September 9, 2016 5:00 pm JST
My Personal History

Dhanin Chearavanont (9): Hong Kong and the end of my studies

Taken in Hong Kong, this picture shows, from left, Alexander Campbell, my uncle and my father. (Courtesy of CP Group)

I attended school in Hong Kong until I was 17, and when I wasn't studying, I would pass the time by watching movies.
My dream since childhood had been to become a movie director. One of my friends in Hong Kong was a student whose older brother was a movie star. He was a young actor, around 18 or 19 years old, but with his connections, I was able to gain access to a film studio. I carefully observed how movies were made, and I had every intention of becoming a director.

Hong Kong in the 1950s did not have the dazzling scenery and impressive affluence it does today. Automobiles were still a rare sight.

Many people had fled to Hong Kong from the mainland. The poorer residents lived on a hillside in flimsy houses built out of sheet metal, while anyone rich enough to do so left Hong Kong to live elsewhere. It was slightly after this period that Hong Kong began to prosper.

At the school I attended, which has since closed, classes were taught in Cantonese and English. My father's hope was that, after learning the basics of English, I could go on to university in Australia. Australian agriculture was then quite advanced, and he apparently wanted me to study agronomy there to help the family's seed-selling business.

As for myself, I had grown just a little tired of a lifestyle of constant change. I had studied the Thai language in Thailand, then the Chaozhou dialect of Chinese in Swatow (Shantou), China, followed by Cantonese in Guangzhou and Cantonese and English in Hong Kong.

If I went to Australia, I would have to grapple seriously with the English language. That would likely mean repeating the painful struggle I had endured studying Chinese characters during the start of my elementary school days in Swatow. I'd had enough of that kind of struggle. In the end, I decided I was definitely not going. The original plan had been for me to study abroad with my younger sister, but she ended up going to Australia alone.

Narrow escape

In the latter half of the 1950s, when I was still in Hong Kong, China's economic policy changed dramatically. During the early days of its rule, the Communist government welcomed business owners and overseas Chinese returning to the country, but it gradually started rejecting private ownership of property and private enterprises. It began to confiscate privately owned land and promote the collectivization of agriculture. My father, who had a company and a farm in Swatow, saw his position in society change almost overnight. Where he was once a patriotic entrepreneur, he was now denounced as a capitalist landowner.

But my father was lucky. He was suffering from stomach troubles and decided to have surgery in Hong Kong. He was recuperating there when China adopted its radical new policies. Because Hong Kong was a British colony at the time and thus not subject to Chinese sovereignty, my father was able to escape what could have been a very dangerous situation. Had he been stuck on the mainland, one can only imagine what his fate would have been.

Soon after, his company and farmland in Swatow were confiscated, and he lost all of his property in China.

There were also worries that I would be detained if I were to travel from Hong Kong to China, so I was unable to reach either Swatow or Guangzhou. It was only toward the end of the 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping changed China's course and introduced an open door policy, that I was able to return to the country.

Since I had abandoned the idea of studying in Australia, my father told me: "If you're not going to study, you should work." I left Hong Kong and returned to Bangkok.

While I had been in China and then Hong Kong, the Chia Tai business my father had started in Bangkok had grown into a midsize corporation known as the Charoen Pokphand Store thanks to my brothers' efforts.

 Dhanin Chearavanont is chairman of the Charoen Pokphand Group.

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