Weekly Local Biography

  Manat Chowmuang

When I was a little girl, my mother had a beautiful crystal vase that was the perfect size for one rose. She usually kept it in the kitchen window so that she could enjoy the beauty of the flower while she prepared meals, and sometimes she let me replace the rose. On those very special occasions, I would marvel at the many facets of the crystal as the sun refracted through them. My friend Nat reminds me of that vase with many facets to his personality, all constantly evolving.

Manat Chowmuang grew up in Chiang Rai where his father did many jobs, including driving a tuktuk, to support his family of five sons. His mom cared for Noi, Nat, Nit, Nop and Na, and I can just envision those five little boys and the fun they must have had together. The family struggled financially, but the children were loved in this very “huggable” family. Childhood doesn’t last forever, though, and Nat left school before graduating to help the family. The only work he could find was selling ice cream, then drinks at the bus station, watching the buses come and go. His options were limited in Chiang Rai, but faraway Bangkok offered opportunities.

At seventeen, Nat himself became one of those bus passengers and set off for the big city. He had no idea what he would find, but he was determined to support himself and help his family. He frowns when he remembers his first impressions of Bangkok – hot and sticky with polluted air and a lot of noise. He yearned for Chiang Rai. He went to work for a company that sold roti on the streets. The company provided the cart and materials, Nat just cooked and sold the roti. He lived in the company dormitory, crowded but a big savings. His next job began to awaken his creative side. He worked for a company that made and sold dolls. During the day, he made the dolls, which were painted to look like a Japanese couple in traditional wedding clothing. Then he packaged them and sold them at the night market in Bangkok. He liked the job, it was a challenge and he learned how to take a product from an idea to manufacture to packaging to the customer. He was doing well when his 20th birthday came along.

Back home to Chiang Rai he went to the Thai Army lottery. Red and you’re in the military; black and you’re not. He drew black, and started looking for another job. He came to Chiang Mai and found work making jewelry. The company imported old silver from Pakistan, refashioned it into new products and exported it to New York. It was his first contact with the export business. It was while he was working for this company that he met his American partner, and that changed his world.

His partner sent him back to finish his education, and he decided to study English at the same time. He didn’t stop with school; he took up sewing, clothing design and even learned the craft of batik making. He was so nervous reading his papers aloud in class that his hands shook. So he took up singing on stage with friends to get over the nervousness. Today, when he steps on stage, he changes from quiet to self-confidently extroverted.

His education completed, he began to work out of his home making cushion covers from a combination of Thai and hill tribe fabrics. His first big customer was a very discerning Japanese woman. She would turn every cushion cover inside out and examine the seams. She showed him just what she wanted, and he worked hard to please her. She sent more customers, and more people heard about his work. He needed help and hired his former sewing teacher. They moved their work to shop houses. Growth was consistent. His partner’s business was growing and changing, too. Through a series of changes and mergers, Lois, the cushion company, became part of CDC Design Resource, and CDC became known in this part of the world for its interior design work in five star hotels.

Along the way, some of Nat’s brothers came to work for the company. I was constantly confused. Was this Nit or Noi or Nat? I gradually sorted them out. Sadly, Nit suffered a long illness and died a few years ago. His family and friends grieved. But life went on, and Nat began to make trips to America. His partner’s family there encouraged him to prepare Thai food for them, and another side of his personality blossomed.. He took what he had learned helping his mom in the kitchen as a child, and built on it. He became known for his culinary skills, so well known that a local charity “auctioned” him as a guest chef to raise money. He loves to cook for parties.

The business continued to grow, and soon moved from the shop houses to property in the country. They hired people from the surrounding village and taught them skills. Nat and some of his workers began to volunteer at the local temples. They presented money trees to the temple, or built float for parades or cooked. His spiritual side deepened. Tragedy struck again. His beloved older brother, Noi, was killed in a motorcycle accident. There was no illness, no time to prepare for this loss. Nat says his brothers live in his heart.

I saw Nat Chowmuang’s many facets come together at the party he held on the occasion of the 100 day anniversary of Noi’s death. The entire village was invited. The garden had been converted into a Lanna work of art. A small temple had been constructed of bamboo, with candles lighting every foot of it. They blazed in the darkness while Nat served a feast he had prepared himself. Then he climbed on the stage to greet his guests, and he was 100 percent performer. The poor boy from Chiang Rai was in his element.