BOOK REVIEW: Letters to China

Letters to China, by Supa Sirising, was the first fiction I’d read in Thailand, about Thailand.

It summarizes the life of Tan Suang U, a Chinese immigrant to Thailand whose story is established through a series of 89 letters written home to his mother in China over 22 years. Tan Suang U moves to Bangkok in 1945, 17 years old. 

His letters first detail his introduction and adjustment to Bangkok, his marriage, and his burgeoning business career. The anxieties of child-rearing, management and family life begin to appear more regularly. Tan Suang U’s obsession with raising his children “properly” causes him constant frustration as they age. His children integrate readily into Thai culture, particularly as it modernizes through the 50s and 60s. Tan Suang U finds himself disgusted with the changes he sees in Bangkok, of luxury and excess; and the way those sins seep into his house despite his efforts to provide a model of hard work, frugality and diligence.

Letters to Thailand was the first novel about Thailand written by a Thai author. Sirising, born in Thailand, is the children of Chinese immigrants – Tan Suang U is a composite of her father and her uncle. The novel is intensely critical of Thailand and Thai culture at times, but not without flexibility. Through Tan Suang U’s personal letters, Sirising artfully gives credence to his complaints about Thailand, while simultaneously using his written reflections to illustrate the complexity of each situation which arises.

The book was hyperspecific in its location: with the exception of a brief vacation to Hua Hin (I wonder, wonder, wonder how much Hua Hin would have changed from the late 1950s to its current seedy, bloated state), the book takes place in Bangkok’s Chinatown. To me, this was largely irrelevant. The chronological breadth provided the variety needed to keep the book fast-paced and interesting, even with its static geography.

Today, I visited Bangkok’s main English bookstore for the first time. I was on a very specific mission, and did not linger as long as I would have liked, but I will have to go back. Letters to China was whet my appetite for Thai literature.

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