How many cities can be said to have spawned their own schools of literature?
Berlin, between the wars, for one, comes to mind.
Like the Berlin of the 1920s and 1930s, Bangkok is a vibrant city often in conflict with itself, as its citizens strive to succeed amidst a political and social maelstrom.
Unlike the stories of the Berlin school, those emanating from Bangkok are enmeshed in the convergence of two radically different cultures, those of East and West.
Additionally, much of the Bangkok “personality” is forged by large numbers of immigrants (coming primarily from the Isaan northeast) who, in their dealings with relatively well-off expats and Western visitors, use a combination of intelligence, wits, and guile, to gain finances necessary to support extended families far from the capital.
Writers exemplifying the Bangkok style are expats who have crafted a style with common themes, and have honed their craft while living in Bangkok, or staying there for an extended length of time.
Several of them carry their fictional writing to stories based in other countries, and write non-fiction as well.
The non-fiction writing of these authors qualifies the research expertise that contributes to the factual underpinnings of their fictional writings, and are themselves fascinating books that strongly contribute to the body of knowledge of Thai and Asian culture.
The still-emerging genre of Bangkok Fiction contains common elements that define its “look and feel,” including the heroism of anti-heroes, the increasingly thin line between innocence and vice, and the often-necessary relationship between honesty and corruption.
Some of the more common elements of the genre might include:
The city of Bangkok as a character: hot, dirty, polluted, with the old and new flourishing and decaying side-by-side. Action often occurs in oases defined by air-conditioning, fans, and shade, where cold beer and Mekhong whisky-and-coke meld the sacred and profane.
Bangkokian archetypes. Bangkok's location near to international trade routes has given the city's population a friendly, easygoing personality that is welcoming to visitors. With the infusion of large numbers of equally friendly Isaan people from the northeast, Bangkok continues to be a city where it is standard practice for strangers to smile at each other when walking down the street, look each other in the eye, and say hello. Bangkokians are enthusiastically civil to foreigners, especially when it comes to commerce, quickly greeting potential customers, and graciously thanking them for their business. This is in marketed contrast to cities such as Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city, 500km to the north, where Lanna and Chinese traditions combine to create a social environment far more reserved and subtly suspicious of strangers.
Female protagonists and anti-heroines are generally independent businesswomen, and often work in bars. They are commonly from upcountry Thailand, and are often the major breadwinners for extended Thai families.
Conflicted gender-related goals. Male characters from Western countries are expats and travelers, commonly in Thailand in search of the romance of travel and companionship. By contrast, the female objects of desire are desirous of traditional familial relationships, creating a tension based on cultural elements.
A redefinition of the concept of “sin.” Characters in Bangkok Fiction relate to sex as a way of communicating human feelings. “Sin” is often viewed from a Buddhist, rather than Western perspective, and might include not providing for the needs of the extended family, or choosing not to help a friend in need of money.
Parallel worlds of truth. Events are typically seen from both the perspectives of Western and Eastern cultures, in non-judgmental fashion. Thai actions are often fueled by cultural philosophies embodied by concepts such as kreung jai, mai bpen rai, and tam jai khoon.
International crossroads. As an “open” city, Bangkok attracts individuals from a vast number of countries, many of whom elect to stay. It is a city of local, national and international intrigue, where today's alliances are often built on rocky foundations.
While the Bangkok school gained prominence in the late 1990s, at least three earlier books can be identified as having the characteristics of classic Bangkok Fiction.
The Prostitute (ISBN 967-65-3079-4), written by female author K. Surangkhanang 1937, is a sympathetic portrayal of a bar girl, which shocked Thai society with its publication.
Jack Reynolds' A Woman of Bangkok (ISBN 974-2103-976), first published in 1956, describes the relationship between a sheltered young businessman and the White Leopard, an aging, jaded, and belligerent bar girl, whose expertise in separating a man from his money proves that, in nearly 50 years since its publication, many of today’s pleas, exhortations, and tales of poverty are essentially old wine in new bottles.
Reynolds, an English-born Welshman who was at times a seaman, newspaper editor, and speedway driver, was a captivating writer who defined well the vituperative eloquence of the Leopard as she wrings the malleable protagonist’s billfold dry.
The book, unfortunately, has been out-of-print for some time.
The controversial Tiger Claw and Velvet Paw, published in 1984 (ISBN 0-7472-3047-1) and ostensibly written by “Malee,” a former Thai bargirl, and ghosted by Soavanee Teeravit and Julia Berlinghausen may actually have been written by an anonymous author.
After “Berlinghausen,” in her introduction, calls men on the carpet for their “depraved dreams” of sexual conquest, the book launches immediately into salacious eroticism. It’s also doubtful that Malee, allegedly 23 years old when the book was published, and purportedly from the Isaan countryside, would have had the background in chemistry to have written the following description, found on page 115: “when he ejaculated inside of me, I felt burning cold waves of liquid helium in my belly.”
Several references in the book would indicate that the writer was German (a customer was identified as working for arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch), and frankly, the book comes off as less an autobiography than a work of fiction.
We suspect this well-written and out-of-print book was the work of a talented German fiction writer.
We encourage readers interested in discovering the Thailand largely ignored or impugned by guidebooks to investigate the work of Bangkok Fiction writers.
Smart, sexy, hard-nosed, and culturally informative, the detective and mystery stories of writers such as Christopher G. Moore, Dean Barrett, and David Young paint a vibrant picture of the demimonde of Thailand’s largest city.
Style-wise, the school has been influenced by “hardboiled” writers such as James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett, with a touch of Lawrence Durrell and Charles Bukowski thrown in.
Bangkok writers bring little of the notion of Western cultural colonialism with them, refusing to pass judgment on Bangkokian mores, instead concentrating, like Balzác, on the vagaries of the human condition.
While traditionally the readers of Bangkok fiction have been predominantly men, the thematic material, revolving around gender conflict, cross-generational communication, and cultural integration, are as universally read by women as men.
Strong female characters are common.
We suggest that women stepping into this school with some degree of trepidation might want to begin with David Young’s Thailand Joy, which features a strong female protagonist within a thematic setting that men will also find compelling.
Bangkok Fiction is a category of fiction that hasn’t until now, been formally designated as a genre in its own right.
While ostensibly a school that appeals to male readers, women desirous of knowing better the psyche of the male, and the street world of Bangkok, would find many of these books informing, if not enjoyable.
A common thread that runs through these novels is that Western judgment is sometimes best left in the West, as things are not always as they seem to be, at first (and sometimes second) glance.
Bangkok Fiction, as a genre, has arrived.
On those hot Bangkok afternoons, one could do worse than grabbing a beer at poolside, and luxuriating through these adult-themed novels of intrigue, that unfold the treasures of this often-misunderstood, but endlessly fascinating world.
The links below offer a thumbnail sketch of some of the writers and books that define the genre. As new books are being published every day, we encourage the reader to adventure out on his or her own, and make discoveries beyond our necessarily limited scope.