Talking to Charlie

June 4, 2001

Charlie sells furniture. I stumbled upon his shop when I first moved to Bangkok and was looking for some things for my house. Although his store may look small from the road, it is actually a four-story warehouse chock full of beds, tables, chairs, couches, desks, sinks, kitchen cabinets, and dish and clothing racks.

Charlie is a businessman through and through. When I asked him if he was willing to do this interview he stated, “Will you advertise for me?” He later changed his mind about this idea. Charlie was happy about having company to talk to. He invited me inside and brought me a glass of water.

We sat in Charlie’s large air-conditioned office talking. A gigantic television filled one wall and his desk was neck deep in paperwork. The floor was strewn with children’s toys, all belonging to his nephew. Charlie lived in America for 22 years. He has a BBA and an MBA and studied in both Texas and New York City. Charlie took down his diplomas, dusted them off, and showed040601k1.jpg them to me with pride.

He bought his warehouse ten years ago. It also serves as his residence. He has one big room upstairs with three small bedrooms attached to it. He is married and has no children. He is in his mid-fifties. When asked how much his mortgage is, he changed the figures several times. When asked how many employees he has, he stated, “I do not want to talk about any of this. I will have problems with my taxes.” According to Charlie he can make 0-5,000 baht (0-111 US Dollars) in one day from his wholesale and retail business.

Charlie is a talkative guy, except when it comes to finances. He told me about his businesses over the years. “While I was in school I opened up a Middle East sandwich shop. After this I opened up a Thai restaurant with a friend as a business partner. Then I became a grocery wholesaler. I delivered food to local restaurants. I did not just go to school. I worked.”

Somewhere along the way Charlie also managed to win the New040601k2.jpg Jersey State Lottery. He showed me his ‘50 Grand Club’ plaque and said, “I had to pay over 50 percent tax on my winnings!” Still, 25,000 US Dollars in the 1970s is a nice sum of money.

Charlie decided to seek more fortune by returning to Thailand in 1991. He stated, “I came back to Thailand because business was booming. I wanted to go into real estate. Then the economy collapsed. I went into the furniture business instead. I sold my restaurant in New York and used the money to buy this business.”

Charlie has several political theses about what caused the financial collapse of Thailand, but they are too over my head to follow. He gets rather angry just talking about it and hopes that the present government will bring improvements in Thailand’s failing economy.

I asked Charlie if he had been back to the United States. He said, “No, but my wife went twice. I have no time. I have to work every day for ten or eleven hours. Business is very bad, but I keep going and040601k3.jpg hope things will get better.”

Charlie is a big fan of America. When asked the major differences between the two countries, Charlie stated, “In America everything is convenient. It is a rich country. When I lived in America I was not a US citizen but I had the same rights as Americans, except for voting. I have more rights in America because America has more democracy than Thailand. Here I cannot talk about the police. Thailand has too much poverty. It does not look good. Some areas are not safe.”

When asked if he was homesick while he lived in America, Charlie said, “No. I enjoyed living there. People were friendly and invited me to their homes. But I am happy to be back in Thailand.”

Charlie says the furniture he sells is for the poor people in his country. “Many people do not have refrigerators. Instead they use these cabinets. They put the legs of the cabinets in an insect repelling water to keep the bugs out. Only rich people can afford a modern kitchen or house.”

The average Thai kitchen definitely is not the version you see advertised on television. Simple wire shelves, a one-burner propane stove, and plastic storage units to keep the bugs out of dry food prevail. Forget dishwashers, garbage disposals, or even hot water most of the time.

Every day Charlie sits in his office watching television until a customer comes. He then goes out to argue about the price with the buyer. His employees load the goods onto the truck or into the car. Charlie takes the money, and goes back inside. His life certainly is not a bad one but Charlie doesn’t think that luck is not on his side. He planned to make a fortune back in his home country. Instead he simply gets by.

Charlie did not want his picture taken. I promised that the next time I need a pillow, blanket, bed, sink, or chair I would buy it from him. With so many furniture dealers clogging the streets, it remains to be seen if Charlie’s store will make it. If it does not, I expect that Charlie will be one very bitter man.

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