One of the few “star” turns I ever took on stage was in the musical The King and I back at high school in Winnipeg. As the only Asian in the cast, I was cast as the only white character in the show — save for Anna and her son. I played the (nonsinging!) bit part of Sir Edward Ramsay, the English ambassador to the 19th-century Siamese court of King Mongut and, in Oscar Hammerstein’s libretto, a former suitor of Anna’s. I remember being bitterly disappointed in not getting any makeup — they wanted me to wash out under the lights to look white compared to the rest of the cast.
According to Susan Morgan’s recent biography of Anna Leonowens, the British teacher and writer whose memoirs served as inspiration for the musical (via Margaret Landon’s novel Anna and the King of Siam), I should have been cast as Anna herself.
Turns out Anna Leonowens wasn’t Welsh as she claimed but a Eurasian born in Bombay. After marrying clerk Thomas Leon Owens, Anna and her husband moved constantly trying to make ends meet. Thomas’s last job was as a hotelkeeper in Penang; he died at 33. Anna then moved with her two surviving children to Sing-apore, threw off her Indian heritage and upgraded her biography. She was teaching children of the colony’s British officers when hired by the Siamese consul to teach Mongut’s wives and children, a post she held for five years.
As a Eurasian born in Singapore (whose grandfather came from Penang) it’s plain to see I should have been the I in The King and I.
So it was with spicy relish that I recently ventured to the scene of the crime, as it were — the Grand Palace in Bangkok. It’s not surprising to learn that Thais don’t much care for Anna, her take on King Mongut or her inflated sense of influence. Not only did she fabricate her own life story, she falsified much of her account of life at court. And you don’t mess with the king in Thailand.
But are my impressions any more accurate than Anna’s? Travel writing is such a sketchy business. We tourists are easily deceived, often willfully so. Conversely, as Anna proved, travel affords great opportunities for reinvention.
Like me, many of you just returned from a foreign locale. Besides sloth and sun, most of us go on vacation in search of that tourist bugaboo, the authentic experience. We want to drop into another culture, feel a part of it, connect with locals.
What a curious thing to demand instant connection across barriers of language, culture and class. We rarely invite those connections at home. How authentic are our own lives?
When we travel we are more open to hearing stories from beyond our comfort zone, our small circle of experience. There’s no risk; tourists can always cut loose from any uncomfortable strings attached.
It’s that initial openness that’s so appealing; an attitude worth bringing home.
The world at home is larger than we know. It’s all a matter of which stories you let yourself hear, which stories you let yourself believe.
In some ways, I’ve been travel writing much of my adult life, often in these pages, reporting on a neverending series of arty characters, each and every one a storyteller, a mythmaker. Canada is as exotic as any Asian country. And I’m not being facetious, much (that’s the thing with us Eurasians, you can’t pin us down).
All the stories we tell ourselves — whether one-to-one or on the stage or page — are fictions. The trick is to tease out the truth.
Swapping stories, fantastic or otherwise — it’s the only way to travel.