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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 October 2022
Visitors to the city of Bangkok are often struck by the sight of exposed, dangling, and dangerous electrical wires and a multitude of inconveniently placed utility posts that impede pedestrian circulation. This article argues that the city's seemingly dysfunctional electric power infrastructure is not a failure of modernisation but the outcome, or ‘style’, of a socio-technological system built by and operated for a narrow set of interests. To demonstrate this, the article presents a history of the electric power system that shows how its initial development in the early twentieth century produced new forms of privilege and disenfranchisement that are now the basis of social division in the city. By approaching the study of Bangkok's electric power system in terms of equity, the article offers a framework for evaluating how infrastructure shapes cultural practice, social relations, and political authority.
The author would like to thank Lawrence Chua and Choon Hwee Koh for their comments on early drafts of this article. He would also like to thank Wiphop Huyakorn for his help obtaining documents from the National Archives of Thailand (henceforth NAT), Bangkok. This research was supported by the Ministry of Education, Singapore, under its AcRF Tier 2 programme (ref. no. T2MOE1716).
1 Footage from other years may be viewed on the Thai Film Archives channel on YouTube.com, for example, Thai Film Archives, https://youtu.be/kY2N2n8Airw (last accessed 29 Aug. 2022).
2 The photograph is kept at the NAT, ภ 003 หวญ 19-1. Permission was not granted to publish the image.
3 Thanee Chaiwat, ‘Night lights, economic growth, and spatial inequality of Thailand’, Puey Ungphakorn Institute for Economic Research, Discussion paper no. 26 (Bangkok: PIER, May 2016).
7 For a recent incident of someone being injured by electrical cables see ‘Tha Sai Mai Khat Kho At Khat’ [If the cable didn't break his neck probably would have], Daily News, 18 May 2021, https://www.dailynews.co.th/regional/844116 (last accessed 29 Aug. 2022).
8 NAT ภ 002 หวญ 6/13. Permission was not granted to publish this image.
9 NAT R5 N 5.10/16, Borisat fai fa sayam jat sue sai fai fa hai thuk tong tam sanya kap rathaban hai rathaban song phu thaen pai truat khong borisat kho anuyat wang sai tai nam [The Siam Electricity Company to purchase cables according to terms of contract with government, requests government representative check equipment and for permission to lay cables underwater].
10 NAT R6 N 7.6/38, Mi khon klaeng tham hai kan fai fa boriwen bang sue koet tit khat [Mischievous individual cuts power around Bang Sue].
11 NAT R5 N 5.10/11, Nai chang fai fa sukhaphiban lae borisat ilektriksiti thun jamkat dai phrom jai kan ja khit plian plaeng kho sanya chai sai fai fa mai phuea kho anuyat to rathaban wan det khat thi ja plian plaeng dai doi raew [The engineer of the Sanitation Department and the Siam Electricity Company, Ltd. agree to change the terms of their contract regarding the use of electric power cables so that they may quickly request permission from the government for a deadline to enact changes].
12 NAT R5 N 5.10/10, Tit fai fa tam thanon tang tang mi rueang tit khom aklai thi thanon rachadamnoen nok [Installing lights on various streets including arc lights on Ratchadamnoen Nok Road].
13 NAT R6 N 7.6/32, Phraya burut kho pan sao fai fa khon krit khong rong fai fa samsen yang lek song sao [Phraya Burut requests making of two small concrete pillars for the Samsen power plant].
14 NAT R5 N 5.10/10, Tit fai fa tam thanon tang tang mi rueang tit khom aklai thi thanon rachadamnoen nok.
15 NAT R6 N 7.6/22, Mittoe tenaen kho anuyat sue sai fai fa thi borisat barobrau [Mr Tannen asks for permission to purchase electric cables from Barrow Brown].
17 NAT R6 N 7.6/6, M. cho kho song rang kho bangkhap nai kan sanguan saeng fai fa kap banchi sathanthi thi tit metoe ma phuea kho khwam damri [Requesting draft regulations regarding the conservation of electric light and the list of locations with meters].
18 Larkin, ‘Politics and poetics’, p. 337.
21 Sneath, David, ‘Reading the signs by Lenin's light: Development, divination, and metonymic fields of Mongolia’, Ethnos 71, 1 (2009): 74Google Scholar.
22 Quoted in Sternstein, Larry, Thailand: The environment of modernisation (Sydney: McGraw-Hill, 1976), p. 130Google Scholar.
23 On irrigation, see Brummelhuis, Han ten, King of the waters: Homan van der Heide and the origin of modern irrigation in Siam (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007)Google Scholar.
24 Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), ‘Thailand electricity history’, https://www.egat.co.th/en/information/thailand-electricity-history (last accessed 29 Aug. 2022).
25 Mimi Kirk, ‘That time Bill Gates accidentally shamed Bangkok into burying its power lines’, Bloomberg CityLab, 12 July 2016; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-11/how-bill-gates-shamed-bangkok-into-burying-its-power-lines (last accessed 19 Aug. 2021).
26 See Rebecca Root, ‘Can Russell Crowe succeed in cleaning up Bangkok's terrible wiring?’, The Guardian, 2 Dec. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/02/can-russell-crowe-succeed-in-cleaning-up-bangkoks-terrible-wiring.
27 The mural by Sten and Lex is entitled ‘Storm’ and was completed in 2016 as part of the Bukruk Urban Arts Festival.
29 Star, ‘Ethnography of infrastructure’, p. 381.
33 Unlike in the early twentieth century, Bangkok now rarely experiences power outages. See Kirk, ‘That time Bill Gates accidentally shamed Bangkok’.
34 Hughes, Thomas, Networks of power: Electrification in Western society, 1880–1930 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), p. 405Google Scholar.
35 The term state-of-the-art refers to the limits of knowledge, experience, and development with any given technology at a specific point in time. See Walter G. Vincenti, ‘The technical shaping of technology: Real-world constraints and technical logic in Edison's electrical lighting system’, Social Studies of Science 25, 3 (1995): 553–74.
37 Wipharat Di-Ong, ‘Phathanakan khong kitjakan fai fa nai prathet thai rawang pi ph. s. 2427–2488’ [The development of electric power in Thailand between 1884 and 1945] (Master's thesis, Thammasat University, 1991), p. 42.
38 NAT R5 N 5.10/1, Kampani fai fa lae rueang khwam lom lalai [The Electric Company and its bankruptcy].
39 Lamont Groundwater, ‘Engineering’, in Twentieth century impressions of Siam, ed. Arnold Wright (London: Lloyd's Greater Britain Publishing, 1908), p. 188. For the rest of this essay, I will use TSEC to distinguish the Danish-run Siam Electricity Co. Ltd (1898–1947) from the original Siam Electric Co. (1889–92).
41 NAT R5 N 5.10/1, Kampani fai fa lae rueang khwam lom lalai.
42 NAT R6 N 7.6/3, Tang rong tham fai fa khong rathaban [Establishing a government power station to produce electricity].
43 NAT R6 N 7.6/75, Borisat fai fa sayam [The Siam Electricity Company].
44 NAT R6 N 7.6/3, Tang rong tham fai fa khong rathaban.
45 Groundwater, ‘Engineering’, p. 188.
46 NAT R5 N 21/11, Ruam borisat rot rang samsen kap borisat fai fah sayam [Combining the Samsen Tram Company and the Siam Electricity Company].
47 Kakizaki, Ichiro, Trams, buses, and rails: The history of urban transport in Bangkok, 1886–2010 (Bangkok: Silkworm, 2014), p. 22Google Scholar.
48 NAT R6 N 7.6/3, Tang rong tham fai fa khong rathaban.
50 Groundwater, ‘Engineering’, p. 191.
51 NAT R7 Ph 10/20, Kan jut fai fa tam thanon [Lighting streets with electric lights].
52 NAT R5 N 5.10/33, Song samnao raingan prachum senabodi rueang fai fa [Submitting a copy of the minutes of meeting of ministers regarding electricity].
53 NAT K Kh 0301.1.37/7, Samsen Power Station.
54 Wipharat, ‘The development of electric power’, p. 268.
55 NAT R7 Ph 10/2, Kan fai fa luang samsen [The government electric power station at Samsen].
56 NAT K Kh 0301.1.37/7, Samsen Power Station.
57 NAT R7 Ph 10/2, Kan fai fa luang samsen.
58 NAT R5 N 5.10/15, Khom fai fa tam tamnak tang tang nai phra borommaharachawang lae wang dusit [Electric light bulbs in various royal residences and the Dusit Palace].
59 NAT R7 Ph 10/2, Kan fai fa luang samsen.
60 Anusas and Ingold, ‘Designing environmental relations’, p. 67.
62 Sopranzetti, Claudio, Owners of the map: Motorcycle taxi drivers, mobility, and politics in Bangkok (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), p. 6Google Scholar.
63 Mongkut sent pictures of himself to Queen Victoria in 1857, to US president Franklin Pierce in 1855, and to Pope Pius IX in 1861, among others. Clark, John, ‘Presenting the self: Pictorial and photographic discourses in nineteenth-century Dutch Indies and Siam’, Ars Orientalis 43 (2013): 66–81Google Scholar.
64 Veal, Clare, ‘The charismatic index: Photographic representations of power and status in the Thai social order’, Local Culture/Global Photography 3, 2 (2013): 2Google Scholar.
65 Clark, ‘Presenting the self’, 71–2.
66 Saran Thongpan, ‘Chiwit Thang Sangkhom Khong Chang Nai Sangkhom Thai Phak Klang Samai Ratanakosin Korn Ph. S. 2448/1905’ [The social life of craftspeople in Central Thai society) (Master's thesis, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Thammasat University, 2535/1992), pp. 34–6.
67 Cited in Veal, ‘The charismatic index’, p. 13.
68 Wolfgang Schivelbusch, ‘Night life’, in The consumption reader, ed. David B. Clarke, Marcus A. Doel and Kate M.L. Housiaux (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 87–92.
70 Cited in Pisali, Virayut, Krungthep yam ratri [Bangkok at night] (Bangkok: Silapawatthanatham, 2014), p. 16Google Scholar.
72 Phirasak Chaidaisuk, Chat suea wai lai [Once and tiger, always a tiger] (Bangkok: Matichon, 1998).
74 Virayut, Bangkok at night, pp. 49, 51, 63, 72–3.
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