With all the international faces walking our streets, high rises flanking them and traffic jams gridlocking their arteries, it is hard to remember what Chiang Mai was only a few decades ago: a sleepy backwater town unknown and unconnected to the rest of the world. In these pages, over the years, we have interviewed dynamic young entrepreneurs, international jet setters and everything in between. This month we would like to introduce you to a woman who embodies a very typical Chiang Mai success story.
Fifty years ago there were no millionaires in Chiang Mai (apart from the fewer than handful families such as the Nimmanhaemindas, Kitibutrs and Chutimas), most residents being in trade of some sort or, if blessed with a higher education and superior opportunities, taught at the newly-minted Chiang Mai University. If lucky, a few elevated their social and financial statuses through marriage to Bangkok nobility.
On the most part those with money were successful merchants — recent émigrés or those of Chinese descent — who would send their children to one of seven schools in Chiang Mai — Regina Coeli, Dara Academy, Sacred Heart, Prince Royal, Yupparaj, Montfort or Wattano. It was from these schools that many of the middle aged business owners or higher ranking government officials you meet today graduated. Connections between these schools was how they met and married, traded, socialised and eventually it was to these institutions where their children were sent.
Srisupha Tosangchai, 59, is a Regina girl through and through, currently sitting as president of the school’s alumni association. Her story begins with her father who came to Thailand on a ship in the 1930s, escaping Mao Tse Tung’s lunacy to seek economic opportunities. He left his young wife and mother behind in Southern China’s Guangdong Province in hopes of seeing them again once his situation had stabalised. That reunion was to be delayed for over four decades.
Years went by with no contact with his family in China and eventually he left his past behind and began to build his future, moving from central Thailand to Chiang Mai where he worked as a welder for many years. In time, he met his wife, a seamstress at Chiang Mai Gate, and together they became successful by dabbling in numerous trades and businesses.
“My two sisters and I went to Regina, our brother went to Montfort. My husband’s ten siblings and cousins were also at both schools,” she reminisced. “I didn’t meet him until years later, but we all knew and recognised each other from those days. In fact, my mother used to have her material supplied for her sewing by my husband’s father, who was then trading in Kad Luang Market.”
Srisupha followed the now well-worn path of leaving Regina and entering Chiang Mai University, where her grades didn’t allow her her first choice of faculties and she found herself as one of a few girls in the Faculty of Agriculture. “It was frightening! The hazing was vicious and being a youngest daughter taught by nuns, I wasn’t used to the rough crowd and working with buffalo and cow poo!”
Eventually she banded up with the other girls and they managed to get themselves into the newly minted course on agricultural economics — fewer poos and more marketing and finance, she sighed in relief.
“A friend of mine from school was going on a date with a boy who went to Montfort and in those days they needed a chaperone,” she explained of meeting her husband. “I was hers, he was his. We hit it off immediately and our gang of four eventually paired off. I had graduated by this time and was about to do my masters at what is today Kasetsart University. It was about this time that communications with China opened up and my father began to meet other immigrants from his old home town. It turned out that his young wife, whom he had left behind, had had a son he never knew about and he also learnt that his mother was still alive!”
Overjoyed at the news, the family began to send letters, money, bicycles and materials to the grateful family in China, eventually visiting them for the first time over four decades after he had left.
“We all went,” she said of that trip to the homeland. “My husband, my children, my siblings, my father and my mother. When we met them we had no doubt that this was his son, they were like clones! It was a very moving experience and we have all become very close. They were so grateful for our support then, but they are now so much richer than us, with some siblings having moved to the United States. Now, we all visit each other regularly: China, Thailand and the US! My mother became very close to my father’s first wife and remained friends even after my father died thirty years ago.”
After receiving her masters in Agricultural Economics, Srisupha returned to her alma mater to become a lecturer at CMU.
“They were fun days,” she smiles. “Being an ajarn was highly regarded and being so young myself, in a faculty of mostly boys, I used to have groups of students following me around everywhere. We became friends, we organised concerts and parties, I was their agony aunt and I am still close to them today, many of whom are even my clients.”
Srisupha married her husband after a long courtship and together they have four children. After teaching for eight years, as per tradition, she resigned and joined her husband’s family business, Sangchai Motor, a successful and long-standing vehicle sales, parts and service company.
“It is hard moving in with a large Chinese family,” she laughed. “I had to prove myself, I had to work hard, I had to show humility and respect and learn to work with many relatives, all of whom had their own expertise and responsibilities. I had to find mine. They were tough times, but my schooling in Regina helped me through it. We were taught all these values and they came in handy.”
“My husband’s family had humble beginnings too,” she explained. “They started out as merchants at Kad Luang selling material around 1951, eventually becoming Sangchai Motor in 1971, and their small motor repair shop grew over the years to what it is today,” a company which employs over 150 and has eight showrooms all over Chiang Mai.
“There was no internet in those days, most people didn’t have education and there was certainly no way to learn about business or finance. Everyone found their own way and relied on intuition and hard work,” she explained. “Sangchai had made its money by being the first Raleigh and Honda motorbike dealers in the north. But my mother-in-law soon realised people were struggling to afford them. So she took it upon herself to be the first to offer hire purchase in Chiang Mai, making daily rounds to visit all vendors in Kad Luang to collect money, sometimes just a couple of baht a day. It became a ritual of market life.”
Srisupha says that her husband recalls those days fondly, as his mother would take her children with her to collect money on weekends. “She became their friend, their confidant. Some of them paid off their lease but still insisted on paying her, just so that they could have their daily chat and so that whenever they wanted to buy something else, they had already pre-paid for some of it!”
“We had to constantly innovate,” said Srisupha. “When I joined the company thirty years ago, the men wore greasy overalls and were just fixing vehicles or selling them. They were already wealthy, but there was so much more potential. I had studied marketing, so I soon found my own niche and was able to contribute to the growth. I introduced daily meetings, forms and uniforms. It was the talk of the town! I remember everyone saying how modern we were because we had meetings and uniforms, something unheard of in those days.”
“I saw the potential of maintenance, after sales and customer service. I used to greet each client — there were ten or twenty a day then — by name, offering them refreshments. As we grew, I turned what I did into a system. I created databases of client information, I trained up greeting staff, I saw the potential in spare parts sales and negotiated a good bulk discount from suppliers. I realised that people would return to us if we took care of them, so we built a reception room as well as a showroom for clients and soon other brands sought us out. For instance we became the official Mitsubishi dealers, and we grew and grew. I am now the manager of after service and customer satisfaction.”
Srisupha is a content woman. Her three children have flown the coop, with one opting to join the family business, while the others — Regina and Montfort alum, of course — have not. The company is solid and its future secure in the hands of the next generation. Her energy has now been refocused onto her old school.
“Regina is the only girls’ school left in Chiang Mai,” she says. “I need to organise more activities, work harder with the alum, the PTA and the school itself. We don’t want to just be a legend of the past; we need a bright future. I have always attributed my success to Regina. A school which taught me humility, strength, womanhood and how to think. It was all about a solid education and intuition when I helped build my husband’s family business, and my education and intuition will now help me to make Regina great again.”