Mar 19 2011

Book club: Letters from Thailand

Published by at 2:18 pm under Book reviews


Thailand is easy to put on a postcard. Find some palm trees in front of the Andaman sea, or an elephant holding a mango, or a bunch of smiling eight-year old novices in orange robes and you can go to press. Trying to understand what those kids are smiling about requires a bit more searching. Letters from Thailand goes some way toward helping.

Terrible cover art, amazing story inside

Terrible cover art, amazing story inside

The novel is full of interesting characters. I found myself alternatively rooting for, and dismayed by, the main character, Tan Suang U, a Chinese immigrant who comes to Thailand immediately after World War II. The story follows him and his family as this wave of Chinese immigration slowly integrates into broader Thai culture.

It’s an interesting look into an issue that Thailand still wrestles with today: who, exactly, are Thais? The official government definition of all who believe in “Country, Religion, King” is contested in this story, as the children desperately try to integrate while the father clings to his pride of being Chinese.

When first published in Thai in 1969, the work was criticised by Thais as painting them as lazy and distracted, while the Chinese community denounced it for making them look greedy, inward looking, and unwilling to assimilate. All of these complaints are true, but that’s where the tension of the novel comes from: everyone sees each other in an untrue light. Controversy aside, it was hungrily devoured, and with in a few years became part of the Thai standard curriculum for high school students.

This book is a great read, allowing a peek through the keyhole into Thai culture and helping non-Thai speakers understand how Thailand imagines itself into being. It also serves as a fun guide to Yaowarat Road in Bangkok’s Chinatown so you too can pretend that you are an ageing Chinese immigrant while slurping up a bowl of steaming noodles.

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