Making Of Oriental Bangkok
A room at the Oriental in the 1920s, at the time of Somerset Maugham's arrival
Fighting White Ants
At The Mandarin Oriental shop, and present in every room, the book about the Oriental's history is more than just a souvenier. History has long become an USP at the Oriental. The book is its faithful ambassador. This is about its 'making'.
In 1994, Kurt Wachtveitl, a general manager almost as famous as the hotel he run, invited me to Bangkok, where I had the privilege of meeting a few fantastic 'assistants': Chancham Bunnag, who had helped compiling an early biography of The Oriental (An Oriental Album); Ankana Kalantananda, the longest serving employee (she had joined the hotel in 1947!), and Pornsri Luphaiboon, one of the first PR managers of hospitality industry. Liz Taylor's dog was one of her favourite topics of conversation.
Wachtveitl's sense of tradition was based on these elements, too. He had established various history related settings. The suites were named after famous visitors such as Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham or Noel Coward. A restaurant was called Lord Jim's after Joseph Conrad's novel. Now it was up to us to find out more. We would go a long, long way, digging across the globe for ten years, to collect some 1,300 pages of material on the history.
I invited the British historian Andrew Williamson to join the team. In Thailand there are almost no public archives. The usual excuse is: 'they were eaten by white ants' or 'lost in a fire'. We started our research at the hotel (all archives lost in a fire) and visited the building authorities, who in return had been visited by white ants long before we arrived.
Now we triggered a global research effort by alerting newspapers around the world. A drip feed of material started to reach us from different corners of the planet. We travelled to Paris, London, Vienna and New York, visiting our regular sources on the hunt for material.
Gradually a picture began to emerge: a label here; a postcard there, the first collections of historical photographs. We realised that, before World War II, PR and advertising were not strong-points of the hotel. Printed material from those years only began to surface after ten years of research. We found advertisements from the 1920s, and discovered that even Dan Sweeney was employed by the hotel. Sweeney became one of the most famous illustrators of US art history.
Dan Sweeney's work for the Oriental in Bangkok was part of an advertising campaign in the 1920s.
‘How old is this establishment?’
The opening year of the hotel remained a truly burning question. ‘How old is this establishment?’ is always one of the first questions asked about any famous historic hotel. Modesty is not a consideration when answering: the older the better. These grand old ladies look upon longevity as a blessing and go out of their way to stretch the truth. An architect's first hesitant blueprint is all that is needed to start counting, even if the plan was not translated into bricks and mortar until years later.
The Oriental, however, was more reticent about her age. The exact inauguration date of the hotel had been lost in the mists of history. A newspaper entry dated as early as 1863 provided a first possible clue. In 1865 an official report in the annual Bangkok Calendar mentioned an Oriental Hotel being destroyed in a fire. But further historical facts were hard to come by. The question of when the hotel opened remained unsolved. All we know was that it had been there before that fire in 1865.
The official answer was provided over a century after the above events. In the 1970s the hotel board decided to end the uncertainty, agreeing that it would be questionable, not to say inauspicious, to use the burning of the Oriental in 1865 as its founding date. 1976 heralded the opening of the new River Wing and so, putting history to work, the hotel was declared 100 years old. Giorgio Berlingieri, director of the hotel and co-founder of Italthai, the major shareholder in the Oriental, explained his decision: ‘It is poetic licence. And we are not exaggerating. We say we are 100 years old, when we could give an even more impressive figure.’
So everyone was happy with the hotel’s official date of birth, 1876. And historians could rest assured that they could find proof of the hotel’s existence even earlier.
In search of material and people connected to the hotel, we found Louis T. Leonowens in Guatemala, grandson of a former Oriental regular and son of the King of Siam’s legendary teacher, Anna Leonowens, immortalised in The King and I. We discovered the files of an American traveller called Professor Maxwell Sommerville, who had stayed at the Oriental in 1897. In London, newspaper archives held copies of The Bangkok Times and The Bangkok Calendar from the 1850s onwards.
We never stopped digging, and constantly receive and buy new material.
We unearthed royal records from the year 1890. On 17 December of that year Mr Allen, the Oriental's manager, welcomed a very important guest. His Majesty King Chulalongkorn arrived with his entourage to assess the ability of the hotel to host royal guests. His Majesty was so impressed that he decided to host Crown Prince Nicholas of Russia, who became Tsar in 1894, at the Oriental in April 1891.
Peeping behind the scenes of the hotel in more modern times proved a real eye opener. The secret of how the Oriental achieved its world-leading status became increasingly obvious. Painstaking, meticulous work with the staff was a key element in our quest. Slowly the book grew into a manual of perfect hotel-keeping. I once asked Kurt Wachtveitl how the Oriental became the best hotel in the world. 'It's very simple,’ he explained. ‘We tell our staff exactly, what to do.' Smiling, he paused before adding: 'And we tell them that again week in, week out'.
Kurt Wachtveitl (introducing members of his staff to H.M. Queen Elizabeth II) managed the hotel from 1967–2009.He had graduated from the hotel school at Lausanne, Switzerland in 1961, read history of art and literature in Rome and philosophy in Spain. His professional career includes stops at Trois Couronnes, Vevey; Beau-Rivage Palace, Lausanne (where he met his wife Penny); Suvretta Haus, St Moritz; and the Park Lane Hilton, London.
In his early career at the hotel, Wachtveitl could be seen every morning near the cashier’s desk, overseeing the departures. He knew that this was where all and everything surfaced: an unsatisfied customer, a complaint, and of course praise. His continued presence in the lobby every afternoon remains one of the cornerstones of his success.
The launch party of our book on 22 January 1996 marked the 125th anniversary of the hotel. It was one of the greatest functions the Oriental has ever thrown. Jonas Schuermann, Director of F&B, organised a social gathering for over 1,200 invited guests. Our book was presented to each and every one of them. Guests of honour were all given a specially hand-boound leather bound edition.
Soon after we were informed that the Royal Palace wished to order ten copies of the book, specially bound in leather with gold stamping. Five would be designated for the library of His Majesty the King, and the other five for the library of Her Majesty the Queen. We supplied the Royal household with the requested books, considering ourselves 'Purveyor of the Royal Court'.
Further editions received updates and each new book is indeed a richer collection of material, with new findings recently unearthed and added to the work. Today we maintain over 1,300 pages of text material in our archives, together with a growing collection of rare historic photographs and documents. Contributions to this collection reach us every month. It seems that we have beaten the white ants.
From June 2012–2017, Amanda Hyndman stood at the helm of the hotel. Under her direction we have created the Oriental Experience, a permanent exhibition at the hotel's Author's Lounge. We sourced and produced the Royal Collection of photographs for the new Royal and other suites of the Authors' Wing, as well as the collection of authors' portraits for the James Michener, Noel Coward, Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham lounges and the entire ground floor exhibition of the hotel, all together 365 unique portraits and historic photographs.
One of the vintagge collection books —
A few copies of the leather bound edition are always available for the connoisseur collector.
Since 2016, the EDITION RACONTEUR is on the market. THE AMAZING TALE OF BANGKOK'S LEGENDARY HOTEL.