Dhanin Chearavanont (2): From Chaozhou landowner to Bangkok businessman
My father, Chia Ek Chor, hailed from Chaozhou, an area consisting of the eponymous city on the eastern edge of China's Guangdong Province and the neighboring city of Swatow (also called Shantou). The village of Pengzhong, Cheng Hai district, where my father was born, is now part of Swatow.
My father's family had been landowners in the village for generations. Rent collected from farmers meant that my grandfather, an only son, did not have to work. My father was born in 1896, the oldest of five children. He had two younger brothers and two younger sisters. My grandfather died in his 30s, leaving my father -- who was still in his midteens -- to support the family.
The middle brother received good marks in school, and the family decided he should continue his education. At that time, there were no universities in Chaozhou, so he went to a school in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, far inland. The family's income from renting land was only enough to cover his tuition, so my father and his youngest brother embarked on a life of commerce.
The interior of the Chaozhou region is mountainous, making travel by land all but impossible. In those days, if you wanted to leave home and make a name for yourself somewhere else, the only way to go was by sea. From the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279), Chinese trading vessels plowed the waves between China and Japan. When Swatow opened a foreign trading port in 1860, many people from Chaozhou, seeking a new world, set out for Hong Kong, then a British territory, or Southeast Asian locales such as Thailand.
People from Chaozhou had a knack for commerce, and many of them prospered in their new locations. The founding family of Bangkok Bank also came from Chaozhou, as did Li Ka-shing, the billionaire who heads Hong Kong's largest business group.
It was this commercial-minded aspect of the local character, perhaps, that helped set my father's feet on the path from landowner to businessman.
In the beginning, he set his sights on vegetable seeds. Chaozhou's vegetables were well-suited to the tropical climate of Southeast Asia, but the second generation of seeds harvested locally tended to produce smaller plants. This meant Chinese people who had migrated southward had to import seeds every year from Chaozhou. My father began selling vegetable seeds while still in China, but soon decided to move to Southeast Asia to pursue the seed business in earnest.
Around 1919, my father moved to Thailand, relying on relatives for support. Until the early part of the 20th century, Thailand had a policy of actively accepting immigrant Chinese workers, and many from Chaozhou headed to the country. Today, there are more than 7 million Thai residents of Chinese origin, accounting for over 10% of the total population. Many are descendants of people from Chaozhou.
There was another reason my father chose Thailand: Because it was the only country in Southeast Asia that had never been a colony of a Western power, there were few big foreign businesses dominating its market. My father figured he had a chance. Arriving in Bangkok, he settled in Chinatown, located along the Chao Phraya, the river that flows through the heart of the city.
Many of the migrants from Chaozhou were farmers, and my father sold them the vegetable seeds he had brought from China. In addition to selling seeds on the street, he also supplied them to local seed retailers. This allowed him to save up enough money to open his own store in Chinatown in 1921. He called it the Chia Tai shop.
The name was taken from part of a Chinese idiomatic expression meaning "to do everything fairly based on ethical principles." My father had previously started a company in Swatow and had used characters from this same expression for the name.
That was where CP Group began. Even today, Chia Tai continues to sell seeds by the river, just as in olden times.
Dhanin Chearavanont is chairman of the Charoen Pokphand Group.