BANGKOK • Mr Supoj Mahapan, who oversees international services at Thai telecommunications giant True Corp, has a New Year resolution.
"I am going to take a Chinese class properly," he says. The Teochew-speaking descendant of ethnic Chinese migrants thinks Mandarin will smooth relations with the newest arrivals in his company - its Chinese shareholders.
State-owned China Mobile, the largest telco in the world, took an 18 per cent stake in True last year. Since then, True has launched a flurry of projects to tap the reach of its partner in the Chinese-speaking market. In February, it launched a service that gives users local numbers in Thailand, Hong Kong and China, allowing them to be contactable at local tariffs by people in all these three locations using just one SIM card. Mr Supoj's own name-card brandishes three such numbers.
True is perhaps the most prominent example of Thai companies that are increasingly tapping the Chinese-speaking market to grow their business. Part of this has to do with the stunning growth in visitor arrivals from China, who already account for the biggest chunk of Thailand's tourists. From January to October this year, some 6.7 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand, almost double the figure for the same period last year.
ONLY A FEW BAD APPLES
Out of over four million Chinese tourists last year, only about a hundred did some things they shouldn't do. It's not that many. And if we talk about them, shouldn't we also talk about the misbehaviour of the Americans or European tourists?
MR MANOP SAE-JIA, the Mandarin-speaking president of the Care Lanna Guide Community, a Chiang Mai-based tour guide association, on reports of bad behaviour by Chinese tourists.
Quieter growth can be found in the number of expatriate Chinese living in Thailand. According to the International Labour Organisation's migration statistics database, the number of employed Chinese migrants in Thailand has been rising steadily, from 12,010 in 2012 to 15,154 in 2013 and then to 17,546 last year.
So strong is the Chinese presence that daily televised security updates after the Aug 17 bombing of a tourist spot, the Erawan shrine, in downtown Bangkok - which left 20 people dead - were made in Thai, English and Mandarin. More recently, a ditty played on TV to promote a royalty-linked mass cycling event includes some lines in Mandarin.
On one sweltering November morning in Bangkok, 32-year-old Liu Lei from south-western China's Chongqing city lit a bunch of joss sticks before the Erawan shrine's Brahma statue. Gathered around him were nine relatives, all visiting Thailand for the first time.
"It was getting cold in our home town, so we decided to go somewhere warmer," he says.
"We haven't thought about what we want to buy yet.
"But we plan to spend about 4,000 yuan (S$882) each."
As the emerging Chinese middle class flexes its financial muscle, it is finding a friendly destination in Thailand to work, play and even study.
"When I first came here, all I knew about Thailand were rice and ladyboys," says 23-year-old Hunan-born He Yang, referring to one of Thailand's most well-known exports and the transsexual women who are common on Thai entertainment circuits. But after spending four years studying finance at Assumption University (Abac), a private university in Bangkok, she has formed other opinions.
"The people are very helpful and they are very hygienic," she says. "Their beaches are beautiful and life is relaxing."
Four years of life in Thailand have convinced her about the potential of South-east Asia. Since graduating from Abac last year, she has found a job in Thailand as an executive in a property company and plans to stay in the region for at least five years.
People like Ms He are choosing to stay amid warming Sino-Thai relations.
The kingdom's military government, initially shunned by Western nations after the coup last year, turned to Beijing for ready support. China responded by promising to buy some of Thailand's voluminous stocks of rice and rubber and to cooperate with Thailand to build a north-south rail link more than 800km long.
Defence Minister and Deputy Premier Prawit Wongsuwan, a frequent visitor to China, received Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan in Bangkok in February.
"China will not intervene in Thailand's politics, but will give political support and help maintain relationships at all levels," General Prawit was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Since then, both countries have concluded their first joint air force exercises, but the rail deal has stalled over disagreement on the interest rate that Thailand will pay China for financing the project.
No matter. Thai companies have raced ahead anyway to seize the growing opportunities of the Chinese market.
"Chinese people… are quite sophisticated buyers," says Mr Supoj. "When they buy, they will calculate the value of what they are going to purchase."
True is selling some 70,000 of its Chinese tourist SIM cards each month but is already thinking of ways to grow that figure, says Mr Supoj. It is mulling over ways to get visitors to buy the card before they arrive in Thailand, or allow them to pick it up at the hotel when they get here, he says.
Jiaranai Entertainment, started by Beijing-born Guo Rui who migrated here 20 years ago, began its operations by distributing a free fortnightly Chinese-language tourist print magazine called @Mangu (or @Bangkok) three years ago. To keep up with the changing profile of its readers - who now include Chinese migrants to the city - it had to expand its staple of articles on food, fashion, hotels and shopping to include news snippets about Thailand as well as recommendations on where to buy properties and even local school uniforms.
"The purchasing power of the Chinese migrants is only going to grow," says Ms Guo, who herself studied music at Thailand's state Kasetsart University and switches between flawless Thai and Mandarin. As a testament to the growing cachet of the Chinese market, advertisement rates at her magazine have gone up 75 per cent from three years ago.
Jiaranai translates Thai news headlines into Chinese and distributes them on Chinese-oriented social media platforms like Wechat and Weibo. In September, it went a step further to launch a product offering these Chinese-language headlines through short messaging services via all three telcos in Thailand - AIS, Total Access Communication and True.
Property companies are starting to take notice of the Chinese, too. Although the Chinese presence in the high-end market is still relatively small, Bangkok-based Raimon Land, for example, has begun adding more Chinese-language support for buyers. Around 10 per cent of its buyers over the past year were Chinese.
But the boorish behaviour of some Chinese tourists continues to stain their presence.
In February, the exasperated caretakers of a famous temple in Chiang Rai province declared they would build separate toilets for non-Chinese tourists after Chinese tourists made lavatories unusable for others, reported German news agency DPA.
However, they have a loyal defender in Mr Manop Sae-jia, the Mandarin-speaking president of the Care Lanna Guide Community - a Chiang Mai-based tour guide association.
Most reports of rogue Chinese tourists have been exaggerated, he says.
"Out of over four million Chinese tourists last year, only about a hundred did some things they shouldn't do. It's not that many. And if we talk about them, shouldn't we also talk about the misbehaviour of the Americans or European tourists?"
Besides, he says, Chinese tourists - unlike Western ones - tend to comply when confronted with their wrongdoing.
However you look at it, there is no denying that cities like Chiang Mai - a favourite among Chinese tourists - are increasingly adjusting to the reality of Chinese money. According to Mr Manop, the number of certified Chinese-speaking tour guides in Chiang Mai was 200 to 300 about three years ago. Now, it has jumped to 1,000.
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