IN 1919 CHIA EK CHOR moved to Bangkok and set up a small shop importing seeds from his home Chinese province of Guangdong. Two generations later the
IN 1919 CHIA EK CHOR moved to Bangkok and set up a small shop importing seeds from his home Chinese province of Guangdong. Two generations later the business, Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group, is Thailand’s pre-eminent conglomerate, peddling everything from chickens and pigs to cars and phones. The founding patriarch, who died in 1983, adopted a Thai version of the family name, Chearavanont. But he maintained a deep affection for his ancestral home. When recited in Mandarin, the first characters of his four sons’ names—Zhengmin, Daimin, Zhongmin, Guomin—spell out “fair, great China”.
The family’s bonds with China are not just emotional. Two-fifths of CP’s $68bn in annual revenues come via hundreds of Chinese subsidiaries running animal-feed factories, supermarkets and much else besides. CP holds a big stake in a Chinese technology-and-insurance giant, Ping An. And it is a favourite partner of Chinese investors in Thailand, including SAIC, a carmaker with which CP makes fancy MG sports cars and pickups.
The Chearavanonts’ past and present mirror those of other wealthy ethnic-Chinese clans in South-East Asia. Although they make up less than 10% of the region’s 650m or so people, they dominate swathes of its $3trn economy. Many have prospered thanks to familial ties with China—and vice versa. “China cultivates them and they cultivate China in turn,” says George Yeo,…