This excerpt, from Chapter One, “The Triple Supremacy,” examines the introduction in Siam of the colonial supremacist idea that romantic heterosexual monogamy had to be used as a marker of “civilization” — and the irony that it would be up to the young King Vajiravudh to implement the new supremacy.
In Vajiravudh’s Siam, the ideal male, the king, lived in relationships with wives of varying ages and varying local races.
But Western literature celebrated monogamy and spoke of romance of two types. Early tragic romantic lovers such as Romeo and Juliet, or Lancelot and Guinevere, or Abelard and Heloise, or Tristan and Isolde existed outside arranged marriages and coped with the subsequent obstacles only through secrecy and, eventually, death. But a second style of romantic love being popularized in the new mass media of the nineteenth century instead simply treated any obstacles — such as family objections — as hurdles that enhanced the romance, made it more exciting, and then were eventually overcome so that the couple could marry and “live happily ever after.” The English queen whom Vajiravudh had met, Victoria, had served Britain not simply as a powerful ruler but also as a romantic, married, monogamous model with her husband, Prince Albert. Hers was an imperial plotline of supposedly “civilized” love that, as far as Europeans were concerned, had not been followed by Mongkut or Chulalongkorn.
The Western stories also used characters with strong gender distinctions between the male body and its costumes, behaviors, desires, and mannerisms and the female body and its. By the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe and the United States, this character construction was beginning to be called a “heterosexual.”
“Civilized” romance also assumed those involved had similar ages and were of similar races. Cross-age or cross-race relationships were not nearly as acceptable in these Western plots as in Siam’s polygynous culture. Europeans had given cross-race relationships an ominous sounding label — “miscegenation” — and then had frowned upon them, considering them a form of Nordau-like degeneracy and sometimes even criminalizing them.
This was the “civilized” plotline then: The mating of two similarly aged, similarly raced and distinctly gendered heterosexuals through an obstacle-strewn ritual called “romance” that then ended in either artful tragedy or a monogamous “happily ever after” marriage resembling Victoria and Albert’s.
That was a narrative about manhood and family structure quite exotic to the royal narratives that Vajiravudh knew back in Bangkok and that defined Siamese manhood.
To be “civilized” was to embrace the new triple supremacy: romantic, heterosexual monogamy. Other forms of intimate relationships and of family organization would have to be considered “degenerate” and “uncivilized” [a triple taboo against non-romantic, non-heterosexual, non-monogamous relationships, especially those inter-racial or intergenerational.]
Yet civilization, called siwilai by Siamese royalty, would also have to be hybrid to be effective in Siam.
A year before he left for Europe in 1893, Vajiravudh had passed through his tonsure ceremony, donning heavily gilded robes and a towering, pagoda-like crown. The ritual lasted a week. His head had been shaved, the traditional first step in becoming a Buddhist monk earning merit. That reflected one pillar of Siamese manhood. Then, Chulalongkorn had built a forty-foot-high mountain. On top of it, in an elaborate Hindu-influenced ritual, the king himself had appeared as the god Siva and had deified his young son as the god Ganesa.
In London, though, a painting showed the changed expectations of Vajiravudh as a young teenage male. He had a long thin body dressed in a British gray suit with a five-button vest, gold watch chain, and stiffened ascot collar. His long, straight, black hair had been oiled and combed sharply backward. His fingers were, like so much of the rest of his body, long and thin. He wore toed and heeled black shoes that had been shined but that seemed disproportionately small for his height, foot size sometimes being used as a coded visual reference for male phallic power.
In the painting, lines, thinness, and motionlessness defined Vajiravudh as a Siamese Asian male, in contrast to the dynamic, muscular, in-motion statues of Greece that were part of the European ideal of manhood.
When his father, Chulalongkorn, passed through England on his Grand Tour of Europe in 1897, Vajiravudh’s body had filled out and he had a more rounded face. But even at age seventeen, he still looked very much the boy as he gathered with other princes for a photograph and stood behind his father’s left shoulder. All had dressed in British suits. Vajiravudh smiled slightly, contrasting with the somber expressions on both the lips of the king and of the other princes.
To him would fall the task of writing the story of the new Siamese man, the siwilai romantic, monogamous, heterosexual male.
It would be his fate — whether the model fit him personally or not.
Copyright 2012, Hong Kong University Press