September 17, 2016 5:00 pm JST
My Personal History

Dhanin Chearavanont (17): Revisiting China, reuniting with my teacher

When China opened its economy to foreign investment in 1978, it was the opportunity CP Group had been waiting for.

Chase Manhattan Bank (now JPMorgan Chase) had helped us get our start in the broiler business by introducing us to U.S. poultry company Arbor Acres. The American bank later introduced us to another valuable business partner, Continental Grain, a major grain group in the U.S.

After working closely together across Southeast Asia, CP and Continental decided to set up a joint feed business in the newly opened Chinese market.

I left China in the late 1950s and had not returned since due to the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. During that period, which lasted from the 1960s to the 1970s, even overseas Chinese merchants could not enter the country.

In late 1979, accompanied by Continental executives, I flew from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. It was my first time setting foot on the mainland in more than 20 years.

It was a short visit: We concluded our business discussions in the morning and returned to Hong Kong that evening.

I had lived in Guangzhou for a short time as a middle schooler in the 1950s. In those days, it was the main city in southern China, attracting people even from Hong Kong. The Guangzhou I returned to was all but unrecognizable. Temples and other historical buildings had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and there was no trace of its former prosperity.

The situation was bleak, but while others might have been discouraged from making a foray into the area, I saw it as an opportunity. There was little room to penetrate developed economies like those of the U.S. and Japan. In post-Cultural Revolution China, it was a completely different story. There was nothing there, so you could develop something from the ground up. I immediately made the decision to invest.

A long-awaited reunion

Once back in China, I desperately wanted to visit Swatow (Shantou), where I had spent part of my childhood. The reason was personal: I wanted to see Ms. Chen Shifu, who had been my teacher in elementary school. During the Cultural Revolution, China had forbidden its citizens from exchanging letters with the outside world, so I had no idea whether she was even alive.

While in Guangzhou for my second business meeting, I was able to place a phone call to Swatow and confirm that she was in good health. I immediately set out to see my beloved teacher.

Ms. Chen came to the Swatow airport to pick me up, and our reunion filled my heart with joy. She had been in her late 20s when she taught me and was now nearly 60 years old. "You haven't changed," I told her. "I recognized you instantly."

She still had the same smiling face of old, even though she had suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution -- teachers had been labeled "reactionary" and censured.

Her husband, himself a middle school teacher, had worked as a local council member under the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party). That past was viewed as "problematic" by the Communist Party and he had been detained. Even after the Cultural Revolution ended, the family's life did not return normal, and three of them -- Ms. Chen, her husband and their son -- ended up living in a tiny room of just 6 or 7 sq. meters.

I wanted to give my teacher her own house, but she liked living modestly and would not accept such a gift. So I made arrangements for her to live in the same building, located in the old part of town, where I had lived during my elementary school days. Later, when a modern condo was built in Swatow, I arranged for her to move into one of its rooms.

Every time I visit Swatow, I make it a point to pay a visit to Ms. Chen. She turns 93 this year but is still going strong. Her husband and her son have both died, leaving her lonely, so my classmates from elementary school look after her now.

Dhanin Chearavanont is chairman of the Charoen Pokphand Group.

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