100 YEARS IN A MASONIC MICROCOSM
In 1868 King Rama V, King Chulalongkorn ascended the throne of the Kingdom of Siam. He immediately and enthusiastically opened the door to foreign influences, not only because the King was genuinely interested in new technologies and ideas, but also, being both shrewd and astute so that he could ensure Siam’s survival from the rapacious colonial aspirations in Southeast Asia and Indochina of the British and French.
He invited France, Britain, Germany, Russia, Denmark, the United States and other countries to send their brightest experts to create and run the myriad government departments necessary for the advancement of any nation at that time and to train young Thais in those skills.
Many of these foreign bureaucrats seconded to the expanding Thai government were Masons. The King also commenced sending young men of “good” Thai families to study at prestigious schools and universities in Europe and the United States.
Many of these young Thai men were subsequently to become Masons.
The First Freemasons in Thailand
The first record extant of Freemasons in Thailand dates back to April 1878, when it is reported that there were seventeen “regularly constituted Freemasons in Bangkok”, who proposed to start a Lodge.
By June 1878, however, it was announced that:
“Owing to the difficulty of finding seven willing Brethren to be Foundation members, and who would be prepared to undertake the erection of a Lodge when the Charter arrived several months hence, the proposed Lodge could not be proceeded with”.
This setback was to be an ominous augury for what was to be repeated over and over again in the succeeding decades.
In early 1880 a second attempt was made to establish a Lodge, but by July that year Bro. Badman, ( a somewhat unfortunate name, one might think), who had been the driving force behind the attempt, had to admit defeat. He commented that
“the members of the Craft who belong to the Mercantile Marine were very anxious to have a Lodge established but without the cooperation of those residents permanently in Bangkok, it was felt the project should not be proceeded with”.
It took a further eighteen years and a new generation of Freemasons before there is any record of Brethren meeting with the specific purpose of erecting a Lodge.
Many of the original old Masons in Siam were already dead, and their graves can still be seen to this day, the gravestones duly marked with Masonic symbols, in the old Protestant cemetery in downtown Bangkok, near the Chao Phraya River.
In 1898 the impetus came from Masons afloat on merchant vessels and keen Brethren in Singapore, who wished to support the opening of a Lodge in Bangkok, but all was to be of no avail.
The obstacle this time was that there was a lack of potential Officers of sufficient rank and experience in the Craft.
One valiant Brother, the Master of the merchant ship “HECATE”, sailing weekly between Singapore and Bangkok, took up the challenge. After correspondence backwards and forwards with Grand Secretary in England on the matter of whether or not the UGLE would issue a Charter, he reluctantly had to inform his correspondent that:
“There is not in Bangkok one Master Mason who has held the Office of Warden to put forward for the Master’s Chair, but there are English, Scotch, Irish, Danish and German Constitution Brethren in Bangkok sufficient to form a Lodge”.
Grand Secretary’s reply was not surprising. He stated that “numbers did not count and since there was no-one qualified and experienced enough to be installed as Master, the Most Worshipful Grand Master could not be recommended to grant a Warrant”.
In 1900 things Masonic started out much more promisingly. Perhaps believing that Bangkok-UGLE relations were jinxed after the failure of all past attempts, or perhaps because the first Master designate was himself an Irishman, the Brethren in Bangkok and the Brethren afloat between there and Singapore applied for a Warrant to the Grand Lodge of Ireland.
This was approved and the Warrant was issued to establish Lodge No. 300 on 4 October 1900. But the jinx had spread to Dublin, because the Master designate, Bro. George F. Travers Drape, a distinguished graduate of the University of Dublin and a barrister working for the Siamese government, died suddenly.
Informal Masonic meetings continued during the next five years, usually held in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank compound, and in April 1905 a petition, signed by over 30 Masons, supported by the Freemasons of Singapore and by the English District, was sent to the UGLE for the erection of Lodge Menam (“Menam” being the name of the Chao Phraya River in those days).
Once again fate intervened. The Master designate fell ill of fever and subsequently died. So confident had the Masons in Bangkok been on this occasion that they had purchased furniture and equipment and had started collecting funds among themselves.
Indeed, one of the founding Brethren was so confident and enthusiastic that he undertook to raise a sum of 10,000 Ticals (as the Thai Baht was called in those days) to purchase land and erect a temple.
The Engineering Society of Thailand and the world-famous Oriental Hotel both offered temporary accommodation to the new Lodge. But eventually, after running out of options, the Petition had to be withdrawn and the money raised was returned to those who had donated it, who unanimously agreed to use such funds for the education of a Masonic orphan.
But the problems facing the “lost” Freemasons of Bangkok were not yet at an end. One of the founding Brethren of the abortive Lodge Menam wrote to his fellow Freemasons, stating that
“..the Government and myself have had a great row about my shooting of elephants and the result is that I am going away”.
Hardly surprising, as a similar offence nowadays would be life imprisonment in the notorious Bangkok Hilton or some such salubrious accommodation of the state!
After all these failed attempts to establish a Lodge under the Irish and, especially the English Constitutions, I believe that the Brethren in Bangkok, who hailed from nine different regular Constitutions, did not have the stomach to approach Dublin and London again.
The Early Beginnings of Scottish Freemasonry in Siam
And so, early in 1907, they decided to go North of the border and approach Edinburgh. In doing so they received the wholehearted support of their Scottish Brethren in Lodge Scotia in Penang, whose Lodge had been Consecrated in 1906, the oldest Scottish Lodge in Southeast Asia.
Grand Secretary in Edinburgh, however, proved to be as intractably legalistic as his counterpart in London, and it took some time and a lot of waiting for correspondence backward and forwards by ship before, finally, the Charter of Lodge St. John No. 1072 SC was signed in Grand Lodge on the 4th of August 1910.
But – wait for it, wait for it! Yes, you all guessed correctly! The troubles had not even started!
Owing to departures from among the Brethren in Bangkok between 1907 and August 1910, this first Charter had to be returned and re-issued. And once again the old problem arose of the availability of sufficiently qualified Brethren to fill the Chairs.
But at last, a very long last, the Freemasons of Bangkok were to have their Lodge. On the 24th of January 1911 Lodge St. John was consecrated, although without several names on the re-issued Charter being in their designated Offices – or, indeed, even present.
The Consecrating Officer, a very high-ranking and distinguished Mason from Hong Kong, was Worshipful Brother The Reverend Spafford.
He had already been delayed by adverse weather conditions at sea in his journey from Hong Kong. Little did he expect, however, that he would be delayed in Bangkok for many weeks by very stormy conditions in Lodge St. John.
If ever a man must have seriously considered throwing out the baby (in this case “babies”) with the bathwater, it must have been the good Reverend.
He must have had the diplomatic skills of the Buddha and the patience of Job to survive those fraught weeks that followed Lodge St. John’s almost stillborn birth.
His Masonic and religious Obligations must have been strained to the limit. Just before the Consecration the Master Elect and Secretary-Elect informed Worshipful Brother Spafford and the Bangkok Brethren that Lodge St. John was “their ball, and if they couldn’t make the rules, then no-one else could play”.
Worshipful Brother Spafford (under which Rule in the Constitutions and Laws I definitely do not know) expelled both Brethren and (once again I cannot find out how he “legally” did so, but perhaps by cable exchange to and from Edinburgh) installed a different Brother than the one designated on the re-issued Charter.
So Lodge St. John, somehow or other, was Consecrated and a Master, Wardens and Office Bearers duly took their places.
But the anti-Masonic demon that had been lurking in the back streets and sois of Bangkok since the 1860s had not yet played all his cards!
As soon as the former Master Elect and Secretary-Elect were expelled the fun really began. Actually, I think I should replace the word “fun” with those much more apt words of “internecine warfare”.
The sniping and backbiting among the Freemasons of Bangkok, not limited in any way just to those who were members of the Lodge, carried on until the mid-Thirties.
Twenty-five years after the Consecration, during the preparations for and implementation of the plans for the Lodge’s Silver Jubilee festivities, the Lodge was almost torn asunder once again by the resurgence of old personal animosities dating back to those few weeks prior to Consecration Day in January 1911.
The old Committee and Meeting Minutes of those early years are still in existence and make for very harrowing reading. One of the first decisions made at an early meeting was that one of the Brethren, who worked for the Royal Family, should approach the Office of the Privy Purse and seek land on which to build a Temple.
Indeed, at about the same time the British Club in Bangkok was granted free land in a strategic position in the city, where it exists happily until today.
But this Brother did not actively pursue the matter of free land allocation, probably fearful that he would bring his appointment with the Royal Family into serious jeopardy, as the disputes within and without the Lodge were becoming increasingly and, very regrettably, publicly known.
To this day it is still very sad to remark how many months it was before Brother Secretary would write the traditional conclusion to his Minutes, that the meeting had “ended in Peace and Harmony”.
Indeed, so stressful did matters become during the second year that he completed a set of Minutes by writing that the Meeting had concluded,
“..in a semblance of what a Meeting ought to, at least amongst those still present”.LSJ Brother Secretary
Royal Arch Chapter and The Mark
Despite all this Masonic warfare membership grew quickly. In March 1911 the first Mark Degree was performed.
In November 1912 Bangkok Royal Arch Chapter No. 357 was Consecrated. In 1916 Bangkok Lodge and Council was Consecrated but experienced several long periods of darkness in the years before the Second World War.
Up until that War, we find no further attempt to procure land for the building of a Temple.
Certainly, the lack of cohesion among the Brethren in the first 25 years of the Lodge would have made any such attempt difficult to achieve. Then, in 1932, the political reality of Thailand changed dramatically, with a coup d’etat and the end of the absolute monarchy and the introduction of so-called democracy – still non-existent to the present day.
By 1938 25% of the Brethren were Thai, almost exclusively what was termed at that time “old school Thais”, that is, those of good family who had been sent to Europe and North American for education following the encouragement of King Chulalongkorn and his successors.
A large part of the remainder was made up of Scandinavians, mainly Danes, working for the big shipping and trading companies, such as Maersk and East Asiatic.
And, of course, there were the British, whose names in the old books reflect the cream of the British Empire’s commercial bastions in Southeast Asia.
By 1938 the internal feuding had died down within Lodge St. John, and a period of peaceful growth was envisioned. But, as we all know, the drums of war were already beating in Europe, Africa and the Far East.
Lodge St. John was now to face trials that, for the first time, were not of the Brethren’s own making.
World War II
All of the Masonic Lodges in Southeast Asia were traumatised by the Second World War and Lodge St. John was certainly no exception.
Two days before the Japanese Army “officially” entered Thailand in December 1941, two military trucks full of Kempetai military police, of subsequent infamous reputation, departed Chantaburi.
Chantaburi, a former Eastern Thai province that had been annexed by the French by force from Thailand, and was subsequently handed over to the Japanese by the Vichy French government of Indochina, for the former to then hand to the Siamese government as a “sop” for their cooperation.
On their arrival in Bangkok, these trucks stopped at their first, and, therefore, presumably, priority target, the Gerson Building in Silom Road.
Here, the Kempetai methodically stripped the Lodge St. John rented premises of every single Masonic article and document they found there. It was not until 1948 that “paltry” war reparations were made for such depredation.
Fortunately, perhaps because many of the Brethren at that time were either neutral Swedish and Swiss, or because they were Thai and German, and thus not considered as the “enemy”.
The Minute Books and some other documents and photographs had been secreted away in some subsequently unknown safe place and were to resurface undamaged after the War.
Unfortunately, however, most of the Minute books, other documents, and photographs were irretrievably lost in the late Nineties when the house in which they were being stored was burgled, during the period between leaving semi-permanent rented accommodation and entering the purpose-built Lodge St. John Masonic Hall.
The items stolen, having had no intrinsic value for the thieves, must have been sold as recyclable scrap, further increasing the depth of sadness at their loss.
Only the first Minute book and some important correspondence concerning the events surrounding the Lodge’s turbulent Consecration and its aftermath survived, having been in my possession at the time for purposes of Masonic research.
Many of the Brethren and their families were interned in the same horrifying conditions which were witnessed elsewhere in the region, but due to the physical support of their Thai, neutral and Axis Brethren, at obvious great risk to themselves and their families and friends, most were able to survive internment until they were freed in July 1945.
Several of the survivors of the War, principal among whom was Brother Sir James Holt, were to play a prominent part in the re-emergence of Freemasonry in Bangkok and its subsequent expansion.
The Lodge restarted in 1946, but many Brethren who had survived did not return to Thailand, as Siam was now called, and others had died of old age, illness, during military conflict or in the internment camps throughout the region.
The previous impressive percentage of Thai Brethren was drastically reduced after the War, many of the “old school Thais” having been in late middle age by its inception.
There was no concerted effort to replace them by younger Thais for some years, perhaps due to mutual embarrassment caused by the British attitude towards Siam’s Declaration of War on Britain and her apparent semi-ambiguous relationship with the Japanese up to the conclusion of hostilities.
However, at least one of the small wartime Seri Thai (Free Thai) movement directed by Force 136 of the British Special Operations Executive and the American Office of Strategic Services was to become a Mason in Lodge St. John.
Gradually, however, Thai Brethren of excellent Masonic quality, almost exclusively a new generation of “old school Thais”, and most of them brilliant ritualists, began to take their places in the columns, joined by a new generation of Europeans, mainly British and Danish.
Over the years since 1911 the Brethren had represented the “cream” of Thai and expatriate business society.
Sir James Holt, arriving in the Thirties as a junior comprador in a British company in Bangkok, would not have been admitted to the Lodge until he had gained seniority in his company and in expatriate society if he had not already been Initiated, Passed and Raised in England – and even then, to quote Sir James,
“I had never been to Coventry until my first year as a Mason in Lodge St. John.”Sir James Holt
But the stranglehold of the “social elite” on Freemasonry in Bangkok was about to change – in a big way.
The Yanks are coming!
American Brethren began to arrive in ever-increasing numbers after the War, as the United States began to take over the reins of empire from the exhausted European powers.
It would appear that initially they either were not made truly comfortable on their visits to Lodge St. John or they found greater harmony in their own company, as they set up a Square and Compass Club in Bangkok in 1959.
By 1970 the membership of this Club numbered about 60. These American Brethren were the motive force behind the establishment of the Bangkok Oasis Shrine Club, with almost annual visits by the Islam Shriners from California.
As Shrine is devoted to charitable works for handicapped children, it soon attracted many of the Brethren of Lodge St. John, who not only contributed wholeheartedly to supporting charitable works instigated by the Club, but also enjoyed letting down their “stiff upper lip” and participating in the myriad zany activities that typify Shriners.
Through this American influence, the Taipei Valley of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (Southern Jurisdiction) started visiting Thailand annually for the Conferral on all qualified Brethren in Bangkok of the Degrees from the Fourth to the Thirty-second.
Gradually the Scottish Rite Annual Conferral in Bangkok attracted Masons from Malaysia and Singapore, and even farther afield.
As Scottish Rite is open to Brethren of all religions, unlike the Christian Obligations required of Candidates in some of the important Higher Degrees of English, continental European Freemasonry.
Scottish Rite was to flourish and the annual Conferral is now shared between one year in Thailand and the next in Malaysia.
As the United States got more and more involved in the Vietnam War the number of US military personnel and civilian support staff grew exponentially.
For many years a Prince Hall Lodge operated among the US Armed Forces in Thailand, of which the membership was 80% white, and this at a time when most, if not all, American Grand Lodges refused to recognize Prince Hall.
The social barriers between the Brethren of Lodge St. John and their American Brethren were gradually and mutually successfully broken down, and by the early Seventies the Lodge had many American Brethren.
The Indochina War
Once again, however, the influence of war was going to affect Freemasonry in Bangkok.
By 1973 the writing was on the wall for American involvement in Vietnam and major reductions of troops and support personnel began to take place from the US bases in Thailand.
By mid-1974 these withdrawals were almost complete, and after the fall of Vietnam in 1975 the Thai government requested the closure of remaining US installations in Thailand, which was completed by mid-1976.
Lodge St. John saw its numbers decrease, but some US military personnel who were Brethren of the Lodge decided to take their retirement in Bangkok, so some continuity was maintained.
Bangkok Oasis Shrine Club managed to keep the Club and its good works in existence until the early Nineties, but as older members died out and the pace of business and professional life in the modern and the increasingly “globalized” world became much more hectic, there was regrettably insufficient support to keep it going.
This was not only Freemasonry’s loss; it was a much sadder loss to the generations of handicapped Thai children to follow. (It is important to state that the Freemasons of WA had contributed considerably to the medical programmes to assist Thai handicapped children through Bangkok Oasis Shrine Club.)
During the late Seventies and Eighties Lodge St. John continued to maintain the standards that its “old and bold” had set for it, but gradually and sadly those wonderful Masons began to decrease in numbers by the natural laws of attrition.
New keen Masons stepped into the shoes of their departed mentors and are now, of course, the “old and bold” themselves and beginning to be diminished by those same natural laws.
In 2004 the Lodge under the leadership of its dynamic Master, Bro. Vuthi Boonnikornvoravith, who – most fortunately – had been Lodge Treasurer for some years before, succeeded in raising the funds and opening its first purpose-built home, the Lodge St. John Masonic Hall.
Since then there has been no shortage of Candidates, but a new problem has been identified.
The tenure of employment of upwardly mobile young men nowadays is greatly different than in former years.
No sooner does a Mason get Raised than it seems his employer posts him elsewhere in the world, or the world economy collapses and the young Mason is out of work and is forced to seek his livelihood elsewhere.
Few young Thai Brethren have come forward in recent years and few potential young Thai Masons are on the visible horizon.
Outside of Lodge St. John, however, a virtual Masonic explosion had been taking place in Thailand since 1993, and this – very interestingly and somewhat surprisingly – at a time when so much of Freemasonry Universal had been retrenching.
From one Lodge for 82 years Thailand now has 16 regular Lodges under six different Constitutions.
The explosion was detonated when a group, mainly of English Masons in Pattaya approached Lodge St. John and asked the latter to support them in establishing a Lodge in their city.
Lodge Pattaya West Winds 1803 S.C.
A Square and Compass Club was set up in 1992 and in 1993 Lodge Pattaya West Winds No. 1803 SC was Consecrated by the Grand Master himself.
This Lodge has a very close connection with the Brethren of Western Australia, both of Grand Lodge and the District Grand Lodge, Scottish Constitution, through our good friend and Brother, Very Worshipful Brother Brian Haffenden, who joined us at as many Square and Compass Club meetings as he could on his frequent trips to Thailand on charity work.
Through Brother Brian, Lodge Pattaya West Winds was able to get Master’s and Wardens’ pedestals, gavels and other equipment from stocks of Masonic furniture etc. held by the Grand Lodge of Western Australia and which came from Masonic Lodges, which had gone into darkness. (It is heart-warming to think that those “ancient” Brethren, who initially raised the funds for such furniture and equipment, or, indeed, crafted the same by hand themselves, had not done so in vain.)
This relationship between Pattaya and WA continued to be cemented over the following eleven years and when the terrible tsunami tore through the Andaman Sea on December 26 2004, Brother Brian and the Grand Master and Grand Officers and Freemasons of WA were immediately in contact with Masons in Thailand to pledge support.
Pattaya Masons took up the challenge and a highly successful programme of supplying temporary emergency accommodation for the victims of the tsunami ensued. A visit by the Grand Master and Brethren of WA to Pattaya a few years later was one of the Masonic highlights of the last two decades and caused immense damage to many livers.
Grande Loge Nationale Francaise
Immediately after Lodge Pattaya was up and running some French Brethren from the Grande Loge Nationale Francaise asked for assistance from Lodge St. John in setting up a GLNF Lodge in Chiangmai, and so La Respectable Loge Les Sept Niveaux de la Sagesse was Consecrated.
Quite a few Scottish Masons were Founder members and you can imagine the chaos when sometimes they were asked to stand in for Wardens or other Officers and had to strangulate the beautiful French language by reading from the ritual book!
Soon after the French got on their feet in Chiangmai came a request for assistance from Bangkok-based Francophones, and off we were again, Consecrating Respectable Loge Tantawan Fleur de Soleil.
Since then four other GLNF Lodges have been Consecrated in Bangkok, Hoa Sen Lumiere d’Asie, Foederis Arca, Star in the East and Wandailan Fleur de l’Orient, although Foederis Arca, an old Shanghai-based Lodge before the communist era, which was Reponed, has subsequently moved to Taipei.
Star in the East No. 1600 GLNF is the first English-speaking GLNF Lodge using the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite ritual.
Now you could be excused for thinking that Freemasonry was suffering from overload, but far from it, as the English asserted their seniority and Chula Lodge No 9745 was Consecrated in Bangkok, followed by Light of Siam No 9791 in Phuket.
While the English and the French were setting up new empires, the Scottish were not satisfied with only two Lodges and very soon struck back with the Reponing of Lodge Lane Xang No. 1632 in Bangkok.
Lane Xang had been a Scottish Lodge in Laos until 1976 and Bangkok Brethren thought that it would be good to bring it back to life.
Closely afterwards came the Consecration of Lodge Ratanakosin, a Lodge which, it was hoped, would attract in young Thai men into the Craft.
To the chagrin of the Scottish and the English, however, the Irish had sneaked into Bangkok before them in 1995 and established Morakot Lodge No 945, followed many years later by Songkhla Lodge No. 936 in Songkhla in Southern Thailand.
And if the Irish were not enough to confuse things for the English, then along came the Dutch, with Erasmus No. 297 in Bangkok.
And we must not forget the Prince Hall Lodge in Bangkok, which, now that historical regularity problems have been overcome, we can visit.
Well, that was a brief History of the Craft in Thailand. So what then of the future of Freemasonry there?
The first problem is the lack of Thai Brethren. Lodge Star in the East, the English-speaking French Lodge, has had four Initiations to date, all Thais, and it looks probable that there will be more to come.
Perhaps this will be the start of the return of the Thais to Freemasonry. Lodge Ratanakosin was Consecrated with the intention of it becoming a Thai language Lodge, but it is having problems attracting in young Thais. Hopefully this can be solved.
The lack of employment tenure for young Masons who are expatriates working in Thailand is something which I do not think will change for many years, which is a matter of concern.
But there are a growing number of young men, mostly in the professions, who have decided to make Thailand the permanent place of residence for them and their families and, hopefully, they will, in time, give the Lodges increased stability of membership.
New problems may emerge which will have adverse effects on Freemasonry, such as the recent violence and political upheaval, and these will have to be faced as they come.
Overall, however, I am confident in the future of the Craft in my adopted country, indeed very confident.
My confidence comes from the “sea change” that I have witnessed taking place in Freemasonry Universal in the past fifteen years.
In the commemorative booklet published at the time of the Consecration of Lodge St. John’s Masonic Hall in 2004, Brother David Sims PM wrote,
“Thirty years on have seen so many more Brethren die, and it is “Eccles”, as we fondly refer to it, that tends to come to mind. And I can’t help feeling that we might perhaps have taken “Eccles” a little more seriously: “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth ….’W. Bro David Sims, PM
Several of the Brethren died slowly of cancer but I can’t remember talking to anyone about going through what we call the Veil. Just like outside the Lodge, it was almost a taboo subject – and yet Freemasons should be comfortable with the deeper aspects of life, and death.
Bro. Sims was exactly right, but the good news is that all is now changing – due to dedicated Brethren like David – and young Masons are highly enthusiastic for esoteric knowledge that can help them understand the great questions of life and of death.
So enthusiastic they are, that it is a joy and education and exhaustion to keep up with them. This “sea change”, urged on Freemasonry by the then Pro Grand Master of England, Lord Northampton, just a few years ago in a keynote address to the Cornerstone Society, is happening in Thailand at an inspiring and totally invigorating speed, and it is this questioning into the esotericism of the Craft and the origins of that esotericism by young Masons that will ensure the growth of Freemasonry in Thailand in the coming decades.
A. Early Days of Freemasonry
- A History of Lodge St. John by Bro. Xanxai Visitkul P.M., 1979
- Oration at the Consecration of Lodge St. John Masonic Hall by Bro. Jim Soutar P.M., 2004
- Conversations over the years between Bro. Soutar and Brothers Sir James Holt P.M., Vilas Bunnag P.M., Aswin Smarnond P.M., and Mike Gerson P.M.
- On the attempt to set up an early Irish Lodge: from Oration on the Occasion of the Consecration of Harmony Lodge – 17th July 2009 by VW Bro. Venga Kalachulu
- The First Minute Book of Lodge St. John and associated preserved correspondence
B. Post War Years to 1993
- On American Freemasons in Bangkok: History of Mill Valley Lodge No. 256 Grand Lodge of California
- Conversations over the years with senior Brethren of Lodge St. John
- Latterly during this period, personal observations
C. Post 1993
- Personal witness and involvement