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.Continue reading