The 500-page novel The Windup Girl became available in Thailand in 2011 – two years after its first print in the United States. It’s a sci-fi book but what makes it interesting is that it’s set in Bangkok, Thailand, which is usually the setting for suspense/thriller/murder genre fiction and is less commonly depicted as a bioengineering hotbed. The Windup Girl won several awards in the US and was listed as the ninth best fiction book in 2009.
The Windup Girl’s author, Paolo Bacigalupi from Western Colorado, did an excellent job at inventing a dystopic Bangkok by meshing the various elements of Thai culture together. He weaves them with the West’s hunger for commercialism, splendidly represented through the brutality of the calorie company man who’ll stop at nothing to achieve his mission. Resistance from local Bangkok authorities results in a civil war that left the city in ruins – a struggle which seems to continue on even towards the end of the novel. It’s not a far cry from the violence that paralyzed downtown Bangkok in 2010.
The Windup Girl’s plot is actually much more complex. The Japanese come into play through the engineered Windup Girl who is entangled in the whole debacle. Bacigalupi is obviously deeply fascinated by Thai fruits (ngaw). The naming of his characters is also interesting and hasn’t been fully explored by anyone.
- Many of The Windup Girl’s characters bear the same last name as Thailand’s most prominent families. The Chirativat and Bhirombhakdi. The Chirathivats migrated from China and today are best known as the founders of the Central department store, among other businesses. The Bhirombhakdis are the founders of the first Thai beer and brewery under the name Singha, although their businesses have diversified over the decades.
- It’s possible that Hock Seng, the Chinese yellow card, could have been named after the early generation of Chrathivat to have settled in Thailand. His Thai name was Samrit Chirativat (according to Wikipedia, his Chinese name is Hock Seng) and he was one of the founders of the Central department store in Bangkok back in 1947.
- The Phra Seub amulet presumably pays homage to Thailand’s renowned environmentalist, the late Seub Nakhasathien. A wildlife conservationist, today Sueb’s eponymous foundation still pursues his legacy. In reality he is not revered like a deity as the book suggests.
If anything, The Windup Girl is an entertaining read not to be taken too seriously where Thai politics is concerned. The division between yellow and red shirts is reduced to the white shirt in the book. Bangkok’s reputation as the red light district is well explored, reflected through the sleazy Raleigh who imports Emiko the Windup Girl as a novelty for patrons.
Towards the end of The Windup Girl is where the book feels the most detached from Thailand as Bacigalupi delves fully into his debates on bioengineering – save for the fact that Bangkok is abandoned to immerse under water. According to academic, Bangkok is a sinking city, but let’s leave that to the very distant future.