Not many foreigners have their name given to a street in Bangkok
Asmall street, bordered by the massive silhouette of the Sheraton Royal Orchid Hotel and the adjacent River City shopping mall, was once home to one of the most important personalities in Siam—an Englishman who helped to develop port activities along the Chao Phraya River. This street, known as Captain Bush Lane, and its surrounding area, are being revitalised as part of the newly established ‘Bangkok Creative District’, which has been slowly emerging in and around the Thailand Design and Creative Centre (TCDC), which is now housed in the former General Post Office.
But who was Captain John Bush, and why is he among the scant few foreigners to have given their name to a street in Bangkok?
Born in England in 1819, John Bush arrived in Siam with his wife, in 1857, following the signing of the Bowring Treaty between Siam and Britain. This treaty opened trading to foreign companies and, at the same time, gave large commercial and extra-judicial concessions to British interests.
Flourishing trade saw a rise in activities along the Chao Phraya River, and King Mongkut (King Rama IV) soon asked Captain John Bush for his help in help managing and regulating port activities along the river. Bush then received the title of Harbour Master, a position that he kept for the next 30 years. He also had the honour of being the Captain of the ships that both King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) used when travelling around the Kingdom or abroad. He was bestowed with a Siamese knighthood under the royal title of Luang Wisoot Sakoradit Chao Ta.
However, Captain Bush was not only a Harbour Master, he was also a skilled businessman, creating the Bangkok Dock Co. Ltd, one of the largest and oldest engineering and shipping companies at that time. In a book about Siam dating back to 1908, the Bangkok Dock Company Ltd. is reported to have “two dry docks, three slipways capable of taking small steamers”. The book goes on to say that “during 1907, the company built no less than 18 launches (small vessels) while 45 vessels were docked in the large dock”. The Bangkok dock was also contracted to create the Royal Naval Dock, had a motor garage, and electric and mechanical workshops as well.
By building his fortune, the captain became one of the wealthiest men in Siam at that time, with a fortune estimated at 1.2 million baht (building a house at that time cost only 10,000 baht!). He also acquired plots of land along the new developing Charoen Krung Road, also called New Road, which was the centre of the European district. In the small alley which is today Charoen Krung Soi 30, he built a splendid villa with a front arcade surmounted by a large pediment, copying Northern Italian mansions in Palladian style.
The address was, back then, quite prestigious. Standing at the mouth of Klong Padung Krung Kasem, the structure had a direct view on the river and stood next to the Portuguese Embassy—today the oldest embassy in Thailand—with its superb Peranakan-style mansion house, built in 1860 (and later expanded around 1875). The house was just facing the grand façade of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, and stood close to the British Consulate, the Custom House, and Bangkok’s first Post Office.
After the death of Captain Bush in 1905, the house served for a while as the family’s home, before it was turned—for a time—into the main office of a French distillery company.
For many years since, the ramshackle structure has sat quietly in the shadows, awaiting a new lease on life. It was feared that this neo-classical masterpiece would give way to a modern building, such as what happened to the HSBC building when it was replaced in 1982 by the Sheraton Hotel. Fortunately, the property belongs to the Crown Property Bureau which considers “House No.1” to be a structure of historical value representing a fine example of neoclassical architecture during the reign of King Rama V.
Following a two-year restoration, the house reopened to the public in early 2017. Still known as “House No.1”, it is an elegant romantic venue for special events, such as corporate meetings or society weddings. The organization looking after the house welcomes booking enquiries, and lavish decorations and even catering by Michelin star chefs are offered as part of their private function packages.
The villa’s interior reflects the early 20th century taste for European style, with its arched windows, painted walls, stucco ceilings, and floor paved with imported marble tiles. Next to the house, near the parking lot, stands a dilapidated building. It is actually the historical warehouse of Louis T. Leonowens Ltd, a business run by the son of the infamous Anna Leonowens—the British educator of the Royal Children during the reign of King Mongkut, and whose life formed the basis for Margaret Landon’s 1944 book Anna and the King of Siam). While other houses on the premises of the company have all been destroyed this warehouse remains, and should also be restored as part of Bangkok Creative District foundation projects.
Opposite to House No.1, past the Sheraton Royal Orchid Hotel, at the corner by the Portuguese Embassy, is the second part of Soi 30 on Charoen Krung. It is lined with 70-year old warehouses, constructed by Japanese. As part of the revitalization project around the TCDC—known as Warehouse 30—they have been carefully restored and converted into art spaces, shops, antique stores, fashion boutiques, and meeting spaces and cafés. It’s the heart of the new creative Bangkok!
Words and photos by Luc Citrinot