Peeps at Many Lands: Siam/Chapter 6

Peeps at Many Lands: Siam  (1908)  by Ernest Young
Chapter 6 Amusements

A buffalo cart.

Chapter VI

The Siamese have practically no games which, like football and hockey, involve a great deal of physical exertion. They like to take their pleasures quietly, on account of the great heat. The chief amusement is gambling in some form or other. Little boys catch crickets, and bring them to school in match-boxes. In play-time they dig a little hole in the ground, put the crickets in the hole, and make them fight, meanwhile betting their knives, cigarettes, and other small possessions on the result of the combat.

Sometimes there are cock-fights. As there are few or no watches with which to time the rounds, a time-measurer of another kind is used. This consists of a small bowl that floats in water. There is a little hole in the bottom of the bowl, through which water slowly enters. When the bowl is filled to a certain point it sinks, and then the round is over.

Perhaps the most curious of the contests that are employed as means of gambling is that between two fighting fish. The fighting fish is a species of small carp about the size of a stickleback. It has beautiful peacock-blue sides and ruby-coloured fins. These fish are kept in glass bottles, and are trained to attack their own image as seen in a looking-glass. When two of them meet each other in a big bowl of water, the way in which they manœuvre to get hold of one another is most ridiculous, and the way they bite whenever they get the chance is perfectly atrocious. All the time the fight is going on the spectators lay wagers on the result.

In March, when the winds are strong, kite-flying is indulged in by grown-up people as well as children. There is always great excitement at a kite-flying contest. Two men stand close together. One man sends his kite up, and when it is well in the air the second man sends his aloft. The kites have no tails, but they fly steadily. When the two kites are near each other, one man gives his string a peculiar jerk. This makes his kite jump over the other one, descend a little way, and then come up on the other side. In this way the strings attached to the two kites get entangled. By alternately pulling in and releasing the strings they are made to saw one another. The man whose kite-string is first cut through loses the game. On many of the kites whistles are fastened, and as the kites sweep through the air shrill piercing sounds accompany their flight.

Another popular amusement is "football," which is nothing like our game of the same name. The ball is only about six or seven inches in diameter. It is very light, as it is made of a few pieces of twisted cane. Any number of people can play, from two upwards. The players stand in a ring facing each other. One of them sends the ball into the air, and the person nearest to it, when it descends, must send it up again. He may do this with his head, shoulder, knee, or foot, but he must not touch the ball with his hands. If the ball falls just behind the player's back, he judges the distance without turning round, catches the ball on the back of his heel, and so brings it back into the circle and towards another player. There are no goals, and, in fact, no scoring of any kind. The game ends when the players are tired. Sometimes a weary one will drop out of the game, lie down for a while for a rest, and then rejoin the circle when he feels refreshed. New-comers may join the game at any moment. About the only amusement not associated with gambling is the theatre. There is only one fixed theatre in the capital. In the days when there was neither gas nor electric light it was only open on moonlit nights, for without the light of the moon the people would have had to go home in the dark. As a rule, theatrical performances take place at private houses at times of weddings, or funerals, or on other occasions of private rejoicing or sorrow.

There are no men players except the clowns. The other parts are taken by women. The plays, if acted from beginning to end, would last for weeks; but, as everybody knows the whole of every drama, only small portions are acted at a time. The better the people know the selection that is played, the better they like it. The actresses move about from one side of the stage to the other, twisting their heads, arms, and legs about in a slow and curious fashion, which is their way of dancing. They do not speak. The story is told by a chorus of people, who screech out the tale, to the accompaniment of the weirdest of bands. It sounds like a mixture of drums, brass trays, and bagpipes.

As a fixed theatre is not necessary, the plays can be acted anywhere. A space for the stage is marked out on the ground with mats. Round the mats sit the band and the chorus. The spectators sit or stand quite near the players, and sometimes an odd baby gets loose, and wanders about amongst the feet of the angels and demons, who are strutting quaintly in the mat-encircled area. When the man who beats the drums or bangs the brass trays has had enough, some little boy in the audience will come and take his place, and so allow the weary musician a little rest.

There is of course, no scenery, and the audience has to draw very largely on its imagination as the performance proceeds. Suppose that a Siamese company were going to play "Robinson Crusoe." This is the kind of thing that would happen. One actress would come on the stage with a pole fastened to her chest. From the top of a pole a little flag would fly. The rest of the troupe would stand, two by two, behind the maiden with the pole. Last of all would come another actress, bearing another pole and flag, and with a rudder tied to her back. The long string of people gathered together in this way would represent a ship and its passengers. The voyage would now begin by the company rolling round the edges of the mats in a very slow and measured manner. Presently the storm would arise. The drummers would bang, the brass-tray beaters would hammer, and the bagpipe-blowing gentlemen would nearly burst themselves. The chorus would howl, and all the little boys and girls in the audience would join in, and outdo the professional howlers easily, as you may imagine. Everyone would fall flat down on the stage, and that would be a shipwreck. In a second or two the drowned sailors would get up and walk off the stage, and no one would think it at all funny. Poor old Robinson, left to himself, would find the goat, and the goat would be one of the actresses, who would walk about on two legs, wearing a mask that would look just as much like a monkey as a goat, and with two horns on her head. The goat would circulate about the stage, dancing exactly like a human being, and the spectators would help the actress by believing that she really was a goat, and so everybody would be satisfied. When Robinson wanted to hide himself in a wood, he would walk to the edge of the stage, and hold a branch of a tree in front of his face. This would mean that he was quite hidden. If anyone pretended to see him, they would probably hear some very rude remarks from the rest of the audience, who would not wish to have their innocent amusement spoiled by a clever young critic.