He was born in Thailand, but moved to Switzerland at a young age. The 45-year-old Thai-Swiss Soontorn Leoni had a difficult start to life, but following a stay in a children’s home, eventually found his way thanks to his passion for sport. He finally made his way back to his mother’s homeland where he has become a successful businessman.
Soontorn (Soony) Leoni was born as a child of the Vietnam war in Bangkok at the beginning of the 1970s. His mother had met his biological father, a highly decorated US army officer, in the Thai capital. The relationship broke up before Soony's birth, although the father remained stationed in Thailand for some years as an expert in close combat and self-defense.
swissinfo.ch: You heard about your biological father's existence at the age of eight, and from 10 you actively looked for him. Did you have any initial success?
Soontorn Leoni: I'm afraid not. My initial contact with the Department of Veteran Affairs in Washington DC was unsuccessful. They told me they could not give out information on army personnel. My mother hardly supported me because she had washed her hands of the matter and was not claiming any financial help such as child support.
swissinfo.ch: How did you finally contact your father and get to meet him?
S.L.: At the age of 29 I finally met him at Don Muang airport in Bangkok. My mother had recalled that he was a friend of a Thai Royal Air Force Chief Marshall during the Vietnam war. Using this information, I was able to find him. After all that, the meeting was a big disappointment for me. He showed no interest in me, and so my interest in him also dwindled rapidly.
Childhood in Switzerland
Soony was still a toddler when his mother met a Swiss man. They moved to Switzerland when he was four years old. After marrying Soony’s mother, his stepfather adopted him and he became a Swiss-Thai dual citizen. But Soony’s relationship with his stepfather never developed because he could not accept that there was a new man in his mother’s life.
Soony grew up first in Minusio, near Locarno in Italian-speaking southern Switzerland, and then in canton Bern, a German-speaking region. In 1991 his stepfather died on a trip to Italy. Aged 10, he ran away from home to escape difficulties in the family home and spent some time at a children’s shelter. Looking back, Soony sees this as a necessary and positive development in his life. His overall memories of home until the age of 18 are largely positive.
The home encouraged and supported his athletic talent and passion for football. He went through the junior groups of BSC Young Boys of Bern football club and he successfully completed school. His solid relationship with his mother, who remains in Switzerland, also had a stabilizing effect.
Soony completed an apprenticeship as a salesman at a clothing shop and went on to work in various jobs. These included a stint at the Federal Institute of Sport. At the same time, he got the travel bug, travelling to Thailand among other places.
Back in Bern, he got the chance to use his football talent and became reserve goalkeeper at Young Boys. He is still in regular contact with his old sports friends.
Bit by bit, he started thinking of returning to Thailand. At 20, he went back for the first time and perfected his mother tongue during his six-month stay. He also became fascinated by the Thai people and oriental culture.
He met his future wife, Orapin, in Krabi in 1996 and emigrated to Thailand three years later. Together with her he worked as a guest liaison officer at a hotel restaurant in Krabi. Thanks to his language skills he was able to build up a large network of business contacts and friends.
swissinfo.ch: What does it take to successfully migrate to Thailand?
S.L.: You must be able to connect with people, be open to new cultures and have an easy going personality. Of course, it is an advantage if you already have experience with other cultures. Multilingualism and the mastery of languages are almost pre-conditions to do well in tourism. Among my personal strengths is the ability to build bridges between Switzerland and Thailand. My Swiss side brings goal-oriented planning and my Thai strength is intuitive action. Bringing together these two components practically guarantees success.
Renting luxury vacation flats
In addition to being managers, the power couple have built three restaurants that fuse Thai and Italian cuisine.
Founding a company gave them entrepreneurial independence. They have positioned themselves for more wealthy tourists by developing several luxury villas (currently eight) that are rented throughout the year to families and groups.
"You could say we were in the right place at the right time. Our finances were modest. We got low-interest loans from family members and friends and could repay the loans early. We only needed a bank loan once. After two years it was paid back,” says Soony.
The married couple are now proud parents of two girls. Like a real Thai family, three generations live under one roof in one large household. The children are mainly cared for by their grandparents, which allows the parents enough room without neglecting the children or grandparents.
Sport is still important for Soony. He keeps himself fit by swimming and working out at the gym. Once a week he plays mini-soccer in Krabi, and is the Thai senior national team goalkeeper.
This is the classic term used to describe 40 to 50-year-olds in Thailand who were born to mostly unknown US soldiers and Thai women. In Thailand there many ‘Amerasians’.
Contact between Thai women and US soldiers occurred mainly in the north side of the country at the US bases of Khon Kaen and Udon Thani, which were used by the US Air Force to bomb Vietnam.
Bangkok was also a major location for US soldiers before being deployed to Vietnam. The presence of numerous GIs helped Bangkok’s red light industry achieve impressive growth. This in turn established the city’s unwanted reputation as a destination for sex tourism.