An Early Res­i­dent Re­lates His Im­pres­sions of Thai­land

Thai-American Business (T-AB) Magazine - - Contents - Writ­ten by: Lewis Cyk­man Reprinted from: T- AB, March- April 1984

Pan Am’s last flight out of China tax­ied into its hangar at Don Muang Air­port some 36 hours af­ter leav­ing Shang­hai. As we alit from the plane, we were handed a bot­tle of or­ange- ade each and greeted by a warm smile from the ground host­ess. The cal­en­dar on the bulletin board a few feet away in­di­cated the date, May 2nd 1949. We were in Siam, away from the tur­moil of main­land China.

No sooner had we gulpped down our or­ange- ade when a gen­tle­man in khaki ap­proached us and in­tro­duced him­self as the im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer. Look­ing over my brood of two kids, my wife, my wife’s grand­mother, he turned to me and said “It’s still rain­ing hard and it’s get­ting to be late. Why don’t you go ahead to your ho­tel and I’ll come to see you to­mor­row in the af­ter­noon”. I of­ten re­call this quote on the nu­mer­ous trips I have taken since then. The cus­toms of­fi­cer was no less con­sid­er­ate and waived us to the wait­ing limou­sine which took us to the Rat­tanakosin Ho­tel, in later year to be known as The Royal.

True to his prom­ise, the im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer called on us the next af­ter­noon, ex­am­ined our pass­ports and handed me the ap­pli­ca­tion forms to be filled out. At the sug­ges­tion of the of­fi­cer, my ap­pli­ca­tion for a six months stay was changed to “per­ma­nent res­i­dence.” “Af­ter all you may choose to stay in Siam for good.” Some two weeks later, I was called to the im­mi­gra­tion of­fice then housed in the old Ger­man Em­bassy, near the present site of The Rama Ho­tel, and re­ceived 5 res­i­dence books at a free of 200.00 Ti­cals ( Baht) for each, a cor­dial “Wel­come to Siam” com­pleted the sim­i­lar­i­ties. An­other two weeks passed and we were handed 5 “Tan­daus” at a cost of 40.00 baht each.

May 3rd turned out to be a beau­ti­ful morn­ing and we de­cided to do some sight­see­ing. Ra­jadamn­ern Road was spa­cious and clean with dozens of brightly dec­o­rated sam­lors with multi- col­ored rayon rib­bons, ply­ing the wide av­enue. The nu­mer­ous nar­row and the wide klongs ( which we were told could take us all the way to Cam­bo­dia) and the beau­ti­ful tem­ples could not but make us re­al­ize that we were now in new and beau­ti­ful world.

It soon be­came ob­vi­ous that a re­turn to China was not in the cards. It was time to think of busi­ness pos­si­bil­i­ties, hav­ing been in the im­port- ex­port busi­ness since 1934, I be­gan to plan and es­tab­lish a reg­is­tered im­port and ex­port firm to be known as “Amer­i­can & Far East­ern Trad­ing Co. later changed to the “Star of Siam Ltd.” A strange in­ci­dent prompted me to de­cide to go into the ice cream busi­ness. On a hot Sun­day morn­ing, my wife sug­gested that we buy some ice cream to take home to the kids and granny. Cruis­ing on New Road which in those days re­ally meant cruis­ing since motorized sam­lors and heavy auto traf­fic were still some 3 decades away, we stopped at a well known restau­rant and asked for some ice cream. Yes, we could buy vanilla ice cream, pro­vided we would bring our own con­tainer. Im­me­di­ately, my brain cells started work­ing. No ice cream in trop­i­cal coun­try with 12 months of hot weather. I told my wife then and there, “we will open and ice cream fac­tory – it’s a nat­u­ral”. No sooner said, then done. Four months later, af­ter re­ceiv­ing the needed equip­ment and freez­ers, we were in busi­ness, and Siam was in­tro­duced to our “Dairy Bell” ice cream, still re­mem­bered by many of the older folks in Bangkok. It wasn’t long be­fore we were serv­ing cus­tomers from the Prime Min­is­ter’s home ( Mar­shall Phibul Son­gram and Lady La­iad) to the school chil­dren as well as the many fairs which were then so pop­u­lar.

There was one snag how­ever. I failed to re­al­ize that we would be faced with daily blackouts last­ing 2 to 3 hours, al­ter­nat­ing in all sec­tions of Bangkok. This meant that we would have to make de­liv­er­ies twice a day to each retail out­let, once be­fore black- out and then again the same de­liv­ery re­peated af­ter black- out. Costly, yes, but Bangkokians liked our vanilla, straw­berry, choco­late and maple- nut fla­vors and we sur­vived as the No. 1 un­til our good friends from Fore­most ar­rived on the scene in 1963.

Hav­ing started our ice cream pro­duc­tion, we soon re­al­ized that un­less we can sup­ply our retail cus­tomers with freez­ers to store our ice cream, there would not be many sales. We then brought in from The United States an ini­tial con­sign­ment of 50 freez­ers which we pro­ceeded to in­stall in the best lo­ca­tions, free of charge. The stores then did buy our ice cream and were quite happy with the freez­ers, es­pe­cially since they could also store the soft drinks and slices of durian as well. Not all of the con­sumers ap­pre­ci­ated our vanilla with a tinge of durian fla­vor re­sult­ing in a tug- of- war be­tween us and the re­tail­ers. In most cases, the re­tail­ers won out as it was im­pos­si­ble to po­lice them all.

Reg­is­tra­tion and other govern­ment for­mal­i­ties were not un­rea­son­able for at the

time. There were no “Broads of In­vest­ment” and no in­vest­ment priv­i­leges. One is in busi­ness when a reg­is­tra­tion fee is paid.

To af­fect the re­quired for­mal­i­ties for es­tab­lish­ing a com­pany, I called on a prac­tic­ing at­tor­ney, a Mr. Spar­row, who had been an ad­vi­sor to The Min­istry of Jus­tice in for­mer days and in 1949 had an of­fice han­dling com­mer­cial reg­is­tra­tions. Among other things, Mr. Spar­row had opened a night club and do­ing quite well un­til he de­cided for some rea­son to leave Siam. Mr. Spar­row’s de­par­ture from Bangkok pre­ceded the re­ceipt of our com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial li­censes.

At this point, I called on my good friend, Mr. Al­bert Ly­man, who had ac­quired the le­gal of­fices of Tilleke & Gib­bins. Mr. Ly­man also ar­rived in Siam about the same time as I did. Tilleke & Gib­bins un­der­took to fi­nal­ize our reg­is­tra­tions. Two days later, I was called and Mr. Ly­man handed me the reg­is­tra­tion cer­tifi­cates. The charge - 20.00 baht for trans­porta­tion since the cer­tifi­cates were all ready and needed only pick­ing- up. We were now in busi­ness. The reg­is­tra­tion al­lowed us to make ice cream and also to en­gage in what­ever im­port- ex­port busi­ness we choose or any other busi­ness for that mat­ter. The only pro­hi­bi­tion was own­ing land.

To some of the well- known bankers and in­ter­na­tional firms, Siam was fa­mil­iar ground. The Char­tered Bank, Hongkong & Shang­hai Bank­ing Cor­po­ra­tion, Mer­can­tile Bank, Banque De L’in­do­chine, Haen­dels Bank of Hol­land and lastly, in 1950, The Bank of Amer­ica had for years a loyal fol­low­ing among the Si­amese. Ac­cord­ing to the law, only one bank from any one coun­try could be es­tab­lished. The Chase Man­hat­tan Bank came in much later by tak­ing over the Dutch Haen­dels Bank. In­ter­na­tional trad­ing com­pa­nies, some dat­ing back a cen­tury, were the East Asi­atic Com­pany, Borneo Com­pany, Louis T. Leonowens, Berli Jucker, Di­ethelm, Cooper John­stone, etc. Th­ese com­pa­nies were deeply in­volved in all aspects of Siam’s com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial ac­tiv­i­ties.

Banks were not as nu­mer­ous as they are to­day. Most of them were lo­cated on The River Bank and on New Road which was some 400 yards in­land from the Chao Phya River. Our of­fice, then si­t­u­ated at 1171 New Road, op­po­site the Main Post Of­fice, was flanked by the Laem Thong Bank to our left and the Bank of Amer­ica and The Haen­dels Bank to our right. The Chart­eded Bank, Hongkong & Shang­hai Bank­ing Crop., The Banque De L’in­do­chine as well as The Siam Com­mer­cial Bank, had their of­fices at the river banks close to The Main Cus­toms House. Prob­a­bly, the only land­mark re­main­ing in that area is the French Em­bassy which some­how re­sisted the push in­land. De­posits and with­drawals at banks were done through the medium of huge ledgers with bank tell­ers car­ry­ing the ten pound books from sec­tion chief to sec­tion chief for ini­tial­ing. The man­agers and deputy man­agers were a few yards away and one could al­ways waive to them. Wait­ing time was no longer than to­day’s time but then there were no long queues at the coun­ters. I sup­pose with­out to­day’s com­put­ers and other elec­tronic aids, banks and large cor­po­ra­tions could not hope to han­dle the vol­umes of to­day. Silom Road, the present Wall Street of Bangkok, had lit­tle go­ing for it. The main fea­ture was lo­ca­tion of the Catholic ceme­tery and the fact that if I was re­turn­ing to my home on Sathorn and Con­vent at 5.00 pm on any week day, I would inevitably meet up with a herd of ele­phants which were re­turn­ing from a graz­ing ses­sion in Lumpini Park.

Dis­count­ing the ef­fect of the nu­mer­ous coup d’etats of which most were blood­less al­though one or two rather hair rais­ing, I must at­tempt to un­der­line the im­por­tant changes which have taken place in the coun­try.

It is at this time that I must trans­fer my think­ing from Siam as the name of the coun­try to Thai­land as it is now known. It was in the early fifties that all of us in Siam be­gan to think in terms of be­ing in Thai­land. Among the Thai peo­ple the con­tro­versy of whether the coun­try should be known as Siam or Thai­land stills goes on. How­ever, it looks like “Thai­land” is here to stay.

The Viet­nam ex­pe­ri­ence of the six­ties and early seven­ties must not be for­got­ten. Al­though many think that Viet­nam was a great loss and de­feat, I must strongly point out that in fact, it was a great sac­ri­fice on the part of the Amer­i­can, and al­lies peo­ples, which gave Thai­land and other na­tions in South­east Asia, the needed breath­ing space, al­low­ing the un­der­de­vel­oped na­tions of re­gion to con­sol­i­date their eco­nomic strength and their na­tional iden­tity. No longer does Thai­land have to ex­pe­ri­ence the panic of the fifties, the fear that com­mu­nism can and will en­gulf their coun­try.

The United States Op­er­a­tions Mis­sions ( USOM) and ef­forts by U. S and other friendly na­tions, all had con­trib­uted greatly in the de­vel­op­ment of Thai­land’s in­fra­struc­ture, in train­ing tens of thou­sands la­bor­ers and tech­ni­cians. It is no ac­ci­dent that Thai­land to- day is in a po­si­tion to ex­port trained work­ers to the Middle East. Not only did “USOM” pave the high­ways but it has ac­tu­ally paved the way for the huge in­vest­ment and pros­per­ity that fol­lowed.

For­eign and lo­cal in­vest­ments have pro­duced bil­lion baht ven­tures in bank­ing, real es­tate, air­lines, ce­ment fac­to­ries, agri­cul­ture and in the last two years a num­ber of so called in­ter­na­tional trad­ing com­pa­nies ( pat­terned af­ter the Ja­panese “Dairatsu”).

The one in­dis­putable and price­less as­set which Thai­land now has and which is so vis­i­ble and ev­i­dent, is the cadres of tens of thou­sands of young and middle aged Thai na­tion­als who now fill ranks of ex­ec­u­tive and pro­fes­sional per­son­nel, so needed to pro­pel the al­ready es­tab­lished multi bil­lion econ­omy of the coun­try.

The great ed­u­ca­tional ex­plo­sion which brought thou­sands of col­lege grad­u­ates from the Thai univer­si­ties and the univer­si­ties abroad, swarm­ing into the eco­nomic and pro­fes­sional streams have made it pos­si­ble for the phe­nom­e­nal ad­vances which we now rec­og­nize.

For­eign tal­ent, if needed, can be brought in but for the most part, the econ­omy is in Thai hands. Ex­pa­tri­ots may, hope­fully be re­mem­bered as hav­ing had a pos­i­tive and ben­e­fi­cial con­tri­bu­tion to the na­tion and hav­ing found their niche, will con­tinue to be re­spected by their Thai friends and per­haps, by a small chap­ter in Thai his­tory.

Lewis Cyk­man was Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of Star of Siam Ltd. and a char­ter mem­ber and char­ter of­fi­cer of the Amer­i­can Cham­ber of Com­merce in Thai­land.

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