Kukrit Pramoj: His Wit and Wisdom
A Child of the Northeast
Letters from Thailand
The octogenarian Thai scholar and statesman Kukrit Pramoj once gave this advice on how to behave in his country:
There are certain institutions which a Thai respects…. They are his religion, which is mostly Buddhist, his King and his parents. If you say to a Thai that his politicians are rotten he will kiss you on both cheeks. If you tell him that he is a crook, he will deny it with great good humor and will not take offense. If you call his wife a bitch he will agree with you completely and ask you to have a drink to that. But as for those three institutions which I have already mentioned, I would advise you to leave well alone…since according to police statistics, the percentage of premeditated murders in this country is very low; most murders are committed in sudden passion.
(From an address to the Pacific Area Travel Agents Conference on January 31, 1969. Quoted in Kukrit Pramoj: His Wit and Wisdom.)
This was a characteristic sally from Kukrit, who is famous even among the local Westerners, or farang, as a journalist, wit, connoisseur of the arts, and, for much of his life, a politician, and once the prime minister. It was not until recently, when an English translation appeared of his epic novel Four Reigns, written in 1950, that I, at any rate, understood that Kukrit is also a world-class writer, equipped with imagination, humor, narrative skill, and keen understanding of human nature.
Like the best epic novels, Four Reigns is enjoyable at many levels. It is on the surface a saga of aristocratic life, centered on one woman, Ploi, from her childhood during the 1880s down to her death in 1946. It is a pageant of Thailand’s history during a period when the Chakri dynasty changed from absolute monarchs, the “Lords of Life,” into constitutional rulers, having to arbitrate between squabbling politicians and generals. This was also a time of social change and Westernization, in which the canals of Bangkok, the “Venice of the Orient,” were paved in the interest of the motor car.
Although Kukrit never preaches, or even intrudes a personal view, Four Reigns is clearly meant to explain and extol to a new generation of Thais the customs and faith of their ancestors. His heroine, Ploi, embodies the Thai ideal of respect and honor to king, religion, and parents. Westerners may regard this as old-fashioned or even reactionary. So it is. Almost all Thais look to tradition rather than newfangled isms and ideologies. They do not partake of our Western obsession and grievance on matters like class, race, sexual orientation, human rights, and social justice. What we call individualism they regard as selfishness. In Four Reigns, as in the other novels under review set in a northeast village and in the Bangkok Chinatown, it is the family that is paramount. This partly explains why Thai women especially love Four Reigns.
The first of the four reigns referred to in Kukrit’s title is that of King Rama V (1868–1910), who abolished serfdom, encouraged education and medical services, sent his children to study in England, Prussia, and Russia, and during his leisure moments amused himself with cooking, astronomy, clocks, and the motor car. He also had seventy-seven children by ninety-two wives. The last fact helps to explain the peculiar nature of Thailand’s family system, the character of its aristocracy, and, in modern times, the insouciant attitude of the Thais toward prostitution.
This system of royal polygamy during the nineteenth century meant that the nobles sought to advance themselves by getting their daughters married to, and made pregnant by, the king. The Thai aristocracy, and therefore the court, the civil service, the army, and the judiciary were all in effect an extended royal family. Kukrit himself is a rajawongse, a title loosely translated as prince, but in fact meaning a king’s great-grandson. Whereas in England the old Norman nobility seldom married into the royal family, which tended to come from Wales, Scotland, Holland, or Germany, in Thailand people were aristocrats by virtue of royal blood.
As we learn at the start of Four Reigns, the humbler members of Thailand’s aristocracy also practiced polygamy. The story opens just over a hundred years ago, when Ploi as a girl of ten is taken to serve a royal princess in the Inner Court of the Bangkok royal palace. Ploi’s mother has left her place as junior wife to a kind-hearted but ineffectual nobleman. The relationship between senior and junior wives, and half brothers and half sisters, adds complication but richness to Kukrit’s story.
Having walked out on her husband, Ploi’s mother also stays for a time in the Inner Court before going out to work as a moneylender; for Thai women, then as now, were often engaged in business, either in competition or partnership with Chinese merchants. When Ploi’s mother returns to court to say she is getting married again, she brings her daughter the charming gift of a basket of miniature foods, like brown, crispy fish the size of a little finger, and salted eggs, not of chicken or duck but the tiny rice bird. Children and food are the main Thai loves.
Although Ploi had suffered at home from the spite of a half-sister, she is at first lonely and shy in the all-female world of the inner court. She studies the etiquette and the arts of a Thai lady, including the preparation of betel nuts, the making of scented water, the care of clothes, and the rules on what colors go with which days of the week: “Both bean color and iron color are correct for your Wednesday palai. And this is for Thursday: green palai with bird’s blood red….” Many Thai women still follow these rules on color; also on which day to visit the hairdresser.
When Ploi reaches puberty, she goes home for the ceremony of removing the topknot. Her father, a sad and rather Chekhovian aristocrat, complains of the servant problem:
Not like when your grandfather was alive. Those days there were hundreds and hundreds of people living in the house under his care. There were his clerks, his oarsmen, his labor corps, his musicians and women dancers—a whole troupe of them, and relatives and hangers-on, drifting in and out all over the place…you should have seen the cauldrons we had for cooking rice, rows of them, like in a regular barracks….
Ploi marries a rich and handsome Thai Chinese in the civil service, whose son by a previous mistress she gladly accepts and comes to love as much as her own children. Her attitude to her husband is very Thai: “We live together and it’s natural that we love each other. But over and above this, I feel infinitely grateful to you. I’m in your debt. I owe you everything.” When her husband grows despondent, she asks if he wants a junior wife, and of course is relieved when he says no.
When Rama V dies, he is succeeded by a new kind of king, an English-educated dandy, a lover of country sports and theater, happier in the company of his own sex. Rama VI proves reluctant to marry even one wife. Ploi’s husband nevertheless adapts to the latest court fashions such as collecting ivory boxes and walking sticks, dressing in foppish pink, and having his jackets sent to be laundered in Singapore. Ploi is obliged to abandon betel and scale her teeth, making them white again. Even today, the most popular toothpaste in Thailand, “Darkie,” shows a beaming black in a top hat and tuxedo.
Ploi sadly agrees to let her sons go to Europe for education, as did Kukrit himself. The boy in Paris picks up leftwing views and later takes part in the coup d’état of 1932, which ends the absolute monarchy. The weak Old Etonian king then abdicates and a right-wing general takes over the country, changing its name from Siam to Thailand. The Japanese occupy Thailand in the war; Ploi is bombed out; then the British replace the Japanese, and the youngsters along the canal bank shout “Okay!” And “Thank you!” instead of “Bansai!” and “Arigato!”
At the end of the war, the young King Ananda comes back from Switzerland, to the intense joy of the Thais, Then on the June 9, 1946, the most calmitous day in almost two centuries, Ananda is found shot dead in his room in the Palace. Ploi, the heroine of Four Reigns, dies from shock and grief.
Here Kukrit ends his novel abruptly, also prudently, for the death of Ananda is even today a delicate subject. The mildly left-wing prime minister at the time announced that the king had shot himself by accident, which remains a just possible explanation. The right-wing generals, who had been compromised by their pro-Japanese attitude in the war, accused the left of having murdered the king, and in 1947 launched a coup d’état to install the first of a series of brutal, corrupt army regimes. Three palace servants were charged with regicide and eventually executed. The lawyers for the defense were not allowed to suggest that the king might have committed suicide.
Although the present King Phomibol is loved and revered in Thailand, the death of his elder brother was a disaster from which the country has still not recovered. For too long now, brute power and patronage have been in the hands of the military who, early this year, launched yet another coup d’état to depose the elected government.
Among the voices of democratic opposition, Kukrit was prominent as a courageous journalist and parliamentarian. When Hollywood in the early 1960s made The Ugly American, on the struggle to save democracy in Southeast Asia, Kukrit was asked to play the “Sarkhan” prime minister, opposite Marlon Brando as the United States ambassador. Kukrit later recollected:
I was important cast…Marlon Brando had his own dressing room which was a trailer with everything inside, air conditioning, gin flowing from the tap. I had the same thing, identical and Marlon insisted on that…. I’m born a one-movie actor. You see, Hollywood calls a person like me a type actor. You are only called when they need another Oriental prime minister….
Oddly enough, Kukrit went on to become the real-life prime minister, not of “Sarkhan,” but of Thailand itself. He took on the task early in 1975, when South Vietnam was about to fall to the Communists, and many people in Southeast Asia feared that Thailand as well might fulfill the prophecies of the domino theory. To the great dismay of the timid, Kukrit decided to close American air bases in Thailand, then went to Beijing to establish friendly relations with Communist China. He was the architect of the Thai-Chinese alliance against Vietnam.
Before he was overthrown by the generals, Prime Minister Kukrit pushed through measures to pump some of the wealth of Bangkok into the countryside, especially into the poor northeast of Thailand. Legend says that this region, the Isan, has always suffered from poor soil, scrub vegetation, and frequent drought, but Kukrit, among others, blames the timber concession given to Danish businessmen at the turn of the century. At least within living memory, the north-east has constituted a problem and even embarrassment to the rest of Thailand. Millions of Isan people have gone to Bangkok, the men as laborers and the women too often as prostitutes. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Isan men went to work in the Persian Gulf, where many were trapped.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the time of “The Ugly American,” Westerners saw the Isan as a natural breeding ground for the Communists, and made it a center of programs for economic and social aid. For various reasons the danger never materialized. For one thing, the Isan farmers normally own their land and have not suffered the scourge of rack-renting and usury. The emigration has always ensured a flow of money from Bangkok back to the countryside. The Isan people are not really Thai but Laotian and share with the people over the Mekong River a hearty dislike of communism and of the Vietnamese, the traders and artisans of this region. The Isan people revere the Buddhist religion and the king, who in turn has devoted years in this region to projects like irrigation.
The many farang who wonder why the Isan people are not more bitter and angry should read Kampoon Boontawee’s A Child of the Northeast, translated and with an introduction by Susan Fulop Kepner. The story covers a year in the life of a boy of about eight, named Koon, during the economic depression of the 1930s when northeast Thailand suffered outstandingly.
It is a genre of autobiography that lends itself to political posturing and self-pity, but A Child of the Northeast is overwhelmingly joyful, tender, and funny, without ever turning to sentimentality. I have seldom read such a cheerful as well as convincing account of childhood.
Anyone who has been a child in the country will understand the excitement of Koon as he learns to set the dogs on a mongoose; to snare a chameleon with a noose, or to bring it down with a blow-pipe; to pluck the cicada on the wing, and to grope in the mud for a catfish without getting spiked by the fins.
During the drought at the start of the book, Koon says that he hates the sky, and for this he is caned by his schoolmaster, an aged monk who makes him repeat: “From this day on I will never blame the sky because the sky never punished anybody.” At the end of the book, when the rains have come and the baskets are full of rice and fish, Koon “knew that there would be other years when the sun would blaze in a cloudless sky, and when the rain would not fall, other years when the earth would crack, and the rice grow low in the silos…and he knew too that he would meet those years, and he would survive, because he was a child of the Northeast.”
In her introduction, Susan Kepner remarks that when a film was made of A Child of the Northeast, some Westerners were bewildered to see Koon’s father smiling and laughing:
This was a man who was supposed to be desperately worried about the survival of his family…. Why was he laughing all the time? Thais perceived him as resolute, courageous—and a man so brave that he could laugh in the face of famine.
The excellent Susan Kepner has also translated and written an introduction to Botan’s Letters from Thailand, which deals with the life of the Chinese minority. Of all the countries of Southeast Asia where Chinese have settled over the last four centuries, it is only in Thailand and to a lesser extent the Philippines that they have been accepted and even assimilated. The Muslim states of Malaysia and Indonesia maintain harsh, discriminatory laws. Communist Vietnam drove out tens of thousands of Chinese laborers from the North as well as the former Saigon businessmen.
The Thai kings, from as long ago as the fifteenth century, welcomed Chinese traders and sometimes offered them posts in government service. From early on it was noticed that Thai women favored a Chinese husband as being more prudent, industrious, and above all more faithful. In the nineteenth century the Thai kings earned as much as 40 percent of the national revenue by farming out to the Chinese traders a state monopoly on the gambling, lotteries, manufacture of alcohol, and sale of opium, vices that were strictly forbidden to ethnic Thais. By the start of this century, Bangkok was a largely Chinese city and so remained until about twenty years ago, when a huge migration developed from north-east Thailand.
The Chakri dynasty itself has Chinese blood and has always looked favorably on the Chinese community, with the exception of Rama VI, the fop who had learned from his British friends a fear of the “Yellow Peril,” and may have written the pamphlet on the Chinese that came out in 1914 called “The Jews of the East.” Most of the Thai aristocracy, including Kukrit Pramoj, have some Chinese ancestry. The main threat to the Chinese came from the right-wing generals who took power in the 1930s, after the end of the absolute monarchy. Sinophobia probably underlay the decision to change the name of the country for international use, from Siam to Thailand. The first is a geographical definition. The word transcribed as thai means “free” but sounds very similar to Tai or T’ai, the name of the major ethnic group. Many people would like to return to “Siam” because they think that “Thailand” discriminates against ethnic minorities like the Laotians, Malays, and above all, the Chinese. It could be said that calling Siam “Thailand” is something like calling all Britain “England.”
However, the power of the Thai Chinese remains in running the commerce, banking, manufacture, and service industries of Bangkok. At any tourist hotel, the chambermaid will be Thai, but the manager, the reception clerks, and the headwaiter will all be Chinese. In the bars of Patpong Road, the strippers and live showgirls will almost certainly come from northeast Thailand, but the woman cashier will be Chinese.
The last big wave of immigration from southeast China, just up the coast from Hong Kong, occurred during the four years of famine and civil war between the defeat of Japan and the Communist takeover of 1949. One of these immigrants, Tan Suang U, is the hero and narrator of Botan’s novel Letters from Thailand, in which he describes to his mother at home his trials and adventures in Bangkok.
The young and rather pig-headed migrant sets off for Thailand, full of confidence that he and his children will marry and live among fellow Chinese, maintaining their Chinese habits of thrift and industry, while reaping the benefits of a fertile country whose own inhabitants have not the wit or the will to make money.
The deft and at times hilarious comedy of these letters lies in the slow but relentless erosion of Tan Suang U’s principles, under the balmy influence of a sunnier, lazier land. While still on the boat from China, Tan Suang U is given a few tips about Thailand: Never reveal that you have not been to school, since the Thais have more respect for diplomas than skill, and like to see a bit of paper. Showing this you can get a job without being able to count past five. With the elder Chinese, this does not matter so much, but the younger ones who have grown up in Thailand have started to think like Thais. He is warned not to let slip that his mother worked as a servant, for “Thailand is full of people who would rather steal than be servants.”
The industrious Tan Suang U finds a job in a trading store and soon marries the boss’s daughter, but gradually he discovers that his wife, his sister-in-law, his children and friends are drifting away from the old Chinese virtues toward the Thai spirit of mai pen rai, “It doesn’t matter.” The children start wanting to take Sundays off, as the Thais do, then even Saturdays as well. His wife and her sister take a fancy to every expensive novelty such as cars, TV, and Western fashions. “I have to laugh,” Tan Suang U writes to his mother, “for not so long ago we were talking about footbinding and how barbaric it was. The shoes they are wearing today must have nearly the same effect…with the heel three, four or even five inches high!”
The letters are full of complaints about the Thais, especially their laziness and drunkenness:
They steal and gamble and lie with each other’s wives…. We’re superstitious, they say, because our superstitions are different from theirs. They speak as if they were gods, to know that burial is wrong and a funeral pyre the only release of a spirit.
The Thais call Tan Suang U a jek, the opprobrious word for a Chinese, but Thai women are happy enough to get a Chinese son-in-law: “Good for you, daughter! Marry a jek and you’ll eat pork every day; you won’t eat dried fish and chase ducks round a pond all your life, like your poor mother.”
When his wife suggests using contraception, Tan Suang U tells her to stop talking filth. Children are strength, he says, to which his wife replies with a Thai proverb that one child equals seven years of poverty. “Sure,” says Tan Suang U, “if you raise a child the way the Thais do. Treat him like a little God. Give him everything he wants. If a child is twenty and hasn’t even begun to work—like some I’ve seen here—then one child is a lifetime of poverty, not seven years. But my children will be raised to work, and study, and grow up able to look after themselves.”
In this, too, he is disappointed. His only son takes to drink and goes off to live with a prostitute from the northeast, while his favorite daughter becomes engaged to a poor Thai school-teacher, to whom Tan Suang U is most ungracious. The young man seeks to explain that Thais love and respect their parents just as the Chinese do, but show their feelings in different ways: “You see, Thai parents let their sons depend on them. The Chinese and the farang don’t understand why Thai parents encourage that, but they do it because they see dependence as a form of love.”
Eventually Tan Suang U relents and goes to live with his daughter and Thai son-in-law. He ends up saying about his children: “I could not shelter them from the thousands of daily experiences which made them another people, another race. There are so many of our people here, yet the Thais have won.”
When Letters from Thailand first appeared, it aroused much anger both from the Thais and Chinese. On second reading, most people came to acknowledge the truth of the satire, and anyway could not resist the humor and good nature with which it was done. The Thai Ministry of Education later made Letters from Thailand a set book for the teaching of social studies, and wisely so, for a good novel is worth a shelf of sociological tracts.