Sugar Yontararak’s Musical Mission
The daughter of a Thai princess was an actress before starting a music school.
The daughter of a Thai princess of the northern kingdom Lanna, Pawongduen “Sugar” Indravudh Yontararak ’82 MS forged her own path to fame as a popular actress. She starred in movies and TV shows, but gave up a promising acting career to enroll in TCU — 9,000 miles from home.
“Being an actress is not my dream,” she said. “It was by accident that I became one.”
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After earning a bachelor’s degree in law from Thammasat University in Bangkok in 1977, Yontararak decided to give acting a try.
“I passed the audition to do one of the lead roles in The Myth of the Rose, the epic production of the National Theatre recited in poem — similar to Shakespeare — which ran for a month. After that I was asked to do a TV series,” she said.
Her TV shows — Kah Khong Kon (A Person’s Value) and Nam Soh Sai (Sand Erosion) — were social commentaries based on real-life stories of Thailand’s upper middle class. She also starred in two films based on famous Thai novels — Mia Luang (The Wife) and Loog Taad (The Slave).
“Mia Luang is of particular importance and fame because it spoke to many Thai women at the time,” she said. “The story is about how a legal wife — the first wife — has to handle her husband having affairs with other ladies with grace and dignity. The dialogues were so great. The wives felt that I represented them so they brought their husbands to see the movie to hear me speak their hearts.”
Yontararak’s portrayal earned her a Thai Best Actress Award nomination from the Film Producers Association of Thailand.
“I think I was lucky to be the last lot before video came onto the market. People in Thailand still went to 1,500-seat movie theaters and Mia Luang was shown in 11 theaters around Bangkok alone for six weeks.”
But two years of glitz and glimmer was plenty.
“It was nice to feel loved and admired everywhere I went, but to have a life with glamour is not my kind of life.”
In 1978 Yontararak was invited to give her testimony at a Christian revival, where she met a Horned Frog. The Rev. Allan Eubank ’61 MDiv and his wife, the Rev. Joan Eubank, were serving as missionaries in Thailand. As their friendship grew, so did Yontararak’s interest in Eubank’s alma mater. Backed by a World Council of Churches scholarship, she headed to Fort Worth to study.
“I had no information on TCU at all,” she said with a laugh. “It was Rev. Allan Eubank who arranged everything for me. I knew that this would be the best place for me and TCU really was.”
At TCU Yontararak said she learned to “love and give willingly, cheerfully, with open arms — the Texan way.”
It was her first time living abroad. “I enjoyed everything: learning new things, having new friends, new culture, new food and new experiences.”
She was impressed with the number of churches around campus and quickly found one to call home. “I am so grateful for University Christian Church who supported me and adopted me to be part of their congregation.”
She said she appreciates the lifelong Frog friendships.
“I treasure the kindness of many friends and their families who shared this special environment with me, namely Mary Ruth Jones ’58, Cathy Ryan ’78 MEd, Dr. Henry Hammack and LaLonnie Lehman ’73 (MA ’75),” she said. “These experiences are still vivid and they made my time at TCU so memorable.” Hammack, department chair at the time, taught at TCU for 37 years. He died in 2013. Lehman, still a TCU theatre professor, was Yontararak’s costume teacher.
After earning her master of science in radio-television-film (now known as film, television and digital media), Yontararak helped lead a Thai folk drama team on a five-month U.S. tour — 107 performances in 27 states — and then returned to Thailand to serve as media director of the Christian Communications Institute, an evangelical outreach the Eubanks founded in 1980.
Almost 95 percent of Thailand’s population is Buddhist while Christians make up about 1 percent, according to the National Statistical Office.
“I was born in a quite unique environment,” Yontararak said. “My mother is a princess and a Buddhist, and my father is a commoner and a Christian.”
Her mother, Princess Duangduen Na Chiang Mai, is a descendent of the royal family of Lanna, a northern kingdom that traded its sovereignty for security by joining the stronger southern kingdom of Thailand in 1884.
“Though her official power is reduced, she is still revered and remembered as the people’s princess thanks to her lifelong work in conserving the northern cultural heritage,” Yontararak said. “Her living history tells of a princess who carries nothing but a title and who managed to rebuild her life as a modern woman of her time. She was never a housewife. She has always worked and that was quite rare for her time.”
Growing up, Yontararak accompanied her mother as she performed her royal duties, which included many ritual functions. Her father, a lawyer, wasn’t active in church.
While working on her bachelor’s degree at Thammasat, Yontararak met a talented pianist from a nearby university.
“We got along well from the first day,” Nat Yontararak said. “We became close friends and we had the experience of being ‘born again’ together at the church camp in our senior year. That has been the core of our relationship.”
A decade after they met — and after both had earned master’s degrees — they were married.
In 1985, the couple launched Nat Studio, a classical piano school, and in 2012 added a concert hall, Sala Sudasiri Sobha. Sugar Yontararak is manager and their son and two daughters — Pana, Paranee and Pinnaree — are also involved.
“We feel so strongly that music is our mission,” she said. “We share the love of God through the things we do — music. Sala Sudasiri Sobha has become a place where people are blessed. Good music, good food and good company have brought people together and they willingly give support to charities.”
The family hosts both Thai and international artists at their concert hall. Most concerts benefit charities, such as the Gift of Life Foundation, which helps blood disease patients in Thailand with bone marrow transplants. Yontararak is president of that foundation as well as the Pan Rak Foundation (Sharing Love), which continues the ministry work her dear friends, the Eubanks, have been doing for almost 60 years.
“The work that means the most to us is our family concert tours,” she said. “We contributed one month annually to serve God in helping his missions through music.”
Every October from 1997 to 2002, the Yontararak family gave about 15 concerts around Texas — also traveling to Seattle and Los Angeles some years. The concerts raised funds for the Christian Communications Institute and Payap University.
“Not only did this mission change the life of others, it also changed our lives,” she said. “The children grew to serve others, to serve their community, to understand the meaning of giving through this mission.”
She added: “Both Nat and I grew up in a very helpful society. Not only were we accustomed to helping others, we also learned how blessed it is to be helped by others. The scripture says, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ We have always lived our lives with this verse in our hearts.”