By Maxmilian Wechsler
IT’S a veritable Little Italy when you visit the Italian Embassy on the 40th floor of CRC Tower on Wireless Road. The language here is Italian, even amongst the Thai staff.
“There are about 30 people working at the embassy including local staff,” explained the Ambassador, HE Michelangelo Pipan. “All Thai personnel can speak Italian. It is a condition of employment. They are working mostly at the consular or in the economic sections.
“We moved from the old embassy on Nang Lynchee Road to here in 2011. This location is much better and more convenient due to mass transport systems and for other reasons. We designed the interior according to our specifications.”
Italy’s influence on Thailand is sometimes overlooked, and yet it is significant in many areas, particularly in terms of architecture. Italian architects and builders are responsible for some of Bangkok’s most impressive buildings such as the Apisek Throne Hall, Audience Hall at Phya Thai Royal Residence, Hua Lamphong railway station and even Villa Norasingh (now the Government House).
“Diplomatic relations between Italy and Siam were established on October 3, 1868 when both countries agreed to the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation. We will celebrate the 150th anniversary in five years’ time,” he said.
The Ambassador explained that when His Majesty King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) went to Europe for the first time in 1897, his first stop was Venice in Italy. The King established very good relations with Queen Elena and the Italian Royal House, and became a great fan of Italian art. He invited Italian artists, architects and engineers to Siam, and their work endures.
In 1898, the Siamese Ministry of Public Works hired Italian architects and builders to design and supervise construction of numerous landmarks. In addition to those mentioned above, Italians were responsible for the Makawan Rangsan Bridge (completed in 1900); Amporn Sathan Royal Villa (1902); Ananta Samakhon Throne Hall (1908); Royal Turf Club (1921); and Mrigadayavan Palace (1923).
“If you go to my home town of Turin,” said the Ambassador, “you will see a railway station that resembles Hua Lamphong, only bigger. Many of the Italians involved in the construction of Hua Lamphong were from Turin.”
The strong links that blossomed between Italy and Siam at the turn of the 20th century were very much shaped by the arts, and that Italian influence contributed to the transformation of the old Bangkok into a contemporary capital city; other Italians who came to Siam in those days contributed to the creation of the military academy and the country’s first military band.
“This is a very good legacy for us to build upon. In fact, we had a very big exhibition in 2008 featuring the work and personal history of Galileo Chini, who painted all the frescos in the Ananta Samakhon Throne Hall. We are most likely going to have another exhibition on Chini this year.”
The Ambassador said that aside from artistic considerations, Siam cultivated relations with Italy and other European powers at that time because it was under pressure from the French on the east border and the British on the west, and the former Kings were keen to establish friendly relationships with other European countries, particularly those without colonial aspirations in this part of the world.
The road from Turin to Thailand
“I come from Turin, the first capital of Italy and a town famous for its Fiat factory and car designers among other things,” added Mr Pipan. “We hosted the Winter Olympics in 2006, and Turin is also well-known for its universities and strong scientific traditions that produced many physicists, mathematicians, and medical doctors of world renown. Moreover, Turin is the capital of Piedmont, the region of famous wines (Barolo, Barbera, Asti Spumante) and of the celebrated Alba truffle.
“I have been a career diplomat for the last past 35 years, and have been posted in many countries all around the world, not confined to a particular region. I think having a wide range of experiences gives you a better perspective professionally.
“I arrived in Thailand as Ambassador in August 2009, but I’d been here before when I was posted in the Philippines. I used to go through Bangkok on my way back to Italy. Of course the place has changed a lot,” he remarked.
“My first posting abroad was in the Philippines back in 1981. Then I was in Vienna and Nairobi. I was in London in the mid ’90s. Of course, in between various postings I served at the Ministry in Rome.
“My last overseas assignment before Thailand was as Ambassador to Georgia. I opened the Italian Embassy in Tbilisi in February 2000, which was quite an experience. This has probably been my most challenging post. It is one of the small countries emerging from the shadow of the former Soviet Union, and the economic situation at that time was very bad. Likewise, security was a problem and the power supply was very erratic; the same is true of petrol. The roads were very bad…I could go on, but in fact it was a very good experience because the country is beautiful and the people are really very nice.
“Because they lived in relative isolation for so many years under Soviet rule, they were really keen to meet foreigners, and they have a special passion for Italian culture. They actually had a very good educational system, so they were very eager to have a chance to savour some of the activities we organized, or just to talk about cultural things.
“After leaving Tbilisi I was back in Rome for a while, in charge of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All the aspects of protocol for the games, like taking care of visiting heads of state, were under my responsibility. Later I was diplomatic adviser to the Mayor of Rome, which was an extremely interesting job, given the high international profile of the city,” said Mr Pipan.
The Ambassador spoke extensively of his duties in Thailand and of the relations between the two countries. “As all my colleagues do, I look after the embassy, I meet visitors from Italy, businessmen and others. I plan activities, coordinate the work of my colleagues and prepare reports.
“Above all, I try to reach out to the Thai society as much as possible, relating with authorities, business people and academia, entertaining guests in my Residence, organizing our annual Cultural Festival, which is becoming more popular every year, with a range of activities, from a festival of the most recent Italian films to concerts and exhibitions.
“One aspect of our culture I am very keen to promote is the scientific/technological one, and I make sure we offer the Thai public an insight into some of our achievements in these fields through lectures and conferences.
“Italy and Thailand enjoy an excellent relationship. Trade has been thriving and growing in recent years, and has reached its record in 2011 with over US$4 billion, but there is plenty of room for improvement. Our main export items, which grew 4.8% last year, are high-tech products, such as machine tools, instruments and chemicals/pharmaceuticals, while we import products like jewelry, air conditioning units, computer parts and frozen food.
“A few Italian manufacturing companies have established themselves in Thailand. For example, Danieli, a market leader in its sector, manufactures whole steel plants and exports them. They design and build them here, and they also employ quite a number of Thai engineers, which is a good thing. Ducati recently opened their first plant for producing their famous motorcycles outside Italy with an eye on the ASEAN market and have recorded excellent results from the outset.”
When asked to compare the presence of Italy in Thailand with that of other European nations, the Ambassador said: “We are not much different in terms of trade, and we do have some large investments in Thailand, though probably not as many as Germany or France. Certainly there’s room for expansion. We believe that the ASEAN region has a very bright economic future, and we think that Thailand is a very good springboard for our presence in this area. So we are trying to attract the attention of Italian businesses about the opportunities offered by Thailand.
“As for tourism, there are many Italians coming to Thailand, almost 300,000 a year. This seems like a small amount compared to the number of visitors from northern Europe, many from smaller countries than Italy. This may be because in Italy we have plenty of beaches and sun, which are what draw many northern Europeans here. But Italians come here primarily for the culture and because the people are so friendly. A growing number of Thais visit Italy nowadays and we issue about 30,000 visas a year.
“There is quite a sizeable Italian population living in Thailand, close to 4,000 people, who are registered with the embassy. We estimate that there is almost a similar number that spend the better part of the year in the country.”
Mr Pipan said that although his work usually keeps him in Bangkok, he very much enjoys travelling around the country and does so fairly often. “I think in order to know the social, economic and cultural aspects of a country well you have to travel. I have been in the North several times and visited the border regions around Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Pai, Chiang Rai and other places, including the refugee camps. As for the South, I have visited the area quite extensively, including Phuket and Krabi, which are very beautiful. I have been to cities in the Northeast as well and visited various industrial areas on the Eastern Seaboard.
“I have had only good experiences here. The most memorable event I witnessed was the Royal Barge Procession along the Chao Phraya River on November 9 last year. This was a really remarkable sight.
“Thailand gets under your skin,” said the Ambassador. “It is an easy going, friendly country and life is very pleasant. The combination of the natural and cultural richness with these things, especially the people, is very important.”
In his spare time Mr Pipan likes to play golf, meet with friends and does a lot of reading. “I also like to take photos, especially when I travel. My favourite sport, actually my passion, is skiing. I have been skiing since I was young, as my home town is next to the mountains. If you ask me how I can cope with living in a tropical country, so far away from my favourite element, the answer is simple: I take my holidays during the European winter, so I can ski!”
Global economy is win-win
Asked whether Europe is in decline and will be eclipsed by Asia, the ambassador replied: “I don’t really like this way of putting things, but of course, Asia is on the rise. It has a great human capital, it has a lot of thrust for growth; but at the same time Europe is strong thanks to its own special qualities. European countries excel in services, technology, production of various specialized goods, and these things are here to stay.
“This is true of the euro currency as well − the euro is here to stay, and it is sometimes a little disappointing to see the way it is perceived in this part of the world because the information may not be first hand. Sometimes the information that comes through other channels has a slant which is not right. The euro is very strong and deep in the minds of Europeans.
“I was reading just today some articles about the global supply chain. It is not as if suddenly everything will be produced in one part of the world and not in another and all the trade will be one-sided. Many products nowadays are comprised of many components which are produced in a variety of locations and put together in one place. So, many countries specialize in producing not the final product, but rather the components. Take Thailand, which specializes in producing hard disk drives. It is the world’s largest supplier, which is why the price of computers around the world went up when you had the floods here.
“Very few goods are really produced in a single country. This is a worldwide market where ideally everybody is in a position to profit and to thrive. In the present so-called globalized world, your advantage is my advantage and vice versa. If I do well, you do well. China needs a thriving Europe and US. Every country contributes to wealth and to security and there’s an advantage for everybody. I am quite convinced of this and hope that it will usher a future of shared prosperity and stability.”
He is confident that Italy can upgrade its presence in Asia, and sees a lot of opportunities to do so. “We are working in order to achieve it. For example, last year our minister of foreign affairs invited his counterparts from all ASEAN nations to attend a meeting with business and associations in Italy in order to present the opportunities in this part of the world to them. It was a very successful event.
“Former Prime Minister Mario Monti met with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra at the 9th Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM-9) held in Vientiane, Lao PDR in November. They agreed that facilitating business to business in various sectors is an important and necessary step.”
Italian food in Thailand
The influence of Italian architecture is prominent in Bangkok, and the same is true of Italian cuisine. What is the ambassador’s take on Italian food here? “I know good and even excellent Italian restaurants in Bangkok with very authentic, contemporary and interesting menus, and quality ingredients. Pizza and spaghetti are of course on offer, but there is much more.
However, he added, just putting spaghetti on the menu doesn’t make it authentic. This means the restaurant must have an Italian chef and use authentic Italian ingredients.
“There’s a very interesting initiative from the Italian government to certify Italian restaurants abroad which offer genuine Italian ingredients in their dishes, like if they use Parmesan cheese from Italy, real Parma ham, mozzarella and extra virgin olive oil that has been flown from Italy. This applies also to the wines. Only restaurants offering a high percentage of authentic ingredients are certified,” said the ambassador.
When asked which Bangkok Italian restaurant is his favourite, Mr Pipan said: “It is hard to say and in any case I don’t want to make enemies or to advertise. I think that the public in Bangkok knows where the better Italian restaurants are. The awareness of Thai consumers about Italian food is in fact proven by the easy availability of excellent Italian food products in big department stores,” he added.
• Ambassador Michelangelo Pipan was born in Turin on 25 January 1949 and has a Degree in Law from the University of Turin (1972).
• Fellowship from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the ISPI (Institute for Studies in International Politics) in 1975/76. Entered the Foreign Service by public examination on 4 May 1978 and after the course at the Diplomatic Institute, at the Office for Asia at the Department for Economic Affairs.
• First diplomatic posting in Manila as Second (later First) Secretary from 15 March 1981; Charge d’Affairs for nearly a year, from September 1981 to August 1982. Promoted to First Secretary, on 1 June 1983 he was transferred to Vienna, where he worked mainly in the multilateral sector.
• Deputy Head of Mission and Acting Counsellor in Nairobi from 27 June 1986, he was promoted to Counsellor on 1 May 1988. After returning to Rome in September 1989 he headed the Office of the Department for Development and Cooperation responsible for cooperation in education, training and cultural heritage.
• Counsellor in London from 27 April 1993, handling the cultural and political sectors. Promoted to the rank of First Counsellor on 1 January 1996 and on September 9 of that year he was posted to the Ministry of Public Education, University, Scientific and Technologic Research, as Diplomatic Advisor for International Affairs of the Hon. Minister. • Posted in Tbilisi on 15 February 2000 where he opened the Embassy of Italy and stayed as Ambassador until May 2003. Upon his return he was appointed Head of multilateral events, Department of Protocol, handling among others the organization of the signing Ceremony of the European Constitutional Treaty and was then responsible for coordinating the activities of the Ministry in relation to the Winter Olympics in Turin.
• Promoted to the rank of Minister Plenipotentiary on 2 January 2005. Starting in July 2007 he served at the City of Rome as Diplomatic Adviser of the Mayor. Returning to the Ministry in April 2008 he took up the position of Coordinator for the Olympic Games in Beijing. From November 2008 he was also entrusted with the position of Coordinator of economic and cultural initiatives in Japan.
• Ambassador Michelangelo Pipan is married to Mrs. Laila Novello (architect) and they have one son, Tommaso, born on 28 August 1980.