“Letters from Thailand”

Stereotypes, so they say, usually have some basis somewhere in fact and if there’s one stereotype that proves this point it is that of the cynical complaining expat. Plop yourself down on any bar stool at any popular farang haunt in Bangkok (which will be the ones with the bar stools as farang alone seem to have a preference for sitting perched on these uncomfortable stools hanging over their beer) and you’re bound to be regaled with enough complaints about Thailand to leave you wondering at the end of the night if, in fact, you have been living in the same place as this poor afflicted creature.

Personally, I don’t regret my decision to come here for a moment, however if there’s one complaint I would raise it is that, from a writer’s standpoint, there is not exactly a brilliant literary scene here. I’m not slagging the comic books either. I was vaguely familiar with the graphic novels back home and can appreciate the punk nature of many of them (a great example is the fantastic “Sin City” film based on a classic series of graphic novels by Frank Miller of the same name) but in terms of novels, especially those in English, there’s just not much.

There are a slew of expat books written by the likes of Christopher G. Moore, Stephen Leather, Dean Barrett, and many others but if you’re looking for the rebirth of Graeme Greene in these you’ll be sorely depressed. “Expat lit” contains numerous “thrillers”, humour pieces and any other genre contrivance imaginable to work in a master’s like knowledge of this country’s bar girl scene (and there are ‘serious books’ about that too such as the awful Patpong Sisters). The title of a recent Dean Barrett book: “The Go-Go Dancer who stole my Viagra”, tells you pretty much what there is to know about the ex-pat lit scene.

On the Thai side, I’m sure there’s great stuff being written, but try tracking down an English translation and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything. When I asked the staff at my favourite Khao San Road bookshop where their Thai literature section was I was directed to a shelf of expat lit and antiquated stuff like “Fanny and the Regent of Siam”, (a follow-up to the banned “Anna and the King” tale).

While they may be a bit hard to track down, one novel originally written in Thai and translated into English, which I read recently and couldn’t put down, made me want to read more Thai-lit and perhaps brush my reading skills up beyond the point where I can just about almost navigate the book “Mr Rooster’s day at the barn”.

That book is “Letters from Thailand”, by Chinese-born Thai female writer Botan and translated by Susan Fulop Kepner, an academic on Southeast Asian studies from UCLA. The book won the SEAwrite award, was a critical smash and, if the publicity is correct, was actually (is?) used in the Thai educational curriculum to help Thais understand a foreigner’s perspective of living in Thailand in particular that of Chinese immigrants.

Botan set the book up as a series of letters from a Chinese immigrant living in Thailand to his mother living in China and it takes place in Bangkok from the early 1950s to the late 1960s. The ever-loving son sends dozens of letters to his mother (though they thin out as the years progress because she never responds) telling of his tireless attempts to attain prosperity in his new land, of the family he comes to have and the changing mores of society he is forced to deal with.

The book is well written, the dry humour of the narrator at times had me laughing out loud, but it offers a far from fawning picture of the land of smiles. The narrator in Botan’s book comes across all sorts of social vices that leave this boy fresh from the pre-cultural revolution countryside in China with his mouth agape in bewilderment and disgust.

These are the same social vices that plague Thai society to this day, some of which have been the subject of His Majesty the King’s birthday speeches, such as gambling, growing debt . . . even cigarette smoking among teens is dealt with here! Corruption is covered in an excellent sequence detailing the work of Bangkok’s immigration police during those days, fellas who no doubt passed down the secret ways of the job to their modern day contemporaries at Thailand’s borders.

Sex is wonderfully and carefully (remember he’s writing his poor aged mother in China) dealt with here. Without going into too much detail, a beach trip for the narrator to Hua Hin is ruined when on an evening stroll he happens upon a teenage couple…. enjoying one another’s company without the presence of a chaperone. Prostitution is covered – the narrator’s son convinces himself that he is in love with a veteran prostitute, and the family gives her a limited welcome, even with the narrator in a surprising turn saying that Thai society is too hard on these people. The results are hilarious.

With all of these social vices basically laid bare in the text and discussed frankly, Letters from Thailand requires a Thai reader, even an expat with a warm spot in his heart for the place, to have a thick skin. That’s the value of this book. When someone tells me only the positives on any given subject, to me they’re robbing that subject of its worth and I go into “uh-oh I’m being sold a crappy used-car” mode. No worry of that here.

This is the most jarring sample I could find of what I’m talking about:

“Yet people praise Thailand as a land of peace, of endless smiles and yellow-robed Buddhist monks; of people whose culture is deeply ingrained, and who follow the five moral precepts faithfully. Yet I have seen men kill and torture animals here in ways I had never conceived of before. They raise a kind of fish whose only reason for living is to tear each other to pieces before cheering spectators. The people love cockfights, ox fights, fish fights – any fight! They steal and gamble, and lie with each other’s wives.

The famous Thai smile is only frosting on the cake; what the cake is like, only those who have tasted it know. Thailand’s greatest admirers are those who have spent two days in the country, mostly foreigners who have no idea of what life here really is. They nod wisely and say that the Thai “really know how to live” and “know the value of an easy life”. They do not guess to what extremes of laziness and irresponsibility this philosophy is carried, or how great is the disregard for order and civilized behaviour.”

Before I am driven out of Thai-blogs.com on a rail, I should add that the character in the book who comes out looking the best in the end is actually a hard working and intelligent young Thai teacher who refuses to take any of his rich Chinese father-in-law’s money, is deeply moral, and is committed to proving himself in a tough and changing world.

The narrator also is grateful for the prosperity that he has attained in Thailand and as he relaxes about guarding the old Chinese traditions he brought with him from his home village, he seems to gradually develop a guarded fondness for the country.

Towards the end of the book the narrator, possibly in an example of this growing appreciation for cultures other than his own, quotes another character, in what was a popular expression at the time after the birth of a new-born:

“Let my child have the diligence of the Chinese, the morality of the farang, and the heart of a Thai”.


You can buy this book online at amazon.com

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