Yul and I

Emma Larkin

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Art: Elsie Herberstein

The opening scenes of the 1956 film The King and I contain a sequence of beguiling visual clichés of Thailand. Within moments of the film’s opening the audience is treated to a stunning backdrop of golden stupas and orange-tiled temple roofs, elephants and saffron-robed monks roaming chaotic market streets, and, best of all, a fierce Asian despot living in an oversized palace with his harem and so many children he appears to have lost count. For better or worse, the story that follows has become inextricably linked with that of Thailand. Indeed, the tale of how a British woman called Anna Leonowens spent five years in the 1860s teaching the wives and children of the king of Siam has proved remarkably enduring despite, or perhaps because of, its successive layers of Victorian righteousness, American imperialism and indulgent Orientalist aesthetic.

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