Siamese Pee Tokens
Siamese money, up until the last years of the nineteenth century, was extremely impractical to use, and had scarcely changed since the days of the Sukothai Kingdom in the thirteenth century. Small silver bars were hammered, closed and then stamped – it was almost impossible to make them small enough for day to day market transactions, or for use in gambling dens. The need for small change had always been met by the use of cowrie shells, but it was a laborious task counting out 400 shells for an article costing one salung (a quarter of a tical or baht).
Gambling was controlled by the Chinese and around 1820 these Hong owners came up with a brilliant answer to the problem of the lack of small change. They ordered porcelain tokens to be used as gambling chips from the famous Tehua kilns in China . Since porcelain was not manufactured in Siam they did not have to worry about counterfeits.
These tokens proved to be so popular that they soon came to be used throughout the country as currency until they were banned in 1875 when King Chulalongkhorn introduced the first copper coins made on a press ordered from the Birmingham Mint. Pee money could be exchanged for silver coins at the Hongs at any time. It was not long before enterprising entrepreneurs started ordering copies from the kilns in China which were, of course much cheaper then the price fixed by the Hongs. To try and overcome this problem the Hongs frequently withdrew their tokens and exchanged them for new issues.
As a result there are thousands – perhaps as many as eight thousand – different designs of pee tokens. Many had their value stamped or written in Chinese or Siamese, the name of the manufacturer, an auspicious message or sign such as a foo dog, phoenix, fish, bat, butterfly, or even Queen Victoria .
These fascinating tokens were still used as currency in the early years of the twentieth century.
If you are lucky you may find one lurking in a dark corner of an antique shop in a Chiang Mai back street.