The New York Times, January 5, 1878, p. 2:|
LAND OF WHITE ELEPHANTSOUT OF THE GLOBE-TROTTERS PATH.
AN AMERICAN TRAVELER IN SIAM—
FROM HONG KONG TO BANGKOK—THE MEINAM RIVER—
TROPICAL SCENERY—A SIAMESE FESTIVAL—
FOREIGN TRADE OF BANGKOK—AMERICAN GOODS IN USE—
IMPORTS AND EXPORTS IN 1876—A NOVEMBER SUMMER—
MORNING SIGHTS AND PECULIARITIES.
From Our Special Correspondent.
BANGKOK, Siam, Nov. 8, 1877.—
Siam is out of the way in a rapid voyage around the world, and the number of globe-trotters coming here is relatively few. For a person traveling westward there is steam communication about twice a month from Hong Kong to Bangkok; between this point and Singapore there are steamers each way weekly, but on both the routes mentioned the communications are somewhat irregular.
European passengers are so few that they are of no consequence to the owners of steamers, and very little space is reserved for them; the steamer Danube, that brought me from Hong Kong, had cabin space for only two persons and the Captain told me that he did not average a dozen passengers a year. He had about 500 Chinese upon the deck and in the steerage quarters, and as the ship was small, there was very little room to spare.
But the Danube was a good sea boat, and her Captain did so much to make the brace of us comfortable that we voted the voyage one of the pleasantest we had ever made. We ran down before the north-east monsoon, or as much of it as was blowing at the time, and crossed the bar of the River Meinam seven days after leaving Hong Kong.
The coast of Siam at this point is low and monotonous, with a few hills in the background, and altogether the first view of this land of the white elephant is rather disappointing. But as we enter the river and pass between the forests of tropical trees and plants, the scene changes and we unhesitatingly pronounce the picture a beautiful one.
The view is a strange one to Northern eyes. Palms and betel trees spread their long leaves, and at their feet are clusters of plants such as we associate only with the tropics. There is a profusion of parasites and climbing plants in general, some with flowers of bright red so abundantly scattered that they seem to form a scarlet or crimson curtain...
We have arrived on the day of the Paknam races, when thousands of people visit the temple at the mouth of the river to offer up prayers and indulge in aquatic contests. The principal boats are rowed or paddled by girls, and some of them (the boats) have as many as 40 paddles, 20 on each side. The crews are gayly dressed, some in white, some in red, and some in yellow. The boats are very long and narrow, generally hollowed out from the trunk of a tree and rounded at the ends, and their appearance as unique as it is picturesque.
The races were over when we entered the river, but the boats were there, some paddling about and making little spurts and trials of speed, and others lying by the bank or slowly ascending the stream on their return to Bangkok. There were, at a guess, more than 100 boats of different sizes and kinds, and then there were several steam-launches with barges in tow. Some of these barges contained the foreign Consuls and their families or friends, and others were occupied by Siamese noblemen and officials...
We steam onward and onward through 30 miles of tropical scenery, and at the last drop anchor. I can see little change in the scene except that a few houses show their white sides among the trees, and close on the right side is a pile of lumber, and near it the prosaic sign of "Bangkok Sawmill." I ask the Captain where the city is, and am rather taken by surprise when he tells me that Bangkok is all about us. I had looked for a closely-built city, and was not prepared to find a place so embowered in trees that few traces of a city can be seen...
In the vicinity of the King's palace it is otherwise, and there is quite a semblence of a city. Bangkok stretches about five miles along the Meinam, and I think that for at least half that distance one can see little more than a narrow fringe of houses along the edge of the forest, while in many places the fringe disappears and the forest takes full possession of the bank. I know of no other city of 500,000 inhabitants with such and so much embowering.
We anchor in front of the buildings of the Borneo Company and not far from the American Consulate, whose flag waves me a welcome, and reminds me of home and friends and patriotic processions, together with many other pleasant things.
There is not a large volume of foreign business in Bangkok, and the foreign merchants are so few that they can easily be far between. The Borneo Company is English and has agencies in Singapore, Java, Borneo, Hong Kong, and Siam, and there is another English house, a branch of a firm having large business with England. A German firm, Moller & Meisner, has the largest general trade, and sells everything from a box of pills to a marine engine; it has a line of American goods, some purchased in Hong Kong or San Francisco and some coming by way of London or Hamburg.
There is no American house, unless we include a sailor who keeps a low drinking shop, and shows faith in his merchandise by a liberal use of it on his own account. There is no direct trade with America, and but little indirectly, but there is a chance a for a fair amount if properly managed. A good deal of rice from Siam goes to San Francisco, but it all goes by way of Hong Kong, and pays a profit to the Hong Kong merchant.
I understand that the Occidental and Oriental Steam-ship Company talk of putting two steamers of light draft on the route between Hong Kong and Bangkok, so as to connect with their line to San Francisco, and thus capture a goodly share of the rice trade. I think they would find it not unprofitable. Siamese rice is considered the best in the East, and the direct shipments would doubtless be sufficient to support a line of small vessels.
Then there is a fair business in the transport of Chinese, who come and go between Bangkok and Hong Kong every year. Most of the heavy and hard labor here is performed by Chinese, not only in the city but in the interior.
The Siamese are not over-fond of hard work, and avoid it when they can conveniently. The hotel where I am stopping has Siamese boat coolies and water-carriers, but all its other employees are Chinese. In fact, boating is the principal and frequently sole manual labor which the Siamese will perform for foreigners.
But John Chinaman, as you know, has no scruples of this sort. He is ready to perform any work within his ability, and will even undertake matters of which he is entirely ignorant on the mere chance of getting through them.
American petroleum finds a market here, but it generally comes from Singapore, and only occasionally by direct importation. The demand is steadily increasing, I am told, but not so fast as in China and Japan, for the reason that the Siamese, as a rule, go to bed very early.
About 70 percent of all import and export trade is with Singapore; the merchants send their rice there or to Hong Kong, and buy what they want, whether the goods be European or Asiatic. Thus nearly all European or American goods must pay a profit to the Singapore merchant, and the retail prices are high.
The King is anxious to have direct trade between Siam and America, and so are others, but nobody seems to know how to bring it about, and it is certain that when it is established prices will not rule as high as at present.
Gen. Partridge, the Consul who was so summarily removed last year, had broken down a great portion of the little trade we had, and discouraged American ships from coming here. In 1871 there were 11 American ships in the port of Bangkok taking cargoes for Hong Kong, Singapore, and Java. In 1876, under the policy of Partridge, the number decreased to four, and this year, under another policy, it has risen to nine.
An account of the performances of the American Consul appeared in The Times about a year ago, but from what I learn since coming here the story was very mildly drawn, and the man deserved something far more severe than removal from office. He brought disgrace upon the American name and flag, drove our ships from the ports of Siam, and continually used his Consular power for purposes of oppression and gain...
But we have changed all that, and our present Consul (Mr. David B. Sickels, of New-York,) is all that we could wish. He is constantly on the look-out for means of fostering American interests in Siam, and is highly popular with the King and Cabinet. The visit of the fleet last Winter went far toward restoring pleasant relations between Siam and the United States, and the new Consul completed the work by an honest and earnest effort to undo the wrong created by his predecessor.
In 1876 the exports of Siam amounted to $8,350,000, and the imports to $7,070,000, an increase in the whole volume of trade over the previous year of $686,000. The chief export is rice. The export of this article last year was 4,101,000 piculs, (a picul is 133 pounds,) which was nearly double the export of 1874, and 270,000 piculs more than in 1875. The direct exportation to the United States was 8,800 piculs, but, as before stated, there is a considerable quantity going indirectly via Hong Kong.