Portuguese in Bangkok, 500 years later
When I started living in Amsterdam, I always felt an affinity for the Portuguese-Jewish synagogue. Reading those Portuguese names on the walls and reading the story of the Portuguese-JEws who settled and prospered in the city, I wondered if many many generations ago, perhaps my family was of this group, only they converted to Catholicism. Regardless if it happened or not, my sense of history gives me the romantic feeling that I am, at least now, connected to those Portuguese, doing similar to what they did, (for different reasons of course) hundreds of years later. Here in Bangkok, as the boat cruised down the Chao Praya river, a river that snakes in so many directions with its creamy green water, a friend points out a church on the horizon. Lit up by bright lights against the night sky, a Thai friend rushes towards me “Mark, my father says that is a Portuguese church… Santa Cruz.. from a long time ago when Bangkok has Portuguese community and Portuguese are given titles by King.” I look accross the water and I see the wooden church and the tall steeple. A little piece of Portugal way out here. It was back in 1511, when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to land in this region. They were met with mixed reactions throughout southeast Asia, and somehow were able to get on the king’s good side. It may have been their usefulness as trade partners, eventually becoming an important source for weapons and ammunition. I like to think it was good manners and mutual respect that made the relationship possible. (wishful thinking) From there, some missionaries were given permission by the Royal court to build their convent and live in this little corner of Bangkok. This would eventually become the only structure that survived over time, a souvenir from the days when Portugal was an important partner of Thailand. Amazing? No… not amazing. A reminder in fact, that everything is connected, and while the reasons may be difference, 500 years later, Portuguese still come to Bangkok and they’re still given a very kind welcome by the Thai people.