Early this year,
I volunteered to assist with the conservation of some very special textiles, housed in temple collections in Chiang Mai. These intricate hangings were associated with Queen Consort Princess Darasamee and very much needed preservation. But it turns out they were far more complex than the visible embroidery threads for they were tied into the threads of my own life, and much like in a fairy tale, they awakened the happiness of my childhood.
Once upon a time…
Once upon a time, when I was a child, I lived in a magical house in the Borneo Company Compound in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The house had belonged to Louis Leonowens, the son of Anna Leonowens, who was the tutor in the Court of Siam (The King and I). When Louis returned to Siam as a young man in the 1880’s, King Rama V Chulalongkorn, a childhood friend, granted him commercial teak rights up north.
The house became the center of the famed and lucrative Borneo Trading Company, which felled teak and sent it down river to Bangkok for export. A grand home made of solid teak, in a colonial Indo Portuguese style, it was elevated on stilts and fronted by a pair of staircases with carved balusters. It was known as ‘baan dam’ or the black house, decorated
in classic ‘gingerbread’ carved wood, with long runs of louvered plantation shutters. There were no screens or glass, and the air and rain swept through like natural air conditioning. So did the bugs, spiders, snakes, monkeys, and reptiles…. many a gecko lived there, and as children we always counted the number of calls hoping to hear the gecko stop on the lucky number.
The house was so big that we all slept in one bedroom. The large extension on the back of the house, once the minor wives quarters, we converted into a pottery studio, puppet theatre, and guest rooms. The dining room had two fridges – one was full of bottles of boiled and charcoal filtered water, in frosted Gilbey Gin bottles. Our kitchen was so far away that the food was cold by the time it reached the dining room. We had scores of cats and dogs, and our pet cemetery was at the bottom of the kitchen steps.
My little brother and his pals were often found under the house, in their camouflage gear, driving mini jeeps and playing army games. Daily, like clockwork, the chokingly loud US bombers flew their sorties from Sathahip or Udorn airbases, over into Vietnam, Lao and Cambodia, and returned again. How eerie, to think that a major war was going on, a shroud over our charmed daily life.
We never wanted to leave the Borneo Compound. Our life there was heaven. The compound held several houses and we had a gang of friends who were Thai, Austrian, German, Scottish, and French. We walked to our little school, Chiang Mai Coeducational Center. We raced our bikes all over the compound, chased after the hysterical honking geese, made our khatins parades, climbed the many lamyai longan, banyan and mimosa trees around our house, and sometimes went to tea at Miss Bain’s house, our landlady. We regularly held fashion shows, strutting through the spacious front rooms in the latest fashions (remember paper dresses?) my grandmother would send us from Kentucky.
…and so, my love for textiles was born.
It was from this home as a child, that I began to notice textiles and the differences between types of cloth. They were all around me everyday – woman’s pha sin skirts, hilltribe outfits, Yao embroidery, men’s plaid pah kah mah, elaborate dancing costumes, Jim Thompson silk, Design Thai, Lampang silks…. Getting a new dress meant going to the market and comparing all the bolts of bright cottons to select the perfect fabric to take to the tailor. Back at home, we spent hours painstakingly plotting out hill tribe cross-stitch patterns on graph paper in color pencils. In the steamy afternoons, we’d sit on the shaded verandas and work our embroidery – backstitch, blanket stitch, cross-stitch, satin stitch, seed stitch – or try tatting or crocheting. Our beloved nanny was always close by, ready to rescue when our threads snarled and knotted up.
Forlorn and falling down
In 2004, for the first time since 1970, our whole family returned to Chiang Mai. Our beloved Borneo House was in shambles, derelict. One staircase hung akimbo from the front of the house, along one side the outer walls had peeled back from the pillars, and large fig trees grew out of the roof. The back gardens were an impenetrable jungle of vines and weeds, and the house forlorn and abandoned. My family was so distressed that we even discussed whether we could buy and restore the house to its former beauty, a total pipe dream for us.
Beckoned home by a textile
This year, 2016, a twist of fate – a textile – called me to our old house, now beautifully restored and the heart of the new ‘137 Pillars Hotel Resort.’
In thanks for aiding the grassroots group “Conservation for Little People,” with the preservation of some important Chiang Mai textiles, the group graciously offered to put me up as a guest of 137 Pillars Hotel. Unbeknownst to them, I had spent my childhood there. Nervous, excited, I took a portfolio of old photos for the lovely owners, and over several days my childhood memories swelled and poured forth. Being there as an adult, in the glorious space where I had spent so many magic hours, I understood how deeply the places we love are woven into our being.
I am so grateful to the visionary owners for saving this special piece of Chiang Mai history.