DISCOVERING THE KORAT
written by Jean L. Johnson and published on Cat Magazine - May, 1961
In 1947 my husband and I flew to Bangkok, Siam, to take up a residence that was to last for six years. The country was still in a state of political disturbance, the aftermath of World War II during which Siam had been occupied by the Japanese. Civilians of the Allied Powers who had not been able to flee the country at the onset of the occupation had been committed to internment camps for several years, and had only recently been released. The forces of law and order were sorely tried in their attempt to maintain control against the wave of brigandage, thuggery, and thievery which swept Bangkok at that period and broke down completely in a series of governmental revolts and coup-d' etats. In spite of the violence, we found Siam very friendly to Americans - in fact I know of no people in Asia more charming and thoughtful than the Thai - but there were many who were hungry who turned to violence and larceny to get what they needed to survive.
We moved into a small open bungalow in a residential area called Bangkapi, just outside Bangkok. The city lay on one side of us, and open rice fields and water buffalo on the other. Since we were a considerable distance away from police protection we reinforced our household staff by employing a guard. We found this was no protection against thievery. After three consecutive robberies we discharged the guard and acquired a pack of native Siamese terriers - small brown short-haired dogs very similar in appearance to the African Basenji. Just for size, we later added a Great Dane - bringing our pack up to six. The Siamese terriers were tough little creatures, and two of them - mother and son - developed into a team of fearless and instinctive 'killers'. Reserving their affection for members of our immediate family, the mother would launch a furious frontal attack against anyone - friend or foe - who entered our grounds while the son would rip in noiselessly and viciously from the rear. They were a lethal pair and their notorious reputation soon spread throughout Bangkapi. While those dogs caused us some embarrassment with our friends, we were never robbed again during the six years we lived in Siam.
We next decided that we should get a Siamese cat. Since we were living in the country of the cat's origin, we anticipated no difficulties. We turned first to our new Siamese friends. Strangely, they did nor seem to know anything about the cat as we described it! Next, we found an Indian houseboy - who spoke perfect English - who assured us that he knew exactly what we wanted and could very easily get such a cat. A few days after our conversation he appeared at our door with a covered basket. With a flourish of pride, he removed the cover. There was our Siamese cat - a plain white cat with a few flecks of brown - its only remote resemblance to a Siamese lay in the possession of a pair of large blue eyes! We did not have the heart to tell the Indian that this was not the cat we wanted, so we paid him $2.50 for the animal and later gave it to friends. The experience confirmed our first impression of Siam, that it was a land where everything - including Siamese cats - just happened by chance.
Later, we did manage to obtain an honest-to-goodness Seal Point Siamese cat from a Siamese, Khun Ying Aphibol Rajamaitri. She, in turn, had obtained her original breeding stock from the wife of the American Ambassador to Thailand, Mrs. Stanton, and from the British Embassy. I mention these facts because from my own experience it is quite apparent that the "Siamese Cat" fancy has been sustained, within Siam as well as outside the country, by foreigners rather than the Siamese. During the first years of our residence I found no evidence of selective breeding, and no knowledge of the Siamese Cat as we know it&emdash;among the Siamese themselves.
In my first efforts to locate a Siamese cat, I was continually baffled by the behavior of my Siamese friends. In those early days I knew very little of the Siamese language, and my friends knew even less English. As a result, our early conversations consisted of an animated and congenial exchange of 'pidgin' English, broken Thai - and sign language. At the end of an evening of this kind of conversation you frequently find yourself back at the starting point. In this manner I would describe to them the Siamese cat I was looking for - a Seal Point Siamese a cream-colored cat with brown ears and a brown nose, brown feet, and a brown tail. This was not easy to do in sign language. My friends would get the idea of Siamese cat very quickly, but when it came to the colors everything went to pieces. In reply they would describe to me a Siamese cat that sounded to me as though it were solid gray! As I understand them, the cat was not only solid gray, but they suggested that the only way that I would probably ever be able to find one would be to go to the Korat Plateau, a wild and sparsely populated plain several hundred kilometres from the comforts of the capital. Not only that, they said, these cats were so highly prized by their owners that I could never hope to buy one. At this point I would always feel that the conversation, somehow, had gone astray, and that they were telling me about some member of the wildcat family in which I was not interested.
So, when I finally did obtain my honest-to-goodness Siamese Seal Point from Khun Ying Aphibol Rajamaitri, I called in our Siamese friends and pointed out our proud possession.
"This is a Siamese cat." I said. And there she stood - cream color, brown ears, brown nose, brown feet, brown tail, and blue eyes. By this time, I must add, we understood one another much better.
They looked at the cat carefully. 'It is a Siamese car," they agreed. "But it is not the Cat of the Siamese!""
So they patiently explained it again, and this time I understood. The cat of the Siamese is a solid gray cat with amber-green eyes. The cat is known as the Korat. Because it is rare, and because it is given only to the highest officials as a token of high esteem and affection, they still doubted that I would ever be able to obtain one. They doubted, too, that I could even find one in the remote villages of the Korat plateau, the area reported to be the native habitat of the Korat cat. They were quite correct. During the six years that we lived in Siam, I found it was impossible to obtain one of the rare specimens. On a trip which I later made through the Korat district, I did not have the good fortune to see a single Korat, but I did not have the opportunity to stop in the villages.
During our stay in Siam, whose name had meanwhile changed to Thailand, I saw only five or six specimens of the gray Korat cat. All of them were owned either by members of the Thai government, the Thai nobility, or high ranking representatives of foreign governments. The conditions of their ownership were such, that they were not for sale. They had been given or received under terms of highest honor, esteem, or respect, and endowed by the giver with the attribute of bringing good health and fortune to the recipient. When I left Thailand in 1954 to accompany my husband on a new assignment in IndoChina, I had given up hope of ever owning a Korat cat. But I told a Siamese friend that if she were ever able to obtain a pair of Korats to send them to me. I had no idea that she would be successful.
In 1956 we arrived in the United States after spending nine years in South-East Asia. We brought with us several Seal Point Siamese, original stock that we had obtained from Khun Ying Aphibol Rajamaitri. In 1959, six years after we had left Bangkok, I received a letter from my Siamese correspondent with the surprising news that she had at long last obtained for me a pair of Korat cats! She had made arrangements with Pan American World Airways to fly them to the States. On June 12, 1959, Pan America:i Airways called me from the International Airport at Portland, Oregon, advising me that two Korat cats had arrived from Bangkok, Thailand. Needless to say, I cleared them through U.S. Customs without delay. The cats were beautiful, half-grown specimens, in excellent condition and health.
At last I was the proud owner of a pair of Korat cats, the first pair, I believe, imported into the United Stares. Nara - the handsome male, and Dara - the gentle female made a rapid adjustment to life in the USA, and became favorite pets of the household. With her first litter of kittens Dara demonstrated her devoted mothering quality. Nara and Dara have been exhibited in two Northwest Shows, and steps have been taken to establish the Korat cat as a breed in the United States.
Structurally, the Korat is quite similar to the Royal Siamese, having a long slender body, delicate bone structure, and wedge-shaped head with very large ears high on the head. The eyes are slanted - amber-green in color.
The solid-gray coat is the outstanding feature of the Karat. The color is slate gray with a silvery cast along the feet and legs. The hairs are long, fine, and soft - lying close to the body. By touch, the hairs are gossamer soft. The gray coat is satin-like in appearance with a high sheen.
In temperament the specimens we have had under observation have shown a gentle disposition. They possess an intriguing quality of alert but quiet watchfulness.
The Korat is extremely intelligent, and for this reason makes an excellent companion. It is a "listening" cat, studied in its habits of observation, and more deliberate in its action than the Siamese. Though thoroughly domesticated, the behavior of the Korat in the deliberate caution of its movement suggests a natural state in which the animal must be as completely aware of the predator as the prey.
In view of the small number of specimens observed at this rime it is not possible to generalize either widely at accurately on the characteristics of the Korat, which could also change with further selective breeding.
Among the Thai there has been some belief that the Korat was an introduced breed in Thailand. However it seems mote likely that the cat has been in Thailand since ancient times. The only evidence fort his belief - that it is very likely an indigenous breed - is the fact that it is popularly regarded by the Thai as the car of the Siamese, to an extent not given to the other breeds. Moreover, its role in the folk-ways of the Thai as an honorific gift would seem to indicate a long history of growing up with the people. It is the only instance of which I have accurate record of the survival of what must be an ancient custom or rite in which a cat is considered an honorific gift, a token of highest esteem. It is interesting to speculate just where or how this custom, belief, or rite may have developed and how it became associated with the Korat breed.
In the modern era, the first foreign rational to take a serious interest in the Korat breed was Mrs. Austin Flegel who in 1953/54 lived in Bangkok, accompanying her husband, Director of the United States Economic Mission. A pair of Korat cats received as gifts by Mrs. Flegel were the ancestral stock of the pair of Korats which I now own. I was not able to confirm this fact until after I had received the cats from Bangkok.
I would appreciate receiving any information from readers who may have knowledge of other Korat cats now in the United States. Letters should be addressed to: Mrs. Jean Johnson, Cedar Glen Farm, Route 2 Box 648, Gresham, Oregon.
Mrs. Jean L. Johnson
Cedar Glen Cattery - USA