The Bangkok type
William Warren, a legendary denizen, writer of dozens of books about Thailand including a biography of Jim Thompson and Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, and a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University for 30 years, died last Thursday at 87
There was something distinctly cinematic about my visits to William Warren's residence over the years. He always waited in near darkness in the screened porch off his living room. As I entered his Sukhumvit home, which was surrounded by lush gardens and teeming with antiques, a gravelly but distinctly welcoming "hello" would put me at ease. Only then would I see him in the dim light, holding a cigarette or tumbler (a stiff gin and tonic or whiskey soda), sitting completely composed.
Our conversations also seemed to follow a pattern. Each chat would start with pleasantries before meandering through a list of common expatriate topics -- Thailand, Thais, living in Thailand -- before some detours into the quite personal, with an occasional digression into scathing gossip, which we both relished. One could listen to Warren speak for hours: the southern drawl still intact after decades in Bangkok, his recall of favourite anecdotes ever at the ready, his insider stories about Thai society perhaps unsurpassed among foreigners (though perhaps to be taken with a pinch of salt), the barbs still sharp, his cynicism never overwhelming his civility.
One felt that Warren descended from a great line of raconteurs. When he noted something he found truly remarkable, he would punctuate it with a pause, a gape and wide-eyed look of sincere wonder that spoke volumes about how much he clearly delighted in his time in Thailand.
William Warren was born in Albany, Georgia, in 1930. There was a legend in his family, he says, that someone asked him: "What do you want to do when you grow up?". And he replied: "Get out of this town." Warren doubts the story's authenticity because he enjoyed his childhood. "But I did want to get out," he said. "I wanted to go somewhere."
The road to "somewhere" was first paved by the United States Air Force, which he joined after graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, as the Korean War was petering out. He was never sent overseas but did make it as far as Texas. Then in 1953, at the age of 23, he travelled like so many others in search of something more to New York.
Photo: Bangkok Post Archive
"I loved being there," he recalled. "It is a good place to be in your 20s because you don't have to have any money. No one I knew had any money. We were all poor, but we all had nice apartments, safe apartments. And it was safe to walk around at night. That was the last time New York was really liveable."
He worked at New York University, as a writer for a CBS Television show and at the New Yorker as a proofreader, or "copy stylist" as they called it then, before being fired. In 1958, he accepted an assignment to travel to the Far East as a scriptwriter for a film company called Alfred Wagg Productions. His boss there was, in Warren's words, "a crook" and "a con man" who milked the budgets set aside by organisations such as the United Nations for documentary work. Almost nothing is revealed about Alfred Wagg productions through a cursory internet search. Perhaps its most lasting legacy in Asia is William Warren himself.
Warren's assignment took him to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Manila and Bangkok, where his boss had instructed him to call on Jim Thompson, the silk entrepreneur.
"He said Jim would cash a cheque for me and find me a cheap hotel to stay in," he recalled. "He did cash a cheque and find me a cheap hotel, which turned out to be a whorehouse."
The Coronet by Lumpini Park, where Warren stayed for three months, wasn't a brothel but a short-time motel sandwiched precariously over a busy lane and a canal.
"It offered a steady stream of experiences that were not always pleasant but were certainly never dull: earthquake-like tremors when large trucks passed beneath; midnight knocks and mysterious phone calls; an attempted murder in the room next to mine, complete with blood-curdling screams; and once a police raid that revealed me to be the only guest alone in his bed," he wrote in a personal essay in one of his first books, Bangkok. Warren loved to recount how one day years later when he passed by The Coronet, the staff remarked to each other: "That was the one who got mail!"
When Warren returned to New York City in 1959, after Alfred Wagg Productions collapsed, "it was with a strange sense of loss". The Big Apple had lost its lustre.
"The magic had gone as it does sometimes," he said. After experiencing Asia -- he preferred Manila the most -- he realised his fate and success likely lay elsewhere. "I grew to dislike New York more. I realised I wasn't going to be a big success. And New York wasn't a place to be if you weren't going to be a success. I didn't have the drive anymore."
So in 1960, he took a further leap that bewildered his mother and friends and booked a Dutch freighter for Bangkok. Before embarking, he wrote to Chulalongkorn University inquiring about a position and asked around at publishers to gauge their interest in stories from Asia. He received no promises, but went anyway.
The Dutch freighter carried only eight passengers: a missionary, his wife and three children, a couple from New Jersey who were emigrating to Australia and Warren. The young man from landlocked Georgia had a large cabin to himself, received four meals a day, watched a movie once a week, and passed the time by reading and keeping a journal he described as "pretentious".
"Freight passage wasn't the way to go if you were in a rush," he said. "But it was a great way to travel. I would love to do it now."
The ship stopped in Sicily and Alexandria, passed through the Suez Canal, and then docked in Aden, Mogadishu, Ceylon, Penang and Singapore, before arriving, after eight weeks, in Thailand. By that time, Warren was the only passenger left.
The story that was to unfold for Warren in Thailand was exemplar of many expatriates who truly come to call the country home. He did not arrive purely for business nor for pleasure, knew no one well, and had no idea how long he might stay, but Bangkok quickly cast its spell. "The Thais of all the Asians I knew were the most sympathetic and the most pleasant," he said.
In Thailand, Warren's undying curiosity was quenched. Cooking on a charcoal stove and living without air-conditioning, a telephone or consistent water pressure were just added charms. Through his connection to Thompson, he was quickly welcomed into the community of expatriates.
"People in Asia were very generous," he said. "They invited you over and you could easily meet people. And you could meet Thais too. I was very social. I liked meeting people."
William Warren in his library at home in 2014. (Photo Nicholas Grossman)
Besides Thompson, the most important of these was Charles Sheffield, who was the No.2 at the silk company and in charge of exports. Warren shared Jim Thompson's former home with Sheffield throughout the 1960s and early 1970s and the pair became constant companions, frequently travelling the region and to Warren's favourite destination, Japan, and amassing an impressive array of antiques, many of which still decorate Warren's residence.
Soon after his arrival, Warren received the teaching position at Chulalongkorn, where he would serve as an English instructor in several faculties for the next 30 years. Asked what the monthly wage was, Warren said "not much". He shared his housing allowance from Chulalongkorn with Sheffield, who otherwise took care of most of the household expenses. In 1973, Sheffield passed away from lung cancer.
Warren then embarked on his incredibly prolific writing career in earnest, a bibliography that features over 50 books and countless newspaper and magazine articles to date. "I look back on it now and think about how much I wrote, all of it was after work and on weekends."
"I really did work my ass off," he said. "I wrote as much -- especially at the beginning -- to learn as I did to tell. I wanted to find things out. I wrote endless articles for the Reader's Digest and a magazine called Asia for the Asia Society. Every one of them was an expose. Nobody had written anything about Thai architecture or tropical gardens for example."
This made much of Warren's work -- which is almost all non-fiction and largely reference oriented -- trailblazing. Countless expatriates who followed have read one of his books. Indeed, the very first book I picked up while travelling on assignment here was his biography of Jim Thompson. Given how much shelf space Warren's books occupy perhaps it is not so surprising. Warren also developed a reputation as a reliable writer in a part of the world that had few. Charles Orwin of Editions Didier Millet (EDM), one of Warren's publishers, said Warren "always delivers readable prose requiring little editorial intervention, on time and to the requested length. This makes him a godsend to editors everywhere".
As Thailand continued to captivate Warren, "a few months became a year, then a decade, suddenly, almost without realising it, one has become an old-timer, an alleged authority. (But only alleged: the longer one lives in a city like Bangkok, the more aware one becomes of things unknown, or imperfectly understood)", he recalled in his volume Bangkok.
He came to realise that he was what he called the "Bangkok type", inexplicably drawn by the city's unpredictability and mystery. Not everyone was, as Warren likes to illustrate with one of his favourite anecdotes. A family of Americans who lived near him "went slowly to pieces".
"The husband took to muttering incoherently about the way people drove and did business, the teenage son discovered Patpong bargirls, and the wife, who worried obsessively about snakes and germs, finally broke one afternoon and ran down the street stark naked. They were quickly shipped home, where I was told, they resumed their normal, placid life."
As time passed, Warren himself developed an antipathetic attitude towards America. He says he was largely unaware of the American presence here in the 1960s and 1970s and "wasn't traipsing around Petchaburi Road" like the GIs, but he did make sure he avoided that conflict, a "nightmare" he calls it, by getting discharged from the Air Force.
"I lived in horror of being called back in. I am not the military type," he said with a hearty laugh. "America is not a very admirable country," he added. "I don't like what they do. I think they are crazy. I was disillusioned with the Civil Rights movement. Albany, my hometown, has dissolved into bitterness and meanness. The whole Aids thing depressed me. I lost so many friends I loved. And nobody seemed to give a damn about any of it so I stopped giving a damn."
A later biography Warren wrote about then-prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda, published in the 1990s, was not as well received. Warren described the book as a favour to a friend and rather "deadly". On their Friday morning interviews together, Prem preferred to talk about his boyhood, but he "was a very sweet and generous man" and "a gentleman", said Warren.
Warren largely disassociated himself from the news events and Thai crises that excited international correspondents.
"I always felt that foreigners in Thailand should not get involved in politics. I couldn't give a damn who was in charge because they were all crooks as far as I was concerned," he said in typically unsparing fashion. Warren rarely minced his words. Indeed, he seemed to relish being frank in a country he sees as marred by incorrigible dishonesty.
But what he has learned about Thailand never eliminated his warmth for it, and his understanding of what it has given him. In his book Bangkok, Warren quoted the following passage from the Somerset Maugham novel The Moon And Sixpence: "I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they always have a nostalgia for a home they know not … Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth."
And then to this Warren added himself: "To some it may seem peculiar, that anyone could feel at home in the Coronet Hotel. They may well be right. Or, on the other hand, they may just not be the Bangkok type."
This profile was first published two years ago in the Bangkok Post Magazine.