CHINESE NEW YEAR ACROSS THE WORLD

Little distinction between ethnic Thai and Chinese amid close ties

Thailand's popular Crown Princess Sirindhorn will open three days of raucous festivities in Bangkok’s Chinatown today (Feb 19)  walk with the dragon dancers and mingle with the thousands of people who fill Yaowarat Road from end to end in celebration of the Chinese New Year.

Sampheng – an old name for Bangkok’s Chinatown – erupts in noise, music and celebration over the three days that the main street, Yaowarat Road, is closed to traffic.

Dragon and lion dancers, complete with crashing cymbals, roam the area. By nightfall, the main big dragon is lit with LED lights and the red and multi-coloured paper lanterns form a roof of light over the length of the road, stretching more than one kilometre.

The Crown Princess, one of the most popular of the royal family, makes it a point to visit Sampheng every Chinese New Year. It’s a sign of the close bond that the Chinese community has formed with the country.

For more than four hundred years, successive Thai monarchs have welcomed Chinese migrants and allowed them to maintain their own unique culture while assimilating in Thailand.

The result: there is little or no useful distinction left any more, between ethnic Chinese and ethnic Thai.

Jitti Tangsithpakdi, 74, chairman of the Gold Traders Association and a member of the executive committee of the Thian Fah Foundation Hospital, remembers how he started on Yaowarat Road more than 50 years ago, selling anything he could get hold of on the street at night – after finishing a day’s work at the bottom rung of the family’s gold business. 

Today, in a gleaming black chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce Ghost, he glides to a stop outside his own gold shop, on that very street.

“If you want gold, you have to come here,” he says. “On this one street, Yaowarat, just about 1.2 kilometres long, there are around 100 gold shops.”

“And all Thailand’s big banks? They all started here.”

Like most ethnic Chinese, Mr Jitti grew up bilingual, learning and speaking Teochew as well as Thai. His business card is trilingual – in Chinese,Thai and English.

But today for the most part, like almost all the residents of Sampheng, he speaks in Thai. His nine children speak Teochew – the most common language group in Sampheng - but only from picking it up from elders in the family. They do not make any special effort to learn it. Their first language is Thai. 

In Thailand, Chinese immigrants have merged and blended into the culture of their homeland, taking Thai names, speaking Thai and becoming Thai.

Thailand’s business and political elites are Thai Chinese. Several of Thailand’s prime ministers have been Thai Chinese: Banharn Silpa-archa, Chuan Leekpai, Abhisit Vejjajiva and Thaksin Shinawatra for example.

“It is very difficult to say one is a Thai Thai,” says Dr Supang Chantavanich, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Asian Studies. The Thai identity was “plastic” she said – meaning flexible, or mouldable.

“When you say Thai, we can be Thai Mon, or other ethnic groups,” she said. “Chinese is the most common, but there are also Thai Mon, and Thai Lao, and they easily blend.”

Today there is no separation of the economic clout of the Thai Chinese community and that of Thailand’s business sector; to all intents and purposes they are one and the same. By one estimate, up to 90 percent of shares in Thai corporations may be held by Thais of Chinese extraction. 

There is thus, unlike in some other countries in the region, little or no issue of resentment of ethnic Chinese - because they are Thai.

“In the past, it used to be called assimilation, but it became more like integration,” says Dr Supang, an expert on migration.

She noted that there have been conflicts between Thai and Chinese. During World War II, Japan and Thailand were close, and because of Japan’s conflicted history with China, Chinese living in Bangkok were seen as a problem.

That all changed with the rise of Communism, she said. Being Communist meant you opposed the Thai monarchy. 

“The Chinese had three options – leave Thailand and join the Communist Party in China; maintain dual identities; or adopt a Thai name,” she said in an interview.

They chose the third option, discarding their political identity. “They switched then,” she said, “from Chinese Thai to Thai Chinese”.

It was also relatively easier for the Chinese in Thailand to integrate; unlike in Indonesia and Malaysia, Buddhism was a common thread. 

In the early days of Sampheng, the population was split roughly into five groups on linguistic lines – Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese and Hainanese. But in the early 20th century they came together to do something to improve Sampheng, a densely packed enclave of crowded gullies and housing.

Even today in some areas, the stained and crumbling old buildings are a reminder of life a hundred years ago.

A committee of businessmen from the five groups set up the Thian Fah Foundation and began building the hospital that today is a major landmark and was personally opened by King Chulalongkorn in 1905. “For the first time, a major act of mutual self-help involved the joint participation of all five Chinese speech groups,” wrote Edward Van Roy in the 2007 book “Samphaeng: Bangkok’s Chinatown Inside Out.”

“That combined undertaking was a harbinger of new times,” he wrote.

The hospital took in patients from among the poor; the immigrants who came with not much more than a mat, and had nobody to care for them. In 1959, a Tang dynasty sandalwood image of the deity Kwan Yin was installed in the front pavilion, and has become a spiritual landmark.

Today, the hospital sees close to 1,000 patients a day, providing both Chinese and western treatment at subsidised rates; the Foundation is run on donations by the community's hugely successful business leaders.

Sampheng remains a low-rise rabbit-warren of busy gullies lined with shops crammed with goods, usually in vast quantities. There is talk of redevelopment and gentrification; with so many of the buildings ageing, it is perhaps inevitable. 

Some families still have links with old family in China. The wealthier send money to China once in a while, and distant relatives from China visit Bangkok.

But the links are becoming more and more tenuous. ”We have conducted studies of Thai-Chinese businessmen, and none of them want to go back to China,” Dr Supang said.  

Sitting in his office, Mr Jitti with deft fingers extracted tea leaves from a canister. He blends his own, he says, from varieties flown in from Hong Kong.

He stuffed some inside a tiny pot, poured boiling water through it and over it, flipped tiny cups around with practised ease, and then filled them with the dark brown brew done to his satisfaction. “Try it,” he said, leaning back with an expectant grin. “I don’t think anyone but me at my age, would serve tea like this.”

He did this ritual thrice a day, he said. 

Asked about ties to China, he said: “I have never been tempted to leave Thailand. I could have done so years ago. But everyone knows me here. I grew up here.” 

nirmal@sph.com.sg