1989 / 3月
Sunny Hsiao /photos courtesy of Wei-chang Wang /tr. by Peter Eberly
A military man by background and later an intelligence officer, he never imagined that he would end up growing flowers for a living.
Yet Fu Ching-yun (Pracha Ropbanphot-wilai in Thai), the "orchid general" from China, is easily the third largest orchid raiser in Thailand.
How did he achieve his success? The story takes some telling. . . .
Chinese people immigrated to Thailand on a large scale only during the past hundred years or so, reaching a peak during the first third of this century. Because they have fused rather easily into the local society, the figures are none too exact, but the number of people of Chinese ancestry in Thailand is estimated by the U.S. State Department at around 7 million, or 14 percent of the population.
As to their occupations, more than half are engaged in commerce and finance, with skilled and nonskilled labor next.
Different trades are often monopolized by Chinese from areas with different dialects, interestingly enough. The rice pounding business is generally handled by Chinese from Chaochow, for example; pawnshops by Chinese from Chaoyang; woodcutting by Hainanese; wineshops by Hakkas; and machine making by Cantonese. The reason is that most new immigrants had to depend on friends from home to find a job when they arrived, so they naturally gravitated to the same trade as their fellow provincials.
But among all the numerous overseas Chinese in Thailand, a true "independent"--whose story is completely different from all the rest--is Fu Ching-yun, the Orchid General.
In 1949 Army Commander Fu fought the Communists into southwest China and then slipped into Burma to set up guerrilla forces. After the government's moving to Taiwan, he remained behind working for intelligence to handle the pullout. The next year he came to Thailand.
A stranger in a strange land, Fu had to change careers and decided to set aside the sword for a plowshare, or rather a spade--planting orange trees. But orange trees turned out to be difficult to care for, requiring eight years before they could be harvested.
"I couldn't eat them--instead, they were eating me--so I had to chop them down," Fu says, with a gesture. So when he heard that flowers, which he had liked since a child, could be raised in just eight months, he decided to switch.
Acquiring the necessary skills was a big problem at first. With no one to teach him, Fu had to grope his own way. His wife, who understands Thai, enrolled in an agricultural college to study horticulture, and later one of their children, who was studying at a university on Taiwan, learned more from the family of a friend that raised orchids.
The Fu family started out raising 600 orchids, watering, fertilizing, and spraying them all by themselves.
After he had grown flowers for just three months, Fu's weight dropped from 110 kilos to 80. It must have been tough work, you might think. "No, to me it felt like enjoyable exercise," he says, explaining that someone who really likes to grow flowers won't feel tired even if he has to run about watering and fertilizing a hundred times a day.
When their business became too big to cope with on their own, the Fus began to hire help. They also bought equipment locally and from Taiwan. But the most important element was still technique.
Orchids are extremely sensitive to moisture; too much or too little has an adverse effect on their growth. Fu usually waters his orchids once a day, increasing to two or three times a day in February and March, which is just the kind of care they like.
He observes these seemingly trivial little rules religiously. "The former president of the Thailand Agriculture University is now the head of the World Orchid Growers Association. He may have more academic knowledge than I do, but in growing flowers I might not come out second!" Fu says proudly.
The second year the Fu family's orchids inreased from 600 to 3,000, and the third ear to 15,000.
Fu has also been fascinated by crossing flowers, which gives him the joy of invention. "Thailand has a good climate, suited for growing orchids year-round. You can mix and match them left and right and you may just happen to come up with something," he says with a smile.
New creations come out constantly. About half of the new varieties on the Rangoon market are his.
Fu's orchid gardens include two green-houses tended by ten workers and watched over by round-the-clock precision equipment. Outwardly unprepossessing, the greenhouses have attracted visits from orchid lovers in Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, the U.S., and Europe, and the Orchid General has become a well-known figure in the floral world.
There are 4,000 to 5,000 firms engaged in the floral business in Thailand, around 10 rather large in size. Fu's gardens, which cover 10 hectares, are the second or third largest.
Each year his gardens produce around 3 million orchids in 200 to 300 different varieties. His biggest markets are Europe, Japan, the U.S., and Taiwan. They generally sell for 8 to 10 Thai baht (less than US$0.40) per stem, the more expensive varieties for 15 (less than US$0.60).
Fu Ching-yun, it seems, has really made it.
Now in his seventies, he still lives simply and works as hard as ever. In his spare time he practices Chinese calligraphy and exchanges ideas with orchid lovers from around the world.
The next time you're in Thailand, don't forget to pick up some orchids. They may well be works of the Orchid General.
Fu Ching-yun, the "orchid general," inspects his precious creations. Mrs . Fu dressed specially in Western style for the picture.
Fu Ching-yun has always been proud of his years in the military.
The Fu family's orchids are highly competitive on the market.
Workers in the lab separate orchid sprouts for selling.