Thai-Chinese family’s rise from shophouse to conglomerate is a slice of Bangkok history
- The Chirathivat family, owners of Central Group, trace their roots from Hainan Island to Charoen Krung shophouse and beyond
- A newly converted space that opened in October pays homage to their roots, offering a glimpse of Bangkok’s past
In 1927, he opened a sundries shop in suburban Thonburi, located across the Chao Phraya River from both the historic city centre and bustling Yaowarat – Bangkok’s Chinatown. But it wasn’t until 1947 that the family business, under the impetus of the grown-up son, became the Central Trading Company.
Tiang, as the patriarch was known, and his son opened their first Central shop in Si Phraya off Charoen Krung Road, the capital’s oldest paved thoroughfare. Tourists and locals alike came for their unique offerings of American and European books and magazines, and later for novel products like overseas fashions and cosmetics.
And so to abide by the law, the Cheng family abandoned its Chinese surname in favour of a Thai one: Chirathivat. Hok, the eldest son – out of 26 children by Cheng’s three wives – became Samrit Chirathivat.
Samrit’s youngest son, Tos Chirathivat, the current CEO of Central Group, said that reflecting on those times, he did not view the Thai policies as discriminatory.
“That was purely for the benefit of the country,” he said. “It integrated people.”
In his view, the Thai naming policy worked because, “You don’t know who is Thai and who is Chinese any more,” he said.
What was perceived as persecution by some was embraced by others as an opportunity to erase differences – including the Chirathivats. The vast majority of ethnic Chinese immigrants embraced khwambenthai, usually translated in English as “Thainess”, or Thai identity. By 1970 more than 90 per cent of Chinese in the country at the time had chosen Thai citizenship.
In 1950, the family moved Central Trading Co. to a three-house block down the road behind the hotel now known as the Mandarin Oriental. By the mid-1950s Central had outgrown that location and began moving into its own modern department stores.
Since then, the business has grown to include Central and Robinsons malls and department stores throughout Thailand, retail properties around Asia and European department store chains like La Rinascente in Italy, KaDeWe in Germany, Illum in Copenhagen and Globus in Switzerland, as well as Centara-branded hotels and resorts. Central Group also invested US$200 million in ride-hailing app Grab Thailand in 2019.
In October, the group quietly opened the doors to a converted five-storey shophouse on the site of the original Charoen Krung shop. Dubbed Central: The Original Store, the building, which has a modern terracotta facade, houses a concept store that sells vintage magazines and memorabilia, as well as a live-music venue and a cafe.
The top-floor restaurant, called Aksorn and helmed by Australian chef and Thai-cuisine connoisseur David Thompson, delves into the cookery books of the 1940s and 1950s to highlight forgotten recipes from mid 20th-century Bangkok. The building also includes a research centre and a changing exhibition space known as the Kolophon Retail Library.
The inaugural exhibition looks at the early days of the company and its surroundings. “One has to imagine that Charoen Krung was ‘the downtown’ [of Bangkok] in 1950, and much of the international activities happened here,” said Kolophon director Shane Suvikapakornkul, who designed the exhibition.
The library, which members of the public can join for a small fee, offers both print and online databases of various businesses, as well as “rare and vintage books and magazines about Thailand in the post-World War II era”, he said.
ROOTS OF SUCCESS
The Chirathivats are far from being the only family from China to find success in Thailand. In a country where as much as 40 per cent of the population is thought to have at least one Chinese ancestor, Thailand’s wealthiest family, the Chearavanonts, who own the sprawling conglomerate Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group, trace their roots to the city of Shantou in Guangdong province.
Once a modest seed company, CP boasts operations in agribusiness and owns the 7-Eleven franchise in Thailand, but it is also a huge investor in China, where it is known as Zheng Da and runs over 200 subsidiaries. It is the biggest shareholder of Ping An Insurance, China’s largest insurance company, and also has interests in the Hong Kong-headquartered Citic Ltd.
The Yoovidhya family, which co-founded the energy drink company Red Bull, were immigrants from Hainan who made the leap from pharmaceuticals to their present venture. Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, patriarch of the family whose assets include ThaiBev, producer of Chang beer, and property investments like the US$3.5 billion One Bangkok project, is the son of a Teochew immigrant who started off as a street vendor in Bangkok. The Srivaddhanaprabha family, originally from Fujian, count the King Power duty free shops, the King Power Mahanakhon Tower in Bangkok and Leicester City Football Club among their businesses.
The drop in visitors had a direct impact on CRC, including at its flagship Central Chidlom store and the adjoining Central Embassy mall – and CRC’s share price has dropped by almost 22 per cent since its IPO.
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Meanwhile, at Central: The Original Store, Barom Bhicharnchitr, a great-grandson of Tiang, is the fourth generation of Chirathivats to delve into the family business. Despite the economic downturn in Thailand, Barom is determined to grow his own success story by connecting younger – and decidedly hipper – visitors to the Charoen Krung neighbourhood, which is experiencing a renaissance as Bangkok’s cultural hub.
The store is yet another example of the family’s philosophy of “keeping all generations under one roof” – which the family instils in its younger members by requiring them to spend school holidays doing odd jobs in the storerooms and shop floors of the family’s department stores. Fifty-one descendants of Tiang Chirathivat currently work for the group.
“That [unity] is the ultimate statement of their Chinese roots,” said Suvikapakornkul, the Kolophon director. “It has been the foundation of Central’s success.”