Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Through Racing Goggles: Modernity, the West, Ambiguous Siamese Alterities and the Construction of Thai Nationalism

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Through Racing Goggles: Modernity, the West, Ambiguous Siamese Alterities and the Construction of Thai Nationalism

Article excerpt

On 9 January 1988, a very strange event took place in the heart of old Bangkok. Fourteen vintage race cars were transported from secure military compounds to the Royal Equestrian Plaza for display and later to race up and down the Ratchadamnoen royal boulevard. There was much excitement and mayhem, as security was quite lax and no one really knew what to make of the sight of such old cars. The drivers and mechanics were all Caucasians, and the lone female driver, who looked European, spoke perfect Thai. Stem-looking military policemen provided what security there was, along with transportation. Thai spectators lined the two sides of the boulevard; many also walked freely among the staging race cars. A week later, the cars would also race at the Pattaya International Race Circuit near the famous beach resort town of Pattaya. For the occasion, the race circuit was renamed "Bira International Race Circuit" to honour Thailand's only successful international race car driver (Chao dara thong phu phlik prawattisat 1988, p. 70). (1)

This 1988 event on Ratchadamnoen was a "re-enactment" of the Bangkok Grand Prix International Motor Race that was supposed to take place on 10 December 1939. Race car teams and drivers from Europe committed to participate in that race in Bangkok. Posters designed by Prince Birabongse Bhanudej (Phiraphongphanudet, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 1914-85) were printed, and an elaborate Thai silver cup was especially made for the grand occasion. The Bangkok Grand Prix was the brainchild of Prince Chulachakrabongse (Chulachakraphong, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 1908-63) and Prince Birabongse. (2) The two Siamese princes had been sent to England to study and to learn the ways of the West. They became bicultural and bilingual Thais, and were two of the original Westernized Oriental Gentlemen, or WOGs. (3) Unfortunately, the Bangkok Grand Prix never took place because the outbreak of the Second World War interrupted it. (4)

One of the activities in which the two princes indulged while in the United Kingdom was automotive racing. They fielded a Siamese racing ream--the White Mouse Racing Team--beginning in 1935. This team was most active in 1936, 1937 and 1938, and the Second World War also interrupted its activities. After hostilities ended, Bira continued to race into the 1950s during the early years of Grand Prix Formula One events. He drove for several teams, but less successfully than in the prewar period. His name and exploits are chronicled in most books about the early days of automobile racing (Stevenson 2000, pp. 187-93; Reynolds 2016; Jones 1995, p. 133).

This article introduces the two princes and their racing successes in Europe. It contextualizes their experiences in the Siamese public's perception of the West, of modernity and of nationalism. Unlike in neighbouring countries--such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, in each of which struggles against Western colonialism defined nationalism--in Thailand, nationalism was based on an embrace and mastery of Western modernity and on harnessing that modernity to raise the nation to the same level of civilization (Vella 1978; Barme 1993; Saichon 2002; Thak 2009, pp. 459-64).

Thai nationalism is thus top-down nationalism, constructed by members of the royal, aristocratic and political elites with little input from below. The successes of the two princes in racing and the celebration of their exploits by the post-1932 civilian-military People's Party regime in Bangkok reinforced top-down nationalism. This nationalism is still manifest today in the close connection between the nation on the one hand and the monarchy and the "good and morally-superior" aristocracy and bureaucrats who serve the crown on the other. The people are thus consumers of Thai nationalism, rather than active participants in its construction. During the 1988 enactment of the race that never happened, the Thai government was also proud to point out that Siam or Thailand was the first Asian country to be involved in international motor racing. …

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