* 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.

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* Priceza, Priceprice, PricePanda – Who’s Winning And Losing SE Asia’s Price Comparison Races

[Originally published on Forbes.com in 2015]

With the soft launch last month of Priceza websites in Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore, Thailand’s number one shopping price comparison portal now has a presence in five countries with a total of 540 million residents. Priceza Thailand debuted in January 2010 and Priceza Indonesia in May 2013.  Next market in 2015: Vietnam. If all grows as planned, the six sites will attract nearly 400 million annual visitors in 2019.

Back in 2009, when three former Chulalongkorn University classmates were dreaming up website ideas,  “we were looking for a scalable model. From day one, we knew wanted to be in other countries too,” says Priceza CEO Thanawat (Wai) Malabuppha.

It’s complicated, though. The competitive landscape in each country is different. That isn’t just a reflection of  per capita income and internet penetration but also of payment systems and the sheer number of e-commerce websites. MORE

* Four Generations: Bangkok’s Riverboat Queens Gear Up For The Property Business

This story appeared in the August 2018 issue of Forbes Asia as “Riverboat Queens.”

By Susan Cunningham
Forbes Asia


Supapan Pichaironarongsongkram is explaining the art of managing the tough men who operate her 90-strong fleet of ferries, commuter boats and charters that ply Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River. “When you work with men, you don’t work as a woman and a man. A man will always look down on a woman. They probably don’t think I know much. I go to them as a friend or mother. I protect them. If they know that, they will trust me. They know they will never lose a job. We work through generations of trust.”

Supapan, 73, represents the third generation of women at the helm of Supatra & Chao Phraya Express Boat Group. Her grandmother started the ferry service roughly a century ago–the exact year is unknown–and when she died in 1931, Supapan’s mother took over at age 20 (see Thailand’s Supatra Dynasty – 4 Generations Of Women Running The Chao Phraya River). Today the group comprises ten companies and 600 employees, and the fourth generation is getting ready to take over. Supapan’s 32-year-old daughter, Natapree, better known as Pim, has been building the group’s advertising sales, hotel and real estate businesses for the past six years.


Supapan is petite, soft-spoken and impeccably groomed. If she hadn’t felt a sense of responsibility to carry on the family business, she would have followed a more genteel line of work, perhaps using her French degree or pursuing a career as a pianist. But, says Pim, her only child, her mother’s benign appearance is deceptive: “She works six days a week. She doesn’t have an engineering degree, but she knows all the specifications of the boats, the materials, the buoyancy required for the boats to float, the width of the river, the depth of the river. She will act like she doesn’t know much, but she knows everything. You cannot mess with her.” MORE

* Despite Political Thaw, Myanmar Refugees in Thailand Reluctant to Return Home

By Susan Cunningham
Mizzima Weekly, November 2, 2017

Despite the political reforms since 2012 and the 2015 ceasefire, 98,000 Myanmar refugees living in nine Thailand border camps display little readiness to return home, even as services are tapering off.

“What we thought would be the triggers to return home have come and gone,” said Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium. She spoke October 19 in Bangkok on a Foreign Correspondents of Thailand panel concerning the status of Myanmar refugees. The Consortium is responsible for providing basic humanitarian services such as food, shelter and camp management to nine camps along the northwestern Thai border.

Refugees’ reluctance to return home stems from several causes, Thompson said: “They see ongoing services skirmishes. They see the KNU [Karen National Union] demanding withdrawal of troops [from the state]. There hasn’t been any. In fact, there has been an increase. They want to see practical changes on the ground. A ceasefire agreement is not peace. They ask, ‘Who can guarantee my safety?'” Predominantly Karen (Kayah), camp residents also belong to Kayin, Kachin, Mon, Burman, Pa-O and Chin ethnic groups …   Thailand refugees reluctant – Mizzima

* Watch the 1926 Funeral of Thai King Vajiravudh (Rama VI)

 


I included a link and caption to this rare digitized footage of the 1926 funeral of Thai King Vajiravudh (aka Rama VI) to accompany a pair of travel advisory stories I wrote for the South China Morning Post related to King Bhumibol’s funeral rites in October 2017. The actual cremation took place on the evening of October 26, preceded by a half-dozen processions that day and by five rehearsals in the days before that. (The gist of my stories: Don’t even think that you can get close enough on October 25-27 to see anything in the vicinity of the funerary structures.)


The video caption I wrote was edited down a lot for publication, so I don’t think readers could draw much from it. Early on in the video, that’s Vajiravudh’s brother, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), presiding over—by pulling a specially made rope—the raising of the Royal Six-Tiered Umbrella to a spire atop the multi-story wood crematorium. That ceremony occurs a few days before the actual cremation; this year it took place October 18, with Thailand’s new king, Vajiralongkorn, presiding.  Continue reading