Siamese Cats: Legends and Reality

Many years ago, I arrived in Thailand for the first time. In November 1985, the recommended area for tourists on a budget was Khao San Road near the historical centre of Bangkok. It was late at night and our first choice guesthouses in the guidebook were all full. In our quest for rooms, we were guided through the grounds of Wat Chanasongkram, later known to me as an old temple famous for taking in animals of all kinds and founded by monks of Mon ethnicity, and walking past an old banyan tree, I caught sight of a kitten. It was fawn coloured, with seal brown on its face, ears, paws and tail.

Not being any kind of expert then, I still recognized it as what westerners call a Siamese Cat, and I also knew that Siam was the country's former name, so I said to my companion: "Siamese cats really DO come from here!"

Fast forward 10 years, and I am sitting in the National Library's manuscript reading room, after gaining a publishing agreement, endorsements from my old college, and a multitude of other papers about an inch thick, all resulting in one very thin letter from the National Research Council of Thailand, telling the library to authorize my requests for access to century-old concertina books with coloured drawings of cats, including the Siamese, by which time I also knew by its Thai name, Wichienmas.

The Legend of Siamese Cats was finally published in 1998, its content mainly the results of those studies. In the years that followed, I would be meeting Thai breeders and learning about the real, living, breathing, fluffy, and purring Siamese Cats. This resulted in the publication of Siamese Cats: Legends and Reality in 2004.

Laurie Rosenthal of the Nation was kind enough to review it, reproduced below. It remains the only book on Siamese and Thai cats which is predicated an understanding of Thai culture and of the Tamra Maew - which are the earliest writings on major breeds known today as Siamese, Korat and Burmese, themselves the starting point for many more popular cat breeds.

Cats for all seasons

Published in The Nation on Sep 12, 2004 by Laurie Rosenthal

© Nation Multimedia Group

Thai scholar and linguist expands on his previous works about Thailand's felines

Cat lovers and history buffs will be happy to learn that Martin R Clutterbuck's "Siamese Cats: Legends and Reality" takes on a new, much more authoritative voice than his earlier work, "The Legend of Siamese Cats".

Published under the White Lotus imprint in 1998, "Legends" was a landmark in publications on cats, the first time that all the manuscripts of the "Tamra Maew" (cat poems) were compiled in one publication.

Clutterbuck holds a degree in Thai Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. He provided translations, transliterations and a scholarly treatise tracking the writers' intentions of the cat books.

His studies indicate that the age of the "Tamra Maew" is between 100 and 200 years old, making it among the oldest treatises on domestic cat breeding in the world. Clutterbuck nonetheless admits, "Legend" suffered from weaknesses in its coverage of the present-day status of Siamese cats and other Thai breeds.

"I became involved in this project because of my background in Thai literature and my access to the manuscripts - not because of cats," he said in a recent interview. However, since he published Legend, he says has met with major Thai breeders and Western experts, giving him the opportunity to develop themes he only hinted at in the first book. "I wanted to make this edition much more 'cat-friendly'," he said.

As a result, he has changed the focus of his just-published revised edition, renamed "Siamese Cats: Legends and Reality".

In "Siamese Cats", the chapters on the Tamra Maew have been moved to the back. Now called "Part Two", this section remains intact.

Much enlarged, however, is what is now "Part One". Clutterbuck calls it, simply, "The Thai Cats", but the scope is immense, and the result is informative and engrossing.

Here, with photos not found in the first edition, he discusses the relationships between cats and the Court of Siam; cats and Buddhist temples in Thailand; and then very carefully goes through each of the major Siamese breeds - the Wichien-maat (Siamese), Sisawat (Korat), Suphalak (Burmese), Khaomanee and Ninlarat.

Clutterbuck debunks familiar legends (there's no record of the Kings of Siam giving cats as Royal gifts to foreigners, but members of the Palace may have).

At the same time, however, to show the relationships between Thai people and cats, he provides the words to children's songs and describes ancient ceremonies in which cats participated.

Included in the discussion on Korat cats, for instance, is the hae nang maew ritual, in which villagers would parade a cat from house to house, and families would pour water over its head to call for rain. The ceremony has died out with the advent of modern agricultural methods, Clutterbuck notes.

Also in this part, Clutterbuck briefly describes the history of each breed after its arrival in the West and the ways in which the appearance of each breed has been changed in the hands of Western breeders.

For "Siamese Cats", Clutterbuck also includes a chapter by Dr Cristy Bird, a research scientist who breeds Siamese cats in the US. In her chapter, "Thailand: A Cat Superpower", she takes Clutterbuck's themes a step further, describing the impact of the Siamese breeds on Western breeds. The Wichien-maat and the Suphalak, she says, "have altered forever the world of pedigreed cats", and have "provided the genetic material for a long list of new breeds".

In an approach that is sometimes complex, sometimes charming but always enlightening, both Clutterbuck and Bird go out of their way to show how unique and important the cats of Thailand are.

Their efforts are echoed by Somkiat Onwimon in his Foreword to the Second Edition, where he stresses the importance of the cats - and the book.

"We Thais never really appreciate our cats which have become a legend of the world. I hope this book will some day be translated into Thai so that Thai people today will learn to love their cats like in old times," Somkiat says.

Perhaps Clutterbuck will consider a third edition - a Thai version of "The Legend of Siamese Cats".

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All text and photos © Martin Clutterbuck 2012-3, unless otherwise indicated.

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