Boonserm Satrabhaya famous for his historical pictures of Chiang Mai
Nopniwat Krailerg and
“In the past, whenever people saw me standing on a road
to take pictures of mundane things, they thought I was clown, but nowadays
those pictures have become very valuable,” Boonserm Satrabhaya told us
when we finally managed to get to talk to him about his life.
Satrabhaya, now 76 years of age.
Now a man of 76, Boonserm lives on Chareunmuang Road Soi
8. His residence is called “Kru Pap Kao Muang Chiang Mai”, roughly
translated as the “Home of Chiang Mai’s Old Pictures”, where he keeps
pictures of historical buildings, places, temples, people, cultural images
and important events in Chiang Mai from the past.
Boonserm used to be a reporter for “Khon Muang”
publishing and pioneered photographing the Mlabri (Yellow Leaf people)
living in the forests of Nan province. This brought him national recognition
and throughout his life he has collected a large number of both
black-and-white and color photos. Some of these photos have been used for
Chiang Mai calendars and as wall hangings which have decorated many
households over the years.
prize for the best national feature (about Mlabri people), received in 1964.
We found Boonserm in a nostalgic mood and he told us a
little about his life. Before becoming a reporter he was a fertilizer
merchant living at Ton Lam Yai Market. His store, “Pui Wattana” opened
in 1950 but even then he was interested in photography and enjoyed taking
pictures with his Leica camera. A brother-in-law who was involved in
photography persuaded him to take pictures throughout the northern region
for which he became well known in journalistic circles. In 1953, Khon Muang
newspaper was established and he was asked to travel to Burma with editor
Sa-ngad Bunjongsilp to record an historic event there.
The news at that time was Burma informing the UN that the
93rd division that was defeated
by Mao Tse-tung’s forces had fled to Burma and were raping and pillaging,
and trading in opium, which was troubling the Burmese. The UN set up
committees led by the USA, and joined by Thai forces, to expel this division
from Burma. There were not many reporters who dared travel to cover the
story because the Mae Sai border was difficult and dangerous to reach. Only
two or three Thai reporters from Bangkok’s Siam Rath and Pim Thai
newspapers dared to go - the rest of the press contingent were from foreign
news agencies such as UPI and Reuters. The bulletins and pictures sent by
Boonserm and his editor brought him fame but he was not yet a full time
reporter, as he still ran his own business rather than working full time as
a news hunter.
people news that was published in Khon Muang newspaper.
Later, he became involved in the “Yuttakarn Doi
Pakha” affair, which covered the Haw Chinese living in Chiang Mai who had
set up an opium production factory behind Doi Pui, a Hmong village. Pol.
Gen. Phao Sriyanon, commissioner general assigned as border patrol and
police of Dararasami Military Camp (present name) joined with parachute
troops and four helicopters to assault the factory. Again, Boonserm and his
editor joined the police to record the story and had to travel several days
and nights, taking shelter in Doi Pui villages. The two brave reporters even
had to hide weapons under mattresses for their own protection. They walked
for more than two days until they arrived at their destination. Finally the
attack on the factory was mounted and it was seized. Many Haw Chinese
criminals were killed and arrested and raw opium was confiscated. To report
the news at that time, they needed to use military radio to the base at Suan
Dok Temple, where others would transcribe the reports and send them on to
local newspapers. Totally unlike the preferred treatment journalists now
enjoy, at that time reporters often had to wait at train stations to seek
out VIP’s to get information for their bulletins.
people news that was published in Khon Muang newspaper.
Even though Boonserm had produced several headline news
reports, he still did not regard himself as a real reporter; nevertheless,
he was always asked to take pictures whenever any beauty contest or other
event took place. He also took pictures of the King and Queen’s activities
when both were visiting the northern region. He used a news agency press
card because his brother and brother-in-law worked for that agency. Using
his own money he followed the King and Queen to Phitsanulok, Sukhothai, Tak
and Lamphun, but he was requested to remove the press card before entering
Chiang Mai because the US Consulate had set up in Chiang Mai. He told us
smilingly that by then, he no longer needed a borrowed card as government
officials had begun to know him as a photographer in his own right.
In 1960, he quit the fertilizer business as Khon Muang
newspaper became a daily rather than a fortnightly publication, covering
major news events, and he became a full time reporter.
The second part of Boonserm’s account will be published next week.
Festival at Mae Ping River under the old Nawarat Bridge.
kinds of collected cameras, and displayed in Boonserm’s showcase.
photographing the Yellow Leaf people.
Festival in 1964 at Nawarat Bridge, when the bridge still was an iron
Boonserm’s photo collection.
of the first pictures of Mlabri, or Yellow Leaf people in the world, taken
by an anthropologist remembered as Dr. Bernard, who wrote about the Mlabri
people in Thailand.
amongst the Yellow Leaf people.
pictures of Mlabri, or Yellow Leaf people in the world, taken by an
anthropologist remembered as Dr. Bernard, who wrote about the Mlabri people
week’s flood was “the worst in 40 years” – this is one of
Boonserm’s photos of that flood 40 years ago.