Christopher, I must say it is a
pleasure having an opportunity to talk with you. If Bangkok ever had a
renaissance man you are it - you were a law professor and the author of
a highly successful detective series, a non-fiction writer on Thai
and culture and I'm sure if you'll tell us more about yourself that I
find even more new facets to your life here in Bangkok. First, what
brought you to Bangkok in the first place and why have you decided to
yourself in a city which can oftentimes choke you with its pollution,
traffic and general chaos?
I first came to Bangkok
1983. At that time was a law professor and had travelled to Asia for
first time. NHK had bought my radio play View from Cambie Bridge, a
about the relocation of Canadian-Japanese to camps in Alberta during
War II. I had a friend who had been studying and living in Bangkok. The
first trip was only for a couple of weeks but the introduction into
and the unique culture of Thailand made a lasting impression. My
sensibilities told me that Thailand had many untold stories. And this
judgment has proved accurate as I have finished by fourteenth work of
fiction last November.
2 Your Vincent Calvino detective
serves as a keen observer of the Expatriate scene in Thailand. What led
you to start writing the series and how many Calvino novels are there
A good friend of mine
Toronto, Ronald Lieberman, was on holiday to Thailand in 1991 and we
having one of those "what if" discussions about books. It was Ron who
"Why had there ever been a private eye series set in Thailand?" I had
answer other than to try and see if such a series would work. So I
Spirit House which came out in 1992. Crime fiction was, in part, born
of hard-boiled made popular in the States by Raymond Chandler. The
was whether such a style could be transplanted from Los Angeles to
No one knew the answer to whether it would work. I wanted to take that
So I created the Vincent Calvino character, a working class guy with a
law degree from New York City, and set in a quasi-slum apartment, and
him with a smart, well-educated and honest Thai cop nicknamed Pratt.
remained partners through six novels.
2 Is there a new Calvino
novel on the way and if so can you tell us when it will be out and what
be its focus?
I am about to start a new
Calvino novel but it is too early in the cycle to say very much about
the story. I can say this, I have had readers and distributors
encourage me to send
Vinee and Pratt back on the road. In Cut Out, they were in Cambodia,
in Comfort Zone, they were solving crimes in Vietnam. I like the idea
a series where the main characters who have certain Thai style and
sensibilities travel to other Asian countries and experience the
cultural shock of that place. There are so many great locations from
Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo to Jakarta to choose from.
3 Didn't I also hear that one or more
of the Calvino books were being converted into scripts for conversion
films? Which titles are involved and when will we see Vincent Calvino
the big screen?
I have been approached
over the years by a number of producers. Contracts were exchanged but
ultimately no agreement was reached. So far this year I have had two
producers approach me with deals for film and TV based on the Calvino
series. My sense is
the timing for such a project is right in Hollywood. If the deal goes
through, then Calvino will be a movie or a TV series sometime in late
Meanwhile the foreign
translations of Calvino continue. A few months ago the second Calvino
novel appeared in Japanese ("Spirit House") and the German edition of
Cold Hit comes out in German sometime in the spring of 2001. Also the
Chinese editions of Spirit House and Cold Hit will be published in
2001. Without your hard work the Chinese editions would not have sold.
The deal you put together with the
Beijing based publisher, I believe, something of a first in
4 Although you are probably best known
in Asia for your Calvino detective series, you also wrote a book that
I find personally quite useful titled "Heart Talk" published by Heaven
Lake Press that analyzes the use of the word "jai" or "heart" in the
language and explains the many words and feelings that words with jai
them contain. How did you become interested in this subject and how do
you think the book can help non-Thais to better understand the people
and the Culture of Thailand?
A culture is defined by
its language as the way we think and reflect is language specific. Thai
a wonderfully rich, playful language full of metaphors and word play.
I came to study Thai nearly 12 years ago, I found that "jai" or heart
a recurring term appearing over and over again in many different
combinations. No one had ever attempted to collect all of the phrases
in a single book. Heart Talk brings together hundreds of such phrases
and the idea of the
book was to create a cultural bridge between Thai and non-Thai
Once you can understand the way a person feels deeply about life, it
easier to understand the way they perceive the world. Much of the life
is perceived through the filter of the heart in Thailand. My goal in
Heart Talk was to make this core language feature of Thai accessible to
non-Thai speakers. There is now a CD pronunciation guide that is free
with Heart Talk, and on the CD a native Thai speaker carefully
each of the heart phrases so the non-Thai speaker can more easily pick
up the right tone.
5 To follow-up on the above, just how
good is your Thai? Do you read and write the language and do you feel
that learning and speaking the language has opened doors for you in
this country and its people?
There are levels of
fluency in any language. If the conversation turns to hard science or
concepts in say political or economic life, then I would become lost in
Thai. On the other hand, I sometimes get lost with such concepts in
So perhaps it is more me than language. It would be difficult to write
(unless one wished to stay just on the surface) about the human
unless you can understand the language who occupied the environment you
live in. I choose to live in Thailand and write about Thais and expat
and without a foundation in the language, my books would have not had
6 As a former law professor, you also
have some experience of the Thai legal system. Isn't this correct? Can
you tell us a little about this? Is this fulltime and how would you
the Thai legal system to that of Canada where you were from or say the
The main difference is
that the Thai system is based on a Civil Code. The American, Canadian
and English systems are common law systems. The Thai system is more
like a European
legal system in other words. The role of precedents that was created by
the common law does not operate in the same fashion in Civil Code
The selection of judges is quite different. There are no jury trials
for murder. The amount of administrative regulations and rulings are
to the Thai system, and there is more discretion on the administrative
7 In the go-go 1990s and
throughout the Asian Financial Crisis you were living in Bangkok. As an
keen observer of Thailand, did you see the crash coming and how do you
think the country and the people have been changed by the crisis?
Around this time I would
go on the roof of my apartment house and count the number of
cranes. I live in the heart of Sukhumvit. In 1988 there were few high
rise buildings. Suddenly the sky was filled with steel rods and
In Vancouver, we had lived though cycles of real estate boom and bust.
remember saying to Thai friends, that real estate is like any other
and prices that go up quickly can fall just as rapidly. None wish to
this. There was a collective sense of denial that economic cycles and
principles that applied elsewhere applied in Thailand. It was only a
of time. It is human nature to become carried away in a bull cycle.
happened to the Americans with the dotcoms. It certainly happened to
Thais with hundreds of thousands of empty offices and residential
I wrote God of Darkness just as June 2, 1997 arrived, and tried to
something of the effect of the bust on a rich Thai-Chinese family
8 Do you think these changes you've
noted are really deep seated or only surface changes that will
the economy improve? If so, why?
Over time the economy
improve in Thailand. It is a question of when things will turn around.
Chuan government tried to implement some medicine to correct the ills
a new law for debt restructuring and bankruptcy. For many wealthy
this has been bitter medicine. No one likes to accept failure or
The strength of a political system is the ability to force those who
to accept the consequences of such failure. The easy alternative and
highly popular one is to bail them out. Let the creditors (read
holding the bag. The question is in the air as to whether the new
will roll back the Chuan Government legislation. If it does so, this
test the faith of foreign investors into the bona fides of the
to come to terms current level of debt and non-performing loans.
9 What is your current assesment of
economy here in Thailand and did the crisis lead to new laws and a
outlook which ultimately will put Thai business on a firmer footing?
The new legislation did
place Thailand on an international footing. But the Chuan Government
price for doing so. All politics is ultimately local and about local
interests. There was an inability of the last government to explain why
the legislation was in the best interest of the country in the long
run. Short term interest, planning and thinking often wins out in such
situations and that is one explanation why the Democratic Party (Chuan
is the party leader) failed
at the recent elections. Political reform is a little like writing a
novel; it takes a very long time come up with the right set of idea and
time to finish putting them in place. The same applies to economic
with so many vested interests at stake and so many of the people whose
interest in stake running the show. Most people don’t have the patience
to wait for something good to come out of long, tiring labor. They
often lack faith
anything good will happen down the road. They want something in their
10 Thailand prior to 1998 was known to
have little legal protections for lenders in the event a business
over extended. One of the achievements of the recent Chuan government
passage of a new bankruptcy law. How do you rate this new law and are
actually being forced to close and seek reorganization by the new law?
The Bankruptcy Law was an
achievement that built confidence for investors. Certainly there were
defects such as the vague way that bankruptcy was defined. Still the
legislation was a positive step in the right direction. There may be
pressure on the new government, however, to amend the Bankruptcy Law to
make it more "debtor" friendly. If that comes about, then one can
expect a reaction from capital markets and foreign investors.
11 Thailand has recently elected a new
government although it is questionable whether the Party leader Mr.
Shinawatra will actually be able to head the new government because of
recent legal decisions questioning his reporting of assets. Based on
you've seen and heard, does this new party and their majority in
represent a real sea change in Thai politics or do you see the new
as more tied to the past?
There has been a lot of
debate about whether the new government is old wine in new bottle or
really something new. Certainly there will be some of the old faces
long seen on the political front. Democratic institutions and
traditions remain in the formation
stage. There is evidence the Thai lak Thai party is trying to do keep
in touch with the grassroots through thousands of local centres which
listen to locals’ complaints and views and these will be passed along
the MPs. If this comes about, this would be something new and important
in Thai politics. Until Mr. Taksin’s cabinet has been selected it is
to know what direction things will go in the immediate future. The
of the Finance Minister is, for example, an extremely important choice.
And Mr. Taksin’s own political fate has yet to be resolved and this
happen until the Constitutional Court decides whether earlier findings
his failure to report his shareholdings violated disclosure laws that
what MPs must disclose as to their assets.
12 After the years you've lived in
Thailand and your obvious love of the people and the culture
demonstrated in you
book "Heart Talk" what do you see as the major problems facing the new
government and how confident are you that the government will actually
be able to solve these problems?
It is too early to
formulate any judgment about the success of the new government. There
are too many unknown factors. What can be said, however, is that
experienced observers will be looking for signs that political and
economic reform are high on