When I found Letters from Thailand in a jumble of second hand books, amongst translations of best selling thrillers and trashy romances discarded at the end of a holiday, I didn’t notice A NOVEL printed in thin, white letters on its cover. It was a dull cover, of Chinese sweets stacked on red silk, and the title of the book, with the first word italicised, the second in low-caps and the third in caps – Letters from THAILAND – distracted me. I turned straight to the prologue, which was tragic.
The prologue described how a series of letters, written by a businessman in Bangkok, named Tan Suang U, arrived on the desk of General Sala Sinthuthawat of the Thai police. It was written by the general – or so I thought – and his elegant introduction, which warned that Thais might sometimes find the book insulting, but never boring, gave me an unjustified respect for Thailand’s police force.
In 1967, a censor in Shanghai defected from the Chinese Communist Party and arrived in Bangkok with a collection of other people’s private letters. The censor had started life and his habit of letter collecting as a mailman in rural China. Tan Suang U’s village was on his route and for some reason – perhaps because it contained money – the censor opened the son’s first letter, written to his mother in 1945, aboard a ship to Thailand. The son had left his village at night, in secret; on his way out, he left a scribbled farewell note on the kitchen table. The first letter, when I read it, was a mixture of remorse and excitement at the prospect of a new and maybe successful life outside of war-torn China. Only, the censor didn’t deliver the letter, and through every promotion and every move, he made sure that he received the 95 that followed and that Tan Suang U’s mother, who must have thought herself abandoned by an ungrateful son, received none of these letters from Thailand.
Suang U’s letters were rough-edged and intimate, but read in succession, as he rose to own a shop and start a biscuit factory, they were also a vivid history of Yaowarat Road, the centre of Bangkok’s Chinatown, and the post-war modernisation of Thailand. The letters note the arrival of electric lights, telephones and, in 1947, radio. “What a miracle that sounds made in a building I cannot even see find their way to a little box in my house,” writes Suang U, while complaining that all the programming is “just a lot of Thai chatter and Thai music.” In 1956, he tells his mother that “there is something new in the world, a wooden box with a gray glass affixed to its front, inside of which a great many tubes and wires work to make pictures appear on the gray glass.” The contraption is difficult to explain in Chinese, “but here they call it ‘television’.”
Suang U is a bigot. The Thais in his letters are all lazy spendthrifts while the Chinese work hard and spend money with excruciating prudence. Suang U’s bigotry is reciprocated, and he is called chek and scorned for being a grasping, ungrateful imposter. “Listening to Thais talk about the Chinese,” says Suang U’s father-in-law, “you would think we all came from one village, were born of the same father and mother, and all think and act alike. So many thousands of grains of rice thrown into one basket. ”
Suang U’s contempt for the Thais and Thai customs is mostly defensive. He is afraid that his children will lose their Chinese identity in Bangkok, at Thai schools, among Thai friends. I found irony in his emphasis on Chinese customs, because many were soon to disappear from the China itself, where tradition was purged during the Cultural Revolution. The descriptions of Daoist exorcisms and Chinese spirit houses, along with traditional funerals processions and a passage in which Suang U relates his disgust at seeing a white boy touch his father’s head, were fascinating because, in the course of three years in China, spent mostly in Shanghai, I had rarely seen any of what Suang U is so desperate to protect. But it was always the tragedy of the letters that captivated me most. Every detail was more poignant because I believed I was really reading a letter sent with money by a loyal son to his mother, and I knew – or thought I knew – that all of these outpourings of love and disappointment were a waste, stolen by a heartless censor.
When I sat down to write this post, I paid closer attention to the book’s cover. I noticed the words A NOVEL for the first time, at the top left, and flipped the book over, to discover that Letters from Thailand was not only a novel, it was written in Thai, and had won the SEATO Prize for Thai Literature. The author, Bo Tan, was the daughter of Chinese immigrants to Bangkok, and she – like Suang U’s children – obviously felt more at home with the Thai alphabet than with Chinese characters.
I have posted a single letter below. Weng Khim is Suang U’s son. Kim is his oldest and best friend. The two travelled to Bangkok together, but have recently fought. Kim resents Suang U’s success and his painful moralising. Chaba is Thai, and Kim’s second wife. Kim left his first wife in Po Leng; when Suang U insisted that he send her money instead of buying lottery tickets, the two men fell out. Sai is Suang U’s maid; Mui Eng is his wife, who was betrothed to another boy from Po Leng, called Seng, but fell in love with Suang U. Unlike me, you know that the letter is a fiction, but when you are near the end, and Suang U addresses his mother directly, imagine that it was not.
Fifth Month, Tenth Day
Year of the Ox
6 June 1949
Since my marriage, at the end of the Year of the Cock, until this year, I have become a father three times. So perhaps I should take heart. Who knows? With such a fertile wife, I may see more than five sons, and bring great honor to our family the certain promise of continuation.
Weng Khim is as clever as I could wish. I have already begun to teach him simple sums; his memory is excellent. But he continues to ask after Kim and Chaba, whom he misses terribly. That is a void I cannot seem to fill.
“I want to go to market, Papa! I don’t like this house—I like old house, house with Kim and Chaba . . . and the boats . . . Khim want go boat every day!”
They used to take one of our boats to market, and I know that Weng Khim’s favourite days began by crossing the Chao Phraya River. Waves would rock the boat and make him shriek with laughter, and river breezes would ruffle his thick hair, and fan his beaming face.
“I miss Kim, Papa! I want go boat, blow air on my face like before, and eat food from Chaba, Papa. Sai makes the food no good, and Sai not love Khim—she make a angry face on Khim every day.”
But Sai is trustworthy, even if she isn’t fond of children, or as cheerful and easy going as his old friends.
“You want to help?” she’ll say, when he is pestering her to let him chop peppers or peel onions. “Your help is nothing but trouble for me—go outside and play, go on! Where’s your mother, eh? Go see your mother.”
Once, after much pleading, Sai let him go to the market with her. On their return we could hear her grumbling before she reached the back door.
“Wretched child! They’re lucky you’re back in one piece, I can tell you.” She opened the screen door with a kick and glared at us. “Wriggled out of my hands like a fish, he did. Run here, run there, ouch everything—bah! I almost lost my mind.” She dropped her market basket in the middle of the floor and stopped across the room to the sink, where she began to wash her hands furiously. “Never again. One ice pop, two ice pops, a bag of candy—and then he has the nerve to whine for pastries too. And when he’s sick tonight, whose fault will that be? Don’t look at me, sir!”
Mui Eng threw me a quick grin, which I had to return in spite of myself. Sai is forever lost to Weng Khim as a ticket to the market, but a clever boy will find a way to his sweets. Weng Khim has with a neighbor boy who enjoy the freedom to poison his constitution at will, and ice pops continue to appear via this amiable fellow, who takes a commission of 50 satangs for a run to the street vendor.
“Why do you give him money to buy those unhealthy sweets?” I asked Mui Eng. “Yesterday I saw him trying to feed candy to the baby. Now it isn’t enough to ruin his own digestion, oh no! He must convince the baby that sweets are preferable to decent food.”
“But it shows that he has a good heart, Suang U, sharing a sweet with his sister. Would you rather have him selfish?”
“Of course not, but I don’t want my children eating sweets that flies have crawled over all day while they turned rancid on a dirty pushcart. Can’t anyone around here support me? My word means nothing.”
“I seldom give him money. I don’t have to—he wheedles it out of his grandfather. Or he begs change from Sai’s grocery money and well, maybe sometimes I do give him a baht or two to stop his whining—but not often.”
“His character is being spoilt. Let him try that whining on me and he’ll soon learn his lesson, I can tell you. I’ll have a talk with the seat of his britches that will put a stop to begging for candy money.”
Weng Khim’s dissatisfaction with life seems to grow by the day. He whines after Kim and Chaba constantly, and I can understand why. They gave into him in everything, laughed when he pleaded for treats—why shouldn’t they be his favorites? To show him that I mean well, I took him to see them two weeks ago Saturday, though they have not been thoughtful enough to contact us in months.
We found Kim in the heart of the market, in one of the cramped, squalid stalls where hundreds of people like my old friend make their living feeding the city of Bangkok. His round face was as greasy as the huge cleaver with which he whacked great slabs of pork into one-kilo pieces, and Chaba sat behind a half a dozen baskets of fresh vegetables and two more brimming with gleaming fish that flopped and wriggled spilled out onto the ground. At her breast was—a baby! I had never even noticed that she was pregnant while they still lived with us; now her child was laughing, not a newborn. So many months without word, even of this.
“Kim! A—a baby? I don’t know what to say. Is it a boy or a girl? Couldn’t you even come to tell me of this?”
“Girl,” he replied curtly, not looking up. “Not important, one girl child.” He whacked another chunk of pork in two. “We work late, you know. By the time we have a few minutes to ourselves, well, it gets late.”
“Where do you live?”
“In a row house, on the river. It’s about as big as this stall, but at least the floor is dry. Usually.”
I felt that Kim had greatly changed. He didn’t even sound like his old self.
“How are sales?”
“Enough and no more, and nothing left over.”
“Will you be angry if I ask you a question? Do you—still gamble?” (Why do I say such things?)
But Kim only grinned and shook his head slowly, “If I said no, it would be a small lie. Why should I lie? When I can’t stand it any longer, I buy one lottery ticket. But not like before.”
“Do you ever send money home?” (Worse, worse—I can’t help myself!)
He stiffened and dropped his eyes again. “I did, until the baby came. I’m sure you still do.”
“Yes, I—I’d like to do something for your girl. I’ll bet she’ll be as pretty as her mother when she grows up.” Chaba made a wry face. “I hope you’ll remember my son then—”
“I don’t want to talk of such things, Suang U. Remember Seng and Mui Eng. I’m sure you wouldn’t want your boy to be disappointed someday.”
I felt as though I’d been slapped. “I’m trying to do something about that.” I said, my mouth beginning to feel dry. “As a matter of fact, I think Seng will be getting married before long, and that will help more than anything. He’s already coming around, though . . . we had a chat recently. Kim, Weng Khim misses you, and Chaba.”
He looked down at the boy, and his expression changed. “Leave him with us and go about your business. Pick him up anytime.”
So I left Weng Khim scampering about among the fish and vegetables, poking into the fish baskets, enjoying himself enormously. On my way back, after seeing a few customers on the other side of the market, I stopped at a gold shop and bought gold bracelets and anklets for the baby.
Chaba was pleased to receive a gift of such value for her first baby and, as anyone could see, touched that the gift came from me. “But a child in gold is not safe!” she pronounced seriously. “I’ll put only the bracelets on her, and save the anklets for when we go visiting. Thank you. It means a lot.”
How happy Weng Khim is with this family. It hurts me, but it is true. I know that he would visit them every day if I let him, and I fear that he will run off and try to find them one of these days when we aren’t watching him closely enough. School is the only answer, but the present term began almost a month ago, and he is much younger than most of the other children. I wonder if they will accept him. But they ought to, for he can read several characters already and do sums up to ten. Surely he could handle the work. He can practice at home if he is behind the others. I have told him that his grandmother in China wants to see his calligraphy so that that she may be proud of her eldest grandson. You see his name below mine today, written in his own hand. My son and I bow respectfully before you, with love in our hearts.
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