As a researcher who focuses on the martial arts in modern China and North America, I do not claim any special expertise in the rich fighting traditions of South East Asia. Still, one of the gratifying aspects of running a blog like this is being able to share the thrill of new discoveries. In this case they related to late 19th and early 20th century Thai kickboxing.
While searching for vintage photographs of Chinese martial artists, I happened to run across the following postcards. After doing a bit of preliminary research I have not located too many other examples like them. Still, it is impossible to say at this point whether such images were rare at the turn of the century, or if their survival rate was just not as high as photographs of Japanese and Chinese martial artists.
The first photograph is more the more interesting of the two as it is labeled. These inscriptions appear to have been applied directly to the negative, and were not added to the postcard later. This suggests that the item was manufactured in Thailand for domestic consumption. This makes it quite different from many of the Chinese postcards that we have previously reviewed in this series as these were almost always printed in Europe and destined for a Western audience.
The inscriptions themselves are quite simple. I do not read Thai, but a colleague at Cornell translated them as:
Mr. Bang Malikham 6th Pair Mr. Tian Hemasidon
(Ubon) (Phra Nakhon)
Here we have each fighter’s name, their place of origin and their identifying color in the match. It would also appear that the pair were the sixth fight on whatever “card” this series was meant to commemorate.
Careful observers will also note a few other items. A crowd is just visible around the far edges of the postcard. Further, neither fighter wears gloves. One is bare handed while the other’s fists and forearms are wrapped in hemp rope.
The next postcard also features fighters with “rope gloves.” These combatants appear in a roped off, elevated, boxing ring whose floor appears to be made of wide wooden planks covered with some type of a mat. While there was only the suggestion of a crowd in the previous image, here the spectators are much more visible. While the VIP seating in the front is empty, the fight appears to have drawn an enthusiastic audience.
There are a few other differences of note. Both fighters in the second image appear to have adopted a more upright stance. Both have also been outfitted with foreign style groin protectors.
This last observation gives us a few clues as to how to date these images. The second postcard appears to be the younger of the two. Both cards have a split back, and the photographs themselves lack any border. While I am not an expert in Thai ephemera, this generally seems to indicate a postcard that was printed between 1915 and the early 1920s.
It is interesting that the second image features a mix of old and new features. Here we see rope bound fists juxtaposed to something that looks like a modern boxing ring and modern groin protection. This suggests to me that this photo was taken during the transitional period in the early 1920’s as modern safety gear was being phased in.
The first image not only appears to be more “traditional,” but the card stock it is printed on is also physically older. My best guess as someone who is not an expert in the development of Muay Thai, but who deals with a fair amount of vintage ephemera, is that the first image would be from approximately 1915 and the second closer to 1923. Of course, those initial guesses are subject to revision.
What might a traditional Thai boxing match have been like in the late 19th or early 20th century? Luckily, we have some decent period sources that can help to bring these images to life. Herbert Warington Smyth (1867-1943) was a British mining engineer (and later travel writer) who spent a great deal of time working in the region and was eventually employed by the Kingdom of Siam. In 1895, he published the following account of a journey up the Mekong River as part of a travelogue (at the time, one of the best-selling genres of popular literature). Following the death of an area’s governor he had the chance to observe multiple rounds of boxing that seem to have been part of the funeral ritual.
It is interesting to note that one of the fighters in the first postcard was from a neighboring region to where this account was collected. Smyth also does a masterful job of describing the social milieu and atmosphere that surrounded the events that he observed.
“The Chow Muang here was lately dead, and just before we left the creation ceremonies began in the big square before the principal wat. At night the place all around the funeral pyre was lighted with candles; three or four of the head monks were reading in a kind of chant from their Pali manuscripts from the tops of temporary bamboo pulpits, and among the booths standing round; the people squatted in their cloaks, listening to music or hearing descriptive songs and stories, which now and then produced roars of laughter. In the day sports were going on, and there was some very good boxing between the champions of neighboring villages, who at the end each got three rupees, victor and vanquished alike.
The men strip, and their names and places they hail from are given out. They then salute the master of the ceremonies in the ordinary Laos fashion, touching the ground with their foreheads on bended knees, raising the clasped hands to the head, and proceed to business. For some moments they warily watch one another, stepping and dancing round with a good deal of attitudinizing of an alarming description, by the extravagance of which we can generally tell the best man.
The blows are rather round-armed, it is true, and kicking is allowed; but it is wonderfully quiet and masterful, and when they warm to it, very hard rounds are fought. The umpires squat round ready to separate the men, call time, and generally see fair play, and at the end of each round the two men squat down, and are offered water out of silver bows, the bearer respectfully on his knee handing them the ladle. The keenness of the onlookers is tremendous, especially when the men are well matched; but what produced most enthusiasm was a fight between boys of ten years old. The little fellows showed, I must say, a great deal of pluck and more science than most of us did at that age at school; they kept their tempers well and at the end of each round their seconds, stalwart fathers and uncles, were besides themselves with delight, stroking their heads and dancing round them with tears of laughter running from their eyes.
There were some sword and sword-and-spear dances by two men in slow time to music, with silver-handled weapons, and accompanied by the gestures in which all these nations take such pleasure…
Herbert Warington Smyth. 1895. Notes of a Journey on the Upper Mekong, Siam. London: The Royal Geographical Society. pp. 39-40