“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”.

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You can buy this book online at amazon.com

32 responses to ““Letters from Thailand”

  1. Sure, this is a fine book and ranks as perhaps one of the best novels i’ve read by a Thai novelist.

    If you didn’t know you’d think it was a true story. Some Thai-Thai and both Thai-Chinese critics concerned the book racist! but it’s nothing of the sort.

    As Inkslinger pointed out, the book details the old Thai-Chinese mentatility that Thai people are lazy, drink too much and spend all their money in a couple of days when they get their salaries.

    Then it also covers the Thai mentality that the Thai-Chinese are slaves for money, too serious about life and love only sons.

    This book has a wonderful insight into the origins of the Thai-Chinese after they had arrived in Thailand in only their shoes and shows how they changed from nothing into the country’s economical gun within just a couple of decades.

    An essential read for anyone with an interest into Thailand’s modern history.

    Another of my fave books has to be ‘Luk Isarn’ the story of a countryside boy growing up in the middle of Isarn. That too gives a great insight but ito the life of a poor family on a farm instead.

  2. who wrote ‘luk isarn’? sounds interesting…

  3. Thanks Steve for your secondary review..

    And yes, that’s a very good point you raised and upon reading my review, I noticed that I did indeed leave out the fact that the book is evenhanded in its critiques. By the end of the novel there is a character arc.

    I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has read the original Thai text, as in doing a bit of research to write this blog, I read that the English translator actually made up a fair bit of the ending because she wasn’t satisfied with the lead character’s development… not sure if that’s true, but the translation is excellent. I imagine its very difficult to pick up subtle humorous nuances ibut this translator seems to do that quite well.

    There is a book called “Girl of Isaan” translated by the same woman as “Letters”. I’m not sure if it is the same book Steve is referring too. I have not been able to track it down in Bangkok.

    BKK

  4. Has any body seen or read this book? I found a reference to it in the Bangkok Post a year or so ago. It is not available through Amazon. Is it any good, I know it sounded interesting.

    Fragile Days: Tales from Bangkok
    by Bunnag, Tew

  5. I read Letters from Thailand when I first came here and found it very enjoyable and enlightening. I have since lost my copy and so I am glad to see it has been re-released. A couple of other books I read at that time include: “Teacher of Mad Dog Swamp” and “A Child of the North-east”.

    During the recent book fair in Bangkok I bought a collection of Thai novels translated into English. They are published by Thai Modern Classics with the purpose of “breaking the language barrier and making Thai literature, or more specifically, Thainovels, available to readers of Englishthe world over.” I have up to book 10 and the inside back cover mentions two more in preparation.

  6. Gosh that reminds me of my high school attempt at translating Wayla Nai Kuad Gaew – Time in a Bottle. I still have the manuscript somewhere. Perhaps I should revisit that, huh? 🙂

    Thanks Inkslinger for the review. This is encouraging me to go get some Thai books and the translated copy for the hubby. Have to coax him into it a bit. I think he’s still recoiling from reading “Pirates of Tarutao”…

    As for me right now, nothing but Harry Potter. Been such a busy week I can only read 1-3 chapters a day.

  7. Thanks to everyone who wrote in with a reply. I had been hoping that by writing this blog I would also get some feedback with some suggestions and possibilities for further Thai-lit reads, and you guys have certainly provided me with that.

    Stephen C – Have yet to read Fragile Days, though I like the title. It appears to be for sale on this site: http://www.selectbooks.com.sg/titles/34652.htm

    Richard – I think the “Child of the Northeast” you mention and Steve’s “Luk of Isaan” are one in the same by Kampoon Boontawee with English translation by Susan F Kepner. Interestingly she has also translated an anthology on modern Thai women’s lit (amazon has it) as well.

    Very glad Richard that you brought up the Modern Thai Classics series. I would be interested in hearing your opinion on those. I have come across the anthology for sale on used book websites but since it advertises ’20 great novels’ and is only something like 470 pages long, I was a bit skeptical. Do you have that anthology?How have you found the books?

    Marcel Barang, the Frenchman who did the translations for that series, was the person I cited earlier who thought that Susan Kepner did too much rewriting on her “Letters from Thailand” translation, reads very well to me though.

  8. Oh! Oakmonster – thanks, and you also have given me another title to jot down. When you said your husband was ‘recovering’ from “Pirates of Taratuo” does that mean that he wants to space out his reading of great books? Or that he wasn’t too thrilled with that one?

  9. The original Thai version was ‘Luk Isarn’ and forgot that the English transaltion was ‘Child of the north-east’.

    One other classic piece of literature i’d like to recommend is ‘Si Phaendin’ (Four reigns).

    The book is in a three part series and takes as through the life of ‘Ploy’ a royal attendant (i think it is)

    Every Thai knows this book and it takes us through the life of ‘Ploy’ from a young girl to an old grandmother and as the title reads, she saw life from the reign of, i think it was Rama 5 til Rama 8.

    I fascinating insight into the lives of those living within the royal palace. Again, essential reading for anyone interested in the modern era of Thai history.

    Thanks for the blog inkslinger and look forward to any more book reviews. Decent blog.

  10. Thanks for the book review, and I’d like to see more reviews of Thai oriented books on this website. Both from farangs and Thais. I live in San Francisco and it’s difficult to keep up with books published in Thailand, so I need to rely on you guys to keep me in the loop.

  11. Hi Inkslinger,

    Finally took a moment from posting and writing my own missives to the masses on here to read some more of other folks fine writings.

    I have two other books you might like to check out. They are considered modern classics and are also translated from Thai to English. They are “The Judgement” and “Time” by Chart Kobjtti.

    I saw the movie ‘I Fax’ here recently which was made from the Judgement but it was a horribly depressing film on the nature of judging people, hence the name. However I am interested in reading the actual story. I want to get a better understanding of it is possible.

    These two books and some other Thai to English translated books including, I believe, the one on the boy growing up in Esarn are here on this website

    http://www.nangmaibooks.com/catalog/index.php?cPath=21_32_55

    My friend Oop is flying back to Thailand for a short stay this weekend and I’ve asked him to see if he can find these two books. The price of the each is not bad but to pay shipping to Washginton is 110% the cost, yikes!

    Wit

  12. Dear Inkslinger (what a kewl nickname),

    thanks for the in-depth critique. i actually borrowed Letters from Thailand from mylocal library but didn’t read beyond the first few pages because i couldn’t find time. now, i see that it has been my loss and will hunt down the book soon.

    Have you heard of Pira Sudham? He’s a Thai author who gives intriguing insights into Thai rural life, particularly that of Northeast Thailand dwellers. If i’m not mistaken, his “Monsoon Country” was even nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature

  13. Inky – Although we both liked the premise and the story of “Tarutao”, it’s the language that was kiling us. My hubby’s word for it was like reading a 6th grade English comprehension test.

    I’m sure if the same story flows out of a native English speaker, or perhaps in Thai even, there’s probably a chance of the story being better told.

  14. The question is, was “Tarutao” originally written in English or translated from the Thai to English? And if it was translated, who did the translation? Was it the former Education Minister himself?I had a feeling that it ws written in English first.

  15. For Tarutao. The author is Paul Adirex or Pongpon Adireksan(my spelling might be incorrect). He’s an ex- thai politician as far as I know since I ‘ve never seen him on TV for ages.
    “The Pirates of Tarutao” was written in english first and then have been translated to Thai:-) krub

  16. 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.

    You don’t always have to. Pira Sudham, the Thai author mentioned by faterider, writes his books in English – no translator plays middle man there. This might also be the reason why the books don’t seem to have undergone any Thai political censorship that plagues so many other books that deal with social issues. These stories tell it like it is, no BS. I recommend all books of the series, if you haven’t read them yet.

    I agree with your opinion on the expat lit over here. It seems that folks who can’t get a decent job over here will start writing instead. Subpar quality, no plot, bad grammar, typos… you have it. However, I think that Stephen Leather is one of the few exceptions, although you seemed to group him into the same category. In my opinion, The Go-Go Dancer who stole my Viagra and ‘Solitary Man‘ are in a different league.

  17. Marcel Barang has a nice collection of Thai fiction translations in his site at http://www.thaifiction.com/english/list.html

    My personal favorite: “Across Their Dream” by Prachakhom Lunachai.

  18. Thanks everybody for your responses and this interesting discussion about Thai books.

    Wit, thanks for that URL, does this bookstore have a location in Bangkok or do they only do online sales? Some titles I haven’t seen anywhere else that I wouldn’t mind picking up.

    Pira Sudham, mentioned by faterider and Siamjai, was indeed nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990, for Monsoon Country. which I have yet to read something I would like to remedy soon.

    I also came across the name of Salisa Pinklayan, who is said to have been the first female Thai novelist to release a major novel in English. The novel is called “Chalida.”

    Siamjai – Haven’t read Solitary Man, but I was thinking more along the lines of “Private Dancer”, which was his most recent release and was online for ages. He’s a genre fiction writer – thrillers and action novels mostly in his case but you’re right in that his books are more professional and make for much smoother reading than some of what else is on offer on the expat lit scene.

    A trip to the bookstore seems in order now for me!

  19. khunlungphudhu

    One quick question after reading through this excellent blog, revue and subsequent comments,is there any chance that the revuer, (revuee?), having the book to hand, could somewhere note the ISBN of the book?
    I have searched for books lost and rare in the past, and this little number has brought me more than enough success. Would apply the same request to future revues as well.
    Again, an excellent blog, well read!

  20. Inkslinger

    I did a quick review of the Nangmai Books website and it appears they only do online ordering. The shipping is a bit pricey, for me at least here in the States, but there in Thailand domestic shipping may be less.

    However this is their scale for shipping costs based on how many grams per package!

    Per # Grams
    1-250 $8
    251-500 $15
    501-1000 $29
    1001-2000 $38
    2001-3000 $50
    3001-4000 $63
    Add 1000 grams Add $13

    Perhaps Asiabooks in Bangkok might have some of these books or can order them for you. Check their website at http://www.asiabooks.com.

    Hope this helps,

    Wit

  21. I heard there is a book fair in BKK this weekend…..

  22. Hi everyone,

    Sit Mon Oo has provided an excellent link for some interesting Thai-lit reading. I was familiar with Marcel Barang’s website, but I guess didn’t give it a close enough look as he has unpublished manuscripts online as well as translated short-stories. I had a chance to read a few of them, with “Traffic Wise Couple” an early favourite.

    Khunlungphudu, glad you enjoyed the review and 9747551675 is the ISBN number for Letters from Thailand. The picture in my blog is from a printing of the book in 2002.

    Thanks Wit – books shipped from or to Thailand are notoriously expensive. I’ve wanted to order a book a time or two from Amazon.com but have ended up passing as the shipping costs were just too much.

  23. Inkslinger –

    Agreed. I found out the hard way that not all businesses in Thailand (Bangkok for the most part) have the same quility/consistency of shipping products ordered.

    Richards bookstore project with the school he works with, http://www.thaihypermarket.com, is the best example of steady reliable service. They have a good selection of books on learning Thai as well as some Thai fiction/non-fiction titles (incl. some listed in comments here) Shipping is inexpensive and as fast and reliable (7-10 days to reach me here in Washington) as ordering music from eThaicd.com which is also excellent.

    I’ve ordered books from Asiabooks.com (the Barnes & Noble of Bangkok :P) but shipping is much more complex and expensive esp if you choose ‘courier’ service which is the fastest but anywhere from 80-110% the cost of your purchases. Usually I buy online what I want when I know a friend is going to BKK for a visit. They will pick up my books for me then bring them back with them to the US.

    Last time a friend that lives in BKK picked up some books I ordered online from Asiabooks and then shipped them to me but he misunderstood and sent them by sea mail so I got them about 4 and half months later hahaha

    Sorry if my comments are a shade ‘off topic’ but they might be helpful for any farangs or Thais abroad that want to order any books from outside of Thailand.

    Choke dee na

    Wit

  24. Wanted to check out your stuff after you left me the nice comment on mine. I am very impressed and will continue to follow your pieces.

    As for Thai literature, I think you’ve inadvertently helped me decide on one of my next subjects, as I have recently translated a book from Thai to English. Not a novel, but one of those lite pocketbooks you see in Seven Eleven. But I would love to tackle some real literature someday, and have made subtle inquiries as to some possible projects.

    Have you read John Burdett’s Bangkok 8? Actually quite an entertaining yarn that incorporates Thai culture in a manner as close as you can get from a farang. 😉

  25. marcel barang

    Last year I refurbished my website thaifiction.com to give full versions of over a dozen Thai novels in English for anybody to print out and read foc.
    Before year end I hope we’ll come out with four more novels (in paperback form) I translated recently:
    Noblesse Oblige (Phoo Dee) by Dorkmai Sot;
    Thutiyawiseit by Bunluea;
    Ghosts (Peesart) by Seinee Saowaphong; and
    Cobra (Mae Bia) by Wa-nit Jarungkit-anan.
    More are in the pipeline.
    If those books sell well, we will make the novels now online available in book form and start protecting copyrights by offering only excerpts online. So, you’d better make a move now, folk, while lunch is free.

    marcel barang

  26. “Letters from Thailand is such a great book. I agree with a comment that “”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””. Child prostitution is so horrible there and I think that poverty pushes people into gambling or selling children into prostitution. However, the West knows too little about the problems of people in Thailand.

    Read more: http://www.thai-blogs.com/index.php/2005/07/28/bangkok_in_books_letters_from_thailand?blog=20#ixzz0cxte4Vfm

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