Love her or hate her – and I have oscillated between the two for nearly three decades – but no one can be indifferent to Sudarampai ‘Peung’ Soonthornrangsri Chiang. She is stunningly beautiful, can – and often does – cut you to the quick with her tongue…or pen, is often accused of being arrogant, though I believe it is simply a bone deep confidence which exudes from her every pore, is overwhelmingly generous to those she loves, is a dynamically talented woman and as complex and contradictory a person as you will ever find…because of these, and other beloved and irritating traits, she is now Thailand’s most famous Love Guru as well as being a widely known celebrity.
Peung and her sister Kob are about as close to sisters as I have. Kob and Peung both spent their childhood summers, and Christmases in Chiang Mai, though with busy schedules they don’t come here much anymore. Their mother and mine were best friends and that is why, in 2006, when she married her Taiwanese husband Andre Chiang, they held their wedding in Chiang Mai at Wat Jed Yod and in our home, a promise she made to her mother before her death to cancer many years ago.
Born in Bangkok, Peung, 39, graduated from Chulalongkorn University before gaining a bachelor’s degree in fashion and interior design from Texas Christian University. Upon her return to Thailand, she launched into PR and marketing work for multinational companies Leo Burnett and J. Walter Thompson and in 1999 became a presenter for UBC. Her career sky rocketed and she became a model, a professional MC, a marketeer, and a celebrity-about-town. “It was after a series of interviews in 2004, both on television and in print, that I was contacted by Sudsapda magazine and asked to write a column – Inspired by an Expert: Love Guru,” she said of her first foray into the public arena of love. “Apparently I had impressed the editors with my direct and often blunt and bold answers, and they wanted someone who could talk straight and not pull punches to do a kind of Dear Abby for love related issues.”
Peung has been writing monthly columns for Sudsabda since as well as having published a self help best seller on love, Love: want to know how, then read up!
“I am a straight forward person, often a drama queen, and an over thinker. I believe that you have to be an over thinker in order to be a writer, otherwise what is there to write about?” she ponders. “I have not dated many men, but I have dated some extreme characters. I have also run through the gamut of puppy love, love at first sight, dumped love and now true love. During interviews I was very candid about my then-recent heartbreak and love-related issues. I remember thinking when I was all broken hearted that I wished someone would give it to me straight. Everyone was being so sensitive and tippy toeing around me when all I wanted was someone to shake me out of my doldrums. So that is the attitude I bring to my advice column. If I can’t physically shake people who write in to me, then I have to verbally shake them. Sometimes tough love is the only way to go.” Peung, however, is very aware that while she also studied psychology at university, she is no professional, and always refers readers with depression or any other more alarming problems to psychiatrists. “Most of the questions asked I can give straight forward answers to. For instance this girl asked me if she should agree to be the mistress of her man. I told her that if you are not your beloved’s priority, then what are you doing? Everyone should be their partner’s priority; don’t settle for less! Another recent question was when a woman told me that she suspected that her lover was bisexual. I told her to talk to him, and if he were unsure to answer, dump him until he made up his mind, again, why should she not have his full attention? One odd question I recall was when a woman asked my advice because her boyfriend had told her that she was too good for him. I was incredulous. I asked her if she thought it made any sense that she should become a bad person for him.”
When asked what qualifies her as a Love Guru, she is becomes philosophical. “I am qualified because I am not a good person. I am a faulty human being, but one who is constantly self-analysing,” she says. “I am also lucky in that my family is very liberal, my father is very open minded and accepting of modern values. He also instilled in my sister, Kob, and I the importance of interpersonal responsibilities, hence my more western and international perspectives on many issues. For instance, I had met my husband for only one week before moving in with him – and it was only three months until we married – and that was fine with my family. I always tell people that they should live with their partner before committing to a lifetime. It is by proximity that you really find out about compatibility. Rabiebrat [Pongpanit, ex senator and activist for all things conservative] may say that we should all be virgins at marriage, but these so called values are no longer compatible with the realities of today where kids are having sex at 13. Of course I don’t just tell people what to do; I give them options. So while I advise them to live with their partners before marriage, I also warn them that they may break their parents’ hearts…I tell them that it is their decision, their choice.”
Peung, until recently, was never lucky in love. But when she met Taiwanese born and French-trained chef (14 years at France’s leading culinary institutes), she just went for it. “That is actually the question I am asked most, by both women and men…how do you know when the person is the right one? I tell them that they don’t. They just have to trust their instincts and feelings. Andre [or Tii, translated as chinky, as she fondly calls him!] is about as close to a woman as you can get in a man, he is a complete meterosexual, and I am about as close to a man as a woman can be, I have always been a tom boy; for us, this works. I am aggressive, have a temper, impatient, like to show off and express my feelings while he is quiet, contemplative, patient, modest and reticent with his emotions. He is pure white and goodness, the best man I have ever met and the most important person in my life and somehow I fulfill him and make him happy. I support my husband with my soul and will do anything to make his dream come through. His vision is my vision. As a chef you have to be happy to create great food, and I make him happy. Andre is my key, he has defined my life. He taught me to see the world in a positive light; to think and to do good.”
Chiang, recently of Jaan Par Andre restaurant in Singapore, where the couple now lives, rocketed into the S.Pellegrino’s World’s Top 50 Restaurants, reaching number 39th in the world as a new entry in December 2010. His restaurant was also voted number 4 in Asia by the Miele Guide in 2009/10. For two years Peung split her week between working as editor of Grazia magazine in Bangkok and helping Andre with his marketing and brand consultant. But since Andre opened his new restaurant this year, simply named ‘Andre’, she now remains in Singapore full time while acting as consultant for Grazia, all the time continuing her role as Love Guru. It is believed that Michelin Guide will finally arrive in Singapore later this year, and Peung is convinced Andre will awarded the much sought after acolade.
“I don’t see it as too much of a sacrifice having to have to move to Singapore full time, though of course to some extent I do sacrifice my family, friends and career” she said. “My husband works incredibly hard and I normally cook him dinner at 1.30 a.m. when he closes the restaurant, we don’t get to sleep until around 3 a.m. Every chef at this level whom I know has this lifestyle. He is a man who lives by his philosophy and I am happy to work with him and together build his career. At the end of January we are going to go to Madrid Fusion where Andre was invited to give a demonstration, a huge honour.”
While Peung is currently focused on her marriage, she has no plans to put her career on hold. “I will continue to write, I think I will publish a few more books. It is my social contribution, it is not much, but it does help people and this makes me happy. What advice I dispense is generally common sense, but oddly people don’t often think that way. I often fight with my editors at Sudsapda when they want to tone down my rhetoric or censor me. I tell them straight out, if you want that kind of writing, hire any dog. If you want me then this is what you get. It is a constant battle, but I still have a job, so I must be doing something right!”
Being a Love Guru for the past six years has also enhanced her own relationship. Hearing of other people’s problems and analysing their characters has helped her to see her own relationship in a clearer light. “When my husband forgets to buy me a present for our anniversary, I don’t get angry like I used to. I turn it into the positive. I look at his other traits, how else he shows me love. Others may see it as an excuse, but for me, it makes me see that he loves me but shows it in other ways. I have also learnt that as a woman I don’t need to wait for a man to give…I can give and give and give and Andre has taught me to discuss to listen, to sit down and fix things rather than throw a tantrum. We talk all the time. It is great.”
While there is nothing perfect about Peung (though by the sounds of it Andre is pretty close!), or perhaps because there is nothing perfect about her, she will continue to develop her career as Thailand’s premier Love Guru. You can find her on Facebook or through Sudsabda magazine if you have any love-related questions. Just brace yourself for the answer. It may not be what you want to hear, but perhaps it will be what you need to hear.