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Silverware in Thailand (2)

In Bangkok, where the mainstream of precious-metal working took place, the formative influences was Chinese. It began at about the same time, in the Rattanakosin period. The whole issue of Chinese immigration into Thailand in the 19th century, almost all from Fukein and Kwangtung, is both fascinating and uncomfortable for many Thais, for while the Chinese quickly came to dominate trades such as silversmithing, they also eventually assimilated themselves into Thai society more thoroughly than in any ther Southeast Asian nation.

Both Carl Bock in 1887 and M.F. Laseur in 1885 noted that Chinese were dominant among gold and silversmiths. In fact, silver was but one aspect of the situation; Friedrich Ratzel wrote in 1876, “while elsewhere they make their living mainly as merchants and only secondarily as miners and fishemen, in Siam they control the entire economic life”.

While the Chinese brought new skills where silver was concerned, particularly in repoussée work, their tight guild organization excluded the Thais until the two groups began to intermarry. But over the years, their techniques spread outwards wile they absorbed Thai stylistic influences. Sylvia Fraser-Lu, in her book “Silverware of South-east Asia (1989)”, assesses it thus: Their work has become virtually indistinguishable from that of indigenous Thai craftsmen.

They are able to produce both Thai and Chinese-inspired objects with equal skill.” The rectangular box is just such an example of highly skilled Thai-Chinese repoussée work for a Thai market that had developed a taste for Western-style objects in the late 19th century. The central character is the monkey-god ” Hanuman “, a popular mythical character from the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian epic tale of the travails of Rama.

In repoussée work, sheet metal is punched and hammered from the inside to produce a relief decoration. It is first coated in oil and then worked face down on a bed of resin. As constant hammering weakness the silver structurally, the piece being worked must periodically be annealed through reheating. This process forms a residue of black oxide, which must then be removed in a pickling solution of dilute acid.

This procedure may have to be repeated several times, depending on the complexity and relief of the design. The background here has been accentuated by punching down from the front, in a procedure known as chasing.