Riches to Rags

For some, the Asian financial crisis has meant a long, hard fall from grace. The Asian financial crisis has hurt many people, but it has especially changed the lives of middle and upper class individuals accustomed to luxurious living. Many "riches-to-rag" stories can be found throughout Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea, but none has made more headlines than the story of Thailand’s "Sandwich King," Sirivat Voravetvuthikun. Over two decades ago, Sirivat began as a clerk for Asia Securities Company in Bangkok, and slowly worked his way up the ladder. By the mid-1980s, Sirivat had become manager and then president of the company, handling stock and property investments worth several billion baht. After 11 years with Asia Securities Company, however, Sirivat resigned and formed his own stock investment management company. Just before the financial crash, Sirivat bought 41 rai (16 acres) of land in Nakhon Ratchasima in northeast Thailand, and after borrowing large amounts of money, he decided to have two three-story luxury resort condominiums built on that land. But when the Thai economy turned sour beginning in July, 1997, Sirivat’s life was turned upside down. Sirivat’s massive debt was payable in US dollars rather than Thai baht, and coupled with poor sales due to diminished spending on the part of Bangkok’s wealthy, this left Sirivat with few options.

To survive the crisis, Sirivat has turned to selling sandwiches on the streets of Bangkok. For Sirivat, the pain of losing money was more than matched by his loss of status. The shame of slipping dramatically down the slope of status in a hierarchical Thai society left the former trader depressed and frustrated. Hard times have not completely dampened Sirivat’s spirit though. Along with 20 former employees of his financial management company, Sirivat had by early 1999 opened three fixed sandwich locations along with several mobile units. Further, Sirivat continues to dream about returning one day to the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET), and has not given up on trying to sell his unsold condominium units. In the meantime, Sirivat has plans of expanding his sandwich operation, and hiring others laid off during the recent financial crisis. So, despite the initial shame of having to sell sandwiches to passers-by, Sirivat remains thankful: "In the first week my sandwiches were not moving quickly, but thanks to the media publicity, people began to know me and the sandwiches soon started selling, so I feel better about myself now." Nonetheless, for other, less-successful members of the former nouveau riche of Thailand - not to mention Indonesia and South Korea - the fall from high flyer to earth-bound pauper has been a hard pill (or in this case, sandwich) to swallow.