Wednesday 17 March 2010

Chiang Mai -- Colonial History in a Colony That Never Was

Thailand is proudly the only country in Southeast Asia never colonized. Quite a surprise to some, then, to drive down the old Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road, lined with soaring rubber trees, and chance across the Chiengmai Gymkhana Club. Gymkhana Clubs were the most colonial of British institutions, originating in 19th century India under the Raj, where polo and gins-and-tonic were the mainstay to keep garrison officers and ranking civil servants entertained.

The low-key clubhouse – its third incarnation since being established in 1898 -- is full of anachronism. For a start there’s the apparently mis-spelt name. ‘When it was built that’s how the town’s name was spelt,’ affirms Roy Hudson, nonagenarian former treasurer of the club. (It is now spelt with an ‘a’ and broken into two words.)

Roy, a former major who fought in Burma with the Royal Engineers, arrived here in 1959 and never left. ‘It was the last paradise on earth.’ He’s very much a part of the rattan furniture on the Leonowens Veranda of the club, where the Thai staff wai ‘Khun Loy’ reverentially.

That name Leonowens? If it sounds familiar, it’s because Louis was the son of Anna Leonowens, the governess to the King in that famous movie. Louis was in the King’s Household Cavalry but resigned to join the Borneo Company’s timber division which was heavily involved in teak logging in northern Thailand and Burma, along with Anglo-Thai Timber and the Bombay Burmah Corporation.

Leonowens was one of the founders of the club who signed a Deed of Gift that states that if a majority of members want to sell the club grounds (originally purchased for Rs. 2500, now a priceless spread of 35 acres), the proceeds would be given to local hospitals.

The club logo, a stylized flying horse, is the emblem of the Prince of Chiang Mai, which he had in turn adopted from a sculpture given to him by a British business associate. ‘It was not a traditional image at all,’ explains Roy.

In the mid-50s timber leases expired and were not renewed, hence the demise of British presence and influence in this area. Full Thai memberships were accepted from 1955.

‘Before, I knew every farang in the town and we used to meet mainly at the Gymkhana Club or at receptions at the British consulate. Every farang automatically joined the Gymkhana,’ Roy tells me as another pre-lunch whisky is poured. ‘There were three motorcycles and 240 cars when I came here in the whole of Chiang Mai province! If you went from the town to the station and passed more than two cars you’d complain.’

He gives me a guided tour of the members bar, which is all dark wood, studded-leather comfy chairs, and sepia-toned photos, and slips into some reminiscence: ‘For 500 baht a month you could have a very nice house – food very cheap, there was a social group here of about 50 farangs. I know there were only 50 farangs because we put out a directory. If you saw a farang anywhere you’d speak to him.’

Today, the clubhouse houses the MacFie billiards room and the Wood library, among the club’s slightly modernized facilities. Outside, the ping of golf balls as groups of mainly Thais – who now comprise 70 percent of the membership – tee off. The club is also home to cricket, tennis and squash teams.

Something of a throwback atmosphere permeates the lush grounds of Thailand’s oldest club, where birds chirp and cicadas shriek in the midday sun. Roy’s driver is summoned, backing up his early-70s model Ford Cortina. A waitress hands him his walking stick and extends her arm. ‘I shall now be escorted from the premises to the tune of the Wedding March,’ he laughs.

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