When Sawalee Pakapan was little, she saw a movie about a young woman who arrives in Hollywood and dreams the Tinseltown dream of becoming a star. The woman, played by Janet Gaynor in the 1937 film A Star is Born, walks down Hollywood Boulevard and, in a moment of reverie, places her own hand on the handprint of a great movie star fantasising that fame would one day ask her to leave her own print on the ground.
Sawalee Pakapan in the film Fai Cheewit in 1956. The film was shot in Hong Kong.
"I was very small when I saw the film," says Sawalee, now 83. "But the memory of that moment when the woman measures her hand against the handprint of the big star has stuck with me. I began to have that dream too _ the dream of becoming a great movie star."
What she became, as every Thai knows, is one of the greatest singers this country has ever seen. Sawalee, born in 1931 to Thai-Danish parents, started singing when she was around 20 and went on to record over 2,000 songs, with over 100 immortal hits that are still sung in various cover versions today _ songs of crystal-clear sonority and heartbreaking resonance made unforgettable by her soprano voice.
Her success as a singer _ Sawalee is a National Artist _ eclipsed the fact that as a young woman she also realised her primary dream: to be in the movies. In the early 1950s, she starred in about 20 Thai 16mm films, her wide, clear-featured face splashed across the screen all around the country in classic titles such as Dachanee Nang and Fai Cheewit. And if the image of Janet Gaynor putting her hand on the superstar's handprint was one of her indelible memories, Sawalee has recently had the opportunity to make good that fond remembrance. Two Saturdays ago, Sawalee was asked by the Thai Film Archive to put the imprint of her palms on the wet concrete of its famous Lan Dara _ the Thai version of Grauman's Chinese Theatre's handprint square.
"I thought I was forgotten. I thought people would only remember me as a singer," says Sawalee after the ceremony. "It's special. Movies mean a lot to me, and I was thrilled when I got the call to come here. It's another dream come true."
As a girl Sawalee, whose real name is Cherry Savetanant, led her classmates in singing the national anthem every morning at school, a small honour that slowly grew into a lifelong talent. She was working as a clerk and typist in the 1940s when a vocal teacher gave her an opportunity to sing an interlude in a stage play _ that's how they did it in the past, with crooners punctuating each act of a play _ and that was the beginning of an illustrious career.
She began to act as well as sing in the second play, an
Sawalee Pakapan at the handprint ceremony at the Thai Film Archive.
adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Then she was promoted to the lead in her third effort, Kwam Payabat (Vengeance), and soon afterwards Sawalee was given the role that, years and decades later, would be played by at least a few dozen other actresses and that would become the best-remembered character in the entire Thai dramatic repertoire: Pojamarn, the poor, proud girl in the story Ban Sai Thong.
The young singer/actress had a good run on stage, and then came the age of cinema. ''My first movie was Dachanee Nang [The Lady's Finger] in which I played the fiancee,'' she says. ''It was different from stage, of course, but it wasn't that difficult and soon I really enjoyed it. The hardest thing was that, back then, shooting a movie meant going away from home for a long time.''
Typical of her time, Sawalee loved Gone With the Wind. She loved Gregory Peck and Clark Gable. She loved Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh. And though the 16mm Thai film scene didn't have that kind of glamour, it was a high time for big-screen local actors as the early 1950s was a period of many dramatic movies _ before action films ruled the later decades and became the dominant image of Siamese cinema.
Among Sawalee's works are Monrak Asoon (The Devils' Love Mantra, still adapted and performed on TV these days), Nok Pa (The Jungle Bird), Sua Noi (The Little Tiger) and Sam Huajai (Three Hearts). Unfortunately, most of these 16mm titles didn't survive the rough screening conditions, and all that remains of one of Sawalee's later works, Fai Cheewit (The Fire In Our Lives, 1956) is footage of outtakes and behind-the-scenes clips.
The mark of Sawalee's quality as an actress is in the fact that she moved from the stage to the screen and to TV.
''In 1955 , Channel 4 was set up,'' she says referring to Thailand's first television station. ''I had a small child and shooting movies beca
me too much for me since I didn't want to stay away from home too much.
''I became active in stage plays for the channel. We did Ban Sai Thong again, using most actors from the original stage version. I also did a lot of singing on TV too, and soon that became my whole life.''
To list most of Sawalee's hits is impossible; those who grew up in the 1960s know these songs by heart, and even some youngsters must be familiar with the melody of Rak Ter Samer (Love You Forever), Jamloei Rak (Love Captive), Krai Nor (Who) and yes, the legendary Ban Sai Thong.
And yet the mark of her pride isn't in the large number of her hits, but in the fact that, 63 years after she first started out, she keeps singing until today.
''I still have a big concert every year, and every few months, I sing with other singers from my generation at different events,'' says Sawalee, now a grandmother. ''And I still watch films and especially plays. I love Phantom Of The Opera and I've seen Chorus Line countless times.
''I'm still happy doing all of this. It's been long, and yes, it's always been fun and memorable.''
About the author
- Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor