17 January The British Club – Silom’s Green Oasis
Bangkok’s British Club has long been called a green oasis in the heart of the city. It’s also been a favourite haunt for many TCCC members over the years as everything from Canada Day to TCCC networking nights have been staged there. And it’s the only place that stages regular ball hockey matches in the city (held every Saturday on the new court, at the back of the clubhouse.)
The British Club is 108 years old, its clubhouse a century old. The land was originally a gift from the Thai crown to the British Community, and funny enough, although today the Club is located in the heart of Silom Road in downtown Bangkok, back then the Club was considered to be in the boonies.
In 1919, the Club doubled its size by purchasing the Siam Electricity Company’s Tennis Club directly across from the clubhouse. That land is now home to a 25 metre-swimming pool, a children’s pool and play area, 4 floodlit tennis courts, 3 squash courts, a fitness centre, a sports shop and massage service.
It’s also home to the Suriwongse Sala, next to the tennis courts, and the Silom Sala, next to the children’s pool. Both salas offer Thai, British and international food as well a range of beers, soft drinks and ice cream. The Suriwongse Sala also houses a small publications shop to buy weekly magazines, etc. Both salas have a TV screen to show sports and as with the entire Club they are wired up for Wi-Fi.
Ironically, though the British Club is host to so many activities what it might be best known for is its food and catering, both on and off premises. There’s also an exquisite fine dining menu with a focus on Mediterranean fusion cuisine. And there’s an extensive selection of Thai cuisine, which makes up about 30% of the BC menu. And it’s not just Royal cuisine, but food from the four main regions in Thailand.
The Verandah is the BC’s casual bar & restaurant. It opens on to the back lawn, and is a great spot for families to dine. It features regular buffets, carveries and themed food nights for members’ enjoyment. There is an extensive cocktail and wine list available, including the BC’s six house wines. The Verandah also hosts a media bar, which sees weekly delivery of The Globe & Mail.
The Churchill Bar provides members with an authentic English pub atmosphere. It includes a central horseshoe bar as well as cozy sofas and table seating for groups or couples. The bar boasts six draught beers plus a wide range of whiskies and variety of other spirits. British pub fare, like bangers and mash, is the bar’s strength but you can also order international and Thai food as well dishes directly from the grill. A “daily special” is displayed on a blackboard in the bar together with this month’s recommendations from the BC’s executive chef.
The Club’s professional catering service for members offers a wide variety of menus for office parties, home parties, barbecues, Christmas parties, etc. The BC delivers everything: food, drink, tables, carvery as required, and its staff can provide waiting service if required.
In the early days, Thais weren’t allowed membership into the British Club, but times have changed, membership is now open to all nationalities, but there is a screening system, which entails sponsorship from two active club members. But what hasn’t changed is that the club is still geared to expats and the lingua franca is English. So the Thais that do join tend to be very Westernized, or have spent time studying, working or living in the West for an extended period of time. There are approximately 1,200 members from 40 countries.
The Club stages wine tastings, quiz nights, poolside BBQs, movie, comedy and music nights as well as author nights. Balut (dice games) and bridge games every Sunday are also regular features. Other events include a Children’s Christmas ball (No Parents allowed), the Children’s Christmas party, Fireworks Night, Loy Krathong evening, and the New Year’s dinner cruise. The BC also celebrates the four patron saint days in the UK (St. Andrew, St. David, St. George & St. Patrick). In total, it holds over 150 special buffets and parties over a calendar year, the biggest being its Guy Fawkes Day celebration.
The British Club acts as a de facto community center. For an expat family new to Thailand, it’s a perfect way to make friends and social contacts. And the Club can meet the needs of the whole family, e.g., if mom and dad want to get in a game of tennis, the kids can go swimming. Another benefit of British Club membership is it allows you access to 158 similar member clubs all over the world.
There’s also a snooker room and three function rooms all with full audio and visual facilities including a big screen TV with satellite channels. And the Club’s office can provide services in much the same as that of a business centre in a hotel can.
Sports wise there’s tennis, squash, badminton, swimming, aqua aerobics, yoga, cricket, rugby, ball hockey – no lack of activities to take part in. There’s even the occasional croquet game.
The Club has its own fitness trainer, who can put you through the paces and give you a personal training regimen as well as put you on a fitball course. There’s swimming lessons for both adults and children. There’s even circuit training, Thai boxing lessons and Thai massage as well. The Fitness Centre is open to anyone over 14.
The Club is open from 6am-11pm every day and only shuts down for one day a year for the staff party.
The Club provides a relaxed and friendly atmosphere for a wide range of sporting and social activities for the whole family, while remaining a popular venue for a business lunch or convivial drink.
SNIPPETS OF BC HISTORY
The British Club Bangkok was founded on 23rd April (St.George’s Day) 1903 by a small group of British businessmen and diplomatic civil servants, in order to create a social club in the style enjoyed by their peers in the British Colonies throughout Asia.
The founding fathers, as it was solely a male preserve, were drawn from the British Diplomatic Mission and various companies like The Borneo Company, Louis T. Leonowens, The Anglo-Thai Company and Tilleke & Gibbins, the latter of which would play a significant role in the later years of club history as well. It was initially set up as a debenture membership and was restricted only to the directors and senior managers of those companies, other minions only allowed in as guests.
British interests in Siam and thus those of the club were cut short in December 1941 when the Japanese invaded Siam and The British Club Bangkok ceased operation until 1946. The Club was turned into an Officer’s mess and those members who had been unable to escape were interned in one of a number of camps set up in and around Bangkok. Although British and US bombers did bomb Bangkok, there was no report of the club ever being hit, however the departing army in 1945 did excessive damage to the fabric of the property. The Club was lucky in one aspect; its two land leases were mortgaged to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank thus survived the war and enabled The Club to eventually claim back the property afterward.
After the end of the Second World War, there was some local confusion over the ownership of premises, which was initially given to the YMCA. It took a number of months but eventually one Brigadier Victor Jacques obtained the leases from the bank and ownership was restored. Victor Jacques was a retired military man from the First World War who was a partner at Tilleke & Gibbins. At the start of the war in Asia he rejoined the British Army in India and was attached to the Free Thai Movement. After the liberation of Bangkok, he became British Commander here and then rejoined Tilleke & Gibbins. Upon returning to civilian life he called together as many past club members as he could and set about re-establishing it. He also wrote the first post-war Constitution, served as Chairman until 1947 and set the club on track to its first century. As part of the War reparations paid by the Siam Ministry of the Interior to the Club, the Club imported two Billiards tables made by Mssrs W. Jelks & Son of Holloway, London for the grand cost of £528 5s 6d.
The club has always been conscious of its being part of the greater community within Bangkok thus in 1948 The British Club Bangkok was the major organizer of a Joint Charity Fair for British, US, Dutch and Scandinavian residents to raise funds of Thai causes. This event was held frequently over the next decade and became known as The Ploenchit Fair when in 1957 it moved to its second home of the British Embassy grounds in Withayu Road. The Ploenchit Fair continues to this day but, sadly, no longer in the Embassy Grounds, which have themselves been largely sold off.
The club membership was also changing: the club was refounded after the war with only four nationalities allowed membership – the core nationalities of British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian. In the seventies, this was changed to allow a limited number of other nationalities to join as Associate members. In addition, the eighties saw women being allowed to have membership in their own right and children became an everyday part of the club – the days of the British male bastion were gone, forever!
In 2005, the Club saw the election of a woman as the Club’s chairman – the first in 102 years – something the founders would never have envisaged in their just post Victorian world – and in 2007 the BC elected its first Australian chairman.
(For more history on the British Club, see its Centenary Book, which was written by local author and club member, John Hoskins. It not only covers the first 100 years of the club’s history but also takes a look at British interests in Siam since traders landed here in 1612.)