From Pittsburgh to Bhutan

Here’s the story of one local family’s involvement with Bhutan, an Asian “kingdom in the clouds,” and how postage stamps have been a catalyst for progress.

Bhutan is an enchanting kingdom that reminds people of the mythical kingdom of Shangri-La. It’s about five kings who have ruled Bhutan—called “The Kingdom in the Clouds” by National Geographic—a country the size of a Vermont-and-New-Hampshire combo sitting sideways on the eastern slopes of the Himalayan Mountains between China and India. It’s about the dawn of democracy in a nation of farmers. A nation that just introduced TV, slightly censored, in 1999 (wrestling is out; “American Idol” is in). It’s about a wild and crazy Western Pennsylvania entrepreneur and his younger daughter. And it’s about stamps.

Let’s start with that daughter: Frances Todd Stewart, 51, is a bit of a woman at 5-foot-2, who slips a writer in through the side door of one of Squirrel Hill’s older homes, circa early-1870s. She redirects an enthusiastic dog named Morgie—rhymes with Welsh Corgi—upstairs. A family room boasts colorful chunky chairs and a couch. Tall Victorian windows glow with the gold of autumn’s last hurrah. Horse sculptures by Granny Frances “Susie” Hays Todd gallop across the mantel.

Former president and CEO of Kerr-Hays Co., her late father’s import-export firm in Ligonier, Stewart founded and has headed Creative Products International, a local import company, since 1982. She introduces husband Charlie, a writer, photographer, videographer, who is deep into their latest project. And that is creating the world’s first documentary CD-ROM postage stamp with Web portal to mark the following events: 100 years of monarchy in Bhutan since 1907; the coronation of the fifth king; celebration of the secluded nation’s transition to a democracy with elections and ratification of a constitution; and a salute to Bhutan’s leadership in environmental efforts.

Not many Pittsburghers are involved in the business of monarchies. Frances Stewart talks about “His Majesty,” whether it’s the first or the fifth king, without the typical American touch of irreverence. Her father, Burt Kerr Todd (see sidebar on page 84), was a good friend of the third king, His Majesty Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. “Dragon King” was part of the king’s name because the word Bhutan translates to “the land of the thunder dragon” in the national language, Dzungkha.

Of her father, the man who had launched a unique stamp program for Bhutan between 1962 and 1973, Stewart says, “He was thinking up this CD-ROM video postage stamp while he was dying of cancer [in 2006].” After his death, his daughter “carried back his last idea of a postage stamp…because it was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Dad’s life and renew our relationships in helping Bhutan.

“The Bhutan Postal Corp. said, ‘Yes, indeed, we love this idea of the first-ever CD-ROM postage stamp,’” reports Stewart. The nation had bought a lot of original stamp ideas from Todd, and those stamps put the country on the map.
His daughter opens a scrapbook holding the stamps Todd produced. Most were philatelic firsts: silk stamps; scented stamps that feature the king’s rose garden; circular coin stamps made of foil; 3-D stamps with butterflies and animals. Some 3-D stamps show the first Apollo astronauts walking in space in 1967. “Astronaut toys didn’t exist yet,” says Stewart. So they used little deep-sea divers with oxygen packs on their backs when they filmed for the 3-D stamps in Japan. There were textured stamps—tiny Van Gogh sunflowers in which you can feel the brushstrokes—and stamps of Bhutanese dancers and archers (the national sport is archery). A steel foil stamp includes a picture of a Pittsburgh mill turning the nighttime sky orange. You can read US Steel on the reverse. “Like steel,” Stewart laughs, “over time they rusted.”

Todd, who believed in the possibility that the Abominable Snowman hung out in the Himalayas, even featured “the Yeti,” as the Bhutanese call the hairy hulk, on one of the stamps.

The Stewarts are researching whether Todd actually introduced the world’s first self-adhesive stamps. His daughter murmurs about a lost patent opportunity.

Before Todd recommended stamps to the third king, Bhutan had issued only one stamp, says Stewart. “And it was for internal use only.

“His job,” she says of her father, “was to introduce Bhutan to the world through these stamps. Bhutan couldn’t afford to have ambassadors around the world, so these stamps really opened the door to an understanding about the country.”
Todd hired artists and produced stamps in China, Japan, Indonesia, Spain and Italy.

The most innovative were the first “talking stamps,” which involved a tiny record that could be played. It gave, says Stewart, a brief “history of Bhutan with my father’s voice…and folk songs.” Another record in the issue carried the Bhutan national anthem. The record stamp series sells now for $350, she says. “That’s a pretty valuable set.”

Here’s an amazing thing to consider: When Bhutan produced its first airmail stamp, the country didn’t even have an airport. Remember, this is a country where in some remote areas, mail is still delivered by barefoot postal guys.
“The stamps were the largest source of foreign revenue in their time” for Bhutan, says Stewart. “They contributed to major things for the country such as electricity development, hospitals, roads.”

Now on to Todd’s last stamp and the Stewarts’ first. In February of this year, Creative Products International, in partnership with the Bhutan Postal Corp., issued the world’s first two mini-CD-ROM documentary postage stamps tucked into their own mini-envelopes. The package is small enough to press onto a legal-size envelope. The mini-CD video stamps are titled “Bhutan: 100 Years of Monarchy” and “Bhutan: In Harmony With Nature.” A Japanese company, Toppan Forms, in Hong Kong, where Creative Products has an office, manufactured them. The paper stamps in the issue were printed in Thailand by Thai-British Printing Co.

The paper stamps consist of a sheetlet of five stamps featuring the five kings of Bhutan who reigned from 1907 to the present as well as the image of the 2008 coronation seal.

Rick Antolic and Barbara Knolle, both of whom work for Creative Products, helped design the monarchy CDs and stamps, Antolic as principal artist and Knolle as designer. That look incorporated the art of Bhutan, seen in its richly hand-carved and hand-painted buildings and “the incredibly colorful and ornate fabrics” they make, says Frances Stewart.

Leading Bhutanese artist Kama Wangdi designed the nature CD cover, which contains the six symbols of a long life, ranging from an old man, suggesting the blessing of survival, to a bird, embodying freedom.

Discussing the paper stamps of the five kings, Stewart notes, “This is the first time the people will see the [current] king, [Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] with a crown.” He took over last year at age 27 on the unprecedented retirement of his father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who ascended the throne at 16 and served for 35 years.

Each CD video stamp runs for eight minutes. “Bhutan: 100 Years of Monarchy” goes back to the 1600s and Bhutan founder Shabrung Ngawang Namgyel, a Tibetan. “We do a little on him and then skip a couple of hundred years of civil war and strife and then go to the first king [Ugyen Wangchuck] in 1907,” says Charlie Stewart, main videographer and writer on the CDs. Bhutanese Kinley Penjor handled sound, camera and logistics. Matt Conrad, video editor with Pittsburgh-based Argentine Productions, and Norris Brock, a former WQED cameraman, also were involved in the project.

That period of turmoil in Bhutan before the establishment of the monarchy includes a 19th-century invasion by Great Britain, whose influence was felt in the nation into the mid-20th century, a time when Britain handled Bhutan’s contact with the outside world. The Stewarts collected Bhutan footage from the era of the first and second kings, Ugyen and Jigme Wangchuck (1907-1952), from the British Film Institute. They also found archival photographs at the British Library and the National Museums, Liverpool, and Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh. It’s archival footage and photographs that the Bhutanese have never seen before, Frances Stewart points out.

The Stewarts also collected archival photographs from Bhutan newspapers and from its TV station. Other photos came from Burt Kerr Todd’s collection from the 1950s. Todd took lots of photos when he returned to Bhutan at the invitation of the king; he and his bride, Susie, went there on their honeymoon in 1954. The Todds are believed to be the first Americans to visit Bhutan. The Stewarts, who also honeymooned in this remote kingdom in 1981, added their photos. They will donate the family photos to Bhutan. They also collected music and worked with Bhutanese narrators, speaking in English, now a second language in Bhutan.

The CD video stamp “Bhutan: In Harmony With Nature” captures the beauty of this seldom-seen Asian kingdom, isolated by dense forests and mountains. Charlie Stewart calls Bhutan “a photographer’s paradise” with one stunning view following another. This CD also emphasizes what makes the nation “one of the bio-diverse hot spots in the world,” as Frances Stewart terms it. “It goes from its tropical area down near Bangladesh all the way to the alpine zone,” in the north, where the mountains hold snow year-round. “There are some very rare birds and unusual animals.” In addition, the CD underscores the nation’s enlightened attitude toward the environment, which won the king and people of Bhutan a United Nations Environment Programme Champions of the Earth award in 2005 for “placing the environment at the centre of the country’s constitution.” The World Wildlife Fund presented the J. Paul Getty Award for Conservation Leadership to Bhutan King Jigme Singye Wangchuck last year.

So how do you play these mini-CD video stamps?
“If you have a CD drawer in your computer,” says Charlie Stewart, “the drawer pops out, and there’s a place for a 5-inch CD. Then there’s a little inset…where you can drop in a 3-inch CD.”

“Dad really was not computer-savvy,” says Frances Stewart. “He hardly knew how to turn on a computer. But the stamp he created prior to that was the first-ever record postage stamp. It makes sense that he would envision something that would use modern technology.”

The Stewarts made three trips to Bhutan last year collecting words and images for the video stamp. They also plan a second issue later this year. It will cover the coronation of the fifth king and democracy and “Gross National Happiness.” That phrase was coined by the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, says Charlie Stewart. He thought it was better to measure success or progress by the happiness and contentment of the people rather than in monetary terms.

The idea proposed by the king in 2001 to become a democratic constitutional monarchy came as a shock to some Bhutanese, a nation of 700,000, most of whom are Buddhist. The Bhutanese even asked the king for more time to think about such a transition. “His Majesty said our country is healthy. Our people are happy. There is no better time,” says Frances Stewart. That seemed to make sense: Bhutan, which has enjoyed unusual stability with its 20th- and 21st-century monarchy, has leaned toward democracy for more than 50 years. The third king set up a legislature in 1953 to promote a more democratic government. In the 1960s, the king appointed a royal advisory council and cabinet. It was admitted to the United Nations in 1971.

So a constitution draft committee was appointed by the fourth king in 2001. The fourth king made forays into every district to collect ideas for what their constitution should include, Stewart says.

By November 2007, the country had two political parties registered. The general election will take place this month. The elected national assembly then will vote on the draft of the constitution. This draft, which could change, requires the king to resign at 65. He must marry a native of Bhutan. And he could be voted out.

A monk, Khenpo Phuntsok Tashi, director of the National Museum of Bhutan, made Frances Stewart realize the overriding principle behind the current stamp project. It’s “to share with the world what Bhutan has learned about happiness,” she says. “Bhutan has made some very thoughtful decisions about their governance and the way they choose to live. And that has come about through the wisdom of their kings…. There is a great respect for the role of spirituality and tradition and culture…. What they have learned is that it is not all about what you can gain and get through progress. It is really about the reflection of what you learned from your forefathers and what you want to continue to carry on which allows you to understand who you are.” To that end, another member of the family, the Stewarts’ daughter Natalie, comes into the picture. She’s working in Bhutan as a curator with Tashi of an exhibit of Todd-Stewart photos that will travel the country this year.

Always an innovator/product developer, Frances Stewart encouraged the Bhutanese, whose buildings reflect their decorative skills, to create hand-carved and hand-painted frames. She will combine frames and some of the CD-ROM video stamps for distribution in the United States and Bhutan. She has also lined up agents to distribute the stamps in the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia. Sets sell for $19.50 at bhutanpostagestamps.com.

Frances Stewart has always been grateful for the enriching experience of international travel offered by her father to her and her sister, Laura Todd Widing, who now heads the Kerr-Hays Co. in Ligonier. So she decided to let the next generation enjoy it as well: She and Charlie moved to Hong Kong with their children—Natalie, Julia and Chas; now 21, 20 and 16, respectively—for a year in 2004 and 2005.

“I felt it was something I wanted to give to the children because my father had given it to me: a comfort traveling around the world and a respect for what we can learn from other countries and other people,” Stewart remembers. “And the best teacher was going to be the world, not me.”

And what an experience! On a Christmas break in Sri Lanka in 2004, the family ran into the Asian tsunami. In 2005, they made their first visit to Bhutan as a family. Later, back in Hong Kong, Julia wore a U.S. flag on her cheek to a stadium. Someone screamed at her: “Go back to Iraq, ya’ damn Yank!” Another lesson learned: Americans aren’t always loved abroad, and they can become symbols for controversial U.S. policies.

About her father’s final stamp for Bhutan, Frances Stewart concludes, “This project is really a source of pride for Bhutan. It’s reinvigorating their stamp program, which still has the record of being the most unique list of unusual stamps ever to be produced by a country in the world.”

Like the Bhutanese, who value their history and tradition, Frances Stewart has carried forward her father’s respect for and love of this mountainous, colorful nation. And she did it with yet another incomparable Bhutan stamp.

Ann Curran, who thinks Shangri-La is really in the Kingdom of Kerry, Ireland, wrote most recently about “Pittsburgher of the Year” Bill Strickland, who has built his own Shangri-La in Manchester.

Categories: Community Feature