Matchbox Museum Offers Small View of Big History

Article excerpt

Bangkok, Thailand

In the late 1930s, inspired by his father's friends trading old coins and other collectibles, the 10-year-old son of a Chinese gold dealer in the northern Thai town of Nakhon Sawan took a shine to a used matchbox.

Its stamp-size label, produced by a local match mill, showed the 19th century monarch, King Chulalongkorn, astride a white stallion. The image was modeled on the venerated king's 1908 equestrian statue, an object many Thais still regard as sacred. The boy was charmed by his find.

"I thought it was beautiful," remembers Chuan Sunthranan, now an octogenarian. A box of matches then cost just a satang (1 cent), he notes, so they were "cheap and easier to collect than stamps, which other boys like to collect."As Thailand was being swept up in World War II, the boy began scouring teashops and going door to door in search of used matchboxes, peeling or steaming off labels for his growing collection.

Chuan's boyish zeal never let up for seven decades as he married, inherited his father's shop, raised five children, and relocated to Bangkok - all against the backdrop of Thailand's 15 coups, involvement in the Vietnam War, and bloody crackdowns on pro- democracy movements. Much of that turbulent history is now reflected in his vast collection of matchbox labels - kept in his private "Matchbox Museum."

It took him 20 years - during endless visits to flea markets and barters with fellow collectors - to complete his equestrian set. It consists of identical labels picturing the king on horseback with a pennant. There were 26 labels in the series - each showing the pendant with a different letter from A to Z. Chuan claims he has cobbled together the only set surviving. Though he's had his set for a half century and his collection now boasts sets from 120 countries, he still prizes the Thai equestrian series above all.

Unlike most adolescent collections (bottle caps, stamps, baseball cards) that end up in moldy basements, cobwebbed attics, or dumpsters, the fruits of Chuan's magpie-like enthusiasm now have their own museum. Last year, the elderly collector converted his shophouse in an outlying Bangkok district into the "Matchbox Museum" open to the public.

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The springy octogenarian, dressed on a recent day in a pink polo shirt with a Boy Scout logo, can hardly sit down on his shop stool before jumping up again. His trouser legs bunched around his sandaled heels, he scurries around jammed bedroom-size space to point out remarkable exhibits as he navigates the clutter of tabletops stacked with framed cardboards mounted with labels, displays propped up on the floor for want of space, glass cases hung on walls and simply tagged "Beautiful Matchboxes," and stacks of labels spilling out the doors. Pausing here and there, he exclaims in limited English, "Only one in the world!"

There is no exhibit map; it's all in Chuan's head. "I'm my own curator," hesays of the haphazard arrangement.

"I want to pay homage to one of mankind's greatest inventions," he explains.

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In hindsight it seems like a no-brainer - a little stick tipped with a blob of phosphorus ignited on an abrasive surface, or "grit," for lighting a fire. Yet from kindling and flint it took several millennia for the friction match to arrive in 1827 (courtesy of John Walker, a British pharmacist). Anyone could now own fire, thanks to a wonderfully simple, handy device shorter than a pinkie.

Soon matches were sold by the dozens in little cardboard boxes with sleeves richly labeled for trademark and advertising purposes by myriad match mills. To rise above the competition, manufacturers (by the late 19th century they numbered several hundred worldwide) began churning out a kaleidoscope of decorative and promotional labels produced by inspired graphic artists.

Collectors weren't far behind. Matchboxes, their utilitarian purpose subverted, came to be viewed as objets d'art; like Chuan, many collectors have never smoked, or even used matches much. …