Perhaps the best known story in the history of Thailand is the heroic liberation of the capital by King Taksin the Great. Much less well known is the vital role played in that story by Chinese junk captains and crews who had strong connections to the Pearl River Delta.
Around this time of year it is difficult for any visitor to southeast Thailand to not be aware of the story of Taksin, the great liberator of Siam, the former name of the country. Every new year, thousands of Thais commemorate Taksin at a festival held in his honour in the coastal city of Chanthaburi, southeast of Bangkok, where his shrine and statue dominate the town centre.
Taksin formed the first Siamese naval force and, in 1767, ejected the invading army of Burma from the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, then one of the largest cities in the world. Crowned king of Siam for his efforts, he reigned for 15 years and remains a hero across the nation, with his picture adorning homes, restaurants and even tuk-tuks in Bangkok.
'Chanthaburi is famous because Taksin built a fleet of warships here, many of them reconstructed from Chinese junks,' says Bronwen Evans, a former Radio New Zealand journalist and amateur historian who runs local history tours from her small eco-resort to the north of the Thai city.
Some 245 years after Taksin's achievement, there seems to be no lack of enthusiasm for honouring his name in Chanthaburi. The shrine, located next to the foundation memorial, is designed so the ornate roof resembles the shape of Taksin's distinctive wide-brimmed hat. Inside, the shrine is packed with people and the air is thick with smoke and incense. Both young and old push past to lay garlands and leave gifts as tokens of respect.
'He is probably the most famous historical figure in Thailand and held in enormous esteem by the Thai people,' says Evans.
In 1767, Ayutthaya, which is in the Chao Phraya River valley just north of present-day Bangkok, was besieged and ransacked by the Burmese. Ayutthaya was a major cosmopolitan commercial centre and an important port of call on the maritime spice route. Before the city's fall to the invaders, Taksin, a senior commander and local governor, escaped the battle with 500 soldiers and fled south to regroup.
To enter Chanthaburi, where Taksin would have expected to win prestige and new recruits, he had to lay siege to the walled city. He ordered his exhausted soldiers to break their cooking pots on the ground because 'we will either be having breakfast in Chanthaburi or we will die together on the battlefield'.
This gung-ho style is typical of the Taksin legend and he stormed the gates on a white elephant, whereupon the city's governor surrendered.
In Chanthaburi, it is said, Taksin sighted more than 100 junks anchored in the estuary. He decided to utilise them, to form a make- shift naval force to catch the Burmese by surprise. What is less well known is that the boats he employed for this celebrated military victory were not Thai vessels but Chinese trading junks, possibly built in Fujian province and crewed by sailors from the Pearl River Delta. The junks were converted into warships in a Chanthaburi shipyard, which is now an archaeological site and a tourist attraction that forms a stop on Evans' historical guide to the city.
The vessels sighted by Taksin would probably have been operated by the Chinese who had formed a strong maritime community in this part of the Gulf of Thailand. A Ming dynasty prohibition on maritime trade in the 14th century had sparked an exodus of merchants and shipbuilders from southern China to Siam. The area would become a key maritime trading post, with China valuing Siam as a supplier of hardwoods, aloes, incense, ivory, cardamom and peppers.
Zheng He's fleet explored the Gulf of Siam in 1407 and the Chinese admiral's official translator, Ma Huan, provides a valuable insight into the lifestyle of those trading with the Siamese.
In Siam, the womenfolk were the traders. In fact, women seemed to make all the key decisions and, according to Chinese sources, enjoyed a rather liberated lifestyle. According to Ma: 'It is the custom that all affairs are managed by their wives ... for the mental capacity of the wives certainly exceeds that of the men.' The same records tell us it was common practice for these women to enter into sexual relationships with the Chinese visitors and this was considered an honour by their cuckolded husbands, who are painted as a fairly passive and vain bunch.
The Chinese traders were surprised to discover that when Siamese men walked or moved they made a curious tinkling noise, like the sound of tiny bells. They discovered that this was because, at about the age of 20, aristocratic Siamese men would have a dozen or so tin or gold beads partly filled with sand inserted into their scrotums. It might have represented the very height of fashion in 15th-century Siam but Ma was less than impressed. 'It looked like a sack of grapes,' he faithfully recorded.
Given these insights, it is less than surprising to learn that Taksin himself was half-Chinese. His father, a senior tax collector, was an immigrant Teochew (the name for those from Chaozhou, in Guangdong province) and his mother was an upper-class Siamese woman called Nok-lang. It is not recorded whether Nok-lang had a tolerant and tinkling husband looking the other way but it is known that she had her son adopted by a senior minister, who gave the boy the Siamese name Sin, meaning 'money and riches'.
Taksin was well educated and rose through the ranks to become governor of Tak province. In 1765, he did such a good job defending Ayutthaya from attack that he was promoted and given awards.
The Teochew and the Fujianese were the biggest Chinese groups operating in the Gulf of Siam but the Hainanese and Cantonese had significant representation in these maritime communities. By the time Taksin stormed the gates of Chanthaburi on his white elephant, most of the merchants and skilled workers in the coastal areas would have been of southern Chinese origin.
IT IS A SHORT DRIVE from the king's shrine in the centre of Chanthaburi to the King Taksin dockyard, where there lies, in situ, a well-preserved wreck of one of Taksin's junks, under a hangar roof. Adjacent to the wreck, there is a museum displaying evidence of nine docks plus Chinese pottery, boatbuilding tools and a barracks.
The wreck measures 24 metres by eight metres and is a traditional three-mast ocean-going sailing junk. The cross members are clearly visible through a shallow layer of protective seawater and it lies just a few metres from where Taksin's fleet set sail.
Museum guide Seri Kana-Anun explains that the timber used to build the junk could only have come from southern China. Curiously, Thai hardwoods have been discovered on the wreck, but their condition reveals that they weren't exposed to seawater.
'This is the evidence to suggest that these were Chinese vessels converted into warships using local wood,' says Seri.
'To learn about King Taksin is to understand Thai history,' says senior curator Kamanit Direksil, who works out of a small office packed with books and pamphlets that is also used as a garage and sleeping quarters. With a highly animated face and sweeping hand gestures he describes the development of the local maritime community.
'The Chinese people had been gradually settling in Chanthaburi since the 15th century,' he says. 'The sailing junks came seeking 'forest products' and traded manufactured goods like ceramic and silk.'
Kamanit goes on to explain Taksin's famous battle plan would have been impossible without the maritime skills of the local Chinese.
'Taksin's battle fleet would have been crewed largely by Chinese, with some Thai and local [Ching] people,' he says. 'The Chinese were the first to bring maritime skills. They brought their junks and eventually the Thais copied them.'
The wreck site and museum are a few metres from the picturesque Chanthaburi River estuary, which leads into the Gulf of Thailand. The engine of a long-tail boat grumbles as it zips past us seawards and it's not hard to imagine those junks and smaller craft packed with 5,000 soldiers plus weapons, equipment, food, water and provisions making their way up the Chao Phraya River bound for battle.
So how did Taksin convince 30 hard-nosed Chinese junk captains to lend him their valuable vessels for quick conversions into warships and a hazardous sail into battle with the much feared armies of Burma?
'That's a very good question,' says Kamanit, with a smile, 'but difficult to answer. Taksin was half-Chinese so maybe he could reason with them but we suspect he commandeered them from their [mainly Chinese] owners.'
Maybe the wily junk captains didn't need much persuading. They had a huge vested interest in maintaining business in the region and the lines between what were Chinese commercial interests and what represented Thai national interest were more than a little blurred.
Whatever methods Taksin employed, they were highly effective and the Chinese junks were converted within a few months. The official royal chronicles record the final part of the story: 'In the 11th lunar month of the Year of the Pig , the king led his 100-vessel naval fleet and 5,000 soldiers to depart Chanthaburi. On the 12th day of the 11th lunar month, the king led his troops to storm the east side of Pho Sam Ton Camp, forcing the Burmese soldiers outside to escape to the camp. He then ordered his troops to build ladders and prepare to storm into the camp. However, the Burmese surrendered.'
It is well documented that Taksin crowned himself king less than seven months after his original escape and built a new capital city in Thonburi, but no one knows what happened to the converted Chinese battle fleet or its crews.
DR STEPHEN DAVIES, research fellow at the Maritime Heritage Resource Centre at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, helps paint a picture of these forgotten sailors.
It would have been the captains (or chuan chu) from southern China who agreed to join Taksin's battle group, says Davies. The navigator (or huo chang) of each vessel would have been responsible for piloting the 28-metre craft down river and into the familiar waters of the Gulf of Siam. The officers would probably mostly have been from the same clan, augmented by a few locals.
'There were no modern banking facilities for 18th-century junk traders so it was good practice to have family members on board to look after the cash and the cargo,' says Davies, citing research by the late Jennifer Wayne Cushman.
'On Western ships, the crew's primary responsibility was towards the sailing of the vessel, whereas crew members of a Chinese junk were merchants first and sailors second,' Cushman wrote.
Even the lowliest sailors were allowed a small cargo concession so all of the crew, from top to bottom, had a clear commercial incentive in completing a voyage.
Davies has a slightly different take on why these commercially motivated junk crews would have been involved in a hazardous foreign war.
'At this time, there really was no such thing as free trade,' he says. 'All trade and shipping was controlled by the king and every trade concession would have been awarded by the king or his agents.' In other words, Taksin would have felt authorised to commandeer the vessels and could have promised great trade incentives if their venture was successful.
'While it was the Fujianese families who dominated marine matters in the Gulf of Siam at the time of Taksin's battle, much of the rest of the crew would have been recruited in ports such as Guangzhou, which remained the main maritime hub in the region,' says Davies.
So could any of the crew members in Taksin's famous battle fleet have been Hongkongers?
Davies sounds doubtful.
'Hong Kong was a very small place in the 18th century,' he says. 'It would not have been a major recruitment centre for a ship's crew. Maybe, if a local fisherman had gone to seek his fortune in Guangzhou, he could well have been recruited as crew on a sailing junk bound for Siam. It's certainly possible.'
Whatever the details were, it is clear Chinese mariners were instrumental in forming Siam's first navy, which allowed Taksin to liberate his country. However, despite Taksin's best efforts, the emperor of China refused to recognise a self-appointed commoner as King of Siam and it took 10 years of grovelling by Taksin before, in July 1777, the Qianlong Emperor allowed King Taksin to send tributes to his royal court.
Taksin referred to himself as Cheng Chao (or 'man with a Chinese surname') and his reign was marked by expansion of both territory and trade. Without those junks and the skill of southern Chinese seafarers, it is unlikely the man with the Chinese surname would ever have been more than a footnote in the history of the region.