Weekly Local Biography

  Val Mansfield

Most of us played trains in our young lives, but Val Mansfield is a man who did not play trains - he made the trains work! He is retired and living in Chiang Mai with his wife Poolsuk, and comes across as a mild mannered man who is happy with his circumstances, even though Chiang Mai doesn’t have the type of trains that Val became used to. And no, he wasn’t an engine driver!

He is a New Zealander, born in Wellington during WW II. His father, during peacetime, was a printer and one of Val’s earliest memories is meeting his father for the first time, after the NZ troops returned. There are not too many of us who can vividly remember our first meeting with our fathers!

He was sent to good Catholic schools and knew very early what his future direction was going to be. “I had known for several years I was going into engineering. I had an affinity for science and maths, and it was the practical end, rather than the academic end that attracted me.”

He went to university in New Zealand with a group of his friends from school, and they are all still in touch with each other. Engineering must have produced very strong bonds. I asked if he were a good student, and self-effacing Val replied, “I had exceptional teachers. I was very lucky with them and got a scholarship to go to Uni.”

Four years later, Val emerged from university with his Bachelor of Engineering degree, anxious to put academic knowledge into practice. For Val, it was municipal engineering, which although not a ‘glamour’ department, gave him a good grounding in such fields as roads, water and traffic.

However, after a few years he began to get itchy feet. He applied for a job in Hong Kong and got the standard “We have filed your application and will advise in due course” letter, but the Bendigo Institute of Technology in Australia did make him an offer, and so he crossed ‘the pond’ and worked there for two years as a lecturer. He then moved into Outback drilling in Australia. Not for oil, but for water, tapping the artesian basin. This took the next twelve months of his life, until suddenly he received notification of a job offer from Hong Kong! “Due course” had taken some years, but he took the 42 month contract and shifted into the northern hemisphere.

In Hong Kong he was needed for the railways, a new field for Val. In fact it was a new interest. “I was never a train spotter, but I just enjoyed the engineering of it all. It was a good time as there was a railway renaissance, especially in Asia, and I got in at the bottom.”

Getting in at the bottom meant that Val was the man involved in adding another track from Kowloon to the border, various upgrades in the system, including electrification and incidentally, moved a railway station. “It just happened to have a 12,000 seat stadium on top of it as well,” mused Val.

The 42 month contract was extended, eventually spanning 22 years in the small region. “I built a two and a half mile tunnel and lots of bridges. The challenge is to keep what you’ve got still running while you build. You can’t just shut everything down for five years!”

Val’s sphere of influence was very diverse, and he was shunted off (sorry about the pun) to Manila to an economic seminar in the Asian Development Bank council chambers. There he was to meet a young Thai economist, who was to change the future direction of his life. This was Poolsuk, later to become his wife.

By the early 1990’s Val had begun to think about retirement. “Hong Kong was always busy and exciting, but a very expensive place when you’ve finished working. I had always intended retiring to Thailand, and when the ‘offer you can’t refuse’ came along to work as the engineering director for the BTS project in Bangkok, I took it.” He worked for the BTS for five years, moving from engineering director to project director, but finally hung up his set-square in 1998 to retire.

I asked Val what did he do now, to fill in his time, and was met with, “I don’t understand how I found time to work!” However, he has done several consulting appointments, including Dubai and Malaysia, but he has since called a halt to that side as well.

He and Poolsuk have the travel bug and have taken off for many countries, exploring not the railway stations, but the historical aspects of different societies. “We went to Europe for three months. I had spent some time there with BTS, but it was always dark when I got out of the office. We’ve been to NZ, Burma, Turkey - Turkey was wonderful and hopefully Egypt later this year. I hope Egypt will be even better,” said Val. “History pulls us in. South America’s on the list too!”

His other passion is rugby - especially the Hong Kong 7’s. “I’ve been to every 7’s that’s ever been,” said Val proudly.

However, Thailand is his home and Chiang Mai is the spot. “I came up here (for a visit) with an old school friend and thought that I wouldn’t mind living here.” His wife responded by telling him to start designing their house and they moved in three years ago. I asked Val whether he could speak Thai. “Not good. I get it mixed up with my Cantonese, which isn’t good either.”

Another spare time pursuit is writing, and Val has written two novels, but has not tried too hard to find a publisher.

Despite his cosmopolitan working life, Val Mansfield is still a New Zealander. “New Zealand has changed in many ways, and I think I’d find it hard to live there. But put a black jersey on a rugby field and I become a Kiwi very quickly!”