The Growth of Bangkok:
A makeshift capital becomes the ‘Venice of the East’ 1782-1914
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the official name of the city of Bangkok is, ‘The Great City of Angels, the Supreme Repository of Divine Jewels, the Great Unconquerable Land, the Grand and Illustrious Realm, the Royal and Delightful Capital City, Home of the Nine Noble Gems, the Highest Royal Dwelling and Grand Palace, the Divine Shelter and Dwelling Place of the Reincarnated Spirits.’
Bangkok was established as the royal capital of Thailand in 1782, fifteen years after the Burmese had razed the former capital Ayutthaya, and the same time as the beginning of the Chakri dynasty. What started as a Royal fortified town grew, via overseas trade, into a major commercial port, attracting large numbers of migrants, both from the countryside of Thailand and the Asian region, particularly southern China, before finishing as the great sprawling urban industrial metropolis we see today.
In that time, Bangkok has gone from being a city based almost totally on maritime transport (the Chao Phraya River and a network of canals) to a predominantly land-based industrial and manufacturing centre as canals were filled in and roads constructed in there stead.
Until the 1820s, foreign trade was mainly conducted with China, exports being linked to the tribute taxes exacted by the government from the Thai provinces and vassal states.
This trade led to substantial migration of Chinese workers to Thailand, the vast majority choosing to settle in the burgeoning port of Bangkok. By 1820, Bangkok was already larger, in terms of population, than any other city in Thailand. By the 1850s its population had grown to around 100,000 inhabitants. Revenue from foreign trade doubled between 1795 and 1837. Between 1830 and 1850, trade between Bangkok and the British colony of Singapore doubled, while trade from Singapore to Bangkok increased around thirty-three percent in the same time. Bangkok’s growth was particularly noticeable during the reign of King Rama III (1824-1851), with no less than sixty-two kilometres of canals dug and eighty-three temples constructed. Compare this with the seven kilometres of canals dug during the reign of King Rama I (1782-1809) and the nine kilometres under King Rama II (1809-1824). This massive increase in canal transport led to European visitors declaring Bangkok to be the ‘Venice of the East’, a title the city was to hold until the massive expansion of the 1960s and 1970s made it redundant.
The signing of the Bowring Treaty in 1855 led to acceleration in the growth of the Bangkok city environs. One of the reasons for this was that the treaty encouraged Western businesses to set up shop in Bangkok, leading to an influx of foreigners and the expansion of the private sector of the economy. This in turn led to a demand for land, for the construction of both housing and businesses and, of course, saw more labour coming into the city from the provinces searching for work.
Although the numbers of Caucasian residents in the mid-nineteenth century was relatively small, their influence was significant. When European diplomats complained to the government about the difficulties of getting around the small city, King Mongkut (Rama IV) ordered the laying down of the very first land thoroughfare in the city. Constructed in the 1860s, Chareonkrung or ‘New’ Road attracted the majority of the good hotels, trading houses, and banks as it developed into the diplomatic and commercial centre of Bangkok, remaining the city’s pre-eminent land artery for almost a century.
As foreign trade grew, it became necessary to dig canals in order to shorten the length of time it took for rice barges and the like to bring exports from the hinterland to Bangkok. Therefore, between 1860 and 1910 some fifteen new canals were constructed to facilitate this growth in trade. At the same time, road construction also continued, although it generally followed the lines of the canals.
The port area grew apace after 1865 with the formation of the Bangkok Dock Company, supported by British capital. Interestingly, Bangkok’s growth at this time was largely restricted to the banks of the Chao Phraya River rather than extending inland.
New building tended to concentrate close to the river and the major canal feeder network, giving Bangkok a kind of snaking expansion. This style of growth continued well into the twentieth century with any inland incursions that did take place tending to follow the line of the great canals, leading to the eventual expansion of major traffic thoroughfares such as Silom and Rama IV.
According to sources, in 1883 wages in Thailand were allegedly three times higher than in Japan, a country on the fast track to modernisation during this time. 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 seventy-five percent of the foreign exchange earnings of the nation in the period up to 1914.
In the 1880s, Thailand 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 Thailand 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 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.