Memories of childhood during wartime: Saha Group chairman’s story
Boonsithi Chokwatana is the Chairman of Saha Group, Thailand’s leading consumer products conglomerate. This is part 3 of a 30-part series.
I was born in Bangkok on July 25, 1937, the third son of my father, Thiam, and my mother, Saipin. People in China believe that having three boys in a row is a sign of good fortune, so my parents were very happy about my birth.
The rented house I was born in was located on Songwat Road, a street lined with warehouses that runs along the Chao Phraya River. The house was near Samphen Road, in the wholesale district of Chinatown. The first floor was a warehouse. My family, relatives and employees lived on the second and third floors.
Songwat Road was home to a number of overseas Chinese at that time. Many overseas Chinese who created conglomerates in Thailand have their roots in this area, including the Chearavanont family of Charoen Pokphand (CP), the Sophonpanich family of Bangkok Bank, and the Lamsam family of Kasikorn Bank.
On July 7, 1937, shortly before I was born, Chinese and Japanese soldiers clashed on the outskirts of Beijing in the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, signaling the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. When the Pacific War broke out in 1941, the fighting spread to Thailand.
After the U.S. entered the war, Japan occupied Southeast Asia in search of resources. Thailand maintained its independence by forming an alliance with Japan, which was then vigorously pursuing its war effort, entering the war on the side of the Axis powers.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of crying out in terror at the tremendous impact of a bomb that fell near our home. There was a large, nine-story building and a power plant — still rarities at that time — near Songwat Road. British aircraft frequently targeted them in airstrikes.
Living there, we could have been caught up in the conflict at any moment. Leaving my father, who had just opened his own store, and my two uncles, who worked the store, my mother took me by boat to the Thonburi area on the other side of the river. She had no one to rely on there. There were more than 20 people with us, including our relatives. My mother was pregnant with her fourth son, Narong, whose name means “war” in Thai.
My father and uncle would come to Thonburi once a week to check on the family, but the next day they would return to Bangkok. Although my life would later be greatly influenced by my father through business, I spent far more time with my mother during my childhood.
My mother was a resolute woman who took charge of the lives of her family and relatives in the evacuation area. She was a strict woman and would often hit me if I did not listen to her.
My mother’s family was in the goldsmithing business. My ancestors on my mother’s side also came to Thailand from China, but they had been there much longer than my father’s side and had largely assimilated into Thailand. My parents had an arranged marriage.
My mother loved to study since she was a child, but she was not allowed to go to school because she had to take care of her younger brothers and sisters. That is probably why she was so focused on her own children’s education.
At that time, it was common for overseas Chinese to attend Chinese schools for their primary education, but that was not possible in the evacuation areas. Worried that her children would fall behind in their schoolwork, she taught us Chinese using classical literature as teaching materials.
“There is no present without the past. Always look back to the past when you do anything.“
“Riding a horse for a long distance will tell you about its capabilities. If you work with someone for a long time, you can understand each other’s thinking.“
My brothers and I were made to recite classical phrases such as these. Being only 5 or 6, I did not really understand what they meant. Even so, I cannot forget my mother’s voice as she recited this ancient literature as if she were singing.
This column is part of The Nikkei’s “My Personal History” (“Watashi no Rirekisho”) series of autobiographies. The series first appeared in The Nikkei in 1956. Since then, a wide variety of world-changing individuals have written or dictated their life stories for publication.