Ka­mala Sukosol, the all-singing, all-dancing ma­tri­arch at the head of a Thai fam­ily dy­nasty

Ka­mala Sukosol, the head of one of Thailand’s most suc­cess­ful ho­tel dy­nas­ties, dis­cusses her ini­tial am­biva­lence to­ward the fam­ily busi­ness, us­ing mu­sic as a mar­ket­ing tool and why Don­ald Trump has her feel­ing sorry for the US

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - Words by Claire Knox Pho­tog­ra­phy by David Ter­razas

Swathed head-to-toe in silky black with a string of glossy pearls around her neck, Ka­mala Sukosol looks the part of an elite busi­ness­woman. But it doesn’t take long for the bold and brash de­meanour of Bangkok’s big haired, high-end ho­tel queen to emerge. Soon af­ter greet­ing us in­side the strik­ing atrium of her ho­tel em­pire’s most re­cent and ex­clu­sive Bangkok prop­erty, the Siam, she glides into the river­side re­sort’s ‘Vinyl Room’, si­dles on to a stool by an an­tique piano and pounds away at the keys. “I said, hello, Dolly,” she croons. “Well, hello, Dolly,” she belts out an oc­tave higher. It’s a pretty con­vinc­ing ren­di­tion of Louis Arm­strong’s grav­elly bari­tone and a rather the­atri­cal start to our in­ter­view.

As the ma­tri­arch of one of Thailand’s most suc­cess­ful fam­ily dy­nas­ties, the Sukosol Group, Ka­mala is colour­ful, charis­matic and in charge of a port­fo­lio of ho­tels in Bangkok and Pat­taya, trad­ing busi­nesses and valu­able beach­front and in­ner-city prop­er­ties. She could also ac­cu­rately be de­scribed as be­ing in both the en­ter­tain­ment and med­i­cal tech­nol­ogy in­dus­tries. The com­pany is wholly owned and op­er­ated by her im­me­di­ate fam­ily: her two el­dest daugh­ters, Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi and Dara­nee Sukosol Clapp, joined the busi­ness af­ter stints in the US. Dara­nee cut her teeth work­ing on Wall Street and is now the chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer and vice-pres­i­dent of the real es­tate and trad­ing com­pa­nies, while Marisa over­sees mar­ket­ing, man­age­ment and de­vel­op­ment as ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent. Sukosol’s two sons, Kamol Sukosol Clapp and Kris­sada Sukosol Clapp, found suc­cess as pop stars and ac­tors, even found­ing an in­die record la­bel. They too now work for the fam­ily busi­ness.

Both the busi­ness and the mu­sic are in the Sukosol genes. The ma­tri­arch can’t walk far in Bangkok with­out be­ing stopped for a selfie or au­to­graph. As a pop­u­lar jazz singer, she re­leased more than 25 sin­gles and al­bums and sold out dozens of sta­dium events for char­i­ties such as the Thai Red Cross. In 2003, her song “Live and Learn” won a Thai Sea­son Award for Best Song of the Year. In

2009, Forbes Asia listed her as one of 48 ‘He­roes of Philanthropy’. The Sukosol Group has never dis­closed its rev­enue or profit fig­ures (as a fam­ily busi­ness, it’s never had to), yet Forbes es­ti­mates the group’s value at around $200m.

“You know – I’m just warn­ing you – I yak away. Have I yakked too much al­ready? These kind of in­ter­views are more in­ter­est­ing though, right? I’m al­ways off the cuff!” In­deed, it’s hard keep­ing 76-year-old Sukosol on topic. She talks breath­lessly – each sub­ject be­comes the launch­ing pad for an­other en­ter­tain­ing, if ran­dom, anec­dote. When she finds out our pho­tog­ra­pher is from Pam­plona, she spends the next five min­utes flaunt­ing her flaw­less Span­ish. “Oh, I just love Rafael Nadal,” she says of the Span­ish ten­nis star. “Watch­ing him play is my true hap­pi­ness! I have met him at his academy in Ma­jorca, he was mes­meris­ing – he had two peo­ple play­ing him on the other side of the court and even with two of them they couldn’t keep up.”

Be­fore we can move on to our ques­tions, Sukosol flits back­stage and into the chang­ing room, emerg­ing from her of­fice ten min­utes later like a mag­nif­i­cent, blue crane. She prances around, flap­ping the sleeves of her dress be­fore erupt­ing into laugh­ter. She then launches into sto­ries of the fam­ily’s ex­quis­ite col­lec­tion of an­tiques, most of which are now show­cased at the Siam. With 39 rooms re­port­edly built at a whop­ping $1 mil­lion each – not to men­tion the value of the three acres of prime real es­tate in the old royal Dusit dis­trict of Bangkok – it’s surely the Sukosol Group’s most costly project to date. It’s also the com­pany’s most am­bi­tious: an avant-garde re­treat blend­ing the old tenets of Thai wooden ar­chi­tec­ture, the lay­outs of the early 20th-cen­tury palaces and a jazzy, black and white Art Deco de­sign.

Pre­dom­i­nantly the work of her rock star son Kris­sada, or “Krissy” to his mom, the ho­tel also rep­re­sents a shift in di­rec­tion for the ho­tel brand; the “third wave,” as Sukosol says. Her late fa­ther, Ka­mal Sukosol, pur­chased the land over 40 years ago as a stor­age space; he’d built up the fam­ily es­tate in the 1930s partly through snap­ping up valu­able prop­erty. Ka­mal also pounced on man­u­fac­tur­ing and the im­port in­dus­try, be­com­ing the first ex­clu­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Gen­eral Elec­tric prod­ucts in Thailand, and then of Mazda cars. For a long time, the land was rented out to a lo­cal seafood restau­rant but once the lease ex­pired, Kris­sada pas­sion­ately pitched his dream project to his mother – a stately, lux­ury river inn cum gallery for the 2,000-odd an­tiques and pieces of vin­tage fur­ni­ture he’d col­lected over the years.

The idea in­trigued his mother, who had her­self ac­cu­mu­lated a fas­ci­nat­ing col­lec­tion of Chi­nese pot­tery from the Ming and Han dy­nas­ties. “I used to go out and source my own an­tiques – I was quite in­trepid, but I work with deal­ers these days. Krissy has in­her­ited that cu­ri­ous na­ture; he’s al­ways off to re­mote places, scour­ing the world. He likes more quirky things though, like this thing,” she says, point­ing to a life-size fig­ure of ET. Then it’s off on an­other tan­gent. “Is that Yoda, the Star Wars char­ac­ter? Ha, you know my grand­kids, they tell me I look like Yoda, the lit­tle thing. Chil­dren usu­ally tell the truth, you know.”

Sukosol’s child­hood was in­de­pen­dent and of­ten lonely, she says, which helps to ex­plain her deep sup­port of her own off­spring and grand­chil­dren. “I grew up in board­ing schools in Eng­land and then took my­self over to univer­sity in the US,” she says, adding that she found some­thing like a fam­ily in Amer­ica’s mu­si­cal theatre scene.

“I was away from Thailand for 20 years. I com­pleted a master’s of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Columbia – I was sup­posed to work in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions or some­thing. At one stage, I was ap­proached by an agent to au­di­tion for the theatre. It was a dream come true, but then my fa­ther got in­volved; in those days in Thailand be­ing a pro­fes­sional singer or dancer was un­heard of. So back I came to Thailand.

“I wasn’t close with dad, and I raised my­self, re­ally,” she adds. “And I grew up know­ing one thing – that I couldn’t de­pend on any­one else. I had to de­pend on my­self.”

Ka­mal, who died in 1980, had col­lected swathes of valu­able prop­erty, and he asked Sukosol and her younger sis­ter to look af­ter his legacy. Her sis­ter took over the au­to­mo­bile side; she took over the ho­tels. In 1975, she trans­formed an ex­panse of beach­side land in Pat­taya into the Siam Bayshore Re­sort and Spa, be­com­ing one of the early pioneers of the he­do­nis­tic town’s hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try, and in 1983 fol­lowed up with the Siam Bayview Ho­tel.

“I never chose Pat­taya… I re­mem­ber think­ing why on earth did my dad buy that god damn land… what could I do with it? So I built a ho­tel, and I had no idea what I was do­ing. We started with three-star ho­tels, and jeez I made so many mis­takes. It was a fail­ure to start with, but then I learnt step by step, and we brought ar­chi­tects to come in to re­design,” she says.

In those early days, Sukosol says she be­came “one of the boys” in or­der to seal deals and forge busi­ness part­ner­ships, yet she feels gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion man­i­fested in dif­fer­ent ways in the ’70s and ’80s.

“Thailand now has a high pro­por­tion of fe­male ex­ec­u­tives. In the old days, the men were ex­pected to take pres­ti­gious jobs as ar­chi­tects, pro­fes­sors, civil ser­vants – it was left for the women to run the house­hold and the busi­nesses. Loan shark­ing, buy­ing land – I saw my aunts and my mother do­ing this. Women did all the wheel­ing and deal­ing. I think that’s had an ef­fect on the high num­ber of women in top roles.”

These days, Sukosol still does plenty of deals, but says she finds her hap­pi­ness in travel – she had re­cently re­turned from a two-week fam­ily trip to Iran when we met – ten­nis and ob­serv­ing pol­i­tics.

“I’m ob­sessed with Macron right now – the first time I’ve ever fol­lowed French pol­i­tics. But Trump! I feel sorry for Amer­ica for the first time in my life. He’s a dis­as­ter. My nine-year-old grand­son does the best im­per­son­ations, and I’ve even given him a slot at my next con­cert,” she riffs.

Along with the busi­ness and leisure, there’s al­ways the mu­sic. “Singing and per­form­ing makes life in­ter­est­ing. Maybe it’s why I’m picked out for in­ter­views… this old, short woman! They could pick some­one younger and more suc­cess­ful, but maybe I’m just more in­ter­est­ing af­ter all.”

Ka­mala Sukosol pho­tographed at the Siam ho­tel in Bangkok (op­po­site page); count­less an­tiques help pro­vide the ho­tel’s charm (be­low)

Ka­mala Sukosol belts out a tune on the piano (top left); the Siam’s ef­fort­less style has en­chanted visi­tors for years

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