber’s recruitment of Chinese labourers to support the Japanese military’s project of constructing the River Kwai railroad during World War Two.

More evidence has surfaced since the distribution of the cremation commemoration edition of Like a Boat in Mid-Ocean and has been included in the revised edition. Such as the recollections of Police General Prasit Rakpracha, a Chinese-Thai patriot whose underground trip to China during the war was secretly supported by Ta Siew Meng.

With more supporting evidence, Like a Boat in Mid-Ocean could finally prove that Tan Siew Meng, Suvit’s father, was not a traitor to Chinese, but actually a patriot to both Thailand and Chinese immigrants. He collaborated with the Japanese due to the Thai government’s request, while he secretly helped the anti-Japanese Free Thai Movement.

“The discloser of much of these hidden facts, Khun Udom Yenrudi, was the Thai secretary of the Sino-Thai Chamber of Commerce during the war. He told me that much of what he knew had not been disclosed for five decades due to the many conflicts and coups in Thai postwar politics, and the obliteration of passing time,” says Khunying Chamnongsri, who is a niece of Tan Siew Meng.

She sees Tan Siew Meng, a third generation Thai, as a man who thought and chose to act from the Thai point of view rather than the strictly Chinese one at the time when Japanese power posed a great threat to Thailand.

“Interestingly, it was Sulak Sivaraksa, who asked Pibhob Dhongchai to tell me to contract Khun Udom if I wanted facts about Tan Siew Meng’s work during the Japanese occupation.

“However, history is history. Each person had his or her own role and standpoint in each period. Tan Siew Meng would be viewed as a person taking the Thai government’s conciliatory stand, which was the opposite of most Chinese merchants who were first generation immigrants during that period. But those who did not co-operate with the Thai government in avoiding open conflict with the Japanese occupation troops would be heroes to their peers. Each is a hero for his side,” she says.

A year has been spent revising the second edition. Apart from pictures of famous Wanglee ancestors in China, Like a Boat in Mid-Ocean also features pictures of old rice-mills and portraits of Wanglee family members.

“For me writing has always been a journey of discovery. Tracing my own Chinese veins and arteries and writing about it is unbelievably enriching. A process of self-discovery and revelation rolled into one,” says Khunying Chamnongsri.

“Decades ago we were reluctant to admit to Chinese ancestry. Now we have become more established and confident in our Thai identity – Thais with Chinese blood have become an inseparable component of the fabric of Thai society – so we are ready to face the facts of our Chinese origin.”

The writer, who is also a devout Buddhist, also emphasized that her book portrays not only the success stories of the family, but also its failures and tragedies. The underlying theme is the universal law of transience that governs all things; also the basic loneliness of people in our life’s journey, the route of which lies on the ocean of time – like a boat in mid-ocean.


From: Not all smooth sailing by PATTARA DANUTRA In Outlook, Bangkok Post. February 4,1999.

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