By The Isaan Record

Additional material by Kridpuj Dhansandors

So far in our series, Sweetness & Power, we’ve looked at the rise of sugar as a commodity and the effects it has had on our environment and bodies.

In this Part IV, we turn to the question of how sugar entered Southeast Asia and became so dominant within the Thai culture and economy.

PART IV: Sweetness in Siam

Sugar has had a particularly important impact on Southeast Asia and Thailand. Sugarcane cultivation in Thailand has come to take up such a large share of agricultural land that if put together would be the country’s fourth largest province while employing almost four percent of its population.

Sugar has also become a major part of the Thai diet. Anthropologist Leedom Lefferts contends that “Thai media and Thai culture depict people who eat kanom [a goodie, a sweet] as people who live the modern life, ‘the good life’, the way Thai should live.”

So sugar deserves our attention and understanding. It is not just about our craving for sweetness, but more, the industry that has developed to exploit and satisfy that craving.

Sugar in Southeast Asia

Anthony Reid, in A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads (2015), keeps a close eye on how the movement of goods played a key role in Southeast Asian history. He observes that prior to the widespread use of cane sugar in northeastern Thailand, palm sugar and honey had been “the staple sweeteners of the region.”

Cane sugar was likely brought to Southeast Asia by Teochew immigrants from southern China around 1600.

The Dutch encountered Chinese producing sugar when they were taking control over the East Indies. By 1650s, as many as 1,000 tons of sugar were shipped to Europe in good years, with another 500 tons exported to Japan and Persia.

In 1800, 8,000 tons of sugar was exported by the whole of Southeast Asia. By the 1830s, that amount had risen to 44,000 tons, and by the 1840s, about 100,000 tons of sugar had been exported, making it the region’s top export by value, mostly from Java.

Sugar became “the staple of the Dutch regime” and came to represent 20 percent of the world’s total export of sugar.

Reid relates that in the Philippines, production of sugar rose from 75,000 tons in 1870 to 200,000 tons by 1885 while Java produced 232,000 tons by 1876.

And yet, under Dutch colonialism, the actual growers received only 24 percent of the market value of the sugar they had produced.

Exports of sugar from Java dropped drastically in the 1930s and 40s. To make up the difference,the Dutch became so good at “persuading Indonesians to consume its white refined product” that the country became a major importer of sugar by the 1960s.

Siam’s sweet spot

“Sugar” had been present in premodern Siam and its trade was of special interest to British colonialists of the nineteenth century.

John Crawford had noted in the early 1820s that sugarcane was cultivated in the south of China, and less so in what is now northern Vietnam or Cambodia. In southern Vietnam people grew cane and manufactured sugar themselves with “no assistance from the Chinese,” but it was considered inferior and ranked below “that of Siam, of the Philippines, and of Java, being dark in colour and badly granulated.”

British envoy John Bowring followed up decades later in negotiating Siam’s first treaty with the West. The target of his negotiations was the feudal system of “tax-farming” and the “special taxes on sugar-plantations–on pepper, tobacco, and all the principal articles of production; and they had so grown in amount, and their collection had become so vexatious, as to lead to the abandonment of many agricultural enterprises.”

The Siamese elite feared foreign entanglements would disrupt their traditional channels of power, which, it has to be said, was exactly what Bowring intended with his 1855 treaty with Siam:

…it was clear that my success involved a total revolution in all the financial machinery of the Government,–that it must bring about a total change in the whole system of taxation,–that it took a large proportion of the existing sources of revenue,–that it uprooted a great number of privileges and monopolies which had not only been long established, but which were held by the most influential nobles and the highest functionaries in the State.

The historic 1855 treaty with Great Britain opened Siamese goods and markets to the West. It may not have had the revolutionary effect Bowring had hoped, but it did lead eventually to the “reforms” of King Chulalongkorn that deprived traditional elite of revenues from tax-farming and centralized the power of the state securely in the hands of the monarchy.

It is likely that cane sugar was present Siam for centuries but its rarity and cost kept it largely in the hands (and tea) of the elite. The most common sweeteners for the masses, though, remained palm and coconut sugars that could be made, or honey that could be found.

One of the first references to substances of sweetness in the new Royal Gazette of the Siamese government appeared in 1891. “According to custom,” it was announced, the crown prince presided over a royal “honey alms giving” to monks on thirteen Chinese banquet tables in the royal hall.

This treasured golden honey came from “bee forests,” protected areas maintained by the state to supply honey and contribute to tax revenues. Such archaic endeavors–and perhaps due to the growing supply of cane sugar–were being scaled back in the first decade of the twentieth century.

In 1902, the government determined that taxes derived from the bee forests of monthon Nakhon Sawan were “too trifling and inconsistent” to justify the effort to collect them. Taxation was to be abolished as a “benefit to the subjects,” implying that local people could now collect honey freely.

In the same year, regulations over Chantaburi’s “bee forest” preserves were changed. The government announced that in these forests, previously reserved solely for honey collection, logging would no longer be banned as it had become “more profitable.”

The only other interest the Siamese government had in the business of sweetness appeared to concern palm sugar. An 1897 regulation allowed local tax administrators to deviate from the established price of six baht per thousand small, fist-sized clay pots of palm sugar and set the price (and taxes) according to local conditions.

The first appearance of sugarcane (อ้อย, oi) in the Royal Gazette was three years later in 1900 when the government laid out an annual standard tax on sugarcane fields in central-plains areas at a rate of a little over four baht per rai.

The rise of white sugar

The first sugar mill capable of producing white sugar in Siam was set up by the government in 1937 in Lampang province.

The first mill that “adopted modern technology to produce granulated sugar directly from fresh sugarcane” was built in Chonburi province during the 1950s.

Even though the Thai state has always had a culture of making sweets, the local sugar such as palm sugar or sugar cubes were produced in Kalasin, Ubon Ratchathani, and Nakhon Phanom provinces. A record from Nakhon Phanom province’s Provincial Commercial Office in 1951 shows that the production of sugar was aimed at the time for household use. The excess amount of sugar produced was then sold to the nearby provinces.

When Thailand began its “development” phase seventy years ago, agriculture still played an important role in Thailand’s economy. In 1951, it made up 50.1 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By 1965, that percent had dropped to 32.8. That downward trend has continued until agriculture’s share has dropped to less than ten percent of GDP, while still engaging nearly a majority of the population.

Sugarcane seemed poised at first to be a major agricultural commodity. In 1951, sugarcane made up 1.1 percent of GDP. In 1957, it peaked at four percent. From 1955 to 1960, the production increased by 200%. The central region’s production of sugarcane in the same years increased by nearly three times and in 1960 represented 72% of all sugarcane produced.

In the Northeast, sugarcane production in the same period only increased by about two percent and its share of overall sugarcane production dropped from 37.5 to 21 percent.

While sugarcane production grew, it was shrinking in comparison to other agricultural crops. It comprised 3.2 percent of GDP in 1960; its share had declined to 1.9 percent in 1965. In the same period, its share of export commodities declined to 0.8% in 1965. Between 1960 and 1966, its contribution to Gross National Product (GNP) declined by more than half, from 577 million baht to 284 million baht.

By the time the Second National Economic and Social Development Plan (1967-1971) came out, sugar and sugarcane were apparently not even worth mentioning.

Sugarcane production only reached ten million tons in 1974 and 30 million in 1982. It reached 50 million tons in 1995 and jumped up to more than 90 million tons by 2011. It reached 100 million tons in 2013–a ten-fold increase over a forty-year period.

The productivity of Thai sugarcane farmers has doubled since the 1960s when the average yield of sugarcane was 37 tons per hectare. Productivity edged up through 1990 when it increased to 52 tons per hectare, to 61 in the 2000s, and 73 in this decade.

The quality of Thai sugar cane was long lower than Asian and world averages. Although the increase in productivity in the field may in part be due to improvement of sugarcane varieties, it was also no doubt the result, as one FAO report from the 1990s says, of “greater use of fertilizers and pesticides.”

“Modernity means sweetness”

Sugar has placed itself into the Thai diet in a different way that it has in other countries. For example, while eating bread in the West is considered as a type of a staple, in Thailand, bread is considered a treat and is often quite sweet.

In a 2007 article, Leedom Lefferts traces sugar’s journey into the Thai diet where it has taken on a special cultural meaning. Consuming sweetness has become a statement about status: “The explosion of sweetened foods, especially carbonated beverages and coffee, are seen as a part of ‘modernization’…what it means to be a part of the ‘modern’ world.”

Source: “The White Paper” of Bonsucro.

What we eat, argues Lefferts, “carries a weight of meaning that can be more significant than the impact of the nutrition it carries.” In Thailand, sugar has come to mean “modernity” and what Thais eat, Lefferts argues, “assigns [them] to certain categories of Thai existence.”

These categories are defined by “taste.” Lefferts writes, “it is uniquely through taste–associated with food–that we denote established social distinctions.” A matter of taste is a matter of class. And amongst all the tastes, sweetness is the one that stands for “modernity” and status.

Thailand is one of the few countries in the world that does not import any sugar. The sugar industry is important for the Thai economy, particularly so perhaps because it is a major export. It also employs a significant segment of the population.

Such a powerful industry has its tentacles everywhere. As Lefferts writes, “Thai sugar production employs a complex organization, with branches that reach into government, industry, international and domestic finance, households, worker’s lives, and everyone’s stomach and body.”

In the next part of our series Sweetness & Power, we will look at Thailand’s rise to one of the world’s sugar powerhouses, and how sugar became a dominant feature in the livelihood of millions.

Additional material by Kridpuj Dhansandors, who grew up in Buriram province’s Prakhon Chai District. In his writings he focuses on rights and liberties in art and film.