It has been said that Bangkok in 1956 was an overgrown village. Not so. Greater Bangkok, then still the Venice of the East, was a bustling metropolis of one million people, more or less.
But for many Western and Asian expatriates, it was an enchantress, as it had been for decades before and as it is even until this day. For those of us here then, my family having moved to Thailand seven years before in early 1949, Bangkok and its people and attractions were magnets enticing and holding us in their tropical and alluring sway.
As you will learn, never fully being what it seemed or appeared to be, Bangkok was delightful, exotic, seductive, mysterious, pleasure loving, traditional, quite Asian, “Old Siam" as my father would say, yet beginning to change to emulate the cities of the Western expats, particularly the growing number of Americans who were migrating to Thailand.
Few of us are still around today who remember those early days, and we are becoming fewer. I can readily think of Dr. Harvey Oei, Kusa Panyarachun, Alex Mavro, Mike Gerson, Mark Hitcraft, Arlette Cykman, Kurt Mueller, Janek and Michele Luksaiewicz,
Walter Meyer, and Khun Ankana, consultant and long the Front Office Manager of the Oriental Hotel.
There are others whose names, to my embarrassment, escape me and who have probably retired quietly but are still breathing. Limited by audience attention span, these personal remembrances which I recount here just scratch the surface of expatriate life in those days long ago. And if they aren’t exactly correct, well, as someone once said, “Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.”
And besides, I am probably free of immediate challenge from those of you who were not born yet in 1956. And that’s the way histories are written.
To more fully appreciate Thailand of 50 years ago, very briefly I will set the scene leading up to the day AmCham Thailand was created.
At the start of WWII in December 1941, Thailand was a relaxing outpost surrounded by the Asian colonies of the European empires. This buffer zone, so to speak, had a foreign civilian population numbering in the thousands.
Bankers, missionaries, traders, engineers, miners, foresters, mariners, civil servants, judges, hoteliers, entertainers, government advisors, diplomats – they had been a carefree lot convinced of their safety by the protecting combined British, Dutch, French and American military prowess in the Pacific.
Extending the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere by the Japanese military beyond China and Manchuria was unthinkable – such was the arrogance and ignorance of the Westerners present here and their home governments as well. That illusion was shattered in the winter of 1941 by the brilliantly conceived and executed lightning successes of the Japanese land, air and sea forces which in a matter of days subjugated all of Southeast Asia from Hong Kong to the Indian border, south almost to the shores of Australia, and east as far as Guam
"As abruptly as it started, three and a half years after the beginning of WWII the Japanese mastery of the Orient came to an end"
Some 1,500 British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, Dutch and American civilians (men, women and children) were interned by the Japanese occupation army in Bangkok alone. More foreigners were here but remained relatively free to move about during the war years as they came from Axis and occupied and neutral countries – Germans, Austrians, Italians, French, Czechs, Danes, Belgians, Swedes, Swiss.
Other Asians (except for captured military opposition) – Indonesians, Indians, Chinese, Mons, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and Burmese – were courted by the Japanese for their ‘Asia for the Asiatics’ scheme. The Japanese occupation army just took over the homes, clubs and offices, servants and staff of those interned.
few days later, 30,000 troops of the British and Indian Army under General William Slim and Lord Louis Mountbatten moved in from Burma by air and overland assuming command, freeing the thousands of Allied and native POWs and civilian internees, rounding up and returning the 100,000+ Japanese garrison military personnel to Japan.
They stayed for less than a year and then withdrew to deal with the growing militant independence movements in their own Asian colonies. Thailand was free and permissive again. Its sovereignty as a free and independent nation was preserved intact. Americans began moving in to fill the vacuum left by the Europeans, especially the prevailing dominance of the British who gradually lost much of their influence over Siam in the post-War years.
(Note: The large Japanese commercial and investment presence in Siam remained after the War at levels exceeding pre-War times and growing quietly out of the limelight but unerringly to the present day. Thailand was and is the darling of Japan, as it is of America and Europe and the Middle East.)
The Americans Come
The initial group of Americans to take up residence in Thailand after WWII was the men of the American OSS (Office of
Strategic Services) – forerunner of the CIA – who had nurtured and helped the Seri Thai underground resistance movement to counter the Japanese occupation.
Men like Johnny Wester, Jim Thompson, Alexander MacDonald, Darrell Berrigan, Howard Palmer and later his brother Billy (both born in Thailand) were among the OSS officers I knew who stayed on and entered the business world in Thailand after the war.
Then, as I remember them, came the American diplomats such as Ambassador Edwin Stanton and his wife, Josie; war correspondents; the medical people – Dr. Marshall P. Welles (Bangkok Christian Hospital), Dr. and Mrs. (Nurse) Waddell (Bangkok Adventist Hospital); educator missionaries like Walter Zimmerman and Floyd Wilson of YMCA/YWCA; some UN types such as Bill Cummings of FAO (also ex-OSS), followed by adventurers and entrepreneurs in love with Asia and looking for new opportunities to earn their fame and fortunes.
Jorges Orgibet, founder of the FCCT (Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand) in 1956, was among the former while the latter included my father Albert Lyman, Lou Cykman, Willis H. Bird, Herman Seiler, Reeve Hankins, Gordon Lawry, Lou Mulkern, Jim Moore, Tim Chew, Jim Shaddy, George Griffin, Jim Robinson, Jack Fee, David Workman and intrepid ladies such as Rita Meyer (who married Dr. Ammundesen), the glamorous Maxime North, the indefatigable Rosemary Whitcraft, and, of course, my dynamic, tireless, organized and talented mother, Freda Ring Lyman.
Each had their own story for landing in what they found to be, for them, Paradise. Many other Americans soon were to follow them to Siam. Some of these men were covert spooks, but that is another story.
Part 2 : bit.ly/3E0XxNx