By Wang Fengjuan, Shi Guang
On the north side of a stretch of private property in Bangkok, Thailand is a modern two-story white building. To its east is a medium-sized swimming pool. Further east is an ingenious two-story Thai building built of teak wood more than 100 years ago. The interior decoration of the main building has a strong Chinese taste. Chinese porcelain is displayed on a three-meterwide antique display shelf. Scrolls of Chinese calligraphy and painting hang on the wall alongside pictures of a family with Zhou Enlai, Deng Yingchao, Liao Chengzhi, Wu Yi, Henry Kissinger, and other historical figures.
The owner of the property is a legendary figure known as “the Thai Princess behind the majestic red walls in Beijing,” “Zhou Enlai’s adopted Thai daughter” and “an envoy of China- Thailand friendship.” Her name is Sirin Phathanothai or Chang Yuan in Chinese. “I spent more time growing up with Premier Zhou—14 years—than I did with my father,” remarked Chang Yuan in Mandarin with Beijing accent. “Premier Zhou treated me like his own daughter.” Now in her 70s, her eyes still light up when recalling the past.
Sirin’s China story began with the Bandung Conference in 1955.
In the 1950s, Sirin’s father Sang Phathanothai was the chief adviser to Thai Prime Minister Pibul Songkhram. When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, Sang foresaw the awakening of the “Dragon of the Orient,” which would herald a change in the diplomacy of Thailand. He suggested the Thai prime minister try to establish ties with China’s top leadership. In 1955, Prince Wan Waithayakon of Thailand attended the Bandung Conference as an observer and met Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai at the meeting where he acquired firsthand insight on China’s position through Zhou’s demeanor. Upon returning to Thailand, the prince said to Sang that “Zhou is not a bandit, but a Chinese gentleman and a genius diplomat.” From that point on, Sang maintained regular correspondence with Premier Zhou through a secret communication channel with the Chinese government.
As a goodwill gesture from Thailand, Sang made arrangements for his children (8-year-old Sirin and her 12-yearold brother) to travel through Myanmar and Yunnan to Beijing to live with Chinese leaders. “I didn’t appreciate the gravity of what was happening at the time,” Sirin admitted. “I was excited about taking an airplane with my brother and received a month leave from my Thai school.” She never expected to spend a total of 14 years in Beijing.
To ensure the children received optimal care, Premier Zhou entrusted them to Liao Chengzhi, a senior Chinese government leader overseeing foreign affairs. Liao’s mother He Xiangning gave the Thai brother and sister Chinese names “Chang Huai” and “Chang Yuan” respectively according to the pronunciation of their Thai names. They enrolled in primary and secondary schools and then university in Beijing as overseas students and made many Chinese friends.
When she first arrived in Beijing, Sirin found the local food odd. Premier Zhou took the children to a local restaurant serving Peking Roast Duck. “I hope you become envoys of China-Thailand friendship,” declared the premier. Sirin quickly became fluent in Chinese, so she was reluctant to study Thai more. The premier advised against forgetting her mother tongue and arranged a special Thai tutor for her.
The brother and sister were scheduled to return home after only a short time in Beijing, but a coup d’état happened in Thailand, which resulted in their father being thrown in prison. Premier Zhou assured them that they were safe in China and helped them establish correspondence with their father. Not until 1969 after 14 years in China did Sirin leave the country for England with her British fiancé.
With the restoration of China’s legitimate seat at the United Nations and publication of the 1972 Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué, Sino-Thai relations improved dramatically. In September 1972, the Asian Table Tennis Championship was held in Beijing. China suggested to the Asian Table Tennis Union that the Thai team be invited to compete in Beijing. Sirin’s father advised Thanom Kittikachorn, then-prime minister of Thailand, that senior government officials should accompany the Thai team on the trip to China with his daughter as liaison.
“I contacted Papa Zhou through the Chinese Embassy in London,” recalled Sirin. “Within
16 hours, he responded to encourage the Thai delegation’s visit.” Relations between the two governments resumed and Sirin found the chance to see “Papa Zhou” and “Papa Liao” again after two years. Sirin and her brother went to China to participate in
“ping-pong diplomacy” between China and Thailand. This historic breakthrough of the Thai delegation’s trip to China was the direct result of coordination between the Phathanothai family and Premier Zhou. “That development brought infinite honor and happiness to my father,” noted Sirin. “Finally, the original goal of our unique journey to China would be reached.”
Ping-pong diplomacy involving face-to-face interaction between peoples laid the foundation for formal diplomatic relations between China and Thailand. Sirin served as the sole interpreter for official talks between the two governments. It is rare in the history of China for a foreigner to be entrusted to translate for a Chinese leader in a
meeting with foreign guests.
“Papa Zhou had great trust in me,” noted Sirin. “During the talks, he mentioned that I grew up under his care and that he had encouraged me to act as an envoy of China-Thailand friendship. Although he was chronically ill by that time, he was in a great mood that day because of the meeting.”
On July 1, 1975 in Beijing, Premier Zhou Enlai and Thai Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj signed a joint communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic relations, the last such document that Zhou signed in his lifetime. “Ping-pong diplomacy” was considered to have played an active role in the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Thailand.
Sirin married in the UK and gave birth to her first son in 1975. “The Chinese names of my
brother and I were approved by Papa Zhou,” she grinned. “I also asked for Papa Zhou’s blessing before giving my son the Chinese name ‘Chang Nianzhou’ which literally translates to ‘always miss Zhou.’” Chang is a popular family name in northern China, meaning “always.” The Phathanothai family highlighted their long-lasting China-Thailand friendship with “Chang” as their Chinese family name.
Bridge of Commerce
Chang Nianzhou, half Thai and half British whose English name is Joe Horn-Phathanothai, is already among the business elite in Thailand. When he speaks, he frequently employs multiple languages. He may speak in Mandarin with a Beijing accent and in the next beat turn to his employees with English, talk to someone in French on his cell phone or order beer in Thai.
“I first visited China for six months in 1979,” revealed Joe. “In 1985, I returned to Beijing again to attend school with my younger brother whose Chinese name is Chang Nianliao.” The brothers fondly recall their time in Beijing as the first overseas students to enroll in Beijing Second Experimental Primary School. Their mother demanded they speak Chinese to Mother, English to Father, Thai to each other and French to classmates. Later in his school years, Joe returned to Beijing during summer holidays to practice Chinese. Today, his son attends school in Beijing and can communicate in Chinese, Thai and English fluently.
Joe and his brother developed considerable respect for their primary school teachers and principals. After graduating, they invited the educators to visit Bangkok and other Thai destinations. Whenever one of them visited Beijing, they always met up with old friends.
Joe feels duty-bound as a third-generation bridge-builder between Thailand and China. The bridge he now reinforces is not of political cooperation, though, but more about economic and cultural cooperation.
After earning a master’s degree in mathematics from Cambridge, Joe was hired by Deutsche Morgan Grenfell in Singapore. He started working just as the Asian Financial Crisis broke out in July 1997. During the crisis, he became involved with several major issues including the acquisition of the Hong Kong Alliance Bank by the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and the acquisition of the Nakornthon Bank of Thailand by Standard Chartered Bank. He accumulated valuable experience in restructuring Asian economies in the wake of the crisis. He subsequently returned to Bangkok to start his own company and work as an investment adviser. His company successfully built a bridge of international cooperation by planning and promoting association and “marriage” between many big brand companies such as Kasikornbank’s cooperation projects in China including its branch in China. His company contributed to the successful acquisition of Thailand’s ACL Bank by ICBC. It has also provided advisory services for the Bank of China’s Bangkok branch and helped introduce SHV and Philips into China.
With the introduction of the Belt and Road Initiative, Joe sees more cooperation opportunities for Thailand and China. The popular saying “Jeen Thai Phee Nong Gan (China and Thailand are as close as family members)” is only used for this one set of bilateral relations. As a member of the Phathanothai family, Joe considers it his duty to continue to maintain the relationship from the family level to nationwide cooperation.