An Early Resident Relates His Impressions of Thailand
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.