National treasure Rong Wongsawan’s classic book now in English

By | Wed 14 Sep 2022

On 20th September 2022, Payap University’s Lifelong Learning programmes sponsors a “book launch” of the English translation of Thai author Rong Wongsavun’s book The Man from Bangkok: San Francisco’s culture in the 60s.  The book is about Rong’s observations in California in the 1960s and 1970s where he worked as a newspaper reporter and writer (and occasionally as a bartender). The book was published in Thai and addresses a Thai audience.  In doing this Rong answers the question his Thai readers pose, “Why do the Americans do such strange things?  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 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?”

In shaping his travel story, Rong voyages from Thailand to explain to his Thai audience how these strange people see themselves.  In this respect, Rong Wongsavun is writing an ethnography of the Californians, or more specifically, San Franciscans, for a Thai audience.  This ethnographic book was first published in 1978 with the Thai title On the Back of the Dog: The golden sun.  The book has been through many printings in Thai since then, but only now is it published in English for the first time.

Rong Wongsavun (1932-2009) was a popular Thai writer and photographer who wrote over 100 books as well as hundreds of newspapers columns between the 1950s, and his passing in 2009 in Chiang Mai.  His earliest writing was about the people of Bangkok, his adopted home city.  A well known book of this time is Sanim Soy (1961) which is 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 ended up in San Francisco where he worked as a bar-tender, collecting stories to relate to his Thai audience as the hippie scene there began to flourish.  One of the best-known books of this era is Lost in the Smell of Marijuana (1969).

After his return to Thailand in the late 1960s, Rong finally concluded that he was truly a “man of Bangkok,” even if San Francisco was perhaps his second favorite city!  Upon his return, he married Sumalee, a girl from northeast Thailand, who became both a key partner and character in his writing endeavours.  In this context, he began using her as a character in his writing. The Man from Bangkok, is an explicitly Rong Wongsuvan story of bringing Sumalee to San Francisco, so that he could show off the state and city where he had so many good years rambling about. It creatively presents the food, music, politics, racial issues, America’s “finding myself society,” a little rock ‘n roll, Peter Fonda and Easy Rider, the Thai diaspora, a greedy chicken farmer, the Golden Gate Bridge, porn stars Linda Lovelace and Marilyn Chambers and San Francisco’s emerging gay liberation movement.

After his return to Thailand, Rong Wongsavun eventually moved 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 Man from Bangkok: San Francisco Culture in the 1960s was published in August 2022 by White Lotus Books. The translation was done by Tony Waters, a Professor of Sociology at Payap University, along with Thai undergraduate students in the English Department in 2016-2017. The book launching is 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. For more information about the book launching, and reservations, contact the Life Long Learning Program at Payap University.

For further reading, see “Rong Wongsawan’s Gonzo Journey through California in 1976 A Thai Writer Looks at the Americans, Journal of the Siam Society” (2019). By Tony Waters