‘Rong Wongsavun (1932-2009) was a prolific Thai author and photographer who began publishing in the 1950s, continuing until he passed away in 2009. Throughout his life spent writing, he claimed to never age beyond age 28, which is why he always signed his name as “Young Man!”. Hugely popular with Thai readers during his lifetime, his work is now, for the first time, being published in English. The Man From Bangkok: San Francisco Culture in the 60s, first printed in 1978 is about his travels in California, and has now been published by White Lotus Press of Thailand. The editor and translator is Tony Waters (me!), who did the work with his Thai students over the last six years. The translation is available via direct order White Lotus Books in Thailand, which ships internationally. We are also working on making it available internationally.
For a preview, see “Rong Wongsawan’s Gonzo Journey through California in 1976 A Thai Writer Looks at the Americans, Journal of the Siam Society” (2019, also by me. And if you don’t believe what is written there, have a look at his Wikipedia entry which I also conributed to.
An icon in the literary community in Thailand, Rong wrote in his native Thai. However, having worked in the United States, he was fluent in idiomatic English. His writing reflected the language of the time he spent there, including many anglicisms regarding the “Concrete Jungle,” and a bit of the saltier English language used in the bars he frequented. He later became a Thai celebrity featured in whiskey commercials and the occasional television appearance. His income though was a result of his writing for which he received commissions, royalties, and small payments. Rong, of course, wrote during a time when censorship by military governments could be strict. But his habit of “just telling stories” was also just barely what the military censors would tolerate, even when critique of the powerful was at the heart of his writing. In my view this is a type of ethnography.
Rong Wongsavun as a Thai Literary Icon
Rong published over 100 books as well as hundreds of newspapers columns. His earliest writing was about the people of Bangkok, his adopted home city. The first well-known book he wrote was Sanim Soy (The Rusty Necklace) published in 1961, is a novel about lives of women and their customers in a Bangkok bordello. Then, in 1962, he was sent to California by Siam Rath newspaper publisher Kukrit Pramoj. Rong also worked in San Francisco as a bartender, collecting stories to relate to his Thai audience as the hippie scene there began to flourish. One of the best-known books from this era is Lost in the Smell of Marijuana (1969).
Rong Wongsavun was first a storyteller and, secondly, a social critic. In this respect he separated himself from contemporary Thai writers who viewed their writing as a tool to encourage revolt against the oppressive military governments then dominating Thailand. But his characters were the poor of Bangkok who endured despite difficulties, whether they lived in the garbage dump or in urban bordellos. Later books were about the women working in the go-go bars around US military bases, and the relationships they established with each other and the soldiers. Still more was about the mixed ugliness and beauty of the urban “concrete jungles” found not only in his own city of Bangkok, but also in many other cities where nature was being replaced by high rise buildings.
Rong’s storytelling first attracted the attention of a well-known Thai writer and editor Kukrit Pramoj in the 1950s. Kukrit was then one of Thailand’s most prominent editors, and an emerging Thai writer himself, having penned the now-classic Four Reigns in the 1950s. In 1962, Kukrit sent Rong to California as the correspondent for his newspaper Siam Rath. Kukrit would of course go on to write much more, and entered politics during the brief flowering of democratic rule from 1973 to 1976. In 1975-1976 Kukrit even became Prime Minister of Thailand. But Rong was not a politician. He was of the bars and streets where he collected the iconic stories which would feature in his writing about Thailand, America, and elsewhere in future years.
After returning to Thailand from America in 1967, Rong concluded that he was truly a “Man of Bangkok,” even if San Francisco was perhaps his second favorite city! Upon his return, he also married Sumalee, an engaging young woman from northeast Thailand, who became both a key partner and character in his writing endeavors. Now translated, The Man from Bangkok: San Francisco culture in the 60s, offers the English speaking reader Rong Wongsuvan’s story introducing Malee to San Francisco, showing off the state and city where he had so many good years rambling about. But in the end, Malee would only put up with about a month-long away. She missed their two young boys and they returned to Thailand, but with Rong’s notes for the book ready for compilation.
The original publication in Thai that was the result of the trip Rong and Malee’s trip to California, was called On the Back of the Dog: the golden sunshine. The Thai title tells the Thai readers that the book is about Rong riding the Greyhound bus in California, which indeed is how the book starts. Rong believes that the best way to see America is through a glass window with a moving landscape, rather than 20,000 feet in the air, where all you saw were the clouds, and the underpants of flight attendants in short skirts.
But while the book begins on the Greyhound bus, the subject quickly shifts to San Francisco itself. Rong creatively presents the food, music, politics, and racial issues he found there. America’s “finding myself society” is a curiosity for Rong and his Thai audience frankly many Thai people find the idea and concept preposterous! To illustrate the phenomenon for his Thai audience he describes the strange relationship between fathers and sons. Drama plays out between them as sons revolt, defying their fathers’ conventionality. The fathers it seems only worry what the neighbors will think about the lawn and whether their son will wear a tie. The sons want to declare a rebellious independence it seems, and “find themselves,” as if you could ever “lose oneself.” Certainly a preposterous thought if you think about it.
There is also a little rock ‘n roll and the film “Easy Rider” starring Peter Fonda as Captain America makes an appearance. Then there is the Thai diaspora with their restaurants, a greedy chicken farmer, and suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge. Rong notes that the censors of American film are being reined in too, leading to the scandal of porn stars like Linda Lovelace and Marilyn Chambers slipping into the culture. The music of San Francisco’s cable cars is joyfully told, too, and San Francisco’s emerging gay liberation movement of the 1970s is described with a great deal of sympathy.
Rong’s voyage ultimately wanted to tell his many readers in Thailand how these strange Americans saw themselves. In this respect, Rong Wongsavun is writing an ethnography of the Californians, or more specifically, San Franciscans, for a Thai audience. In doing this, Rong answers ethnographic questions his Thai readers raised in the 1970s.
What were some of those questions?
First there was the general question, “Why do the Americans do such strange things?” The follow-up questions are what Thai people often still ask about Americans: “Why are the relations between children and their parents so contentious? Why are Americans so prudish, while also being obsessed with a porn star like Linda Lovelace? Why are Americans, young and old, so lonely? What is so grandly important about their grass lawns? What do they write on bathroom walls?” And finally “Why is there such a focus on money, money, money, even at the expense of human relationships?”
After his return to Thailand, Rong Wongsavun eventually moved from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. While there, in 1995, he was awarded the status of National Artist. He later moved to Mae Rim outside Chiang Mai where he established “The Writer’s Hideaway,” where he hosted Thai writers. After his death in 2009, his widow Sumalee Wongsavun, recreated the hideaway as a restaurant specialising in northern Thai cuisine, the Tune Inn Garden.
The Man from Bangkok: San Francisco Culture in the 1960s was published in August 2022 by White Lotus Books. This is the first of Rong Wongsavun’s books to be translated into English. The book launching was on September 20, 2022, at the Tune Inn Garden in Mae Rim. The Suan Tune Inn is located in Rong Wongsavun’s own home, where today his wife Sumalee (the same one in the book!) recently received a Michelin Mention.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.