Saturday, 5 March 2011

Legacy of "The King and I" lives on

Anna Harriette Leonowens
at younger age
A portrait of Anna at later age
In 1862 British Anna Harriette Leonowens aged 31 was appointed first as a teacher of the 39 wives and concubines and 82 children and later as a language secretary of the Thai king Mongkut (Rama IV), aged 60.
In his invitation the king explicitly mentioned he did not seek anybody who tried to convert the pupils into Christianty, such as earlier teachers had attemped. At that time the king was not aware that Anna was not that much into spreading the word as advocating equality of race and gender, which she later occasionally tried to convey to her apprentices. After getting to know her, the Thai king described her as: 'A difficult woman and more difficult than generality'. Perhaps this was the reason to change her job description.
After almost six years Anna was not satisfied with the conditions and returned to England for health reasons in 1868. While negotiating a return to the court on better terms, the king died. Although the king had mentioned her in his last will, she was never to return to Siam again. Later her somewhat controversial memoirs, were basis for the novel Anna and the King of Siam (1944), the musical The King and I (1951), three movies and an adaption for a TV series, which romantised the memoirs by adding a love-affair with the king and portraying him as a proud young man who finally gave in to the Western ideas of Anna, causing them to be banned in Thailand up to the present day for portraying a false and disrespectful image of king Mongkut and his family. Amongst others, in the original memoirs Anna implied to have influenced the early abolishment of prostration and furthermore slavery by introducing the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Her full comprehension of the Thai language and more importantly her real influence which she claimed to have is regarded by several Western critics as an exaggaration and could have been considered as an insult (Lèse majesté) to the royal family back then.
She remained however in amicable correspondence with her former pupil, son of Mongkut, king Chulalongkorn for many years. Her memoirs have never officially been held against her and are available in bookshops in Thailand. 30 years later Anna met the new king again in London, whereby he conveyed his gratitude.
Louis, the son of Anna who also attended her lessons from age 7, returned to Siam as an adult, where in 1915 he founded a successful trading company, which was granted teak concessions under the patronage of old fellow pupil king Chulalongkorn. The company called Louis T. Leonowens Co.Ltd. is still active up to present day.

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