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Thai Women In Commerce
The World’s Most Successful Businesswomen
[Statistics Need Updating]
Many people - including, perhaps, not a few Thais - would be surprised to learn that commerce has been a traditionally female domain in Thailand from pre-modern times, and that even in the early 21st century Southeast Asian countries top the comparative statistics for worldwide female participation in trade and marketing.
In these stakes, Thailand leads the world with an impressive 56%. This can be compared with other Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines (51%), Burma (47%) and Cambodia (46%): all countries where women have traditionally held a high degree of economic autonomy. At the other end of the scale are the Islamic countries in the Middle East, where female participation in commerce may be as low as 1-5%. The developed, post-industrial countries of the West come somewhere in between.
In any serious attempt to evaluate and understand the position of women in present day Thailand—and, at one further remove, in Southeast Asia as a whole, it is necessary to consider the position and role of women in pre-modern times.
Based on recent anthropological studies of gender, it seems clear that traditional Southeast Asian society associated male nature with warmth, sky, form, control and deliberate creativity, whilst female nature was associated with coolness, earth, substance, spontaneity and natural creativity. Based on these associations, clear boundaries were drawn between "male" work and "female" work whether at home, in the fields, or in the market place. Thus male work included all that pertained to construction and animals—ploughing, clearing the jungle, house building and hunting—whilst female work included planting, harvesting, food preparation and marketing.
Of these latter categories, marketing and commerce tended to be a major female role, and visiting foreigners, whether from China, the Middle East or Europe, rarely failed to be amazed at the predominant role played by Thai women in the market place. To give just a few examples, as early as 1433 the Chinese traveller Ma Huan noted 'it is the Siamese custom that all affairs are managed by their wives'. In 1727 the Briton Hamilton noted that 'the women of Siam are the only merchants in buying goods, and some of them trade very considerably'. Similarly in 1896 the American Hallet S. Holt, on visiting Chiang Mai, noted that business was almost exclusively in the hands of the women, whilst his near-contemporary, the Norwegian Carl Bock, commented that in northern Thailand ‘as in the Island of Bali the women do all the selling. The pork stalls alone are kept by men, but they always seem to have more dogs around than customers'.
Over the centuries and years, Thai business women have held on to their predominant position in marketing, whilst in the more elevated world of high finance they have established themselves in a remarkable way. Today, whether at the stock exchange, in the gold shops and shopping malls of Bangkok, or at market level in cities, towns and villages throughout the kingdom, the prominent commercial role of women remains unchanged and very obvious.
Thais saddened or depressed by the consistently negative press their country so often receives should take heart from this fact. Indeed, far from being mere victims of the domestic, Japanese and European "entertainment" industries, when it comes to business Thai women are amongst the most liberated, competent and accomplished players anywhere in the world.
The main source for this article, and the source of the statistics indicating the uniquely high ratio of Thai women involved in commerce, is:
Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 162-72. Professor Reid is head of Southeast Asian History at the Australian National University, Canberra.
• This information is attached not for citation (unless you should wish to do so) but for verification of the information given in the article.
1. Chutimon Srithep
Originally from Lampang, where she was born into the family of a Thai civil servant, Chutimon was interested in travel and commerce from an early age. After finishing school she started running a guest house in Chiang Mai, later expanding to include a travel agency. During these years she established a profitable relationship with Air France and learned to speak English as well as - unusually for a Thai - fluent French.
Having put her affairs on a sound financial basis in Thailand, Chutimon went on to travel to Europe where she learned public relations and hotel management, as well as selling Thai handicrafts in Sweden. It was at this time that she first became interested in antiques. Subsequent travels took her to the United States, where she worked for a time out of Dallas as an exporter of heavy equipment to Mexico!
On returning to her beloved Thailand - few Thais can stay away forever - Chutimon decided to put her experience and investments to work by opening a quality Asian art and antique shop in Chiang Mai. In her own words: " I wanted to sell something new and exotic which people had not seen before... something which was exciting for both Thais and foreign tourists. It is my nature to enjoy meeting people and to engage in commerce. I wanted to sell unusual artefacts of high quality, not cheap but good".
The result was Under The Bo Tree, an elegant and unique antique shop in the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, which Chutimon runs in conjunction with her partner Francois Villaret. Specialising in rare antiques and artefacts from the Nagaland - a remote and exotic tribal region straddling the India-Burma frontier which has been closed to outsiders for many decades - the business has prospered considerably, with export markets in Europe, America and Japan.
Meanwhile, Chutimon has branched out into real estate, buying and selling land and buildings in her native north Thailand. And what of the future? Chutimon is optimistic and full of enthusiasm. In late November, together with Francois, she will open a Restaurant Gallery in Chiang Mai, offering gourmet cuisine together with unusual antiques and handicrafts from Afghanistan and Central Asia.
2. Ami Mat
Immediately recognisable by her costume as one of Thailand's colourful "Hill Tribe" minorities, Ami Mat is a young Lisu business woman. Just 19 years old, she runs a successful business selling ethnic minority clothing and artefacts to Bangkok Thais and foreign tourists.
Originating centuries ago in the Tibet-Burma border regions, the Lisu are thought to have first entered Thailand via Chiang Rai in the late 19th century. Most Lisu in Thailand, like Ami Mat, are members of the sub-group known as "Flowery Lisu" because of the colourful dress of the women. They are also sometimes known as "Chinese Lisu", both because of their esteem for Chinese culture, and because of their close commercial links with the Yunnanese Chinese of the region.
Like the Yunnanese, with whom they often intermarry, the Lisu are renowned for their commercial drive and business sense. Perhaps more than any other Hill People, the Lisu strive for personal success and material advancement, so that their villages are generally the richest and best-maintained in the northern hills. Lisu women are well known for their business acumen and independence, and Ami Mat says her goal is to continue in this proud tradition.
3. Ruethaithip Sae Lim
A native of Chiang Mai, Ruethaithip - known familiarly as "Tuk" - comes from a family with a long tradition of commerce, tracing its roots, at least in part, to China. Encouraged by her family, who run a car rental business in north Thailand, she studied at the prestigious University of Chiang Mai, where she majored in Mass Communications and Television Productions.
In 1988, shortly after graduation, Tuk moved to Bangkok where she worked for AV Productions: a well-known advertising production house, gaining valuable skills in the publishing and printing world. Within one year, driven northwards by a combination of Bangkok's punishing traffic and homesickness for her beloved native city, Tuk was back in Chiang Mai working as a Guest Relations Officer for The Rincome Hotel. Here she polished her already fluent English, and pondered her next career move.
When a new advertising company, Tan and Tea Ltd., set up in Chiang Mai, Tuk quickly took the opportunity to move back into the world of printing and photography. Within 18 months, having identified an opening for a commercial photography business in north Thailand, Tuk had set up Zoom Studios - an enterprise which continues to flourish.
Today, driven by a fortuitous combination of determination and ambition, Tuk is helping her good friend Khun Aou to develop and streamline Nopburee Press, an expanding regional printing business. Asked about her future ambitions Tuk, who is still only 27, says that she intends to develop printing and photographic services in Chiang Mai to provide future clients with a service unequalled elsewhere in the "Golden Triangle" region.
4. Kusuma Srithong
A native of central Thailand, Kusuma - nicknamed "Gop", or "Frog" - was born into a middle class family, the daughter of an officer in the Thai armed forces. Although interested in design and fashion from her early teens, Kusuma was also drawn to the world of commerce, and determined to cover her options by obtaining professional business qualifications. Clearly this wasn't an easy choice - a model's lifestyle may appear glamorous, but the day-to-day reality is more often gruellingly hard work.
This didn't bother Kusuma, who registered at Chiang Mai's Payap University for a degree in Finance and Banking, whilst at the same time pursuing her modelling at weekends and during breaks from study. During this period she also found time to become Treasurer of the Payap University Students' Union!
It was hard work, but it paid off. Earlier this year Kusuma graduated from Payap with a degree in Banking and Finance, though she still retains her position as Treasurer. She was also voted Top Model of Northern Thailand and won the prestigious Domon modelling competition.
Those who know Kusuma are struck not just by her beauty and natural intelligence, but also by her unpretentious and unassuming nature. "Gop", no doubt, would be the last to make such a claim, but she is in many ways a model of traditional Thai womanhood - discreet, hard-working, ambitious, and financially astute.
Of course, good looks help too and Kusuma is all set, should she so wish, for a modelling career not only in Thailand, but in Europe, the United States or Japan. In fact any such suggestions are met with a polite but decisive shake of the head. Catwalks are frivolous. Finance is serious. Early next year Kusuma will move to Chiang Rai and start working in her chosen career - as a banker.
Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media