Travel 1931: A Reflection of (racist) Times

You are reading that correctly: “…every effort to appear civilized.” The author was Aleko E. Lilus and the article, “The Old Seaport of the Sulu Pirates,” appreared in the highly popular monthly magazine, Travel, October 1931 (Robert M. McBride & Co., Camden, NJ). I did not seek out this magazine. This treasure of Western mores illustrated through travel was a recent gift from my wife knowing full well my interest in antiques and popular culture through the ages.

cover of the Oct. 1931 edition, illustration by Frank Newbould

Travel (1902-2003) “…was reflective of the world at the time…” (Contextualization, Clay Dillon) and let’s remember the time. 1931, the depth of the greatest world economic depression ever, Fascism is flourishing in Italy with many Western supporters, the Nazi Party is gaining ground in Germany, the Western empires control most of Asia, Africa and South America. In the USA the Klu Klux Klan is terrorizing and murdering African Americans, Jews and Catholics – and not just in the south – and the United States has shut the immigration door to all but white Christian Western Europeans. Yet for the affluent who could travel, and the majority that could only dream through films and lavisly illustrated magazines, this was the “Golden Age” of Aryan dominance – the opportunity for the “savage” to rise above his station. Travel writers could transport minds from the 3-room Hoboken apartment to exotic lands, “educating” their audience that there were people that had it “far worse” than you had it at home.

children gathering grapes in France, 1931, page 20
“land of boundless opportunity for the man of business”

The articles run the gamut from the cathedrals of Mexico, the American Southwest, the vineyards of France, a once great Medieval European city to the wilds of Australia.  Yet the language used to describe non-Western cultures is far different than those used for lands closer to home. “The sultan’s niece…became a co-ed of the University of Illinois. She was thoroughly Westernized, but on her return…she promptly forgot her pretty American ways…and went native…As an educational and social experiment she must be considered a complete failure.” (p.25).  “Some of them…have bought Fords…but in the back country they still shoot bows and arrows and have never heard they belong to a vanishing race…” (p.28 “Exploring the Southwest in Your Own Motor” by Harry Fergusson). “They love their children but they are inclined to spoil them for discipline comes hard to the southern mind..” (p.17 “Malta – Stronghold of the Sea King” by Francis Mc Dermott). “The Spanish Colonials…upon this land they called “New Spain” … lavished their genius, endowing it with…civilization…” (p.7 “The Glory of Mexico’s Cathedrals” by James Jenkins).

Soochow, China, photo by M. O. Williams, p.33
illustration for a Cunard Line ad.

Despite the racism, my 1931 edition of Travel is a gorgeous magazine, especially its stunning black and white photography and its advertising illustrations. In researching the history of Travel, it was second only to The National Geographic in readership for an audience interested in the world outside the United States. Indeed the last article in the October issue is on Australia’s unique animal life, “Nature’s Side Show in Australia” by Georgia Maxwell.

Clif Dwellings, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, photo by Ewing Galloway, p. 27

Naturally, for any modern traveler, 1931 prices for hotels and steam ships seem absurdly inexpensive until one factors what a 1931 dollar purchased compared to 2011. Today’s traveler needs $14.00 for what $1.00 was worth during the Great Depression.

The queen of Philadelphia’s hotels, The Bellevue Stratford, had rooms as low as $4/day in the depth of the Depression. You need $56 in 2011 – cheap but not if you didn’t have a job.  A 12-day cruise to the Bahamas started at $125 ($1,750 in 2011 dollars) and the French Railways campaign that “Everybody’s back” speaks to today’s travel ads urging the recession weary to travel once more.

As a travel writer, I’ll be the first to praise the work I’m fortunate enough to enjoy, yet I’m well aware of the fine line that separates being the eyes of the reader from the artist that may color the picture with their own cultural prejudices.

“Do not” and “I don’t know”… Historic Fox Chase Farm, Philadelphia

Fox Chase Farm, circa 17th century, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The motto of Fox Chase Farm: Demonstrating to our Urbanized Population since 1683

Their reality on the front of their “Welcome” sheet:

Please do not smoke anywhere on farm property. Please do not climb on fences and trees. Please do not reach into the animal pens – animals may bite. Please do not pick flowers or vegetables. Please do not touch farm equipment unless accompanied by an employee or volunteer. Please do not approach the farmer’s house – this is private property. (Actually, it’s leased public land, not private property, but less not quibble on teaching young people the difference when they can learn later from lawyers.)

Cute, yes. Education, not sure – shampoo and blow dry dinner

Do not…and “I don’t know”…was the Open House message I received at historic 17th century Fox Chase Farm – one of only three working farms within the city of Philadelphia. After my wife and I purchased some fund-raising plants, we stumbled upon a person that was sort-of in a uniform who, by accident, seemed to hear our conversation as we’re walking down the farm lane. Yes, “…this is Fox Chase Farm, but… no I do not know the history… I  work for the Park Service but across the street at the nature center” ( … so you do not know the history of what’s across the street from where your compatriots work?) He continues, “This is the only farm site in the School District of Philadelphia.” Incorrect because there are 2 others within the city.

It was discouraging to find a person who cared so little about their work, especially when it’s at a national historic site, that they don’t even know their own information or, at least,  fain enthusiasm. Of course that’s certainly not a good reflection on both the School District of Philadelphia which along with the city Park Service runs this historic 112 acres “Demonstrating to our Urbanized Population since 1683…”  Students  raise cattle, goats, pigs, rabbits et al, until both the student and the animal win Pennsylvania State agricultural prizes at the State Fair in Harrisburg held every summer. And then? The animals are sold at premium prices per pound to slaughterhouses to offset the educational expenses.

Anything wrong with this? Not really, except I’m not sure what exactly is being taught? I am a meat eater, a Chef and a teacher, but I could not figure out the role of the farm because at this Open House there was no information available.  Animals raised for market do not usually get shampoos, blow dried and groomed before being butchered. Teaching from the seed to the plate is a proven method and does not need to be romanticized. Perhaps it’s just me, but is learning how to shampoo and blow-dry cattle going to make a difference at the Prime Rib?

Silk – Thread of Empire

silk scarves from Laos © Marc d’Entremont
silk scarves from Laos © Marc d’Entremont

“With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.”  ancient Chinese proverb.

The allure of silk: its soft feel, its shimmer, its character to absorb vibrant colors, its legend of luxury, its power. No other fabric has caused the rise and fall of empires or led legions of adventurous merchants to risk life and fortune. For centuries the Silk Road linked the fabled kingdom’s of Asia with the Mediterranean and Western Europe. The expensive, arduous and dangerous journey fed into the mystique of an enigmatic Orient – a land of meditation and mass murder, tea and opium, the Buddha and Pol Pot.

Silk: (top left) Mulberry Trees, (bottom left) silk cacoons, (center) cacoons on bundles of sticks and (top right) circular basket, (bottom right) silk worms munching on Mulberry leaves
Silk: (top left) Mulberry Trees, (bottom left) silk cacoons, (center) cacoons on bundles of sticks and (top right) circular basket, (bottom right) silk worms munching on Mulberry leaves

Yet during 19th and 20th century domination by European empires over Asia’s economies, silk was overshadowed by more lucrative commodities – opium, tea, rubber. By the end of the Second World War, large scale manufacture of silk cloth in Southeast Asia had been reduced to a cottage industry, a victim of hard economic times, war and changing fashion – synthetics. It took an entrepreneurial visionary – a risk taker –  to revive Asian silk.

Jim Thompson

As an artist Jim Thompson was drawn to the rich colors and expressive designs of what was by the mid-1940’s a tiny cottage industry in the Muslim provinces of southern Thailand and northern Malaysian jungle villages.  These villagers were using centuries old silk worm farming techniques, natural dyes and ancient tools to produce stunning yards of intricately woven fabric – and selling them for a pittance.

Born into a Delaware clothing manufacturing family in 1906, educated at prestigious schools, a successful and well connected  architect and designer, Jim Thompson chucked it all after becoming disillusioned with life by the late 1930’s. Joining the army at the start of World War II, he was recruited into the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Sent to Thailand late in the war to infiltrate the Japanese occupation, he was assigned to head American intelligence in Bangkok. The war ended shortly after parachutting into the country, but Thompson liked Bangkok and made the decision to stay. That’s when he discovered the Muslim silk weavers.

(from Top left) silk worm, eating Mulberry leaves, mature cocoons boiling, (from bottom left) strand of silk fiber being pulled from cocoon, fresh silk thread

Jim Thompson cultivated personal relationships with the village weavers assuring them of markets for their cloth which did not yet exist. He encouraged the weavers not to give up the old methods and tweaked traditional designs for western clientele. (He later established a Muslim weaving quarter next to his compound across the canal. Today, wandering the Thompson House grounds, you can clearly hear the daily calls to prayer). Ensconced in Bangkok’s legendary Oriental Hotel, he effortlessly, it’s said, schmoozed with wealthy ex-patriots and visitors personally marketing Thai silk cloth. Within a few years his Thai Silk Company attracted the patronage of Vogue magazine and Irene Sharaff, fashion designer for the musical The King and I. By the early 1950’s Thai silk was an international rage, silk weaving was once again a vibrant home industry and Jim Thompson was dubbed the Silk King.

Muslim weavers quarter across the canal from the Thompson “House on the Klong”

Thompson became a celebrity in Bangkok and a confidant to the rich and famous. His parties at the unique compound he created in the city were frequent with an eclectic mix of the business and art worlds. Using his considerable skills in architecture and design, he melded together six antique teak wood houses brought from various areas of Thailand into a compound including his home, workshops and retail space. It doesn’t hurt that he filled the grounds with gardens, pools and priceless Oriental antiques.

Jim Thompson’s House on the Klong, Bangkok, Thailand
living room at House on the Klong
Jim Thompson silks and designer gowns

Although Thai Silk Company products are legendary today and available in elegant shops, Jim Thompson himself is simply a legend – or an enigma. In 1967 while visiting friends at their country house in northern Malaysia, Thompson went for a walk and within minutes had disappeared. No word was ever heard, his body never found. Speculation/conspiracy theories run rampant even today – a truck hit him and the driver took the body, a large animal ate him, he was still working for the CIA and was either eliminated by them or Communist guerillas (although he questioned the wisdom of the Vietnam war), or perhaps he simply wanted to chuck it all again and went native. Oddly, only 6-months later his wealthy sister was mysteriously murdered at her Pennsylvania estate – no robbery, no alarm, even her dogs didn’t bark.

natural dyes for silk thread

 

Lao Textiles, Vientiane, Laos

Carol Cassidy, on the other hand, is hearty, alive and well in Vientiane, Laos. When I met her for the first time a couple of months ago, she took me back to the workshop with a very worried expression saying she’d ruined a run of silk. Not the first words I expected from one of the world’s most renowned women in the art. She showed me this beautiful skein of shimmering teal silk. That was a mistake?? It just wasn’t the exact shade she wanted for the project, and considering silk is made by a worm, it’s not like she can run down to the local 7/11. Traditional arts for a contemporary clientele are long, serious work.

one-of-a-kind Carol Cassidy shawl

The scion of a prominent Connecticut family, Carol was the first American allowed to establish a business in post-1975 Laos, Lao Textiles, in 1990. This was after a career with a variety of NGO’s world-wide as a textile expert. Although she’s frequently compared to Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Co., their business model is the only similarity. Both use traditionally trained weavers, pay fair wages and build personal relationships with the craftspeople. Yet where Thai Silk’s designs are for a mainstream international market, Cassidy specializes in made-to-order art hangings and clothing utilizing traditional Lao patterns. This carries over to the very limited runs of products available in the atmospheric 19th century French Villa showroom/workshop. Most are one of a kind Carol Cassidy wearable art in Lao silk and a terrific memory of that beautiful country.

hand bag with silk balls, Phontong Handicraft Cooperative

Local non-profit organizations dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts exist in all Southeast Asian countries. In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative has been organizing village craftspeople and marketing their work since 1976.

Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, has a large vocational school complex for carving and graphic arts in town and a sizable silk farm and weaving operation just outside the city. The school particularly trains the disabled.

silk weaver at Artisans d’Angkor
monk and silk dresses

Whether it’s adventure, fortune, art or simply a way to make a living, silk has never ceased to fascinate:

“Upon them shall be garments of fine green silk and thick silk interwoven with gold, and they shall be adorned with bracelets of silver, and their Lord shall make them drink a pure drink.” ~the Quran 

“He who has little silver in his pouch must have the more silk on his tongue.”~ Edward Bulwer-Lytton   (1803 – 1873)

“Once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas it’s hard to get up early” ~ Eddie Arcaro (1916 – 1997)

“A good start…is to be a Buddhist.”

monks in Luang Prabang, Laos

That’s two-time Academy Award winning actor, Sir Michael Caine,* listening to a profound statement on the necessity of Western intellectuals to adopt an enlightened vision of the future…no. It’s the response on asking a resident of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) the best way to cross the street. From recent personal experience, this is a profound – some might say life affirming Q & A.”

Although far more people walk than in any American city I know – pedestrian friendly is an alien concept in Asian consciousness. Sidewalks do exist but, even if they are wide, nearly every square meter is occupied by vendors or motor bikes using the space as parking lots. Congestion on these sidewalks frequently made me use the street sharing the often narrow space with cars, trucks, motor bikes and other forms of public transportation in a devil-may-care free-for-all.

Hanoi, Vietnam

To cross the street a pedestrian simply crosses the street into the traffic which on the many 2-way streets or 3-street intersections comes from all directions. Although daunting at first, this is exactly what the on-coming traffic expects as it, usually, avoids both pedestrians and other vehicles with deft agility. The gentleman’s response to Michael Caine’s question was not flippant. It takes a sturdy centeredness gained through Buddhism, or tenacity, to calmly sense the correct timing and enter the traffic. The worst action a pedestrian can take is to get spooked and hesitate halfway across several lanes of traffic – that’s when the cars and motor bikes get spooked and accidents occur.

 
crossing street in Chaing Mai, Thailand and forms of public transportation

I knew none of this when I arrived in Bangkok. Six weeks later, leaving Saigon, perhaps I’d become a Buddhist as I simply spent no more than a ½-second contemplating my move across the street.

Hanoi, Old City, Vietnam

My wife, on the other hand, followed  Michael Caine’s plan of action, “We looked for groups of Buddhist, inserted ourselves into the very center of them and crossed when they did. If I was going to be mowed down, at least I’d be in the right company.” * Except Jill looked for any vendor pulling (yes, pulling) a cart – frequently old women – and, using them as a human shield, crossed when they did.

Was it fun at first?  No. Did I react negatively? Yes. I “threw the finger” at one SUV in Hanoi, after a particularly disappointing meal. He was shocked. After all, he was only going 35/mph 10 feet from me, but I lost my cool and failed to realize he’d never want to splatter me across the street – not as long as the Lord Buddha was watching over us all.

bus in Bangkok - less than $.05/ride

 

* The Elephant to Hollywood,” by Sir Michael Caine