After a day further exploring Bangkok, I went out to a very local Thai restaurant in Sathorn for a delicious dinner and returned to my hotel to pack as I had an early flight to Delhi the next morning. Packing and re-packing is not my favourite occupation, but a frequent one on a trip like this, so I was procrastinating by doing trip admin. At 8.45pm an email appeared in my in-box which put a huge smile on my face.
The letter I had posted on Saturday to the relatives of Harry’s generous host Phya Vidura Dharmabinet in Thailand in 1966, had been received and they had made contact. I was amazed, firstly that the address that one of my kind Thai IH alumni had found me was correct enough to reach them, secondly that the letter which was posted about 11am on Saturday had reached them on Monday (in the UK this would probably not have been the case).
It turns out I was so close to the right place when I went on my adventures to try and hand deliver the letter on Saturday (see Thai Trip Inspiration blog post).
That aside, I was so delighted as I could pass on my gratitude to them for their grandfather’s hospitality and in return they very kindly shared these photos of the house where Harry would have stayed for his two weeks in Bangkok.
Even more wonderful is the fact that there are both New York and Berkeley I-House alumni amongst Phya’s children and wider family, so they are still involved in the story and ‘passing the light on’ of the International House idea. I am sure Harry would have been delighted.
I am sad my time in Bangkok was not long enough for us to actually meet but I hope we will one day. In the mean time I am still smiling and grateful to Phya for inspiring Harry’s trip and mine.
Postscript to postscript – I received this photo of Harry and Phya Vidura Dharmabinet which must have been from the 1966 trip, from Phya’s relatives… wonderful!
Harry’s round the world trip in 1966 was inspired by a Thai gentleman – his name was originally Toa Amranand and subsequently changed in 1915 to Luang Nathanbanja as he was honoured for his work by his country. He was a member of the Intercollegiate Cosmopolitan Club from 1921-23 while he was studying Political science and public law at Columbia.
Harry set up the Cosmopolitan club as a result of the success of the original Sunday Suppers. He wanted to be able to support newly arrived international students and also to give them somewhere to socialise, debate and connect with each other. It was seeing the success of the interactions there that led Harry to the idea that he needed a way to have the students live together to really benefit and foster the understanding, tolerance and international friendship that was his vision.
Luang was given the title and name Phya Vidura Dharmabinet by the Crown in 1929 and served his country in a variety of roles including Judge of International Court, Director-General Legal and Vice-President of the National Assembly. Harry must have engaged Phya in the I-House idea as he was a member of the Building Committee for I-House NYC and laid the corner-stone of the House.
Even when he returned to Thailand, his correspondence with Harry must have continued over the years as Harry describes Phya asking in his Christmas Card for him to come and visit Bangkok and Thailand.
Over 40 years after he left New York, Harry was still on Phya’s mind and realising that Harry must now be in his 80s he offered to pay some of Harry’s expenses if he would come and visit him. Never one to turn down a funded trip to meet alumni, Harry of course said yes and as he was going as far as Bangkok he decided to make it a world trip, the one I am re-creating.
So here I am in Bangkok. This is where my timeline and Harry’s start to diverge slightly as Harry spent two weeks staying with Phya and his family. He describes Phya living in a small palace with a lovely atmosphere and how he was a ‘connoisseur and an expert on the raising of orchids’.
Researching anyone with a Thai name has proved challenging, they can be spelt differently in english script and decedents often have very different names. However with persistence I have narrowed it down to a name and a location in the same area as the Bank of Thailand complex off Sam Sen Road and the family surname today.
I have written a letter of gratitude to the decedents of Phya, that he funded Harry’s trip which has then become the inspiration of my trip and led to the already unbelievable experiences of the last 25 days and those still to come.
I wanted to hand deliver the letter to the address that I had, not because I expected the relatives to want to see me but more so I could see where Harry had stayed. So I set off on the river boat from Sathon Pier to Thewes Pier, enjoying the riverside world of temples, shopping malls, tumbledown warehouses and homes large and small as they flashed by.
Leaving the Pier, I walked along the canal down to Sam Sen Road. The canal is lined near the main road with stalls that are like mini garden centres stuffed with beautiful plants and flowers and of course Orchids. I love Orchids anyway but these were so gorgeous, from delicate white with the palest pink edges to huge flashy purple flowers all bobbing in the breeze that was blowing in from the river.
I was drawn into the peace of Wat Noranartsoontarikaram, where a lady sat with her back to me in a loose flowered top cross legged and motionless meditating in front of the raised buddha, with the breeze rippling her hair. She looked totally at peace. I wondered if Harry had been here, I imagine as it was so close to where he was staying that he may well have been.
Going round the corner onto Sam Sen Road with my letter in my hand I was hopeful that I might find the house and either post it in or give it to a smartly uniformed guard (I know the family are still well to do). However Thai addresses are far from simple and even with the help of a lovely young man at the post office and various kind people in the vicinity, it eluded me.
Having planned for this eventuality with my friend at the post office I applied the 5 Baht stamp he had sold me to the letter and decided that I would post it in the post box nearest to where I thought Harry would have been staying.
Having done that, I walked up onto the edge of the bridge that towers over the Bank of Thailand complex and took photos of the renaissance buildings designed by the German Architect, Karl Dohring which were commissioned by King Chulalongkorn for his son Somdet Phrachao Borommawongthoe Chaofa Boriphat Sukumphan Kromphra Nakhon Sawanworaphinit (some name to learn to spell!) in 1932. I believe that the Palace Harry stayed at was in a similar style and was on this compound somewhere.
I am not expecting an answer from Phya’s relatives, but I am truly grateful for his generosity to Harry and his engagement with the I-House idea and how that lasted through his long life.
Random aside…. Bangkok is very very full of tourists possibly because of the Lunar New Year, so I took refuge from the mid-day sun and the tour bus gaggles into a long building at the edge of the park by the palace. It was cool and airy and turned out to contain an exhibition about the Thai Kings. Looking for postcards at the end of my visit I turned over the picture below to find that it was H.M. King Chulalonkorm, the Crown Prince, and his sons at Taplow Court in Maidenhead (where I live), England on 7th August 1897. My great grandmother on my mother’s side had grown up in Taplow in one of the large houses there so my mum and I were imagining her great grandparents being invited to tea to meet the Crown Prince of Siam, who would have seemed very exotic. He certainly had a lot of sons!!
When Harry got to Hong Kong, it was Lunar or Chinese New Year and it was year of the Horse. I have arrived just before the New Year and this year it is year of the Pig. So every shop, housing complex or school is decked in red decorations and pigs in all shapes and sizes abound. Whilst I would love to be here to experience the New Year’s celebrations, the mass movement of literally millions of people across the region or Chunyun, had made me think carefully and plan to avoid the main rush. I don’t imagine that in 1966 when Harry was travelling that the transport links allowed for the millions of journeys taken today at this time of year.
My event in Hong Kong was organised and hosted by Frank Wong, a NYC alumni and long time supporter and organiser of gatherings here. Suitably for 2019 and the Hong Kong shopping obsession, the venue was a restaurant in one of the high end shopping malls, Pacific Place.
From the moment I met Frank at the venue to the moment I left, the event was high energy and high volume. About 20 people attended a mix of I-House NYC, Berkeley and Larry Kwok representing I-House Sydney. As ever there was a range of ages, locals and expats. We had lawyers, architects, film festival organisers, publishers, entrepreneurs, bankers….
We continued the candle relay with me giving Nelson the Manila candle that Leah had bought and he gave me the Hong Kong Candle to take onto Bangkok. It is my first scented candle with the scent of white Micheila and smells wonderful. It was produced by a company in Hong Kong of beeswax and has a wooden wick. On its label it depicts Pottinger Street (stone slab street) which has always been a place where small traders sold their wares including candles. Nelson had certainly put a lot of thought into his choice.
For those following the lonely Chinese student thread, I received new information, from Joanna Lee, that there is a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship recipients relatives association in Zhuhai in southern China. So that will be a line of investigation to follow up.
Hong Kong has been fun as I have also been able to catch up with family, my first cousin lives here, as well as family friends who kindly had me to stay and friends from my MBA at London Business School. The weather has been perfect, as in sunny and not too hot and I have the most had delicious food, particularly my lunch with Larry Kwok at the Mandarin Oriental.
Next stop Bangkok, which is promising a small but perfectly formed gathering.
Thirty years later – Arlene Barilec and Joanna Lee – When at I-House New York in the 1980s, Arlene and Joanna attended a Sunday Supper. The speaker was an eminent I-House alumna in her 70s or 80s and one of the things that she spoke about was how her friends made at I-House were still her closest and dearest friends. John Wells was then the Communications Manager of the House and Arlene and Joanna, remember saying to John that they couldn’t imagine that would be the case for them, in fact they could not even imagine staying in contact for a year, but now 30 years on they absolutely agree with the speaker that night.
Welcome to your new country – Joanna Lee – Joanna was telling me how if the I-House NYC alumni based in Hong Kong know a new I-House alumni is coming to live there they will arrange a welcoming committee for them. They will create a welcome pack and ensure that the new arrival, knows where things are like supermarkets, doctors etc.. and how to get around and who to call if they have a crisis. This is really passing the light on as Harry would have wanted and it is similar to what the Intercollegiate Cosmopolitan Club offered newly arrived international students in NYC from 1910 when it was set up after his meeting with the lonely Chinese student. They would help them get established in NYC and make sure that they knew someone cared even though they were feeling far from home.
Best and worst experiences in the dining commons – Nelson Fung – It seems that when Nelson was at I-House Berkeley the food quite up to the high standard now lovingly prepared by the executive chef Todd Koenigsberg for current residents. Whilst Nelson perhaps did not delight in the food offered, he did enjoy the wonderful company and it was definitely dining together that he enjoyed. He described, the joy of striking up conversations with people studying topics he had never even thought about or from countries he had never visited. Definitely where he made some of his life long friends.
Bonifacio Global City has sprung up in the 20 odd years since I last visited Manila. Sitting in the 9th floor apartment of a friend from my MBA, I can see out over a park which seems to have trapeze and circus skills being taught at all hours of the day, I can see fancy restaurants, an art centre and shiny offices, not necessarily the image that some would have of Manila.
In the Early Bird Breakfast Club restaurant, I was joined for brunch by three alumni from three houses. Leah Jordano from NYC, Neil Tan Gana from Berkeley and Virginia Teodosio from Sydney.
We were reflecting on Harry’s arrival in Manila as reported in the iHouse World Newsletter Vol 2. no 1. He was met by 28 alumni at the airport and amongst his visits was ‘courtesy call on President Marcos’! I am told by my new Filipino friends that President Marcos was very early in his tenure and at that point things were looking positive as to his outlook and leadership of the Philippines so it would have been a great honour for Harry indeed.
He had a packed schedule with visits to the President of the University of the Philippines, the Rice Research Institute, a dinner at the Commercial Bank & Trust Co. Building and a farewell party!
We were also reflecting on the challenges of gathering a group of I-House alumni in Manila today considering that the Filipinos have been a strong presence in the resident group right from the start of I-House NYC in 1924. Filipinos students started to arrived as pensionados (or sponsored students) in universities like Colombia and NYU in 1903. Between 1910 and 1948 14,000 Filipino students came to study in the US, with many choosing the West Coast universities, and so some would no doubt have lived at I-House Berkeley.
In Chicago the 1940 census recorded 1,740 Filipinos living there and the majority are cited as having come to study “to acquire the American Diploma they believed would boost their place on the Islands’ ladder of success.” So all three original I-Houses have strong Filipino connections.
We continued my candle relay handing over the Taiwan candle in a Taiwan Beer Glass that Grace Hong gave me in Taipei, to Leah who had bought my Manila candle. It seems that Manila Wax Commercial have the monopoly on candles in Manila and Leah had chosen one of their Yellow ones (they come in White, Red or Yellow). I was also able to give Virginia and Neil one each of the tea light candles that Tudor had bought to the Taipei event.
Leah had also kindly bought me some very tasty dried mango…
I then had a very lovely and unexpected afternoon of sightseeing with Neil, who took me to the newly refurbished Natural History Museum and to see the sights of Rizal Park, which on a Sunday afternoon was packed with families enjoying their afternoon. Our trip led us to discuss the joy of spontaneity which Neil said is a big feature of the I-House experience, where by joining up with people and saying yes to doing things it opens up new understanding and builds international friendships. Just as Harry had imagined it would.
Sources: Unintentional Immigrants: Chicago’s Filipino Foreign Students Become Settlers, 1900-1941, Barbara M. Posadas and Roland L. Guyotte, Journal of American Ethnic History Vol 9, No. 2 pp. 26-48
The Filipino Diaspora in the United States July 2014
A combined set of I-House NYC and Berkeley alumni arrived around a huge round table in a private room in the Shin Yen restaurant in Taipei. The photo of Harry and Florence was placed in the middle of the rotating wheel on the table and so they watched over us and travelled around and around as we chose from the delicious dishes.
Only touching briefly on the Brexit fiasco in the UK and the US government shut down, we moved onto more enlightening discussion about time spent at I-Houses. Music, dance, love and food themes wove through the conversations about both Houses.
We also pondered the challenge of the Houses keeping that magical diversity through careful admissions policy which as countries fortunes ebb and flow avoids one nation dominating the resident population and how vital dining discussion were to building international friendships and understanding.
Grace Hong provided a very appropriate relay candle in a Taiwan Beer glass, which is suitably small as Kampai toasts require beer to be downed in one so the size avoids both getting drunk and over full. We lit the candles to pass the light on and said ‘Harry Edmonds’ whilst our group photo was clicked, and there was a sense that a combined Alumni Taiwan group had been formed that together would collect more friends for the next gathering. We stood up to leave but conversation struck up again around the room in small groups, so it was sometime before we finally said goodbye….
Pub Disco Romance – Tudor Pasco – Tudor had enjoyed DJ-ing whilst doing his undergrad degree in France and so soon became a regular DJ feature in the Pub in I-House NYC. He loved the breadth of music that was both appreciated and that he was introduced to. From South American salsa, to Indian Bangra, to cheezy pop all could get the crowd on their feet. It was over the DJ turntables that Tudor met his Taiwanese wife and became Sakura Sweethearts. They now live in Taiwan with their 5 year-old twins.
Entrepreneurial Dreams – Jowy Tani – Jowy is a Consultant Neurologist. Every year the Taiwanese government gives scholarships to 5 doctors to go to the US to study entrepreneurship for a year, in the hopes of making them more creative. Gaining one of these scholarships at Berkeley, Jowy was faced with the decision of where to live. He was thinking of renting an apartment, when he read something by Mark Zuckerberg which said that Facebook was started in a Dorm so he decided that he should go for the more creative and connected life of a Dorm and chose I-House for his year. As well as practicing in Taipei hospitals he is working on a variety of projects that will improve the lives of dementure patients.
Food from home– Courtney Gates – Courtney’s memory of her first day at I-House is meeting the only Taiwanese resident in the House at that time. Having recently returned from teaching English in a small town in Taiwan, Courtney was keen to strike up conversation with him. Her new friend was also able to provide taste reminders of her time in Taiwan as, in his tiny I-House room, he was creating soya based drinks of his homeland. A skill he passed onto Courtney.
For our short time on the islands we were blessed with beautiful blue skies, a gentle breeze and temperatures that defrosted our European winter stiffened joints. I can certainly see why retirement to the islands tempts so many.
Having taken advice on appropriate attire for a Hawaiian party, Chris and I walked the short distance to the beautiful home of the Whitcomb’s. Their house is set underneath Diamond Head, which is the ridge of the crater of an extinct volcano that soars above the houses at its base, but is also is sufficiently up a hill to offer views down to Wakiki and the ocean.
I was honoured to receive two floral Lei’s from the hosts and Pat Lee. They smelt wonderful and one was woven together so beautifully it seemed a shame that it would fade as flowers do.
Anu Hittle had arranged for her friends’ band to come and serenade us, which added to the atmosphere as both old and new alumni and I-House friends arrived. As before the event was multi-generational with our oldest guest, Ann being 91 and our youngest Anu’s daughter. Many of those attending had been in the New York House in the late 1960s and early 1970s and at least two had met Harry Edmonds, which made me very jealous. This was the first alumni gathering in many years and so it had taken many phone calls by Francis Wong and his band of helpers to track everyone down.
Our hosts Henrietta and David, met at I-House and so are part of the elite club known as Sakura Sweethearts (named after the Sakura park in front of the House where romance often blossomed). There were other Sakura sweethearts with us too, some sadly whose husband or wife had now died, but whose lives had been richer for their cross-cultural marriage. Infact David was very adamant that mixed race or religion marriages have a key part to play in supporting tolerance and understanding between cultures.
We lit the candles for my candle relay and had the full Candle Ceremony pledge. The backdrop to the candles was the yearbook from NYC I-House of 1965-66 and we had it open at the page where Harry Edmonds was standing lighting his from the big candle as part of that years’ Candle Ceremony.
It was an evening full of stories and reconnection and warmth. Thank you to all those who made it possible.
Indian Cross Dressing – Ann Inaba – aged 91 a NYC alumni from the 60s – Ann came from a very small town in the USA to study at the Teachers College at Colombia. She loved her time at the House and particularly remembered one of the cultural evenings. She was accompanied by another caucasian man and the two of them decided to go in Indian traditional costume, however as she remembers fondly he dressed as the woman and she as the man.
Ping Pong Romance – Asking Sakura Sweethearts Armando and Jo-Anne how they met at the NYC House, I was told it happened over Ping Pong. However their memory of the story was slightly different for each of them. Armando said that he was playing Ping Pong when 3 beautiful Hawaiian girls came in and he started to chat one of them up but she was not interested so he switched his attentions to Jo-Anne and the rest is history. Jo-Anne said that she was playing Ping Pong and Armando came to play and then the rest was history. Whichever way they are still together some 50 years later.
Lucky Chance Admission – Nikki Ty-Tompkins was a young musician and she got the chance to audition for the Juilliard School of Music in NYC. At that time I-House allowed folks coming for interviews to stay for 3 days so she came and stayed at the House. During her 3 days she met a Mrs Feinstein who worked at the House and who was very kind to Nikki over the short visit. When she got her place to study the Piano there she decided to apply for I-House as her residence. Her application was turned down as she was not a graduate student and she was too young. Again though the House offered her 3 days of accommodation whilst she found herself a home in NYC. She arrived at the House and who should she bump into but Mrs Feinstein. Mrs Feinstein told Nikki that it was lucky she had caught her as it was her last day working at the House. Nikki explained that she had not been accepted to live at the House at which point Mrs Feinstein told her to stay right where she was and not to say a word and went off. A few moments Mrs Feinstein returned and gave Nikki the news that she was now a resident of I-House. This miracle by the wonderful member of staff opened so many doors for Nikki including meeting her Indian husband at the House with whom she lived in India for many years.
Blackout– Pat Lee recalled the major blackout that happened in NYC whilst she was at the House. She described how it was turned from an inconvenience to a major party and how the Juilliard School students had put on impromptu candlelit shows to keep everyone entertained. The only down side was having to walk up to her room which I believe she said was on the 10thfloor.
Keeping safe– The area around I-House NYC has not always been as gentrified as it is today and particularly in the 60s and early 70s it could be pretty rough as alumni reminded me. Girls studying at Colombia were offered escorts back from their classes after dark. A violent mugging with a knife at a bus stop did not seem to have put off another of our guests and others recalled how local shops such as the meat shop had entrances with double sets of doors where the street doors would be closed before you were let in the doors to the store.
Coming to I-House– Asking people how they ended up living at I-House often elicits interesting responses from “I was a Fullbright Scholar, so I was told to live there” to “My Aunt went to Colombia and went to I-House so I was always told you should go to Colombia and live at I-House so I did go to Colombia and live at I-House!” to “My Mum lived at I-House in the 1930s so she suggested I should live there when I went to study in NYC”.
When Harry and Mr. Rockefeller opened the first International House in New York in 1924, they attracted a great deal of attention and Harry talks about them being approached by others wishing to have an International House too. Mr. Rockefeller advised that they should pause for breath and see how the House worked out before building again. But it seems that their passion for the idea and interest from others meant that pause was very short with the Berkeley House being opened in 1930 and Chicago in 1932. These were the original three Rockefeller funded Houses. Then the building of Maison International as part of the Cite Universitaire in Paris.
Since then International Houses have come and gone and some have been closer to the original idea than others. Harry talks in his memoirs of his frustration when those wanting to create a new House did not get the importance of design of the building to create the intermingling of residents and cultural programs.
Madrid – was built in the 1920s and housed 250 residents, it was completely destroyed in the Spanish Civil war
Geneva – 1935 founded by Nellie Tullis and later run by Violette Baulmer
Rome – was much discussed but never realised. The Palazzo Salviatti on the banks of the Tiber just outside the Vatican was identified as the potential building but procrastination meant that the project missed the post war reconstruction project funding.
Japan – Harry was in Japan just before the start of WWII and was along way down the road of finding a site. The war stopped all plans. The Rockefeller Foundation funded International House Japan in the 1950s, which is membership organisation promoting cross cultural activities.
Keil – 1953 with space for 50 residents and 200 to dine
Gottingen – Opened in 1948 as Nansen House with twenty eight German students and eight international students, which increased by 1950 to forty eight students with a 50/50 German / international split. The House was then expanded to 100 residents and was opened to women too.
Today there are 18 institutions in the International Houses Worldwide group, in the UK, Australia, Romania, Canada and the USA. The criteria are simple, that they must offer residential accommodation for a diverse set of international students (usually over 100+ students), have a cultural program for the residents and a dining requirement that encourages eating together a key facilitator of understanding and friendship. The group come together once a year to exchange ideas and discuss ways to keep the I-House idea relevant and ensure it has a wider reach.
Talking to Hans Giesecke the current Executive Director at Berkeley, there is a strong desire from those involved in the current group to continue to expand the group and there already exist institutions with residences that could join. They are looking to Asia, Africa and South America for the next members of the group.
Alumni Associations: The ebb and flow of the world wide alumni community of the Houses is also interesting. Harry and Mr Rockefeller’s ambition was to have a strong alumni community that was applying their learnings from their time in the House to both their personal and professional lives, particularly in the promotion of peace, tolerance and understanding. From 1947 this was particularly strong tens of active ‘Chapters’ across the world, these groups welcomed alumni from all the Houses under the umbrella organisation International House Association. International House Day on November 10th was a particular highlight when there would be gatherings around the world on the same day.
By 1961 there was no longer the funding to keep this central organisation going, so it was down to the enthusiasm of the alumni in different locations to meet up. Today the different Houses work hard to keep alumni connected through events and there are enthusiastic groups as well as individuals looking up fellow alumni when they travel. Meeting and hosting fellow alumni is a great way to keep passing the light on…