Moving at the speed of Tata

Two years ago, her name was everywhere. She’d just been named by Elle as one of Thailand’s “Ten Most Influential People”, and Asiaweek had included her in their 1998 list of the “25 Most Exceptional People in Asia”. She appeared in her second film, O-Negative, for which she also put out an album – her sixth – and she was selected to sing at the 13th Asian Games opening ceremony.

Then things quietened down – relatively – for the now nineteen-year-old Amita Tata Young. She left Grammy Entertainment, who she had been with for four years and six albums. She did appear on CNN’s Q&A Asia in May 1999, and was named by The Nation as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential Artists and Entertainers of the Century” in July, but compared to the rest of her whirlwind young life, this was a quiet period.

“After I left Grammy I had two years of freedom as a normal kid,” Tata, as her fans know her, says. “I went to school, I did my schoolwork, and then I would party with my friends. I’d go to the movies, spend time with my dogs, my boyfriend, my family. I had a two-year normal life. It was a great break. I needed it.”

But she’s quick to point out she doesn’t feel like she’s missed out by not having a normal adolescence. “I don’t regret any part of the rest of it,” she says. “It’s one person in a hundred who would have had the opportunities I had…”

Now that’s an understatement – more like one in sixty million, perhaps. But when I meet with Tata in the offices of, the new website she recently launched with friends, she could be any enthusiastic young woman who is sincere about becoming successful at what she does.

“Hi, I’m Tata,” she says in her American accent, with a direct look in my eyes and a handshake. She hands me her card, and ushers me into the office as she ushers out a group of Thammasat students. They’ve been interviewing Tata to help with their masters theses. She’s sipping tea, has skin so perfect it’s worth mentioning, and looks glowingly healthy without a skerrick of makeup.

She starts off our chat by asking me about myself. She’s as far away from the clichéd self-obsessed star as she could be. And when the tape starts rolling, something becomes clear: Tata’s well and truly back, now that she’s finally signed to entertainment company BEC Tero.

“We’re going to start with my first sitcom, which will be with Channel 3, and then there’ll be the music, and then the movies. “ She’s matter-of-fact, counting off what the next four years holds for her. “The deal that we have with BEC Tero is a four-year contract: two movies, two sitcoms, three albums.”

She thinks she’ll start working on her first album by the beginning of next year. “And it will probably be pop. I’ve always been comfortable with that type of music. But the reason we’re starting off with the sitcom is that I’ve never had a chance to be in a sitcom before.”

New experiences are something that Tata is cherishing at this stage of her career. “It’s going to be a romantic comedy, definitely. That’s basically how much I know right now. We’re still in the process of picking stories, finding the right characters, the right guy to act with me and things like that.”

And her next big screen appearance? “The movie will be awhile… “ When pressed for what it might involve, Tata confesses that she’s always wanted to star in an action movie. “I’ve done a dramatic one, and a funny one… never an action movie. Probably – well, maybe, that could be our goal!”

There are also negotiations underway for an international deal, but Tata’s staying tight-lipped about developments in that area. Except to suggest that she’d like to do an album in English.

And was the time between leaving the Grammy fold and actually signing a new contract difficult for her? “Of course. I’m young. I get emotional very easily. And it’s terrible when things are not true but people keeping talking. But I got through it very easily,” she says, dismissively. “I have a very supportive family. My parents are very supportive, and being in showbusiness has always been my dream – so I never wanted to let that go.”

One of the hardest issues Tata had to deal with was the criticism she got for leaving Grammy. “People said I was too confident. But it wasn’t that. The reason I left Grammy was that I’m still very young. I’d like to have new experiences, work with new people. I’m very young – that’s why I’m so motivated and I have a lot of energy.”

Tata puts her positive, can-do attitude down to the way she’s been brought up: while her mother is Thai and has taught her Thai traditions, her father is American, and has encouraged her to be confident.

“I don’t want people to see me as ‘Wow, what a confident kid!’ I just want them to see that I’m a motivated kid. I want to accomplish lots of things in life. There are no words that can describe how this has been such a big problem for me. I just want people to stop saying ‘Oh, she’s so confident.’ It’s not that she’s so confident. I have problems behind the scenes, but when you do something publicly – you have to be confident in what you do.”

While the hunt for a deal was on, Tata finished high school by completing the University of Nebraska’s independent study programme, and has more recently been working on the website, which launched in August.

“The CEO of Hatchem [the incubator company which owns], Chanond Ruangkritya, or ‘Ko’, is a very good friend of mine. He invited me to be involved with his incubator company first. And we had so many plans about what our first project was going to be…”

Two things happened next. The team working at Hatchem all started having what Tata calls “animal problems”. And Tata, who is a dog-lover and had been taking her dogs to shows – one of her golden retrievers is a current national champion – started noticing that Thais were becoming more interested in looking after and training animals properly.

“And so we thought: why don’t we do an animal website? Where we can teach people how to raise a cat, a bird, a fish, whatever. So we logged on, and looked for a Thai-language website that would explain almost everything about pets. And we couldn’t find one. So we had found our first project:”

(The name 108 comes from the Thai slang phrase roi paet, phan gao (108, 1009) which means ‘everything’, and roi paet (108) is the shortened form of the phrase.)

So far, Tata’s loving the dot com world. “I’m really enjoying this. I’m enjoying my businesswoman side!,” she enthuses.

But this isn’t Tata’s only business venture. She also runs a dog training school. “My parents weren’t into this at all. One reason I started the company is that a lot of people think I depend on my father because he’s my manager. I wanted to prove something to the public – that I don’t need him to do everything for me.”

She was motivated to get the school started when Scooby, her prize-winning golden retriever, was four months old. “You know how four-month old puppies behave – I wanted to put him into a school, and I went to look at one… It was terrible. It was like a prison. And I said to myself, why would you buy a puppy when you have to put it in there?”

Eventually Tata found a trainer who came to work with her dog at her home. “Then the economy worsened, the trainer was fired from his company, and I had an idea. I said, you come and work with me. I found more trainers, and now I provide trainers to go and train your dog at your house.”

Further study is also on the agenda, but not for a while and she’s not sure what she’d do. “I didn’t have career counselling like everyone else at school, “ she says, oblivious to the fact that she might not have needed it, given her tremendous career success early on. “This is why I’m doing all this work right now. This is why I’m involved in the Internet – maybe that’s what I want to study. I need to know exactly. I’ve always liked interior decorating. But I don’t want to waste my time studying for years if it’s not what I really want to do.”

When she’s not working, Tata might head to a beach or just to her kitchen. “I’m a very good cook! The best thing about cooking is to have someone who really appreciates what you make.”

Besides her father, Tata says her boyfriend, Sarun Vichayabhai, or ‘Pic’, really enjoys her cooking. “He’s a businessman. He just graduated with an MBA from Sasin (Chulalongkorn University’s business school). We’ve been dating for two years. Normal guy. Great. He’s an animal lover,” she reveals, as if that clinched it for her.

“I believe there are two important things to find out about a man. He must really know how to treat his mum well. Because that’s the way he’s gonna end up treating me. And the other is how he treats animals. If he’s into dogs or cats, he’ll also have a good heart.” She turns her attention back to Pic. “He’s young. Motivated. He’s a very supportive guy. And he likes to eat my food!”

Tata met him through her best friend. “I thought he was cute, but I didn’t like his attitude. It took me about two months to start to like him. He was very patient,” she says, with an almost wicked grin. “I wasn’t treating him that well!”

Which doesn’t sound like Tata, given her record of helping people and animals. Her official website,, donates 30 per cent its profits to the Human Development Centre, while promotes His Majesty the King’s animal charity. “We basically put up information about the charity for people, so they can contact them directly if they want to donate money. If any other charity group needs help, they should check out our website and contact us.”

And yes, of course Tata – and her friends – have more plans on this front. “We’re planning on opening animal shelters in Thailand. I want Thai people to think that a mutt is also clever. Usually they stick with pure-bred dogs and cats, but that’s not important. And I don’t want just one shelter – I want more, lots, so people can get to them easily.”

While all this is going on, singing is still Tata’s passion: she still takes singing lessons and attends dancing classes. “It’s how people know me. It’s what I’m most comfortable doin’,” she says. “I still try to keep my body fit and healthy. But it doesn’t seem like that – now I have this website, and my dog training school… I’m doing a lot of things at the same time and I enjoy it, but my body’s not keeping up with it very well – I have problems with allergies all the time. But I’m working on it.”

Just like she’s working on a zillion other things. And, knowing Tata, she’ll probably achieve what she wants to with all of them.

A prize-winning job

The Olympics are all about bringing sportslovers from different nations together: and not just as adversaries on the field.

New Zealander Gay Horan has been coaching Thailand’s Olympic gold-medal rowing hopeful, Phuttharaksa Nikri, since 1996. “I read a newspaper article in The Nation about a girl called Phuttharaksa who wanted to row and had no one in Thailand to coach her, or anyone else for that matter.”

Horan swung into action, and the following year took the Thai rowing team to the Southeast Asian Games held in Jakarta. “There were 45 rowers and only me who knew anything about the sport!” she says. Nevertheless, Thailand won one gold – snared by Phuttharaksa – plus two silvers and a bronze.

Horan came to Thailand in 1996 with her husband, Geoff, a former Olympic rower himself who now works for McConnell Dowell, and their two sons, aged six and eight.

Australian-born Horan started rowing in 1974 when she was aged 14, and went on to win over 22 state and New Zealand provincial titles. She represented Australia in 1981 and 1982 at the (then unrecognised) world lightweight championships, and won both years.

She moved to New Zealand in 1983, where she married Geoff, and changed her citizenship in order to represent New Zealand in the women’s open coxed fours in 1983. “This is my 26th year in the sport,” she says. “Pack [Phuttharaksa’s nickname] is 26 years old!”

While Horan says coaching in Thailand is challenging, she says it’s not because she is foreign. “I think I am respected for my ability and experience, although it is never said.”

Rather, it can be frustrating to work within bureaucracies that aren’t supportive of athletes. “The people supposedly running the sports organisations don’t really understand the sport at all and are not really too concerned about the athletes in general.”

Another problem is financial. “I have to spend a lot of my own money. I am later reimbursed, but sometimes the money can take 12 months to come through. Without an understanding husband, there could be no rowing coach in Thailand!”

Horan has certainly had her work cut out for her. “I have had to be not only a coach, but an English teacher, boat repairer, team manager and promoter of the sport. And, I forgot, weight trainer! That sort of experience has got to help in anything I do for the rest of my life!”

“I am also a wife and mother… don’t forget!” she adds.

But despite the hard work and the difficulties, Horan loves living in Thailand. “I don’t ever get homesick! I love to play golf to relax and I love the food and the weather.”

Horan has also had experience coaching in Papua New Guinea, where her husband was sent to work for five years. “I was in the Papua New Guinean triathlon team to the Arafura Games and was also fitness and strength coach to the South Pacific Games swim team, and the national cricket team.”

As for coaching in New Zealand, Horan describes it as “difficult. All sports are still rather male dominated, so being a woman coach there is not without some difficulties.”

Horan harbours hopes that the profile of women’s sport in general will improve. “The women train just as long and hard as the men ,with very little recognition.”

In the meantime, Horan is taking Phuttharaksa through her paces in the lead up to the Games. “She’s a lightweight and unfortunately there won’t be a lightweight single scull for women until the next Olympics. But it is marvellous that Thailand has a sculler in the Olympics for the first time.”

Making a difference from your desk

Picture contributing to your community in some way and you may assume you’d have to spend half a day at a shelter a week or maybe drive a van on the streets. In Bangkok, Australian Margo Towie found a way to assist pregnant and post-natal women without needing to leave her office.

Since January 1999, Towie has been editing the monthly magazine of Bangkok Mothers and Babies International (Bambi), a non-profit organisation providing support and information for English-speaking pregnant women and parents of babies living in Thailand. “The magazine was a time eater when I took it on. The first couple of editions took around 40 hours apiece to get camera ready,” she says.

Towie, a professional journalist, became involved in Bambi around three years ago when pregnant with her daughter Melanie. When she first saw their 32-page publication, which is mailed to around 500 people and appears on their website , she was “suitably unimpressed. There was no local content, and I saw that it could be much more useful.”

She spotted a small advertisment for an editor. Despite thinking “Oh no, I shouldn’t be doing this – it’s going to take up too much time – I rang them.”

Towie was driven to help turn the magazine into a true information resource due to the fact that she had such a hard time finding information about having a child in Bangkok. “Thailand is not an information society,” she explains. “It’s driven largely by rumour, which medical practitioners can harness for their own benefit – for instance, it’s more convenient for them to give caesarian sections… My background is in journalism and information-gathering. I don’t let go! I wanted to examine the alternatives to the status quo.”

So Towie sprang into action. First, she got to work sourcing local stories. “Now we have over 90 per cent of copy locally generated.” Towie initiated a section in the magazine for working women, with stories on relevant issues such as childcare and breastfeeding.

Then she improved the magazine’s production methods. “They were still using a printer who required the magazine to be cut and pasted. Within two months I identified an alternative printer and with the agreement of the committee, we switched.”

The group’s decision to outsource production cut her hours down per issue to ten; adding a network of volunteer helpers to preselect and subedit content eventually reduced it to around five.

Towie’s first day in Thailand was an eventful one: she arrived on 23 February 1991, the final day of the most recent coup in Thailand. At the time she was a correspondent working for Australia’s Bulletin and she’s since also worked for Business Review Weekly and the Economist Group. She met her Thai husband, who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 1994 and married him in 1997.

Towie began a new job as director of content at last month. The demands of the position mean that she’ll now hand the reins over to someone else: “but I still plan on keeping an eye on things.“ The parents of Bangkok can rest assured she won’t let standards slip.

They who wield the hammer

“She’s very good at art.”
“I think clients like her! She’s very patient when it comes to talking to clients.”
“But I don’t have good eyes like her!”
“Oh, but she has a good eye for jewellery.”

So two friends who work together enthusiastically point out each others’ good points.

Yaovanee Nirandara has a passion for all things philatelic and a growing interest in paintings; Punchalee Phenjati has a discerning eye when it comes to all kinds of jewellery. They’ve been friends since they were in kindergarten – but it was 234- year-old auction house Christie’s that brought them together professionally.

“I’d been a Christie’s client for more than ten years, so I had gotten to know the people at Christie’s very well,” says Yaovanee, an avid philatelist who judges international exhibitions. Her search for stamps led her to Christie’s offices in London, Geneva, Singapore and Hong Kong. “They wanted to start an office here, and they were looking for a representative for quite some time.”

It was the Financial Restructuring Authority (FRA) art auctions in June 1998 that moved things along for both Christie’s and the two friends.

“I spoke to Punchalee about the FRA auctions because we both like art and we like to promote Thai artists,” explains Yaovanee. “We saw the auctions as being a good opportunity to promote Thai artists and at the same time assist the government. So we asked Christie’s Singapore, the nearest office, to come in and assist with the FRA auctions.”

And how did the first Christie’s-managed auction in Thailand go?

“Very well,” says Punchalee.

“It was very good,” echoes Yaovanee. “One hundred per cent of the items on offer were sold, at about five times the estimated prices.” Approximately 60 million baht worth of goods were sold. After working with Yaovanee for the FRA auctions, Christie’s approached her to be a representative. “And Yaovanee asked if I would like to help her,” says Punchalee. “She said if she was going to do it, I would have to do it to! So I joined her as a consultant for jewellery.”

The new Christie’s office doors opened softly in December 1998, and the official opening was held on 28 April, 1999. The first auction was held later in the year, with the hammer wielded by a professional auctioneer from Geneva. Buyers from as far afield as Belgium and England came.

“About 92 per cent of books and manuscripts were sold. For paintings, about 84 per cent were sold,” says Punchalee. “Usually auctions average about 74 or 75 per cent.” The house’s second auction was held on July 30 at the Hyatt Erawan, with an auctioneer each from Australia and Hong Kong “Our clients include Thais and foreigners, museums, expats… everyone,” says Yaovanee.

The most expensive item sold to date has been a painting by Thai artist Tawee Nandakwang, which went for 2.5 million baht – not quite comparable to the Christie’s record of Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet, which sold for US$82.5 million in 1990, and remains to this day the most expensive item ever sold at auction – but respectable for such a young office, nevertheless.

A look at their catalogue books indicates that you don’t need to be incredibly rich to procure a numbered paddle board and have a bid: a first edition Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina (Siam), Cambodia and Laos by Henri M Mouhot was expected to fetch between Bt6,000 and 8,000, while 50 Eagle Bird Cigarette cards, each depicting a letter of the Thai alphabet were looking to sell for Bt3,000 to 5,000.

In Bangkok, just one auction per year is currently being held, while Singapore and Hong Kong hold two. “It takes about six months to prepare for one,” says Punchalee, so a typical day will vary depending on the time of year. “When we are doing the sourcing, we have to meet people, meet artists, visit museums.”

“After that, we have to take photographs of the items to be auctioned, and compile the catalogue,” adds Yaovanee. “We have clients [often they both sell and buy] from across Thailand, but they eventually come to us in Bangkok because they have to bring the painting or item here.”

Although Christie’s maintains a website with preview and auction schedules across the world, and some pictures of items, they don’t hold auctions over the Intertnet – yet. “Because items may not look the same as the original,” says Yaovanee. “People do like to come and see the goods. It’s very important to take a look, particularly for the more expensive pieces.”

As for misunderstandings in the auction room – you can’t really scratch your head and accidentally buy something but, Yaowanee says, occasionally a client has bid for the wrong lot. “Unfortunately, that’s their fault; not ours. They can’t do anything about it.” Except, perhaps, start collecting something new!

It was Yaovanee’s passion for philatelics that led her to represent an auction house: how did she get interested in the first place?

“I started collecting when I was very young and stemmed from my interest in history. When I would read about a certain period, I would want to learn more about it. But I only started collecting seriously when I started work – that was when I had money and I could afford to buy stamps!”

Her philatelic knowledge has led her around the world, judging and competing in places as far flung as Korea, Taiwan, Australia, the US and Luxemburg. She explains that the path a serious Thai philatelist must follow in order to become a judge is a long one: “You have to exhibit internationally to get to a particular level. Then you have to judge in Thailand for two years, and then you have to judge in Asia for another two years. Next you need to pass an exam – and then you’re an international judge.” Meaning you’ll be invited around the world to various exhibitions – with airfares, hotel costs and your time compensated for.

She tries to do her bit for the future of philatelics by promoting it among young people, and emphasises that stamp collecting is alive and kicking among the children of Thailand. “In nearly every school there’s a stamp club – collecting stamps is also an elective subject, up there with scouting and dancing. It’s a good way to learn about history, the routes of mailing and so on. ”

But these days Yaovanee is devoting more time to paintings than stamps – Christie’s no longer deals in the latter, she says. Although her academic background is in economics, and she holds an MBA, she is now busy studying all she can about painting.

“She has learned from experience,” says Punchalee. “She is a good artist herself. She paints. She can. I can’t! But my mother is a dressmaker, and likes beautiful things. That’s how I got to be interested in this. She’s very artistic. But I only got half of me from my mother!”

Punchalee’s academic background is in education. “But it’s really experience that matters,” says Yaovanee. “The more you look at things, the more you read. That’s what’s important.”

“I’m not good at art, at all,” continues Punchalee. “I take care of the jewellery part because in Thailand, jewellery is something that Thai women really like. It’s doing very well. We can’t hold auctions here yet, but we participate around the world, especially in Singapore and Hong Kong. We hold previews here for our clients and if they like the pieces they will give me a written bid, and I will bid for them in Singapore or Hong Kong, or wherever.”

What’s the force that drives a collector?

“Pleasure!” replies Punchalee without hesitation. “Actually I appreciate art as well, I just can’t collect it as I don’t have anywhere to hang it in my house!”

The second reason is financial. “It’s better than money in the bank,” Yaovanee emphasises. “It’s a good investment.”

The next big event on the Christie’s calander is a charity auction being held in honour of General Prem’s 80th birthday on August 19 at the Dusit Thani Hotel. “It will be the event of the year,” promises Yaovanee who will take the hammer herself and conduct the auction in Thai.

And the friendship of the two women remains firm as they steer themselves through the stormy seas of business. “Oh, we’re still the same,” says Punchalee. “I think we’re actually getting closer.”

Caring for Bangkok’s needy

“I’m not doing this because I want to save the world – but hopefully I can help at the humanitarian level,” says Yvonne Ziegler, who spends two mornings a week visiting the Pak Kred Babies Home in Bangkok with another five to 15 expatriate women.

“I’m basically a people person,” she says. “I have three adult children now, so I want to ‘put something back’. I want to do something voluntary with meaning.”

The home looks after babies who will be adopted out to both Thai and western families, and the main objective of the visits is to give the children some time with a one-on-one carer.

Yvonne cares for an 18-month old baby called Pip under circumstances which have conspired to keep him at the home, rather than adopted. “The parents of my baby brought him to the home directly from the hospital, but they didn’t sign him over for adoption,” Yvonne says with some frustration.

In Thai culture, she explains, it’s acceptable to put your baby into an orphanage while you get a job and get yourself ready to look after a new life. “But they haven’t come back for him. The home has been looking for them since he was 12 months old, and they say he can’t be adopted out until he is five in case they are found.”

This energetic woman also assists in collecting clothes for the Human Development Centre in Bangkok’s Klong Toey slum area, and she occasionally visits Rejoice, an AIDS hospice in the northern city of Chiang Mai, to provide assistance there. “I am in a privileged position because I can go anywhere here. I can go to the Hyatt and I can visit the slums. I’m terribly interested in what makes the world tick. There’s so much going on – I don’t want to get stuck into a routine with a 40-hour a week job.”

Nevertheless, Yvonne does work for ten days per month as the Australian Embassy’s Prison Visits Officer. The job involves visiting the 11 Australian prisoners who are currently in four of Bangkok’s gaols. “I make sure that they are receiving international standards of care. It’s consular care – I’m not giving them cake and cookies.”

Yvonne came to Thailand 18 months ago when her husband, who works for the Australian Defence Forces, was posted to Bangkok. She had never been to Asia before, but after spending 25 years moving around Australia, and 18 months in England while her husband attended a military college, she says “I’m used to the idea of moving.”

For Yvonne, the hardest part about being in Thailand is not her volunteer work – it’s being away from her three adult children, who remain in Australia. “I miss them very much,” she says.

Bangkok’s media man

Journalist Andrew Biggs was supposed to stopover in Bangkok for two days on his way from Australia to London for a working holiday. That was ten years ago.

Today Andrew is the most recognisable and famous falang (Western) face in Thailand. He hosts three regular television programmes and a radio talkback programme, is a newsreader for Thailand’s first 24-hour news channel and edits an English- language student magazine. And he’s published four books – in Thai.

“I was quite annoyed about the stopover,” he says. He knew nothing about Thailand, but was aware of its cliched image as a seedy place for cheap sex and drugs. “I was in a mindset where I just wanted to get to England. But from the moment we touched down at the airport, I found Bangkok to be a crazy, crazy city. It was a city of ten million people, and every one of them owned a motorbike.”

So Andrew stayed on. “I figured that if I wanted an experience truly different from Australia, then this was going to be the place to have it.” He spent a year learning Thai and then landed a job with Nationmultimedia where he remains today.

He is hardpressed to find anything difficult about living away from Australia. “I mean, sure, it’s difficult not to be able to have avocado and mayonnaise sandwiches, or Turkish Delight, but there are things here to compensate – like som tam (green papaya salad). How did I ever survive before without som tam?”

While he concedes it can be difficult to be away from family and friends, he points out that the Internet has changed this dramatically. “I’ve recently got back in touch with people I haven’t seen for years,” he says.

Andrew feels like he has found his niche career-wise in a country where his skills are needed. “I’m lucky in that I’m a journalist here in a developing country where learning English is important for many people. I can do my job and make a contribution to society – something I don’t think I’d be able to do in Australia.”

Constantly being in the spotlight means Andrew is apt to find himself in the occasional embarrassing moment. “Using the wrong word can be embarassing – Thai is a language where the words change according to who you are speaking to, much more so than English – and doing it on national television doesn’t help.”

Andrew’s advice to anybody embarking on an expatriate life abroad is simple. “Leave your Western mentality behind and become more open-minded than you have ever been. There are bitter and twisted expats all over the world – if that’s what you turn into, you may as well go home. Have fun! Meet the locals and don’t only mix within the expat community.”

Strummin’ around

“I thought Thailand would be this quiet, relaxing, unassuming place away from the tourist trail. Clearly I didn’t do my research very well!” says Australian John Garzoli of his first trip to Thailand in 1995.

There are a number of falangs in Bangkok who have created employment niches for themselves, allowing them to pay their rent and further their careers. Garzoli, a classically and jazz- trained guitarist who has played for hotel restaurants on Ko Samui and in Bangkok for over the past three years, is one of these energetic characters.

Garzoli returned to Thailand at the end of 1996, hoping to find work playing guitar if he could get it. He had faxed his curriculum vitae to 70 resorts across Asia before he left Australia.

Within a few weeks of arriving in Thailand, he was offered a job on Ko Samui at Le Royal Meridien, playing with a friend, orchestral violinist Mark Zorz. “That lasted the next few years, during which time I became a scuba diving instructor, and got my introduction to life living and working in Thailand.”

Garzoli and Zorz made the move to Bangkok when they landed a six-month contract in early 1999 to work at the California restaurant of the JW Marriot. “That went really well. We genuinely believed that we were the best at doing what we were doing, individually and as an ensemble,” he says. “It was without a doubt the best musical ensemble that I had ever associated with.”

The two played together for two and a half years, six nights a week. “We developed an acute sense of musical sympathy and understanding with each other. We had a good repertoire, and I learned a lot from him about how to be a better accompanist.”

At the end of the contract, Zorz headed home and Garzoli negotiated a contract to play at Rossini’s, at the Grande Sheraton Sukhumvit, where he now plays twice a week. “They were criticised by a magazine for being let down by the ‘canned music’,” he says. “I’m part of the rehabilitation of that.”

But staying around as a classical guitarist in Bangkok hasn’t been easy. “Between hotels, the competition can be great,” he says. “I’ve been extremely lucky. Food and beverage managers often don’t have a budget for musicians, and they are not always sympathetic to what a musician’s doing. Hotels don’t take a lot of risks. If they see that the hotel down the road has a certain type of band, then they’ll go out and get a similar band.”

He points out that you can walk past a dozen hotels on Sukhumvit that all have the same type of band playing. “If that’s what people really want, that’s fine. But sometimes I wonder if that is exactly what five-star hotels should be offering their guests. There should be something to distinguish a five-star hotel from a three-star.”

And as a musician, does he see more opportunities here than in his homeland?

“There is a different culture here,” he says. “In Australia, hotels needn’t take musicians on for six-night-a-week contracts. All of the work I and my musician friends did in Australia was freelance so we were all out there competing with each other for one-off jobs.”

On the other hand, the discipline of playing nearly every night in the same location, as can happen in Thailand, isn’t for everybody. “It takes a lot of getting used to. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to recommend this life to any of my friends in Australia because I don’t think musicians can ordinarily cope with the discipline of having to show up six nights a week and do the same thing. There’s a big learning curve if you want to do this comfortably and well.”

The advantages are there, however, to be eventually reaped. “You really get to work on your musical skills nightly, and you see a genuine improvement in your own musical development. And ultimately, that’s really what playing music is about.”

He explores this idea further. “You get to a certain level when you’ve put in thousands and thousands of hours of practice in a little room by yourself. You don’t do this for the plaudits of punters or the applause of diners – there has to be a bigger reason. And the reason you do it is for yourself. You’re able to make real progress as a performer.”

The music scene in Bangkok isn’t something he has had a lot of time or money to check out, but he does believe the jazz scene is more developed here than the classical. “It’s easier for me to be part of a jazz environment after work. There are some very fine jazz musicians working here.”

His recommendations include the jazz at the Bamboo Bar at the Oriental, and a band called the Funk Machine, who play at Saxophone late Monday and Tuesday nights. “They have impressed me more than any other band in Thailand. We’ve actually become good friends and they’re probably one of the reasons I’m still here,” he says. “They’re funk, they play a bit of jazz, but they’re essentially a dance outfit. The piano player and the saxophone player are simply outstanding instrumentalists. And I’m not saying this just because I’m friends with them!”

John is also teaching individual students guitar and music theory privately, as well as giving advice on where they would be happiest studying in Australia, should they wish to head abroad.

But is there a future for Thais who study western classical music? “I think that with so many western people coming here, and more Thais going to study abroad, we’ll continue to see the development of the classical music scene in Thailand.”

This is despite the fact that it’s not supported by the government in the way it is in some other countries. “This sometimes makes it difficult for good students to get ahead. There are lots of private schools out there, but I don’t know what sort of level of tuition they’re offering – it could be fantastic, I’m not sure. I would say that I teach at the top end of music education – I would say that in whatever country I’m in – because I have had the benefit of good training, not because I’m special!”

But the Garzoli story is not just of coming to Thailand for a working holiday and succeeding; it’s also a story of working hard to develop a passion for music when most people would probably have thrown up their hands and given up.

Garzoli grew up in a small country town in Australia’s New South Wales, and the path which led him to play classical guitar professionally was a long one. He left school aged 16 and became a mechanic – hardly indicative of the true career path that would lie ahead.

He played guitar for a few bands while in his teens. “I was a typical young rock guitar hack,” he says. “I had some tuition from fairly ordinary guitar players, but I was largely able to teach myself. The guitar is not difficult to learn at a very basic level.”

After he completed his apprenticeship, he worked in America driving prototype agricultural machinery, then driving trucks from Texas to North Dakota. “When I got back home, I was very dissatisfied,” he says. “I headed to Melbourne and studied audio engineering for a year.”

At the age of 23 he auditioned to study music at Box Hill TAFE, the Australian-equivalent of M5 and 6. “I played very badly because I was a bad player. I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I missed a first round offer but somebody dropped out and I had been badgering them out of desperation. So they offered me a place, and I tried to vindicate their decision and prove something to myself by working extremely hard for that one year.”

Garzoli was 24 by the time he started the course, and had his first proper guitar lesson. “For most people, you would forget about a career in music by that age,” he says.

He practised for eight hours a day that year, and after he graduated, he auditioned at several university-level musical institutions. “Although I had worked hard, I still wasn’t at the standard you really should be to get in,” he admits – not surprising considering most classical musicians are practising for hours a day by the time they are eight or nine years old.

Eventually Garzoli was accepted by the prestigious Victorian College of the Arts were he studied and received his bachelor of arts, majoring in jazz and guitar. He then started an MA in analytical theory, but discontinued after six months when his health deteriorated. “A nightmare period in my life started which lasted for five years,” he says. “I was totally overworked, privately teaching up to 50 students a week. I taught at the most expensive girls’ school in Melbourne, the singular most well-resourced music school in Melbourne, and another private school. I was gigging twice a week. And going to a clinic twice a week to be put on a drip for 40 minutes. ”

Garzoli suffered the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. “I hauled myself from doctors to Alexander Technique practitioners to acupuncturists to physiotherapists. In the end I was referred to see shrinks. In hindsight I was suffering from stress, and some strange illness that has since lifted and something which the medical community was unable to diagnose: a broken neck.”

Garzoli was diagnosed with this after being in Thailand for more than a year when he went to Switzerland for a holiday. He consulted a Swiss doctor who took an x-ray and discovered a vertebrae which had chipped off. “Previously I had had all types of musculo-skeletal problems but these had just been explained as being old football or motorbike injuries.”

Garzoli says he will seek further information when he eventually gets back to Australia, in the mean time, he is practising yoga and concentrating on his guitar practice. “Now that I’m here, I’m in no rush to leave. I’m so attached and fascinated by the Thai way of life that this is where I want to stay for a while now.”

John Garzoli can be contacted by emailing [email protected] or phoning 01 334 7344.

A star is born: ML Piyapas Bhirom Bhakdi

ML Piyapas Bhirom Bhakdi never dreamed about becoming an actress. She did not harbour any ambitions, ever, to be a star of the big screen. And it certainly never crossed her mind, not even for a fleeting instant, that she might one day take the leading role in the most expensive film in the history of Thai film-making.

Yet here she is today in precisely that role. She’s more than halfway through filming Suriyothai, the historical epic based on the 500-year-old story of Thai heroine Queen Suriyothai, the wife of King Mahachakkraphat, who died in order that her husband might be saved during a Burmese attack on Ayutthaya.

Piyapas, of course, plays Queen Suriyothai.

When we meet in her oasis-like home she is quick to point out that she is not at all confident in her ability to act. “I’m still not sure if I’m good enough,“ she says. “It was really Her Majesty’s wish, this movie. She’s always been proud of Queen Suriyothai, a woman who sacrificed herself for her nation.” Piyapas’ mother, the late Thanpuying Viyada Kridakon na Ayudhya, was Her Majesty’s personal dresser, so the Queen has long known Piyapas.

Her Majesty encouraged Prince Chatrichalerm Yugala, otherwise known as Than Mui, to capture the legend on film around six years ago. And she wanted Piyapas to take the title role.

“My first thought was that I would ruin the movie. That’s what I am afraid of the most. It’s an honour that Her Majesty picked me, and Than Mui thinks that I’m okay. But at the same time I’m afraid that I might ruin everything. The other actors and actresses are top stars in Thailand, and the crew are the top people in the business.”

Her modesty is very real; there is a nervousness in her voice which suggests she might fear a quiz on the finer points of the trade. But while she may appear petite and even fragile dressed in her beige three- quarter length pants and white zip-up top, her physical movements suggest a certain vitality and strength. She excuses herself several times to answer the phone; her days are hectic and filled with numerous commitments.

After the initial shock of being cast was over, Piyapas says she didn’t hear anything further for some time, and thought the project had perhaps been postponed. Little did she know that those five years were being spent in painstaking research about the Ayutthaya period to make the film as authentic as possible.

When she got the news that it was going ahead, she spoke to Than Mui . “I said I don’t think I can do it. You had better make sure that I’m okay with a camera and I’m okay with acting.”

She had some basic training in the fundamentals just prior to filming getting underway last year. Since then, 15 to 20 days per month have been spent on the set, and there’s still around 30 per cent of the film left to shoot. “The big scenes haven’t been done yet – like the battle scene, which I’m afraid of!”

When I ask her if she’s been having fun, she answers thoughtfully. “It’s my character to have fun. Whatever I do, whether I like it or not, I try to get along with it. I try to feel that I like it, and that helps – it makes your work come out well while giving you peace of mind.”

She says she has gained a lot of experience by acting in this movie. “But, if you were to ask if I wanted to do it again, I would say no, thank you! Once is enough!” She laughs deeply – one certainly can’t imagine a director persuading her to appear in another film any time soon. “I am a movie-lover,” she says. “But before I didn’t realise that scenes that appear for two minutes in a movie can actually take three hours to make!”

Piyapas didn’t have a problem with Than Mui’s technique of giving actors the script just prior to filming, which he does to keep their acting fresh, as she wasn’t used to anything in the first place. What was difficult was the older Thai language the period-acting called for: “Nearly every day, before shooting, one of Than Mui’s colleagues would have to call a professor at Chulalongkorn to check whether what we were saying was alright.”

Queen Suriyothai’s existence is in fact disputed by some scholars. “For me, I believe in her,” Piyapas says. “I think she really is a part of the history of us. The details – I can’t say whether they are right or wrong, but Thai people have been told this story for hundreds of years. It is only some historians and critics who seriously question her. Perhaps she was created in the olden days because we needed a story to unite us – whether it’s true or not, it made us proud of ourselves. And you need to be proud of yourself, proud to be Thai.”

Comparisons with Anna and the King, given that they are both interpretations of Thai history, are bound to be made. Piyapat says the main difference between the two is that Anna and the King was made entirely by foreigners who didn’t understand Thai history. “I do understand why the committee made their decision to ban the film – they didn’t allow the film to be made here I the first place, so they couldn’t contradict themselves. I understand this. But, as I have seen the movie, I would like it to be shown here, just to show the people who disagreed with the committee – those people who believe Hollywood is God for movies – that it’s a lousy movie.”

Does she think the story could be a good film? She pauses. “It could be – but you have to understand that right from the beginning, even the book is wrong. Anna calls herself a governess – but she’s not. A governess looks after and lives with children. She was only an English tutor who came in to teach for a few hours a day. It’s wrong from the start.”

Suriyothai has taken up a lot of her time, and she does look forward to her life returning to normal. Her three children, Chitpas, who is almost 15, Nantaya, 12, and Naiyanobh, 10 have their own opinions about their mother-turned-actress. “They make fun of me, of course!” Piyapas says.

At the moment the children are studying in England at a school just outside London. They each left to study there when they turned 10. Her eldest child had suffered from allergies and digestive problems, and found that when she spent a summer there with a friend when she was nine, her health improved. The girls wanted to stay on, so the two families agreed to let them go back there to school “Because they were together, we felt better about it,” she says.

She laments that the house is so quiet without them, but believes she is giving them a big advantage in their lives by ensuring they have an international education. “When I do business with foreigners, I don’t have confidence with my English,” she explains. “If my children have the chance to study in England, they will have a good chance to know both worlds. They are Thai – and I believe that they should learn how to be real Thais. They have to learn how to wai, they have to respect older people, and learn our way of life. And I teach them our history.

“At the same time they know England, they know America and they know Europe. An education is the best thing I can give them – other things people can take away from you – what you have here,” she says, tapping her temple, “will stick with you all your life.”

Even with the children out of the house, Piyapas has a hectic existence. Married to Chutinant Bhirom Bhakdi, whose family owns the Boon Rawd Brewery enterprise, her time is spent helping to run the separate business the two of them own. She also owns an interior decorating business with a partner, although that has been scaled down compared to when they first started it.

In her quieter moments, Piyapas enjoys reading, playing a Gameboy or sleeping. She might curl up with a video – Moonstruck and The Thomas Crowne Affair are two of her favourites, while Audrey Hepburn is a favourite actress. She used to enjoy painting and drawing, and even took lessons, but these days does so more rarely. She tries to get away with her husband on weekends, when they like to go to Pattaya or Hua Hin, and a few trips abroad each year are made to England to visit the children.

The two were almost childhood sweethearts – their parents knew each other, and Piyapas was a friend of his sister. “We met when I was about ten! But nothing happened between us until I turned 19, then we became boyfriend and girlfriend.”

She turned down the opportunity to pursue her masters degree overseas when he persuaded her to marry him. Would she recommend marrying young to her children? “It really depends on the person. I knew my husband for a long time. I knew his character and his way of life well. We were boyfriend and girlfriend for almost three years before we got married.”

Her husband was worried about her acting in Suriyothai, and also about the impact it might have on their private lives – but he supported her nevertheless.

When I ask Piyapas whether she learned much about herself during the filming, her honest and straightforward answer is instructive of her strong character: “I think I had already learned about myself before the film.”

Love can wait: Emma Suwannalat

How do you write about a star who just won’t behave like one? A star who won’t stamp her delicate foot, pout and complain, or brag about her achievements?

Naturally charming Emma Suwannalat exemplifies the kind of person you’d like to have coffee and a chat with. A best friend, a sister – these are real life roles you can imagine her playing to perfection.

But a successful model, actor, and ambassador to Thailand for Baume & Mercier? You wouldn’t guess so from her modest behaviour.

Emma, who is of Thai-Irish parentage, is unfazed by the success she admits she never had ambitions for.

“A few years ago I was at university in England, living an ordinary student life. I didn’t care about makeup or looking good – that sort of stuff never interested me,” she says.

Her rise to fame began when the English Thai community organised a pageant as part of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of His Majesty the King’s ascension to the throne. She agreed to make up numbers by entering – and won.

Agents approached her to come to Thailand to work after her photo appeared here. And still it wasn’t the lure of fame or fortune that attracted her.

“I’d been studying for a while and wanted a break. I wanted to visit my relations and explore Thailand,” Emma explains.

Some break! Emma entered Miss Thailand, came first runner up and went on to win Miss Asia Pacific in 1997. Since then she hasn’t looked back, winning modelling jobs and making a successful move into the world of Thai soap operas.

“After I won Miss Asia Pacific, a number of producers approached me. I had never trained in acting, and didn’t really have any great interest in it. But certain producers kept on calling me, so eventually I thought why not? And it was like a bug.”

Emma is now working on a soap opera called Angkor, in a role she enthusiastically accepted two years ago. “You get so many scripts coming in – but you want to do something you can relate to. This was a character I really wanted to play – a Cambodian refugee who comes to Thailand.”

Another career boost occurred when watchmakers Baume & Mercier approached her to be their first ambassador to Thailand. “I was interested, so I went to see them. I really liked their stuff and we got on well. Now I represent them, which means doing some modelling – and wearing their watches!”

To top things off, Emma has returned to her studies, switching from history and sociology to marketing. “I’ve met a lot of people since I’ve been working, and seen life from a different perspective. I’ve studied humanities for a long time but I’ve never touched business subjects. I wanted to become a more well-rounded person.”

Emma confesses that there are some aspects of the modelling business that bother her. “When you work in this industry and you see behind the scenes, you realise it’s all about money-making. There’s a lot of falseness about it… But I’m working in it, and doing well out of it, so I can’t complain.”

The permanent move here wasn’t smooth, despite her previous trips to Thailand with her family. “At first I hated it. The traffic here in Bangkok really got to me. I wouldn’t drive and I didn’t want to eat food off the street. Now I love it! You really do adapt. I love the people, I love the variety of food, I love the colour, I love the lifestyle.”

Turning to romance, and specifically Valentine’s Day, Emma laughs when I ask her what her ideal romantic day would be.

“Well – IF I had a boyfriend – it would definitely have to be somewhere where there’s just the two of us! I’m a very romantic person. It would need to be idyllic – I like seasides, so maybe somewhere in the south of Thailand. There would need to atmosphere, dinner, candles, champagne…”

She grows a little serious as she reveals that she has never been in love or had a serious relationship. “ Growing up, I was never really interested in boys. I was good at sports, I focused on study. And then at 18 I came out here, and I’ve been working, working, working!”

But Emma is certainly content as an independent woman.

“For me, it’s not necessary to have a boyfriend. I think women should learn to love themselves – you don’t need a man to make your life full. In just the last three years, I’ve done so much, and I didn’t need some guy there helping me out. Of course, in the future, I would love to have a husband and family – but for now, things like that are taking a back seat.”

If she had her pick of men – and some might say that she does – would she prefer someone from Thailand, or a westerner?

“Well – I don’t know. I’m not fussy! Having grown up in Europe, maybe I would prefer a European guy. But at the end of the day, when you meet someone and they’re for you, it doesn’t matter where they are from.”

If she meets the right guy, he needn’t worry about making the first move. “It’s definitely okay for the woman to make the first move! In Thailand, it has to be the guy, and it has to be really slow, if it’s traditional. But for me, it can be the guy or the girl – whoever, so long as somebody does!”

And as for the future?

“In ten years time, if I see myself anywhere, it would definitely be travelling – South America, India, Africa – or maybe living on a different continent. In terms of career, though, I’m not sure. Before, I tried to plan, but nothing has turned out as I expected. I’m doing things I never dreamed of doing.”

If personality, manners and attitude have anything to do with it, Emma Suwannalat may well keep living beyond her dreams.