Rong Wongsawan’s Gonzo Journey through California in 1976 A Thai Writer Looks at the Americans

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Tony Waters

Abstract

Rong Wongsawan (1932-2009) was a major Thai writer during the late 20th century. He wrote primarily about social life in his native Thailand, but one of his favorite subjects was California where he lived, wrote, and bartended in the 1960s. The story presented here is about his trip to California in 1976 to show his new wife Malee where he had spent so many happy years. Published in Thai in 1978, On the Back of the Dog is a description of how a Thai writer viewed California of that era. As he points out early in the book, behind his observations are questions: Why are the Americans the way they are? Why are issues such as father-son relationships so rancorous, race relations so poisonous, attitudes toward money so greed-focused, and advertising so preposterous, especially for Thai sensibilities? Thus, in writing about San Francisco in particular, Rong is also writing about Thai culture. This article introduces Rong Wongsawan’s writing to an English-speaking audience. Rong spoke idiomatic English and was well versed in American literature. However, Rong’s own writing was almost completely in Thai and addressed only a Thai audience. Yet, he highlights issues of American culture and society which are of enduring interest. Presented in this article are extended translations of his writing from On the Back of the Dog, including vignettes involving a chicken executive, the tensions between white and black, actor Peter Fonda, and even Jack London’s views of the great San Francisco earthquake. President Kennedy and Linda Lovelace make appearances, too. The issues Rong raises are understood in the context of Thai Buddhism and karma, Thai views of family and race.

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References

Anderson, Benedict. 1985. “Introduction.” In In the Mirror: Literature and Politics in Siam in the American Era, edited and translated by Benedict R. O. G. Anderson and Ruchira Mendiones, pp. 9-87.

Janit Feangfu. 2011. “(Ir)resistibly modern : the construction of modern Thai identities in Thai literature during the Cold War era, 1958‐1976.” PhD thesis, SOAS, University of London.

Leyland, Peter. 2009. “Rong Wongsawan” (obituary). https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/29/obituary-rong-wongsawan

Rong Wongsawan. 1978/2015. Bon lang ma: daed si thong (On the Back of the Dog: The Golden Sun). Nittaya Sakul Thai Publisher, Bangkok.