Saturday, June 13, 2009

Oriental Hotel legend calls it a day and will be missed


“LET me go back 62 years,” said Ankana Kalantananda when I asked the 87-year-old guest relations consultant who was the first famous person she met in the Oriental Bangkok, a world-renowned luxury hotel.

“I met – not met, but welcomed – the then prime minister of Australia Robert Gordon Menzies (the country’s longest serving premier) probably around 1950.”

Ankana is the first Thai woman to enter the hotel business. In 1943, she worked in Ratanakosin Hotel, where the then Thai government billeted foreign dignitaries.

“At that time a hotel was not the proper place for a woman to work in, as Thais associated it with a place where lovers’ met,” she regaled.

Her parents, however, allowed her to work in the government-owned Ratanakosin Hotel (now Royal Hotel Bangkok) as it was a job with the ci­­vil service.

Three years later, Ankana was head­­hunted by Germaine Krull (the then co-partner of the Oriental). The French photojournalist befriended the Thai when she stayed at Ratanakosin Hotel while on a photo assignment.

“Probably Krull wanted to hire me as I know how to handle people. And she liked my personality – active, ener­­getic, gregarious and hardworking,” she surmised.

Ankana asked for “the salary of the Thai minister of finance” (about 1,500 baht or RM150).

Krull told her: “That is too much. I have to ask my partners (who included Jim Thompson, the American who revitalised the Thai silk industry).”

Ankana joined the Oriental in ear­ly 1947, when luxury was defined by the thickness of the kapok mattress and the quality of the mosquito net.

She worked as receptionist, secretary, telephone operator, cashier and menu writer.

Since then she has pressed flesh with the rich and famous who checked into the legendary hotel.

Among them were Elizabeth Tay­lor, John D. Rockefeller Junior, Eleanor Roosevelt, Princess Diana, John Stein­beck and Nancy Kwan.

Ankana retired from the Oriental last month.

In the 1950s, when she was in her 20s, there were times when Ankana could not recognise some of the hotel’s world famous guests.

“A man checked in one morning and registered as a band leader. And around 11am a big limousine with an American flag arrived to pick him up,” she recalled.

“I told Krull, ‘you know the Ameri­can ambassador sent his car to fetch this gentleman called Toscanini’.

“Krull said, ‘Don’t you know who Toscanini is?’ I said, ‘No, who is he’?”

He was Arturo Toscanini, one of the world’s greatest conductors.

“How can you know? World War II had just ended and during the war we (in Thailand) lost contact with the western world, and we did not receive any foreign news,” related the elegant woman.

For her ignorance, she was introduced to the book Who‘s Who.

Ankana’s favourite hotel guest is Barbara Cartland, the English author known as the Queen of Romance.

In the 1980s when Cartland stayed in the Oriental, she served as her personal assistant.

“Cartland would ask about my family and educational background. We always had a very nice conversation,” she revealed.

“On her third visit (to the Oriental), Cartland said, ‘Ankana, I’m writing a book and I would like to use your name as the leading lady’.

“I replied, ‘sure that will be a great honour’.”

Cartland published Sapphires in Siam in 1988.

“The character of the leading lady, Ankana Brook, was more or less like me – very stubborn and very forward,” Ankana said.

Asked whether she had ever dealt with difficult guests, Ankana said: “I don’t know whether I find anyone difficult. I have the ability to soothe people.

“Do you know why people complain? The core of their complaint is they are disappointed that they did not get enough attention.”

What Ankana will miss most in re­­tirement is “the wonderful guests of the Oriental, many of whom have become personal friends”.

And, for hotel regulars, it will probably be the Grand Dame of the Oriental Bangkok.

(Published in The Star on June 13, 2009)