The growth of Bangkok – Part 3

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The growth of Bangkok – Part 3

This is the third in a series covering the growth of Bangkok from its inception as the makeshift capital in 1782 to its development into a major port city in Southeast Asia into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

During the 1880s, a Danish consortium was given the task of installing a horse-tramway. It was electrified and extended in 1893, the year the first railway out of Bangkok (to Ayutthaya) was opened.

In 1898, the Danes appropriated an American-backed electricity supply company and, after amalgamating with the tramway operation, ran both until 1950, when the government took control.

Rice, the classic Asian staple, was the main export earner, representing 75 percent of the foreign exchange earnings of the nation in the period leading up to the start of the First World War in 1914.

In the 1880s, Siam was an attractive alternative for many Chinese migrants. They could earn twice the money available to them in China, especially those who came from the southern provinces. The Chinese Diaspora was particularly influential on Siam and its expanding economy.

By 1914, the population of Bangkok was estimated at some 360,000 people, roughly half of them Chinese, or of Chinese extraction.

It was the Chinese who provided the bulk of the labourers (as, for example, in the construction of the fledgling railway lines) but who also were the mainstay of major and minor business.

The significance of the Chinese as a source of cheap labour as well as creators of industry cannot be underestimated. Most of the major industries and light manufacturing operations were in the hands of the Chinese. Equally, Chinese employers far preferred hiring Chinese migrants rather than locals.

Prior to the twentieth century, Bangkok’s population increased at around one percent per annum. There was no real incentive for people to relocate from the rural regions to the city, as it was possible for villagers to earn a comfortable and not too strenuous living from the land.

By the 1920s, Siam was selling over one million tonnes of rice a year to foreign markets. During the 1930s, even with the availability and expansion of a new rail network, around 80 percent of rice exports were still being delivered to the capital by waterways.

Apart from rice, highly prized teak wood was also a major export earner and contributed to the expansion of Bangkok. As both European and Chinese businessmen established sawmills in Bangkok, the raw product was collected in the forests of northern Siam.

The third major revenue earner was tin mining. This took place mainly in the south of the country with the resultant ore exported direct, rather than going through Bangkok. Apart from being a major revenue earner, tin mining was one of the first major industries placed by that great reformer, Prince Damrong, under direct government control.

continued next issue