If you visit an English-language bookstore like Asiabooks in Bangkok you will probably find a shelf or two of novels that are all devoted to the same general topic – white men (Farang) in Thailand and their relationships with Thai women.
These novels approach this topic from different angles – some are meant to be voyeuristic, some try to be critical, etc. – but they end up repeating similar perceptions and ideas.
I’ve always thought that this genre of writing must be relatively recent, probably first appearing in the 1970s or so after the economic development of the 1960s started to bring many foreign businessmen and travelers to Thailand. So I was surprised to come across a novel from this genre that was published in 1920.
Entitled Spears of Deliverance: A Tale of White Men and Brown Women in Siam, and written by a certain Eric Reid (I haven’t found any information on him), it talks about some British and French men in Siam in the early twentieth century.
Here is a sample passage:
Philip threw the cigarettes across the room. Santall, like so many men one meets in the East, was a cigarette fiend, intoxicating himself mildly all day on a long and steady succession of weeds.
“Siamese women?” Philip pursued his theme. “I’ve nothing particular against them except that they have nothing distinctly feminine about them.”
This is true. With their short-cropped hair, and their hideously betel-stained teeth, and garbed in their national and peculiar dress, the phanung a species of knicker-bocker all in one piece, worn by both sexes Siamese women are to most newcomers almost indistinguishable from the men.
“Oh, you’ve been casting invidious eyes, after seeing Lao girls,” said Santall. “These Northern women are far prettier than the Siamese of the South, in a womanly kind of way, of course. But habits are changing amongst the Siamese. The present custom of wearing the hair long has grown out of a fashion set in the Palace. And every Siamese lady cleans her teeth after chewing betel now. . . .”
He broke off and smiled at himself.
His mind returned to the girl in England of whom he was so full that evening.
“But here! This won’t do. If my fiancée heard me going on like this about ideals of feminine beauty my, wouldn’t she just tear my hair!”
I’ve only skimmed through this book to get a sense of what it is about, but as far as I can tell the main character (Philip) who states above that he is not attracted to Siamese women ends up living with a Siamese girl, Raroey (who falls in love with him because a spirit [phii] bewitches her), gets her pregnant, leaves her, the baby dies, he comes back for her, but she doesn’t care about him anymore.
This series of events enables Philip to have a relationship without having to take any responsibility for it. It’s not his fault that Raroey falls in love with him. It’s because a phii bewitches her. He doesn’t have to take responsibility for getting her pregnant because the baby dies. And finally, he doesn’t have to deal with Raroey after this as she rejects him in the end and goes back to “her people.”
If the setting for this novel had been in a European colony then it would be easy to read this text critically as a work of Orientalist literature that justified the European conquest of an Asian land. Siam, however, was never colonized. . . or so many people think. In actuality, it was in an unequal relationship with Western nations that some scholars refer to as a state of semi-coloniality (I wrote about that before here).
So that being the case, Spears of Deliverance is similar to other novels from that time that are set in colonies. What is different is that this same genre now flourishes in Thailand, where such works are harder to come by in the countries in Southeast Asia that were formerly colonies.
The unequal economic and cultural relations that were established during colonial times tended to continue in the post-colonial period (i.e., Neo-Imperialism/Neo-Colonialism), but the decolonization process in many places did include some form of rejection of colonial era views.
In Thailand there were various leftist intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s who tried to reject aspects of their country’s semi-colonial past, but by the late 1970s they had been silenced by more conservative people, and with the economic growth that such people promoted came increased reliance on relationships with Western businesses, and that led to the arrival in Thailand of more Farang who wrote more books about “white men and brown women.”