The Mongering Philanthropist Part 6
In the previous chapter we saw our hero becoming enamoured of a small Issan community. With a new confidence he is contemplating making a few commitments
Part 6 Irons in the fire
By the middle of February the weather in the UK had taken a turn for the worse with snow imminent. I returned to Thailand with all good speed. This time I paid for a first class seat on Thai airways. I know it does not compare to Singapore or Emirates but I thought it wonderful and had a fascinating conversation with an interesting Thai lady in the next seat. The time passed quickly in her company. At the end of the flight she exchanged business cards with me.
I arrived refreshed raring to go. I didn’t do my usual manoeuvre of going up to departures to find a taxi that had just dropped a passenger off. This time I tried the official route and found a taxi with ease. In fact I had the easiest journey I have ever had in ten years of visits to the kingdom and had checked in the Nana hotel by mid afternoon. That evening I spent in the Nana Plaza exploring a couple of the bars I had not been in before. I ended up watching the impressive show in the Las Vegas bar before returning alone for an early night.
The next morning I met with Wanaporn the Thai solicitor Devin had recommended to me at his office in a tower block on Asoke. He was a personable fellow had studied in England and certainly had his wits about him. I briefed him of my plans and was confident he would do a good job for me.
On returning to Nana I popped my head into the Golden bar to see Kae the captivating little poppet who “didn’t go with customer”. She seemed pleased to see me and when I asked if she cared to have lunch with me she agreed immediately.
We took lunch in the Heidelberg restaurant and enjoyed an excellent steak. As before, she was dressed with an elegance that appeared incongruous with her job in a bar. She was as enchanting as on our previous encounter and maintained she would not have sex with a customer but I did sense a slight thawing in her attitude to me. After lunch we went for a leisurely walk around the nearby Pleochit shopping mall before letting her go her own way.
After a few days in Bangkok catching up with the usual suspects I flew up to Udon Thani and took a taxi to see Kul and Kwan. After booking in to the local hotel I had previously stayed I took a stroll to the girl’s restaurant to inspect their progress.
As I entered the doorway I saw them both wearing jeans and T shirts which made them look much younger than their years. I was greeted by huge hugs and kisses as they dragged me upstairs to the top floor that housed their apartments. Once inside the one apartment Kul went to the shower cubicle and turned on the water. An impressive jet of hot water came from the nozzle where previously had not been even the merest of trickles. “Look” Kul exclaimed “we have strong water; your friend Alec did a good job”. Kwan added “he now make us happy the most”.
I could sense their delight and excitement but I feigned disappointment and said “So this means you will not be coming to my room to take a shower anymore?” both girls gave a scream of delight and as Kwan began to undress me Kul quickly stripped and jumped into the shower. Divested of my clothes Kwan pushes me into the shower cubicle and Kul began soaping me down. Kwan’s jeans, T shirt and panties soon joined Kul’s on the floor and she joined us in the deliciously cramped cubicle. If there is a greater delight than sharing a shower with two soft skinned Asian ladies I have yet to find it. Well maybe when…..no never mind.
Twenty minutes later we are back downstairs drinking green tea and nibbling on a few delicacies Kwan has thrown together. They eagerly tell me about what Alex had done. He had installed the pump at the mains completely replaced the pipe work up to the roof top cistern installed heated new showers and put a water supply on the floor above them in case they ever wanted to convert the storeroom for a more productive purpose.
I popped across to Mikes bar and was pleased to see Alec sitting at the bar. I told him how delighted the girls were and asked him if I still owed him any money. “No we are good”. He smiled “I enjoyed the job, your two girlfriends kept me supplied with coffee and food all day which is why it took so long”. I joked that I imagine that was not all they supplied. For an ex military man he looked decidedly embarrassed and actually blushed. So I did not continue my teasing and quickly changed the subject.
Knowing Alec’s technical background whilst in the military I told him about Chan’s business and my half formed plans to erect a new building to re house all the casting operations. I explained my idea that this would leave the existing studio building to be employed for more creative and lucrative projects. Alec was a smart fellow and immediately understood my rationale. He declared “I could get a squad ….sorry crew of good local guys together to construct your building and organise the services such as water power and compressed air…..if you are interested”.
Mike was hovering listening in which is the role of a good landlord and joined in our discussion. I remembered Mike’s architectural pedigree so his input was welcomed. He offered to help with the design and specification for the building. He explained he was a little bored and the project would be a superb distraction for him. We made arrangements to meet at the site the following week to perform an initial survey.
I also asked them for their thoughts on Kul and Kwan’s property. They had a three storey building in the centre of town and asked they speculate what opportunities did that present. Alec thought for a moment and said “the middle floor has great potential but is clearly under used” He thought for a moment then continued “ they could put up a bit of drywall to make 6 Thai style rooms or 2 or 3 luxury western style apartments. He continued “I reckon if you used the external walkway for access you could dispense with a corridor which would give save quite a lot of space”.
Mike joined in “If you are clever with the layout you could get 4 en suite hotel bedrooms for less than 1,000,000 baht and with furnishings say 1,200,000”. Warming to the theme he went on “if you closed the minimart and turned it into a reception and communal area you could get a decent little hotel” After a moments delay he continued” But I can not see what the interest would be, I certainly can not see much of a demand for hotel rooms in this little town” I agreed but had the germ of an idea which I then shared with them.
The next day I took a taxi east to Phai’s house. She was clearly delighted to see me and said “no parties today I want you to myself”. I smiled and asked if she wanted me to dig her garden first or clean out the drains she laughed and led me into her bedroom. For a traditional conservative lady her passion was sometimes quite insatiable. She locked the bedroom door behind us.
I was a little relieved when she told me her daughters were coming to see her the next day. Although I loved Phai’s ardour I am no longer a young man and need to take a breather occasionally. Maybe I should consider taking a lad on.
As on my last visit we quickly settle into a domestic routine l found very pleasing. She was a gifted cook and had established the level of chillies I could accommodate. Later that afternoon we sat watching TV, with Phai trying to explain to me the intricacies and characters of some inane Thai soap opera.
I was laughing at the eye bulging histrionics when her oldest daughter Mali made a noisy arrival. She had been working in an office in Bangkok but had found a new job in a CAD design agency in Udon Thani. This had been set up as a bureau service for the Chinese and Japanese manufacturing businesses that were springing up around the city.
She was due to start the following week but wanted to spend a few days with her mother before moving into an apartment in the city with a friend. Mali was a vivacious bubbly 25 year old, a bit chubby but with a pretty face framed by a large pair of spectacles which gave her a bookish look. Her English was basic but she made an effort to chat with me. She was naturally giving me the once over before quickly deciding I was a harmless old cove.
Early evening the younger daughter arrived. Ratana is 21and in her last year studying English at Khon Kaen University, the contrast with her effervescent sister was marked. She was a shy delicate little thing but her elfin face was quite exquisite. I imagined the next few days would be a hive of activity with three women in the house. I would spend my time keeping out of the way. They seemed to accept my presence around the house and appeared unconcerned at our sleeping arrangements.
That evening Phai had booked a table for six at the nearby restaurant. When we arrived I was pleased to see that Pan and Chan waiting for us. The two girls were clearly delighted to see Chan and showered him with hugs and kisses. I gather he had taken on the role of father figure to them since the death of their own father.
The meal was a lively affair with four women all chattering at once but I noted that Chan appeared a little distracted so I asked him if he was ok. Pan always hovering jumped in and stated he has a few problems with the Chinaman in Chaing Mai. Chan quickly explained he was falling behind with the orders for the elephant and Buddha statuettes which he considered his running lines. This business gave him a large part of his income allowing him to engage in his more creative statues.
“I have been thinking about this” I informed them much to their surprise. “I think your running lines need not be made by the time consuming lost wax investment process” I suggested he look at the more basic sand casting method. Chan told me he recalled his father talking of Sand casting some years ago but did not know much about. I promised to remedy this soon but said no more.
That evening before going to bed I sent an email to a foundry supply company in Rayong whose contact I had been given. I was pleased that Phai with her girls in the house was no less amorous but noticed she was careful not to make too much noise.
Within a few days I received a phone call from Chan informing me a strange delivery had been made to his studio marked for my attention. I told him not to worry I would come over and explain. With Phai teaching, Mali gave me a lift to the studio on her motor bike which was quite a hair raising experience in itself.
I saw the pallet that had been delivered. I removed the shrink wrap to reveal a pair of moulding flasks, a riddle (1/4” sieve) and a variety of materials and tools including a brand new shovel, a bag of chalk parting powder and numerous miscellaneous foundry implements.
There were also four bags of red sand. This is sand which has a high clay content that gives the sand its natural bond. Although it was red (and in iron foundries the addition of coal dust turns it black) the process of making moulds in this sand is universally referred to as Greensand. This is because of the “green” or damp nature of the sand when using clay and water as the binder.
I promised to give a demonstration later when they were not so busy but Chan and Pravat were eager and impatient to see it immediately. So I swept an area of the bench clean and took the split pattern of the elephant I had bought with me. I placed one half on the bench and put one of the moulding flasks around it. I covered the pattern with a light layer of powdered chalk then broke open one of the bags of sand and began working it with the shovel adding water to get the required consistency. I then threw a shovel full into the riddle and covered the pattern with sand that I shook through the sieve. Once the pattern was covered I carefully patted the sand around the pattern and threw more sand on. I firmly rammed the sand using the handle of the shovel as a rammer. Adding more sand I repeated this compaction process.
Once the moulding flask was full I strickled the top of the mould flat with a bar, I then turned it over and positioned the other half of the split pattern on locations on the back of the first half. Placing the other moulding flask on top I repeated the process of compaction and strickled the top. I then lifted the flask separated them and laid them down on the bench. I carefully removed the half pattern in each leaving a cavity the shape of the elephant in the compacted sand. This was repeated with other half and with a steel tube and a spoon I cut the running system or channel which would introduce the molten metal into the cavity.
I laid the bottom mould (which is referred to as the drag) on to the floor and carefully lowered the top half (known as the cope) on to it using locating pins in the flask. I fashioned a pouring bush using a small steel tube and some sand and placed a couple of weights on the top to prevent the metal lifting the top. The mould was ready for casting.
Pravat had a melt prepared so removed the furnace lid and enthusiastically lifted the crucible with tongs into the pouring shank for casting. With one each end of the shank Pravat and his assistant Nok carefully positioned the crucible above the mould and poured the metal into the pouring bush. The pouring of molten metal is always an exciting thing to watch with the sparks flying the glow resembles a small volcano.
Once cast I told them it was a British tradition to have a cup of English tea whilst it cooled. Boiling the water in a small pan I made the tea with tea bags in some mugs I had bought with me. I presented them in the time served English style with a spoon of sugar and spot of milk. Because cows milk is difficult to get Soy milk sufficed.
I watched them take a few sips and could tell it was not to their taste but they politely drank it when I told them (tongue in cheek) the spirits of the metal would be offended. We would not get a complete casting if they did not drink my magic brew. I could see this amused them and appealed to their animist tendencies. Nok declared “farang ting tong” with a smile.
We chatted a while and I explained that if the sand cast elephant gave an acceptable product they could consider making some of the parts for his Chaing Mai customer this way. They could then create some capacity to use the lost wax process for more lucrative contracts.
We returned to the mould and could see Pravat was itching to knock it out but understanding the casting process left it a further half hour to fully cool. Finally when his enthusiasm got the better of him he split the box to reveal a full casting in the sand. Using his tongs to remove the casting from the mould Pravat plunged it into bucket of water and took it to the shot blast hand cabinet to clear the sand off. He then placed it on the bench where Chan had already put one of their products for comparison.
In truth my sand casting was nowhere near as good as their usual product, it lacked the definition of the lost wax process but we all agreed it was almost good enough. With a little development we could address the deficiencies. I knew this process well and already knew how I could improve it.
I suggested they should consider the cost benefit. I believed the sand method would be less than half of the cost of the (albeit superior) lost wax technique. Once the process was organised I suggested they could also make the orders for simpler castings in a quarter of the time. Chan was an astute and intelligent chap who saw the opportunity immediately.
That afternoon when Phai collected me I asked if she could take me to visit the Ban Chiang Archaeological site which was apparently less than an hour drive away. As they had no lessons the next day I proposed we take her friends Pan and Chan with us and make it a social occasion. Suspecting I had a scheme in mind she was more than happy with this idea and phoned her cousin to make arrangements
The Ban Chaing site was a revelation it has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site and considered the most important prehistoric site in all SE Asia. The displays of the excavations were most impressive. I was fascinated by a demonstration of how the potter would walk around the pot rather than use a wheel to rotate the clay. The famous red pottery was notable but of more interest to me were the indications of Bronze Age castings being made on this site almost 3000 years ago. The finding of bronze axe heads and spears suggested that Thais had begun casting bronze before the Chinese who are always accredited with the discovery.
I could see Chan was quite moved by the day’s events. I was a little surprised that such intelligent people had never visited a world famous archaeological site on their doorstep. But I also considered that not many of my fellow countrymen had visited Coalbrookdale in Shropshire which was the cradle of the Industrial revolution at the end of the 18th century that changed the world.
We stopped for dinner in a small establishment on the way home. I felt the compunction to supplement the history lesson to my friends. I waxed lyrical that the lost wax casting process has always been reputed to originate in China but if the Ban Chaing archaeologists were correct this assertion needed review. The Issan people could feel justifiably proud of their heritage.
I also described how my fellow countryman Abraham Darby had patented the Greensand process in 1770 around the time he caused the industrial revolution by using coke instead of charcoal to melt iron. His principle product was cast iron cooking pots which were sold all around the British Empire making him a rich man. It was Darby’s grandson who later built the first Iron Bridge in the world over the River Severn. I make the observation that as foundry men Chan and I were part of long and proud tradition.
Whilst I had their attention I used the opportunity to put my proposal to them. I suggested I invest in their business. I proposed to erect a new building to house a Greensand moulding facility to produce all the simple parts for the Chinaman in Chaing Mai leaving the existing building to focus on the lost wax/investment process to produce the more lucrative sculpture and artwork.
Seeing I had Chan’s attention I then mooted my other idea of holding “workshops” for visiting artists and even backpacker tourists to attend. They would learn about the art of making sculptures and even have the experience of actually seeing their own work being cast in bronze.
Although Chan remained inscrutable I suspected I had gained his interest. I could tell that Pan was definitely interested and quite excited at my proposal I felt she would work on him over the next few days.
When we returned to the house, Phai was so excited she effectively raped me. I had never received such passion in my life before. I considered summoning a constable for assistance as I feared at some point in the proceedings I would expire. So I lay still and let her help herself. I reflect however it would be a much preferable demise than being neglected in my dotage in a nursing home in blighty.
I had thought hard and long about this decision to invest. I had £100k in a building society account with the intention of at some point investing it in a pension scheme. The objective of a pension scheme is to take care of you in old age. In the UK it would define the quality of the care home in which I would end my days in. I had an opportunity to make a life for myself here in the Issan. I was not just buying into a business I was buying into a lifestyle. I had piqued Chan and Pans interest I should now put my money where my mouth was.
I was acutely aware of the idiom about doing business in the Kingdom. My favourite is “How do you run a small business in Thailand? You start with a large business and watch it slowly die”.
That afternoon I phoned Wanaporn my Thai lawyer in Bangkok and gave him the outline of an agreement with Chan I wished him to prepare.
The next day with Phai teaching, Mali at her new job and Ratana back at college I had the house to myself. I let my imagination run loose. I had laid out a map of the Udon province on the table. I knew it took almost an hour from Kul and Kwan’s hamlet to Phai’s house and it was 20 minutes from Phai’s house to Chan’s workshop. But from the map I could see the distance from the hamlet to Chan’s workshop was probably only 45 minutes taking the road south of the city. If we could attract parties of tourists to Chan’s studio to learn the skills at a summer camp and if I developed the girl’s property into a guest house or a small hotel we could accommodate our visitors there. There were numerous issues of logistics to consider but these could be addressed if the central idea was sound.
I had visions of a little empire and if I had been wearing a jacket I would have put my hand inside in a gesture worthy of Napoleon himself. I just hoped I was not going to meet my Waterloo on an Issan field.
The next day Mike and Alec turned up at the site. I introduced them to Chan and explained they were doing an initial survey. Alec was fascinated by Chan’s set up and flooded him with questions. Alec’s enthusiasm clearly delighted Chan and I suspected another friendship was evolving.
The next evening Phai took me to a pageant at her school. There were displays of traditional music and Issan dancing from the children. I was enthralled at the beauty and elegance of these youngsters performing the almost balletic routines of the dance. I was definitely falling to the charm of Issan culture and knew we would somehow have to integrate it into the itinerary for our planned workshops.
In the audience that evening was Jow Phai’s brother in law with the travel business. At the end of the concert I chatted with him and outlined my concept for the artist school at Chan’s studio. I could not get him enthused as he could not see an opportunity for himself but I could tell he was mildly interested and he did give me some helpful advice.
Over the next week or I spent some time with Pravat and Nok instructing them in the tricks and techniques of sand moulding. They had set up a bench in a corner of the workshop so they could experiment themselves. We purchased another 6 sets of moulding flasks, more moulding sand and I had some patterns made. They were learning fast but I felt it essential I gave them some underpinning technical knowledge so they understood the process.
I left Thailand just before Songkran and returned to the UK. I went to see my solicitor pal Devin. He told me he had chatted with Wanaporn who was setting up the contract for a partner agreement and he was a bit more comfortable knowing I had a good legal practitioner on board/
He was enthused about his Grey power agency which was taking off far quicker than he imagined and he now had almost 40 associates on board. I told him more about Chan’s studio asked him if he could find someone to launch an internet marketing campaign amongst the artist community.
A couple of days later he introduced me to Gerald a genial old fellow who had extensive experience in marketing and advertising with some blue chip organisations before being thrown on the scrap heap by the youth obsessed nature of that business. He was eking a living teaching marketing on odd days at the University so welcomed the opportunity for some activity. He seemed to know a bit about the art world as his ex wife had been an artist. I told him of my concept; he was enthused and already had several ideas to market the enterprise. He would work with another consultant for the internet dimension. I knew it would take time to develop Devin had offered to fund Gerald’s time on a consultancy basis from the trust for 3 months. If it took off we could set it up properly.
I was pleased to see Matt my eldest lad doing well. He had developed a system of work for the new German felting process and he could do a roof in two thirds of the traditional method. A couple of local councils had taken an interest and he had already picked up a few projects to reroof several schools. He was employing a pal and a thinking of taking a young lad on.
In May my youngest son Rich returned from university with a good degree in international politics. I had always questioned the employability of this but was pleased for him as he had obviously worked hard. I was also impressed he had used some of the money I gave him to attend a Thai language course in preparation his trip with me to Thailand and had finally passed his driving test. After so much effort it would be churlish not to take him as promised.
I attended another dinner dance, this time it was the annual banquet for the West midland foundry men’s society. It was again being held in a prestigious hotel. There were people there I had known for years. Blokes I had dismissed, men who had dismissed me and guys who had interviewed me for jobs in my varied career.
This time I invited the enchanting Orchid up from London as my companion for the event. She looked divine that evening and was clearly the centre of attention for all the red blooded males in attendance. To see so many ex colleagues from my industry in open mouthed amazement and throbbing envy at my exotic and beautiful companion was immensely gratifying. It was worth every penny of the £2000 the gesture cost me.
I was probably now universally detested by every jealous middle aged man in the local business community. It was a wonderful feeling.
To be continued