Rong Wongsawan, who has died aged 76 of a brain haemorrhage, was a pivotal and prolific writer, but also journalist, photo-grapher and actor who transformed the landscape of Thai literature through the topicality of his work and the originality of his language. He navigated limitations on free expression by metaphorical allusion. His style was frequently satirical, challenging repressive morality and exposing the hypocrisy of Thai society. The ironic humour and turns of phrase he invented have found their way into everyday Thai discourse.
Rong was born in Chai Nat province, the eldest son of a civil engineer, and educated at the elite Triam Udom Suksa school in Bangkok. Despite demonstrating literary promise, he was expelled after an altercation with a teacher and was obliged to seek employment, including spells as a ship's helmsman, log yard supervisor and model.
The legendary media magnate, writer and politician Kukrit Pramoj, who was Thai prime minister from 1975 to 1976, launched his literary career by taking him on as a columnist and photographer for the Sayaam Rat Weekly in 1954. Rong's photo-essay, with the evocative title Children of the Garbage Mountain (1956), which featured children scavenging for food, was the beginning of his rise to prominence. It exposed the dire poverty of Bangkok's underclass and spurred the government into creating a welfare programme.
In the early 1960s - against a backdrop of repressive military rule, rapid economic expansion under the umbrella of American anti-communist influence, and profound social transformation, including urbanisation and the first signs of the emergence of an educated middle class - he produced several ground-breaking novels. Sanim Soi (1961) addressed prostitution, a particularly sensitive area associated with poverty and neglect. Concealed beneath an artificial edifice of public morality are the "paid women" who service the sexual needs of society. In the days before Aids, this was the first Thai book to address sexually transmitted infection. Bang Lampoo Square (1963), named after the inner-city Bangkok district, was a semi-autobiographical account of a school dropout living among petty criminals on society's edge.
Although one might detect the influence of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in this hard-boiled sample of urban life, Rong did not discover the western world until the mid-1960s. By working as a barman in San Francisco during his prolonged stay (1963-67) as the Sayaam Rat roving US correspondent, he found a window from which to observe a very different cultural scene.
His commitment to promoting sexual liberation as well as his penchant for rock and dashiki dress was reinforced by flirtation with the Haight-Ashbury hippy movement, and his output from this period reflected a psychedelic lifestyle. His earlier novel Sanim Krungtep (the Oxidised Stain of Bangkok, 1961) had anticipated the permissive society by featuring an adolescent middle-class girl from a broken rural home who is lured to Bangkok by a playboy, but Long Glin Gunjah (In a Haze of Cannabis, 1969) introduced his Thai readership to this alternative movement.
Although he never became involved in Thai politics, Rong exposed himself to considerable risk by using his columns to criticise the counter-democratic actions of Thailand's military rulers, particularly in 1973 and 1976 when many unarmed pro-democracy student demonstrators were massacred by paramilitary elements.
He was most recognised as a writer, conversationalist, humorist and bon vivant, accustomed to media and academic celebrity, but he also landed a leading role in the movie Chuafah Dinsalai (Forever Yours, 1955). Three decades later he played the South Vietnamese foreign minister in Stephen Frears's TV movie, Saigon: Year of the Cat.
From the mid-1980s, Thailand's cultural elite were habitual visitors to the mountain retreat he designed himself near Chiang Mai, which also became a mecca for aspiring writers and poets, as well as unannounced pilgrims paying homage to their hero. The devotion of his public following was demonstrated by the success of his serialised autobiographical account of life during the second world war, Menu Ban Tai Vang (Menu at a House at the Back of a Palace, 1999).
Rong's entire output of more than 100 books and thousands of articles was tapped out on his favourite manual typewriter, even after the advent of computers. The critical acclaim of which he was most proud was his recognition as national artist in the field of literature by the National Culture Commission in 1995. He will be best remembered for his relentless exploration of the expressive potential of his own language, and as a writer who could approach topical and often unsavoury themes with a rare brand of insight, honesty and wit.
He is survived by his wife, Tim, and two sons, Leung and Joy.
• Rong Wongsawan, writer, journalist, photographer, born 20 May 1932; died 15 March 2009
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