“It’s much harder running a café than selling cars,” Pui says, clearing the empty dishes, “But I’m happier. The customers make me happy.” Behind her, there is a burst of laughter as her sister Pukky peppers the conversation she had been having with the regulars with jokes, before whirling back through the door that leads to the second floor, a large grin still lingering on her lips. In another part of the coffee house, the tall dark men, most from Africa, talk loudly amongst each other in their own language. Some sit in the warm afternoon air outside, checking their phones and smoking to pass the time. Two cats, one black and the other a matted brown, circle the men’s legs for shade and food, occasionally jumping away when the door they happened to be sitting before swings open with a tinkle of bells. Along the windows and on the wall behind were pictures of what the café’s menu offered, ranging from breakfast omelets to sandwiches to flat Thai noodles, as well as toast with various spreads. Pukky tells me the toasts were her father’s idea. “They sell better than coffee,” she says cheerfully, “But we’re proud of them too. We make some strong coffee.”
Their father was also the one who gave the café its name. “Pungya comes from Chinese, meaning “helping each other”,” Pui explains. “It works in Thai, too, as pung is bread and ya is Thai egg custard, and our signature dish is egg custard on toast. And “coffee house”, well, sounds like a family.”
Pungya Coffee House is seven years old, small and warm. Of all the times I have visited this place, I have never seen it empty. It is situated just a street away from where the African businessmen live in Silom, Bangkok. Dark-skinned men and women in colourful robes of orange, brown, and purple stride through these apartment blocks where those who work in the area’s thriving gem trade collectively reside. On the Tuesday afternoon I made my first visit there were only a few African customers, but Pukky had told me that there are more on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. According to her, on weekdays the workers are sent elsewhere for business, and most of them come back by the end of the week. They mostly occupy the plushy, colourful sofas on the right-hand side of the café’s floor, talking amongst each other in their own separate languages.
Compared to their numbers, the Thais are only a handful, but they are more familiar with the waitresses and exchange friendly banter with them across the counter. A man in a checkered shirt emerges from the back door, singing a clear melody. A woman at the counter responds with an answering song, and together they laugh as the man takes a seat and the waitress continues her work. Their voices are clear and harmonious, standing out even above the multilingual conversations happening at various tables. Later, I find out that the man is a singing teacher here to give lessons to 60-something year olds in the karaoke rooms upstairs. Every time the bell chimes to signal a newcomer, one member of the group greets them in merry tones. A young black man with his shirt sleeves rolled up claps another in a sure handshake, and joins him on the sofa with his friends.
The sisters work through all of this, talking and smiling to both the customers and workers. I instantly feel at ease when one or the other turns their welcoming smile on me. Thippanud “Pukky” Chaisirimongkol is the elder. She is energetic and vibrant, her clothes slightly on the glamorous side. She had recalled my face the moment I entered Pungya for the second time in a month, and had cheerfully greeted me, as if it had only been a few days since we spoke. She sat me down before bustling off to cater to the other customers, promising me that she will come back to talk later.
The younger of the two takes over the work almost seamlessly while Pukky disappears off upstairs. She is thirty-nine, only a year younger than her sister, and it is no wonder they look so similar. Her nickname is Pui – “Fatty, because that’s what I was when I was younger,” she grins – and her laugh echoes her sister’s. Pui had been the one to come up with the idea of the café, and her devotion to it shows from the way she talks.
“For a long time, I had wanted to do this,” she tells me. “But I was too busy. I hadn’t had the opportunity because, at the time, I worked selling cars.” The sisters had formerly worked at the family business, a company called M.M. Leasing which handled and sold secondhand cars. They had been stationed in different locations – Pukky near Suvarnabhumi Airport, Pui in Silom, Bangkok – and in different departments; finance and sales, respectively. Yet, despite or perhaps because they were the only girls in the family with two elder and one younger brother, the two remained close. Pukky had joked to me before that they helped each other even then, sending the other contact details of customers who may be in either area to market to.
The company doesn’t exist anymore, however. Some time before the coffee house was opened, it went bankrupt, and all the members of the family went to work elsewhere; the sisters’ father to Bitek, a major exhibition venue, and all their brothers to a car and driver rental service called A&A. What they left was a small three-story building in the corner of the Bangrak district in Bangkok, when a light went off in Pui’s head.
“This place was used for the finance department of our business in Bangkok, but it became just an empty space when the company closed,” she explains. “We still owned it, though. So I asked Papa if I could use it to open a café, and he said o.k.” It helped that the whole family, especially their father, loved Mont Nom Sod, a café in Bangkok famous for its toasts lathered in all kinds of sweet spreads.
That explained why the sisters could afford such a large indoor space from the get-go. Unlike most family-owned restaurants or cafés in the area, the inside of Pungya is bright and vibrant. One wall is painted all in green, while others are decorated with warm coloured panels and studio lights highlighting them, or covered in photographs of past customers and events. The first thing that springs to the eye once one enters the glass doors is the café’s name written largely in purple and silver tinsel, like the aftermath of a birthday party.
Still, starting a café, their own business, was different to working for a company run by their family. The sisters were bound to run into some trouble, sooner or later. When I ask about the obstacles they faced, Pui recalls the initial difficulties of starting up with an exasperated smile.
“Everything was difficult. The food has to be very clean, you’ve got to keep both the workers and customers happy. There’s a lot of detail you have to pay attention to. Just, everything.” She and Pukky had had to go out from time to time to learn the basics of food service, how to make coffee, and find the materials for it. “It was much easier, and more profitable too, selling used cars,” she jokes. Luckily, though, finding customers were not as difficult. The café’s target group was working businessmen, and in the residential area of Bangrak, there were plenty of them.
“There weren’t much competition when we began. And Papa helped us out. He had had many staff working for him before – he told them about our new business, and we hoped that they would come after work.”
“So you didn’t have as many African customers as you do now?” I ask.
“Oh, no. There was only one at first. We were all very surprised when he started to come here, as a regular. But he was the one who taught us how to make good espresso. It’s because of his advice that our coffee is so strong. And then he brought friends, who brought more friends, and now they’re all a family.” The Thai workers still visit, Pui confirms, but at different times. “We’re lucky. The African customers, they pray five times a day, you see. So when they move out to the mosque nearby, it’s just at the same time as the workers come in from break. So they switch, and as a result, we’re always busy.”
Most of the African men who live and work in the Bangrak district have made their home there for as long as twenty or thirty years already. Ousman Sanoh is one such example. At thirty-seven, he had been living in Thailand for fifteen years now, going back and forth between Bangkok and the provinces for his job as a gem trader. He and a friend had built their own business in the capital and now work with people of all nationalities, ranging from those with large communities in the area such as Indian and Chinese, to tourists from Europe and America visiting briefly.
“I like it busy,” he says, referring to his work. “I travel all over Thailand and the world about two to four times a year, for some three months at a time. I just came back at the end of June this year.” Ousman had a Thai wife he had divorced recently, and his siblings are in other parts of the world; his elder sister in Australia, working at a hospital, and his younger brother in China selling clothes and shoes. “We’re all brothers here,” he says about the Africans who come to Pungya Coffee House. “When we come here, there’s always someone we know.”
He gets a call from work during our talk, and is asked to come back to the nearby Gem Tower, where almost all of the businesses related to the gem trade in the district are located. Before he leaves, Ousman finishes his coffee and checks his phone one last time. He shows me a picture on it; three boys smile out of the narrow screen, holding toy swords, one sitting on a red plastic truck.
“They’re my sons with my ex-wife,” he says. “Two of them are twins. The youngest is about six-and-a-half years. I see them on some weekends, and Skype or Line them often.”
“What would you want for their future, and for yourself?”
“I want my children to live and work abroad. I want them to lead international lives, like me. Maybe I’ll have them go to school in Australia, with my sister taking care of them. I’ll make a visit at the end of the year to Melbourne, see how they like it. Me, though, I might go work with my brother in China. New challenges, you know? And, well, we’re family, from the same father, same mother. We have to stick together.”
The food and drinks, or even the customers, aren’t the only things unique about the café. Pukky shows me the floor upstairs, which was occupied by two wide, open rooms converted into karaoke booths, with padded walls and a few round tables surrounded by plastic chairs, obviously for a large group. One of them actually had a man singing his heart out into a microphone up in the front, a television screen showing Chinese lyrics, and a young woman filming him with her phone. The words “Golden Voice Song Room” hung in gleaming red characters above him on the wall.
“The retired people come here when they’re bored,” Pukky explains as we listen to him perform. “They’re usually over sixty, and Chinese. The customers, they can rent out the rooms, sometimes for group classes, other times like this, one by one. They have to reserve the time they want to use it, though.” As we exit, she greets another man waiting outside for his turn in Chinese, and he answers with a smile.
“We have to keep thinking up new ideas to keep our customers” Pui tells me later, back in the café area. “So we ask them for opinions. Almost all of our products on the menu came from their voices as well. When the Africans come, we try to interest them with our coffee, and we have to keep learning what they like. What’s most difficult now for us is our location and the competition. There weren’t any when we opened, yes, but now there are about twenty coffee shops and kiosks in the area, all around the main road. The kiosks are the most profitable; they’re low cost, and for the customers walking past, it’s easier for them to buy the food and drink. So we need to come up with ways to appeal to our customers. Why did you come in, for instance?”
“Because it was hot outside, and there was air con,” I admit.
“See?” she says, laughing. “That’s one thing already.”
This was how the sisters worked together for seven years, and their efforts have made Pungya into what it is today. Pui expresses relief in being able to work with someone she could discuss anything with, including money. “But there are problems in being too close. When we are about to make a final decision, we ask Papa and our family about it.”
“Why is that?” I ask. Pui smiles a little.
“Well, you know. If you work with your sister for as long as we have, you will quarrel. And if we can’t work out our differences, we have to ask Papa to make the decision for us.”
The two are “almost completely different,” according to Pui. “Pukky, she notices more things, I think. When she’s with a customer, she sees things that I wouldn’t have. Me, I just talk, talk, talk,” she chuckles. “But we’re similar in that we like travelling. We like to go see nature, the peaceful forest. If we go abroad to say, Japan, we’d want to go to Mount Fuji, for example. We’re never interested in food,” she jokes, “We see enough of it already.”
Another thing they have in common is that they are both single and without kids, and neither seems to care. I start to ask about this in comparison to Japanese women, many of whom are under pressure to marry and build families for themselves. “Before, Thai women were the same,” Pui answers thoughtfully. “But it changed. I don’t know what changed it – the people, the community, maybe it was globalization – but now, almost all Thai women are single. It’s not so good because we have to work all the time, and that tires us out, but why would we have to give our whole life to the man? We won’t know what the future holds. We won’t have control of it.”
“But you know, if we meet a good one, then…” she grins and shrugs. “But if you’ve got no one, that’s okay too. You can’t worry about it too much. If you worry, you can’t work!”
Pukky is more flippant about the matter. “I don’t need anyone,” she says proudly. “But you’ll be fine! You’re still young!” She laughs loudly and claps me hard on the shoulder.
Now, instead of marriage, the sisters’ goals are focused on the success of the shop, especially for Pui. “I want to continue this business and open a new branch,” she states enthusiastically. “To do that, though, we need to find more staff! They come and quit, come and quit. I can’t leave the shop to survey the location because we’re so busy, having to teach them how to make coffee and serve the food to the customers. You see these?” She indicates some of the photos stuck on the wall, showing a gaggle of women and the words “New Year’s Event 2013” scrawled underneath. “Every year, from December 31st to January 1st, we bring food to the people praying throughout the night in a nearby temple, because they have to eat afterwards. But some years we can’t go there because we don’t have enough workers. I’d like my brothers to come help as managers, but it’s impossible. They have their own businesses, after all.
“I also want to make this a franchise, and sell goods,” she begins to add, but stops short. Her eyes flicker to the windows and the flyers with the menu images plastered over them. The afternoon had steadily progressed outside, and long shadows darken the flyers from behind.
Pui thinks for a bit before speaking again. “Well, no,” she says finally. “I don’t want to do that, a little bit.”
“I kind of,” and she pauses again.
“Want to keep it private?” I suggest.
“Yes. Keep it small, private. I guess I just want to promote the shop, but still keep it like this,” she admits. To the side, Pukky has joined the workers behind the counter, talking rapidly in Thai and bantering with the retirees sitting at the nearby tables.
Outside, dusk is falling. As six p.m. draws near, the Africans start packing up and leaving in groups. It is almost time for their evening prayer. The sisters see me off too, with identical wide smiles and laughing eyes. As I step outside and begin my walk back through the concrete alleyways leading to the busy main road, from which I could hear the hum of vehicles joining the rush at the end of the workday, I take note of what I see around me; two Thai men sit at the steps of their adjoined apartments, talking, one of them keeping an eye on a toddler crawling over the dirty tiles; an Indian woman with her hair in a thick braid speaks to a shopkeeper from out on the road on her bike, as an African woman approaches in bright orange robes; a few blocks down, kiosk owners call out their wares through the congested steam from their cooking blurring the street as a few bikes and cars make their way slowly through. I see in my mind’s eye the sisters as they worked, Pui with her dreams and determination and Pukky with her connection to her customers and workers alike, and the way they both spoke with pride about the community they had created. “Coffee house” sounds like a family, they had told me, and inside those glass walls with copied out images stuck all over, in the walls with warm colours and silver-and-purple tinsels and photographs through which loud voices resounded in talking and singing and laughing, it was.