* Out of Swatow (Shantou)

I wrote the following article on the founding family of the Bangkok Bank empire as a sidebar to the Forbes Asia feature published in July 2021 issue. It was shelved for lack of space in the magazine, but why let a good sidebar go to waste?

I did add a recent event: the 2022 death of Chin’s oldest son, Hong Kong-based Robin Chan. He was a pro-Beijing “patriot,” but his son, Bernard Chan, is much more active in that regard, as you can see from links to his name below. Bernard is so patriotic that he even gave up his US and Thai citizenships in favor of a Chinese one. It’s interesting then that Bernard’s first cousin, Ken Sim, has just been elected mayor of Vancouver, Canada.

The Thailand branch of the family has stayed out of politics, at least publicly. The sole exception has been physicist Kalaya Sophonpanich, a former Democrat MP. The reputation of the Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest political party, has been stained by the Democrat-led government that ordered the 2010 army crackdown on unarmed democracy demonstrators. But when Kalaya was first elected in the early 2000s, the Democrat Party was widely regarded as the cleanest political party and the most committed to rule of law and democratic, parliamentary governance.

Better known as Swatow for most of the 20th century, the Shantou area was the homeland of many Chinese emigrants who sought their fortunes in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand. Something else that I omitted: Like both his parents, the current bank president, Chartsiri Sophonpanich, is Catholic. I don’t know if Chartsiri’s Swatow-born grandmother was Catholic, but it wouldn’t be surprising since the city has Christian churches dating from the treaty port era. SC

Although born across the river from Bangkok in 1908, Chin Sophonpanich—also known as Tan Biak-ching and Chen Bichen—was sent at age five to live on the modest farm of his grandparents in the Teochiu-speaking area that surrounds what was then the thriving treaty port of Shantou (“Swatow” in local dialect) in eastern Guangdong province. When his father lost his job as a sawmill clerk, Chin was recalled to Thailand at age 17 to help support his four sisters. Beginning as a laborer while studying the Thai language, he worked his way up from construction company clerk to trader in lumber, hardware, rice and gold, according to Sons of the Yellow Emperor by Lynne Pan.

During World War II, when Thailand, then known as Siam, was occupied by the Japanese, Chin was a member of Seri Thai, the anti-Japanese underground. He was even awarded a medal for his activities at the end of the war. He stumbled into the banking industry in December 1944 under inauspicious circumstances. Three years into the Japanese occupation, the European banks that had dominated Siam since the late 19th century had long been shut down. Thailand’s economy was in shambles and inflation was soaring. Despite his hostility towards his country’s Chinese residents, Thailand’s ruler, General Phibun Songkhram, encouraged local Chinese traders to set up commercial banks.

Chin joined with eight Teochiu friends to open Bangkok Bank in a shophouse. His formal education was limited, but Chin had an aptitude for numbers and an interest in Western business practices. When the bank was foundering in 1952, Chin bought out his partners’ shares and began hiring economists and professional managers.

His innovations began with systems of overseas remittances. In order to support their families in China and the war effort against the Japanese, Chinese residents had relied on clan or dialect associations to send money through couriers and private postal exchanges. During the war and chaotic post-war aftermath, usually that was in the form of gold. Chin modernized the process with telegraphic transfers.

He offered high interest rates to shopkeepers and credit to small and medium-sized enterprises that had growth potential. At a time when European banks would only loan to Chinese and other non-whites on crippling terms, if at all, Chin was renowned for placing his trust in promising Chinese entrepreneurs. He did so not only in Thailand but in Hong Kong and throughout Southeast Asia.  Among his protegés who rose to become dollar multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons were Malaysia’s Robert Kuok and Indonesia’s Liem Sioe Liong.

By the mid-1950s, Bangkok Bank had $50 million in assets and was rapidly adding branches in provincial capitals. Chin helped underwrite the Thai economy’s transitions from trading to agribusiness to export-oriented manufacturing.

In the decades of harsh military dictatorship from the 1950s to 1970s, the breathtaking growth of the banks and companies founded by Sino-Thais required close relationships with powerful military and governmental figures. The boards of directors of these companies always included high-ranking military officers. Chin’s special patron was a notorious police general, Phao Sriyanont. When Phao was ousted in a coup by General Sarit Thanarat in 1958, Chin decamped to Hong Kong until Sarit’s death in 1963.

The site in 1954 of Bangkok Bank’s first overseas branch, Hong Kong proved to be an ideal base for expanding the bank’s network. Branches in Tokyo, London, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur soon followed in the 1950s to serve the trade finance needs of both Thai and foreign corporates. Excluding the 302 branches added by the Permata acquisition, today Bangkok Bank’s overseas network comprises 28 branches in 14 economies.

Chin, who died in 1988, had two wives. Shantou-born Rabin Sophonpanich, the older of his two sons by the Chinese wife, made a career in Hong Kong where he was known as Robin Chan Yau Hing. The former chairman of the family-owned insurer Asia Financial Holdings there, he died in April 2022 at age 90. His son, Bernard Charnwut Chan, is a prominent pro-Beijing Hong Kong politician, deputy to Beijing’s National People’s Congress and was a longstanding ally of former Hong Kong Governor Carrie Lam, even as she implemented Beijing’s harsh National Security Law. Chartri, the second son and Chartsiri’s father, served as Bangkok Bank president from 1980 to 1992 and chairman from 1999 until his death in 2018 at 85.

By his second wife, a Thai, Chin had four sons and one daughter, most of whom have been involved in family businesses in Thailand to varying degrees. Chodchoy, Chin’s sole daughter, is a socialite who started the Magic Eyes anti-littering campaign. Kalaya Sophonpanich, a physicist, is married to one of Chodchoy’s full brothers, Chote. A Democrat Party politician and former MP, Kalaya served as minister of science and technology from 2008 to 2010.

Susan Cunningham