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The Consul Who Loved Beetle Fighting
Britain’s Longest-Serving Consul in Chiang Mai Enjoyed An Unusual Local Sport...
Beyond any shadow of doubt the most distinguished foreign resident of Chiang Mai this century was William Alfred Rae Wood, CIE, CMG. In 1896, at the callow age of 18, Wood arrived in Bangkok to start work as a junior member of the British Consular Service. Over the next seventeen years, between periods in Bangkok, he served as British Vice-Consul at Nan, Chiang Rai, Songkhla and Lampang before, in 1913, being appointed British Consul at Chiang Mai. Here he remained for the remainder of his diplomatic career, becoming in due course British Consul-General in 1918.
In 1931, after three-and-a-half decades in the British diplomatic service, Wood retired and returned briefly to England. He found he could not settle outside Thailand, however, and soon returned to spend the rest of his life (barring only a bitter period of internment during World War II) at his home in Ban Nong Hoi, by the banks of the River Ping. Wood died in 1970, at the ripe old age of 91. He is buried in a mausoleum in Chiang Mai Foreign Cemetery, beside his wife Khun Boon, nee Panya Chitpreecha, of Chiang Rai, whom Wood married in 1906, and whose ashes were returned from England to Chiang Mai after her death in 1982. The inscription on Wood's tomb reads, simply, "He loved Thailand".
During his very full life W.A.R. Wood involved himself in many aspects of Thai culture with much enthusiasm and appreciation. He learned to speak, read and write fluent Thai during the last years of the 19th century, and subsequently researched and wrote the first comprehensive, modern study of Thai history to be published in any language (A History of Siam, 1926). Subsequent writings include his lyrical Consul in Paradise (1965), and Tales from Thailand (1968). In his retirement he often sent letters and poems to the Bangkok Post, which were printed under various pseudonyms, the most frequently used being "Lotus". Wood's great love for Siam, and his enthusiasm for all things Thai – especially North Thai – is apparent in his writings. In some cases he took these enthusiasms to lengths which one might not, perhaps, have expected in so venerable a figure as the British Consul-General – but that all seems to have been part of Wood's extraordinary charm. A fine example of this taste for the unexpected was his enthusiasm for rhinoceros beetle-fighting, or kuang chon.
Beetle-fighting and betting thereon, is a traditional pastime among the Northern Thai, sections of the Shan in neighbouring Burma, and the Lao Tai of northern Laos. During the rainy season – between approximately July and October – when the rice is maturing in the paddies and farmers have some free time before the cool season harvest begins, the spectacular tua kuang, or rhinoceros beetles of the region begin their mating season in the forests and jungles of the northern borderlands.
There are at least five separate types of kuang living in north Thailand. As a group, they are distinguished by the male of the species, which sports a giant, armoured carapace surmounted by horn-like pincers, giving the creatures their common English name "rhinoceros beetle". By contrast, the female beetle seems an ordinary, even plain creature – though evidently, and reasonably enough, not to the male. During the mating season, deep in their natural habitat of bamboo groves or sugar cane clumps, the female emits a scent which stimulates the male and helps him find her. What could be simpler or more natural?
But this is where man enters the equation. At some time in the distant past enquiring human minds must have been attracted by the extraordinary and elaborate appearance of the male rhinoceros beetle. Children, there is no doubt, have been catching them for millennia, and keeping them as playthings, tethered to sticks of raw sugar cane or flying them on gossamer-like threads.
Seemingly the horns and carapace of the male beetles have evolved both to impress the female, and to overawe rival males. During the mating season children must soon have discovered that, by putting two males together with one female, the tiny armoured gladiators could be induced to fight for her affections. These jousts – which are largely harmless, combining loud hissing with displays of strength and much pushing and shoving – usually end with one combatant retiring in disarray, and, at least in the natural course of things, "to the victor the spoils".
At some point in time, however, this harmless children's game acquired more sophisticated trappings. One can only speculate, but it seems clear that adults, too, seeking entertainment and a way to pass the time during the long rainy season – not to mention a chance to make money buying, selling, and betting on beetle fights – began to play kuang chon. Rules were laid down, elaborate equipment invented, and eventually beetle fighting became an adult sport popular throughout the north.
In this unusual entertainment a female beetle is restrained in a hollowed-out length of sugar cane, or, in more elaborate games, cooped up in a tiny prison in a cylindrical piece of wood known as a klon. A small hole in the door of the prison – often heart-shaped – allows air to reach the female, and her maddening scent to reach the males. Two of the latter are placed on top of the door and encouraged to fight by their owners, who roll tiny serrated sticks called mai phan on the sides of the log. The vibrations and noise from the mai phan are believed to urge the fighting beetles to greater efforts. Using their long, multi-jointed legs armed with small barbs to cling on to the klon, the combatants lock horns in a trial of strength, until one either falls off the log into a catching sheet below, or turns tail and admits defeat. Both the victor and his defeated opponent will be rewarded with a refreshing snack of raw sugar cane – but not, usually, with the favours of the female. Mating is generally considered to dissipate strength, so sex is bad for fighting!
How Wood first became interested in beetle fighting is not clear, but by the time he wrote Consul in Paradise he claimed to be an expert at it, having once kept a stable of no fewer than five tua kuang. Catching beetles he considered easy – all that was necessary was to hang a stick of sugar cane on the veranda at night. 'In the morning there will often be one or more beetles browsing on the cane. You just slip a noose over their horns, and there you are'. Elsewhere, however, the consul does allow that 'to ensure the capture of really good beetles, a little magic is to be recommended'.
In a short story included in his collection Tales from Thailand, Wood recounts how a servant of his, by name Kham Ai, once came to him in great distress because he had lost money backing horses at the Chiang Mai Gymkhana Club, and was unable to pay his debts. The only solution, as Kham Ai saw it, was to gain sufficient money to cover his loss on the horses by winning at kuang chon. This plan, in turn, necessitated the capture of a really powerful fighting beetle, which was where Wood came in. "Nai", said Kham Ai, "I have dreamed for three nights that I was winning big sums of money by means of a wonderful fighting beetle you had caught by the use of a magic spell... I therefore beg of you to put out a stick of sugar-cane tonight, first pronouncing over it a powerful foreign spell, and if you catch a beetle to give it to me".
Of course, the Consul-General did as he was asked, and in the morning a truly splendid beetle was found grazing on the sugar cane. Wood gave it to Kham Ai, suggesting the name Chaiya, or "Victory", would be appropriate. Kham Ai was horrified at this display of over-confidence, and instead called the beetle Chiphai, or "Ruin". Only later, after it had proved its prowess, would it be honoured with the title Chaiya.
Kham Ai's dream must have been founded in fact, for Wood records that Chaiya's career was one continuous blaze of glory. Within weeks Kham Ai's debts were paid off, he had redeemed his bicycle, and in addition had bought a new watch, a golden chain and a Buddha amulet. The mighty Chaiya was less fortunate, however, being defeated by a celebrated champion from Lampang three months into his career. In this last contest Chaiya lost a leg, and was no longer fit for fighting. A few days later Wood asked Kham Ai what he had done with Chaiya, and was 'filled with shame and horror' when the servant replied: "I fried him last night, and ate him with spinach and chilli sauce. He tasted delicious!"
Wood was of an altogether more generous nature. He always felt that 'the lady beetle has a very thin time, cooped up in her tiny cell, while her rival lovers fight above her skylight window... A lot of money is staked on these fights, and the owner of a first class beetle may make quite large sums out of it. But the poor beetle, after all its fighting, is not even allowed to snatch a hasty kiss. I call this unjust'.
The Consul-General's response was suitably chivalrous, albeit rather eccentric in the eyes of his beetle-fighting contemporaries. He would always set the female beetle free after a battle, and let her fly away with the victor. 'Off they went, and never came back any more, and everybody thought me a sentimental fool'.
This may well be true, but in retrospect one can only feel sure that, during many years of kuang chon, the consul who loved beetle fighting must have built up a great deal of merit through his kind-heartedness!
Note: Visitors who want to experience a professional tournament should ask a local how to get to the nearest bon kuang, or gambling hall where beetle-fighting take place. There are several of these establishments in the city, and betting on the outcome is apparently quite legal.
Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – CPA Media