(First published October 20, 2016, the week after HM King Bhumibol passed away)
By Andrew Biggs
I received the royal pendant almost 10 years ago; a small, metallic pin shaped in the insignia of His Majesty the King.
It was presented upon completion of my services for the 60th Anniversary Celebrations of His Majesty King Bhumibol’s Accession to the Throne. The brooch is small and elegant in its triangular form with an emerald green background.
The pendant came with a commemorative backpack featuring the royal insignia. I used that backpack until it wore out, not just because of its insignia, but for its functionality. I was forever being asked where I got it from. I was even offered money for it once and yes, dear reader, I refused.
If the backpack was used into the ground, then the opposite could be said of that precious little royal pendant.
I am not a collector of jewelry; a thief upon breaking into my home would be sorely disappointed in what he would not discover. But I do treasure objects that have personal value, such as my royal pendant, earned for my services to His Majesty. That is something to me far more valuable than gold or jewelry. It came directly from the palace; a tenuous but concrete connection between myself and the King. I put it away in that top drawer in 2006 figuring I would bring it out on special occasions.
Last week I finally did bring it out, though not for circumstances I would have ever wished for prior to October 13, 2016. In the shock of those first few days I remembered I had the pendant, so I searched for it, found it, and pinned it to my blackish shirt one morning a few days after His Majesty’s passing.
“You know you’re not allowed to wear that,” the pleasant young teacher told me.
It was the same morning, a few hours later, at a seminar we were attending.
I looked down at my chest. I thought she was referring to my blackish shirt; I got ready to apologize for it not being jet black, but there was a limit to jet black shirts in my wardrobe (that is, two) and today was day three.
Then I realized the pleasant young teacher was not talking about my blackish shirt. She was talking about my royal pendant.
“Apparently it’s been announced that pendants are not allowed to be worn,” she said. “You have to wear black but you can’t wear any commemorative pendants.”
My first reaction was one of surprise. Then I started to smell a rat.
There had been a number of incidents after the passing of His Majesty involving subjects who had been vilified for not displaying the “proper” grieving process. Feelings had been running extremely high and low since October 13, so it was not beyond the realms that for some inexplicable reason, pendants might have been banned.
“Really?” I asked, and the young teacher nodded.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” she said.
Not long after I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. It was the perfect opportunity to remove the allegedly offensive pendant. I didn’t. I find words like “apparently” and “they say” and “what I’ve heard” not the strongest of anonymous sources.
The next morning I wore it again … and it happened again.
“Excuse me,” came a voice from beside me. It was one of the hotel staff.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but they say you can’t wear a royal pendant like that,” he said, motioning to my breast pocket. “It’s not allowed.”
“Who told you this?” I asked.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” he answered. “It’s been online. No royal pendants. Black shirts, yes. Black bows, yes. But no royal brooches.”
Later that day I found myself on Sukhumvit Road. On the street another friendly stranger accosted me and pointed to my broach and said, albeit with a grin: “No! No!”
That was three people in two days.
That night I went online.
There was a staggering amount of information about the proper way to mourn. I always assumed the proper way to mourn was to wail and feel hopeless and flail one’s arms about, but apparently there is much more to it than that. I found a diagram in Siam Rath newspaper under the headline FIVE WAYS TO DRESS IN MOURNING WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE A BLACK SHIRT. It explained, elaborately, what is in and out when it comes to dress in this critical period. Not elaborately enough, though — there was no reference to royal pendants. There were many other web pages devoted to explaining the right method of wearing a black bow, as if anyone needed that to be explained. I was reminded of flight attendants telling me how to buckle and unbuckle a seatbelt.
Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel.
The Office of The Prime Minister announced guidelines for proper mourning. There were a total of 11 points and numerous sub-points. I have to admit I was a little hesitant at first when I scanned the list. Was it going to tell me how to look sad? At what times of the day I could cry? No, of course not. In the end there was nothing sinister about the suggestions, and in fact it was all common-sensical.
It was not until I got way down to point number 10 that I found the answer to my question, which I repeat here:
10. It is permissible to wear royal brooches.
Three days of anxiety were over.
Back around the time I received that royal pendant, civil servants in this country wore yellow to work every Monday as a way of showing their faith and devotion to His Majesty the King. This wasn’t an edict; it was a nation showing their devotion to their King.
At that time, in 2006, I had one student in my adult English class who was a staunch royalist. She was a female government officer in her late 40’s. She was very personable, though precise and rigid, while at the same time demonstrating unflinching loyalty to the King.
And yet she never wore yellow on a Monday.
Her explanation was as stoic and unmalleable as her personality.
“I don’t need to wear a yellow shirt to show my loyalty and devotion for His Majesty,” she said, back upright, lips pursed, eyes momentarily closed. “My loyalty to His Majesty is in my heart, not in the way I dress.”
I admired her for that stance, for it is much more difficult to put loyalty in a heart than it is to don a shirt. I always hoped she wasn’t penalized for her stance in her workplace. She is probably retired now, but I did think of her this week, after fretting for three days. Is she wearing black now? Probably. On the other hand maybe she is not. Either mode of dress is irrelevant to her unflinching loyalty.
This is a time for us to remember His Majesty’s words on Thais living in harmony and mutual kindness, as we traverse through this sad and difficult year of mourning. We all have our own ways to grieve. Mine is by wearing a pendant. Whatever yours is, I’ll accept it.