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Sunday, July 18, 2010
Bikes starlet of Bangkok rides high
A Japanese woman who also teaches etiquette is at the hub of the Harley world in Thailand
By JAN-WILLEM PAIJENS
Special to The Japan Times
"Instead of staying home, I like to meet many people — I like my freedom," says Chiemi Svensson. It's a feeling this 57-year-old Japanese resident of Bangkok surely has in common with most of her Harley customers.
Born in Shibushi, Kagoshima Prefecture, Chiemi moved to Thailand in 1983, together with her husband Erik. Now, in that so-called Land of Smiles, they jointly run their "Harley-Davidson of Bangkok" dealership.
However, unlike in the United States — where Harley riders were long regarded as akin to the social outlaws famously celebrated in films such as Marlon Brando's "The Wild One" in 1953 and 1969's "Easy Rider," with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper — those who mount these mighty two-wheel beasts in today's Thailand are almost exclusively company owners, executives or senior members of the police or military.
As if to prove the point, on a recent visit to the Svenssons' Harley showroom there was a guy there poring over the bikes who seemed like a regular Thai in his forties, smiling and always ready to have a friendly chat. After he left, though, Chiemi explained that he already owns several Harleys and had come along looking for a birthday present for his uncle — the boss of Singha beer, Thailand's biggest brewery.
"Uncle has just one or two Harleys, so perhaps it's time to buy him another one," smiled Chiemi, dressed in a red shirt adorned with Harley-Davidson patches.
Earlier that afternoon, an elegantly dressed Chiemi had welcomed this reporter to her beautiful house about 15 minutes from downtown Bangkok. In the spacious living room, coffee and tea were waiting.
Asked how she ended up as a Harley dealer in Thailand, she first filled me in with some background, explaining: "In the 1970s, women's role in Japanese society began to change. Before that time a woman was expected to stay at home and take care of her husband and children, but I wanted to travel and to meet many people."
In pursuit of her dream, she said that in 1973, right after finishing secondary school, she became a stewardess with TOA Domestic Airlines, which is now part of Japan Airlines. Then two years later she switched to China Airlines, and still recalls that the first Chinese phrase she learned was, "Beef or chicken?"
A few years after that, on a flight from San Francisco to Taipei, she met her future husband. "Erik is half Swedish, half Japanese," Chiemi explained. "He saw my name badge on my uniform, and started to talk to me in Japanese." They married in 1980 and lived in Taipei, but moved to Thailand in 1983 as the country offered better opportunities for Erik's furniture-export business.
"However, after some years in Thailand, I felt as if my brain didn't work any more," Chiemi recalled with a laugh. With two young children by then, she had in fact become more or less settled into the traditional social role she strove earlier to avoid. "But fortunately, I'd married a husband who understood," she said.
To break out of her rut, Chiemi went back to school at the age of 45. She remembered fondly (with a laugh) how the other students in her Bangkok college class called her "Auntie." Four years later, in 2002, she graduated with a bachelor's degree in marketing.
However, by then this indefatigable mature student had also started a consultancy, advising Thai business people about Japanese table manners and etiquette. "Things like, 'Don't stick your chopsticks in the food,' " she explained, "and, 'If there's a tokonoma (alcove) in the room, the guest — and not the host — should sit right in front of it.' "
At around the time his wife was at college, however, Erik was rediscovering his old hobby — and introduced Chiemi to the world of his leather-clad and sometimes nicely tattooed biker friends.
"My first thought was, 'What's going on?' " Chiemi said before bursting out in laughter — then explaining that Erik had always enjoyed motor racing, and was once runnerup in a race at the famous Daytona International Speedway in Florida.
Meanwhile, the financial crisis in 1997 caused havoc in Asia, and the then-Harley dealer in Thailand wanted to quit the motorcycle business. So, in 1999, Chiemi and Erik seized the opportunity to set up a business they named Power Station Motorsport to service Harleys and other big bikes. That led to them becoming an authorized Harley-Davidson Service Dealer in 2005, and then a year later a Full Dealer able to import Harleys from the U.S. factory. Today they have 1,000 customers, 80 percent of them Thai and the rest foreigners, and a staff of 40, including 10 mechanics trained by Harley in the U.S.
At work in their dealership, Chiemi particularly gets involved with staff training, and loves to serve customers the Japanese way. She also focuses on female customer contacts. "If they see me on the Harley with Erik, it reassures them that riding such a bike is safe, and that it's fun for them to join in," she wisely points out.
As well — Hell's Angels apart — that old outlaw image of U.S. bikers is now largely a thing of the past, with a recent New York Times story citing the average income of U.S. Harley riders as $87,000, and their average age as 49.
Certainly in Thailand, there is not even a hint of the outlaw image to tar its Harley riders, since the already-expensive steeds, which are then also subject to high import taxes, are exclusively toys of the well-heeled who can afford to shell out the equivalent of $17,500 for a Sportster 883 and up to $77,344 for a top-end tourer.
Celebrities are routinely hired for the marketing. Until recently, Paradorn Srichaphan, a former Thai tennis pro, played that role, together with Nathalie Glebova, 2005's Miss Universe. "Everyone who has a Ferrari here also owns a Harley," is how Erik put it — with a laugh. Even the Thai royal family escort uses Harley bikes.
Typical of Harley owner-riders in Thailand is 42-year-old Chumpol Patanukom, who owns two. "I am married, and I have a company to take care of," he said, "but deep inside I still have that monkey in my heart."
Or, put another way, as Chiemi keenly observed, "Look at the men's eyes. You see happiness. You see a child's eyes."
So, if there are no seminars about Japanese table manners scheduled, Chiemi regularly dons her leathers and a crash helmet and joins her husband on their huge Ultra Classic. "Some people call it cool," she said, "but I just feel lucky.
"And it's a great way to enjoy the natural environment, especially in rural Thailand, which is like Japan was about 50 years ago."