Weekly Local Biography

  Aart Roffel

By Basil McCall

The tall Dutch organiser of the exhibition of historic original photographs at the Mandarin Oriental Dharma Devi Hotel from July 8-11 arrives late. “Still so much to do” he apologises. I am not surprised. What he is tirelessly setting up with his co-operative sponsors affords a fascinating glimpse of the Thai Royal Household over a century ago. If you miss this opportunity, you will probably never have another chance to see these stunning, thought-provoking images.
He begins his story, “My father was one of 20 children” immediately tweaking my curiosity. “He worked as a riveter in a ship repair yard, earning very little.” He pauses, and adds: “My mother’s family however, drove around in a Rolls-Royce.” With introspective blue eyes and a wry smile, he reveals, “Unfortunately, the money did not accompany the marriage. Her family cut her off.”
Aart Roffel, gentle, affable and unassuming Director of Domi Duca Asia, was born from this union of disparate social classes in 1951. His mother brought four offspring from a previous husband killed in WWII, and he became one of eight children in a poor family, living on a dyke in a house outside the city of Ridderkerk, in the south-west of Holland.
In this picturesque setting surrounded by cows and livestock, his youth was a blend of heartbreak and happiness. His mother died when he was 14, his father, four years later. “I inherited two important qualities from them: my mother’s appreciation for the finer things in life; and my father’s affinity with the ordinary working man. So, although I appreciate refinement and luxury, I’m a socialist at heart,” he admits with a grin. At the very mention of school, his eyes turn skywards. “I had no academic abilities,” he recalls. “I left school at the soonest opportunity, when I was 13.”

Although perhaps not a model student, Aart was a maestro planner, and an aspiring publisher. Even at that tender age, he was already arranging successful social get-togethers. He also produced a monthly “Popart” newspaper, with a circulation of nearly a thousand. His flair for organizing events saw progressively bigger projects, facilitated by access to the auditorium at one of the shipyards, which had a huge stage, dressing rooms, excellent audio and lighting equipment, and could seat thousands. He was also a budding talent scout, and traveled widely looking for promising performers. Some of those he ‘discovered’ were members of the band Focus, the soon-to-be internationally known group, best known for albums such as “Moving Waves” and “Live at the Rainbow”.
Had Aart been commercially motivated, he might be a top theatrical agent today. Instead, he was a purist, and an idealist, who sought emotional rather than financial rewards, “My thrill came from witnessing the palpable excitement of the audiences – I got a huge kick out of witnessing hundreds of people enjoying something that I had made possible,” he explains, with an intense look. His greatest triumph came on the Saturday before Christmas of 1969, when he persuaded fellow citizens of Ridderkerk to recreate a scene from Charles Dickens in the center of town, with 70 or 80 booths, and everybody wearing full period costumes. This attracted Dutch national television, which filmed the spectacular scene and broadcast it country-wide the same evening. “That would have been already been exciting enough, but color TV was only just being introduced, and my “Dickens Carnival” was the first ever Dutch emission ever to go out in colour.” His eyes sparkle at the memory.
We might therefore have expected Aart to continue succeeding in this field, but with his non-materialistic character, and the increasing commercialization of entertainment in the early 1970’s, he withdrew from the scene, doing a number of jobs, including sharing his brother’s car dealership, running a restaurant and bar, and later a discotheque; but things were to change. Aart had always felt an affinity for the Far East, born of National Geographic magazines, and the many Asian faces in the Dutch population. In 1987, he visited Thailand, fell in love with the Kingdom, and after repeated visits, settled in Pattaya in 1991. With no specific profession, supporting himself was difficult. “I don’t recommend any unqualified young person to come here hoping to find work.” He advises them, “Without the support of many people, and doing a number of jobs, it is not possible to live in Thailand – and you are likely to experience difficulties with the immigration and labor authorities.” One of the interesting jobs he found was sourcing materials for a large company of window dressers in Holland. “This involved looking for just about any materials you’d find in a big window display in Europe – including mannequins, fabrics, plastics, adhesives, ribbons, decorations, - you name it. I visited scores of factories obtaining samples, and sent them off. It was fascinating discovering the huge variety of products that Thailand manufactures.”
Chiang Mai first saw Aart accompanying a tour group. “Absolute love at first sight,” he remembers. “And it didn’t take me long to relocate.” With many Thais and expatriates doing just that, the demand for quality housing saw the birth of Aart’s real estate company, Domi Duca Asia, in 2003. “The name is taken from Latin roots – Domi meaning ‘home’ and Duca ‘to lead’ – so I guide people to their home,” he explains with a smile. The company publishes a quality magazine called ‘Residence’ and a separate branch ‘CondoSelect’ caters for the growing demand for condominiums. Explains Aart, “We can also arrange insurance, and we have taken the franchise for ‘Pictory’ which sells high quality framed images.”
So what inspired organizing the photographic exhibition at the Dhara Devi? Aart’s face takes on a pensive look. “I have always held a deep affection for Dutch Royalty, and for the Thai Royal Family, ever since seeing photographs of them as a child. The Royal Jubilee marking His Majesty’s 60 year reign created some of the most memorable scenes I have seen. When I learned that a famous Dutch gallery was exhibiting some very old and unique images of Thai Royalty as part of the celebrations in Bangkok, I knew what I must do – Chiang Mai gets so few important events.”
I knew too, what I must now ask… could this be the beginning of an “Aart Renaissance”? With his former skills, might he now bring in more attractions to a city hungry for art and culture?
“I’m not sure” he replies thoughtfully. “But watch this space.” We most certainly will.