The Real “Anna and the King”
“Don’t believe everything you see in media”. (Jim Bean Salerno, 8 Nov 2016).
March 15, 1862, Stalwart Englishwoman Anna Leonowens stood upon the deck of a masted schooner as the sturdy ship, three days out of Singapore, navigated northward up the Chao Phraya River to the Siamese Royal Palace in Bangkok. Mrs. Leonowens was about to undertake the role of governess and teacher to the children of the Siamese King Maha Mongkut.
In her subsequent six years as a member of the royal household, Anna, with staunch English values, adroit international diplomacy and feminist determination, taught manners and civility to the ignorant, stubborn king, influencing Siam on a path toward enlightenment.
Well, that is what happened if you believe Hollywood. There have been at least two big Hollywood productions made into film adaptations of the memoir by Anna Harriette Leonowens: The English Governess At The Siamese Court, a book Thai officials have dismissed as mostly fiction.
On March 29, 1951, Rogers and Hammerstein presented the Broadway musical The King And I at the St. James Theater in New York City. The play was based on Margaret London’s novel Anna and the King. London derived her book from Anna Leonowens’ memoir. In 1956 Twentieth Century Fox released the movie The King and I starring Yule Brenner as King Mongkut.
Yule Brenner, a Swiss/Ukrainian, portrayed the King of Thailand in a movie, based on a play, based on a novel that was based on a sketchy memoir. That is a whole lot of abstraction. And Brenner made the Thai King look like a nitwit. No wonder Thailand banned the movie.
I read what Anna Leonowens wrote.
The sturdy sailing schooner portrayed by movie makers was actually a small tub of a steamer The Chow Phya. In her six years as an English teacher to the children of the King, Anna had little contact with the monarch, who in reality, was a contemplative intellectual and progressive leader seeking to introduce scientific thinking to Siam, quite forward thinking in 1862.
King Mongkut was an ally and supporter of The United States Union battling with Confederate secessionists. Multiple correspondence with US President Abraham Lincoln reveal King Mongkut’s adroit diplomatic skill.
Leonowens’ actual memoir sublimates an astonishing imperial conceit on the part of an angry, disgruntled widow filled with narcissistic feelings of superiority and utter distain for the gracious Siamese providing her with an opulent lifestyle. Leonowens viewed the King and his staff as pagan barbarians and the people of Siam as “miserable” and “lowly”, grouping the population of non royal Siamese together as “Chinamen”, a slur she uses frequently.
Portrayed by Hollywood as a strong independent woman capable of fending for herself alone at sea and in a foreign land, the real Anna Leonowens was attended to by two servants: “Moonsshee, my Persian teacher, and Beebe, my gay Hindostanee nurse”. For reasons Leonowens fails to explicate, in good British imperial fashion, she describes her caretakers as “trusted servants” while any of the Royal household employed in service to the King or Prime Minister were “slaves”. Anna’s regard for the Royal household in general is summed up nicely as she reveals her opinion of the Prime Minister’s interpreter, a Siamese man with whom she has had two brief conversations. “Rage, cunning , insolence, servility and hypocrisy were viley mixed in the minion” says Anna of a man trying to explain The Prime Minister’s state of mind to the imperial bitch.
In the 1999 film production Anna and the King, one need go no further than the movie trailer on YouTube to discover Hollywood magic, magic meaning bullshit in service to a narrative. The trailer shows Anna, played by Jodie Foster, standing defiantly in front of King Mongkut while asking the kneeling servants to the King why they keep calling her “sir”. A frightened, servile attendant tells Anna they call her sir because a woman would not stand in front of the King.
Ah, no, it was the Prime Minister, not the King, who addressed Mrs Leonowens as sir. Leonowens did not walk on her knees in front of the Prime Minister as did his retinue. Nor would anybody else so employed. Anna did, however, pay the same deference she would have shown to British Royalty. The extravagant servility of kneeling before their masters is symbolic, presented only to the King and Prime Minister by their entourage of immediate servants, who were no doubt really happy to have the job. It still goes on today, only not with the Prime Minister anymore. The modern Thai King’s personal attendants kneel while serving him during ceremonies. The King also kneels to ranking Monks. It is ceremony. Foreign visitors invited to the Palace are not expected to kneel before the King, not now, not then.
Leonowens highlights her scarce meetings with King Mongkut in her book. Sure, why wouldn’t she? But after studying her writings, I came away with the distinct impression that Mrs, Anna Leonowens had very little direct contact with the Siamese monarch in her six year employment. Anna enjoyed about the same access to the Thai King as maybe Monica Lewinski had with Bill Clinton, albeit with a different agenda.
Leonowens does write about the Prime Minister addressing her as “sir’ in her tome. But Anna presents it merely as a quirk of language translation coming from the Siamese language, where personal titles abound. “Sir” was simply an expression of something lost in translation. Nowhere in her memoir did Leonowens imply that the mistaken title was anything more than a mis-translation. The Jodie Foster character standing bravely, as a man would, in front of a barbarian King ignorant to the significance of a strong English suffragette is made up Hollywood nonsense. At least in Anna and the King, Mongkut is played by an Asian, Chow Yun-fat.
I feel just a little guilty for presenting Mrs Leonowens in such a harsh manner. The woman was indeed a brave soul for undertaking a voyage from the British stronghold Singapore to exotic Siam in 1862. And Anna never applied for the role of a twentieth century, feminist protagonist in a novel, a play and at least two movies, all admittedly highly fictionalized interpretations of the Brit school mom’s self serving, albeit depressive, autobiography. Alternately, Mrs Leonowens’ prolix writing was filled with details of her environment, along with her snotty ideas of perceived superiority to the Siamese, and Asians in general.
Anna presents her arrival from the Gulf of Siam into the port of Bangkok as her steamer enters the mouth of the Chao Phraya River (then known as the Meinam River):
“ In half an hour from the time when the twin banks of the river, in their raiment of bright green, seemed to open their beautiful arms to receive us, we came to anchor opposite the mean, shabby, irregular town of Paknam, or Sumuttra P’hra-kan (Ocean Affairs)”. (Leonowens p 28)
The best viewpoint I could find to shoot a descriptive video of the port town, of what today is known as Samut Phrakan, was from the platform of the BTS commuter rail station Pak Nam. At the location where in 1862 Leonowens observed: “the authorities were contemplating the erection of beacons” now stands an enormous tower. Vestiges of the walled-in beacon that arose from the planning stages in 1862 now surround the multi- purposed tower, more akin to a George Jetson cartoon set.
I interpret Anna’s description of “irregular” as an observation of a functional port of call built opposite the port bar of a meandering river. The BTS line curves dramatically as well, compensating for bends in the river. Of course a town built on the bow of a meander is irregular. As for “mean” and “shabby”, well yeah, I understand how a snobby, entitled broad who sees herself superior to royalty would characterize Samut Phrakan in such a fashion. Today still, Samut Phrakan is a working class, maritime town where port security and revenue collection on imports dominate the town’s purpose, as it did under Mrs Leonowens turned up nose in 1862.
I grew up, the son of a New York City Policeman, near the waterfront in Red Hook Brooklyn. Red Hook is down river from the main part of New York City, much like Samut Phrakan’s relationship to Bangkok. Within Samut Phrakan are multiple maritime enforcement bureaus, a police headquarters, freight facilities for offloading ships, abundant small businesses and a gigantic fresh fish market. Traveling about on foot in Samut Phrakan felt familiar. While the language, customs, clothing and architecture of Samut Phrakan were wildly different from my former Brooklyn home, the two towns share an animating spirit only a native son of such a place would feel.
While walking about Samut Phrakan it was clear this is not a place of tourists. There were no signs written in English, no Starbucks. Fashionable city folks were nowhere to be found. Samut Phrakan is a place of trade, a no nonsense business hub where local Thais work hard. People in uniform were omnipresent, cops, soldiers and maritime officials clearly held a bit of status. The Royal Thai Naval Academy borders Samut Phrakan to the north. I was searching for a landmark described in Leonowens’ book: “…a temple of purest white, its lofty spire, fantastic and gilded, flashing back the glory of the sun…”.
I discovered the temple Anna was describing on the opposite bank of the Chao Phraya River. A short inexpensive ride on a rickety ferry boat, another testament to the working class nature of the town, brought me to Wat Phra Samut Chedi. The harsh environment of Bangkok has stripped the Wat of its once impressive stature observed by Mrs Leonowens. However, the Wat’s location across the river was a clue informing me of Mrs Leonowens’ shipboard perspective at anchor one hundred sixty years ago. The tide was flowing inward causing Anna’s ship to point its bow southward placing Wat Phra Samut Chedi on her right. The realization that I had not only discovered the probable location of Mrs Leonowen’s vessel at anchor over a century and a half ago, but its orientation as well, based on her prose, made me feel as if I were communicating across time with another writer.
While critical of the classist cruelty expressed in her writing, I am grateful to Anna Leonowens for her honesty. Her biography certainly informs. Before one makes an argument that the woman was merely expressing the zeitgeist — the spirit of the times — in her writing, remember the era was dominated by literary giants. Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and indeed Abraham Lincoln wrote about brutish realities of their day while remaining sympathetic and gracious towards lower classes.
I am astonished at how twentieth century media can distort a story to a point where the original becomes inconsequential. Again I am grateful, for I can write my essays and make my videos without the financial and cultural demands of a socially corrupt complex of media giants seeking to tell a story of their liking.
Today there are powerful vestiges present in Thailand from King Mongkut’s reign. Political leaders, especially royalty, set standards. Life in the court of a monarch is imitated throughout the realm. A source of Anna Leonowens’ displeasure with Siamese culture was polygamy. Old Mongkut set the standard; he had several hundred concubines. While outlawed in 1939, the practice of multiple consorts for influential men still exists in Thailand.
“People are bragging about their husbands on Facebook. Well my husband happens to have two wives” bragged Manop Nuttayothin (L) after posting a picture of the happy trio.
However, scientific research, friendly international trade and pursuit of peaceful, non aggressive relations are all a legacy of King Mongkut’s rule in Thailand as well. Four of my several expat friends here in Bangkok are English teachers happy to be living in Thailand. They can probably thank King Rama IV, Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua, Mongkut the Great, a contemplative, visionary intellectual for setting the standard when he hired vitriolic, Mrs Anna Harriette Leonowens to teach English to his children in 1862.
Forget the movies; they’re nonsense.