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Matchbox museum offers small view of big history

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It took him 20 years – during endless visits to flea markets and barters with fellow collectors – to complete his equestrian set. It consists of identical labels picturing the king on horseback with a pennant. There were 26 labels in the series – each showing the pendant with a different letter from A to Z. Chuan claims he has cobbled together the only set surviving. Though he’s had his set for a half century and his collection now boasts sets from 120 countries, he still prizes the Thai equestrian series above all.

Unlike most adolescent collections (bottle caps, stamps, baseball cards) that end up in moldy basements, cobwebbed attics, or dumpsters, the fruits of Chuan’s magpie-like enthusiasm now have their own museum. Last year, the elderly collector converted his shophouse in an outlying Bangkok district into the “Matchbox Museum” open to the public.

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The springy octogenarian, dressed on a recent day in a pink polo shirt with a Boy Scout logo, can hardly sit down on his shop stool before jumping up again. His trouser legs bunched around his sandaled heels, he scurries around jammed bedroom-size space to point out remarkable exhibits as he navigates the clutter of tabletops stacked with framed cardboards mounted with labels, displays propped up on the floor for want of space, glass cases hung on walls and simply tagged “Beautiful Matchboxes,” and stacks of labels spilling out the doors. Pausing here and there, he exclaims in limited English, “Only one in the world!”

There is no exhibit map; it’s all in Chuan’s head. “I’m my own curator,” hesays of the haphazard arrangement.

“I want to pay homage to one of mankind’s greatest inventions,” he explains.

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In hindsight it seems like a no-brainer – a little stick tipped with a blob of phosphorus ignited on an abrasive surface, or “grit,” for lighting a fire. Yet from kindling and flint it took several millennia for the friction match to arrive in 1827 (courtesy of John Walker, a British pharmacist). Anyone could now own fire, thanks to a wonderfully simple, handy device shorter than a pinkie.

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