History of Bangkok’s Chinatown
BANGKOK’S CHINATOWN—A SHORT HISTORY *
The thousands of immigrants from southern China that annually settled in Siam, had a lasting impact on the development of the new capital Krungthep Maha Nakhon (Bangkok), that was founded in 1782. Bangkok’s Chinatown, currently known as ‘Yaowarat’, is one of the world’s largest and most authentic Chinese communities outside China. It is Bangkok’s busiest and liveliest quarter, sandwiched between the Chao Phraya River and the Krung Kasem Canal. It is a must for every new visitor to the city to explore this quarter. You need at least a day to see a good number of the interesting temples, colorful markets, the warehouses along the river, narrow picturesque lanes crammed with amazing work places, small industries and tiny shops, and the many gold shops and traditional drug stores in the main streets.
For detailed descriptions of a do-it-yourself walking tours in Chinatown see: (forthcoming)
This article is intended to give an historical framework for a better understanding of this fascinating quarter during a sightseeing.
THE FOUNDATION OF BANGKOK
Ayutthaya, situated about 60 km to the north of Bangkok, had been Siam’s capital for more than four centuries. It was a very large city and one of Southeast Asia’s busiest commercial centers. Western visitors praised the splendor of its temples and palaces—a French visitor even admitted that it was larger and more magnificent than Paris.
When in 1766 large Burmese armies entered Siam’s territory, it meant the beginning of the end for Ayutthaya. According to legends and chronicles, the traumatic fate of the glorious capital was preceded by prophetic signs. It was rumored that the giant Buddha image in Ayutthaya’s Wat Phanom Choeng had been weeping tears. A raven was committing suicide by piercing itself on the sharp trident on top of the huge prang of Wat Ratchaburana. A statue of king Naresuan (reign: 1590-1605), Siam’s venerated warrior king who liberated the country from a Burmese occupation two centuries earlier, was trampling in frustration.Following a siege of 14 months, Ayutthaya fell into the enemy’s hands in 1767. The city was plundered, destroyed and burnt to ashes and its gold and jewelry were taken to Burma. Ayutthaya’s destruction was nearly complete and much of the Central Plain remained in turmoil during the following months.
However, Siam succeeded in arising from this chaos surprisingly fast, much to the credit of Phraya Taksin, a general and former governor of the remote province of Tak. Following the sacking of the capital, he and a small force retreated to the eastern coast of the Gulf of Thailand. There, in Rayong, Chanthaburi and Trat, he was able to mobilize the Siamese people and to assemble a large army. With the new army he expelled the remaining Burmese troops from Central Plain and consolidated a new Siam amidst the ruins of the former Ayutthaya empire. In 1770, he was crowned the new king of Siam (Wyatt, 1984; Smithies, 1986).
King Taksin built a new capital 60 km south of Ayutthaya, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, an area still known as Thonburi. It was believed that due to its new location in the river delta the capital was easier to defend against eventual incursions of the Burmese armies.
The king’s military and strategic skills were not matched by his administrative qualities. He was supported by the Teochew Chinese migrants and traders who dominated the economy in the delta, but as an ‘outsider’ — Taksin was from direct Chinese ancestry himself — the king was met with suspicion by the old Siamese aristocracy. What’s more, his meddling with religious affairs and his megalomaniac tendencies found little approval and sympathy. Taksin began to claim that he was a bodhisattva (a holy man in Buddhism that will become enlightened) and insisted that he be so recognized by members of the Buddhist clergy.
Claiming that their actions were justified because of Taksin’s delusions, a group of officials staged a palace coup and the king was imprisoned. The supreme commander of the army, Phraya Chakri, was placed on the throne after his return from the battlefields in Cambodia. June the 10th, 1782, he was crowned—considered the birth of the new Chakri Dynasty. The dethroned Taksin was beaten to death in a silken bag and his body was cremated two years later (Wyatt, 1984). In regard to these events, Smithies relates that ‘Thaksin became a prisoner of King Rama I; an assembly of counselors demanded the death penalty to which the new king agreed. Taskin asked for an audience with his royal successor, but Rama I refused his request ‘with tears running down his face’, according to the chronicles. In the presence of the king, Taksin was put to death according to the prescribed way of disposing of those descended of royal blood, by being tied in a velvet sack and beaten by a sandalwood club. Of his heir-presumptive, who like his wife and sons had been imprisoned, tortured and flogged by the mad king, nothing is heard,’ (Smithies, 1986: 2-3).
The new king, later known as Rama I, moved Siam’s capital from Thonburi to the eastern bank of the river, thereby founding Krungthep Maha Nakhon, or Bangkok, as it was known among foreigners.
Much of the construction materials for the new capital originated from the ruins of Ayutthaya. Thousands of forced laborers from Cambodia had to carry the bricks and blocks of laterite to the barks moored in the river, in which they were shipped to Bangkok. The layout of the former capital inspired Bangkok’s town planning, and accordingly, the palaces were to be built on the bank of the river—where now the Grand Palace and the Temple with the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaeo) are situated. The designated area, however, was occupied by a large community of Chinese migrants, who had settled there during Taksin’s reign. They were forced to abandon it and many resettled in another stretch along eastern bank of the river, about 2 km to the south—an area of gardens and orchards, and one little temple, Wat Sampeng. In the subsequent years, while the Grand Palace and the royal Temple with the Emerald Buddha arose to the north, the new Chinatown rapidly expanded from its core at ‘Sampeng’ to the east and south, to become one of the largest Chinatowns outside China.Figure 1. 1: A picture of 19th-century Chinese vessels on the Chao Phraya in Bangkok. 2: A reproduction of a Bangkok temple mural showing a Chinese junk. Both pictures are exhibited in the Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Center on the second floor of the Phra Maha Mondop of Wat Traimit.
It’s difficult to say where Bangkok’s Chinatown begins and where it ends, but one attempt is to define it as the area situated east of Khlong Ong Ang, west of Khlong Krung Kasem, and with Luang Road as its northern border (see Figure 2). Actually, many streets beyond this area and a number of other quarters have a predominantly Chinese character. The whole area of Trok Chan, a few kilometers to the south of Sampeng, is dominated by Sino-Thais and resembles a ‘second Chinatown’. However, the Sampeng area, including Yaowarat, is the larger, more authentic and most picturesque of these Sino-Thai quarters.
CHINESE TRADERS AND IMMIGRANTS
In the 16th and 17th century, many Chinese traders and craftsmen settled in Siam. In 1700, about 3000 Chinese lived in Ayutthaya. Many of them rose to important positions, such as being adviser at the court or tax farmer. Both King Taksin (1770-1782) and Rama I (1782-1809) were half-Chinese and they used their official Chinese titles in their correspondence with the court in Peking. In the 1820s and 1830s, thousands of Chinese immigrated to Siam, and after a sojourn in Bangkok, many of them settled in the provinces surrounding the capital.
Trade with China boomed between 1809 and 1840, and the prosperous business atmosphere attracted many Chinese adventurers. On the other hand, political instability, poverty and chronic warfare in China were the major push factors that attracted hundreds of thousands of Chinese to the job opportunities oversea. Furthermore, Chinese immigration was encouraged by the Siamese administration. Due to the growing stream of Chinese laborers and traders, the number of plantations for sugar cane, tobacco, pepper, cotton and indigo increased rapidly, and also metal industry, ship wharfs and export trade were booming.
Figure 3. Life-size reproductions of coolies carrying cargo from junks in the Chao Phraya to the warehouses along the river. Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Center at the second floor of the Phra Maha Mondop of Wat Traimit.
The flourishing economy led to a greatly expanded tax system. During the reign of King Rama III (1824-1851) alone, 38 new taxes had been introduced, and nearly all ‘tax farmers’ who collected these taxes were from Chinese descend (Wilson, 1984; Terwiel, 1989; 1991).
The large majority of the Chinese immigrants in Thailand originated from the south of China, a region with a prominent ethnic diversity. Initially, the various groups preserved their ethnic identity and traditions and their language or dialect meticulously, but integration into Siamese society also progressed well.
The Teochew (also known as Taichiew or Tia Chia) composed the major ethnic group. They originated from the delta of the Han River and the town of Chaochow (Swatow) in the northeast of the province of Kuangtung. About 60 per cent of the Sino-Thai are from Teochew descend and in Bangkok’s Chinatown they are by far the largest group (more than 80 per cent).
Second are the Hakka (15 per cent) from the northern part of Kuangtung province. Other major ethnic groups are the Cantonese from Canton and southern Kuangtung and Kuangsi, the Hainanese from the island of Hainan, and the Hokkien from the town of Amoy and its surrounding countryside in Fukien province (see Figure 4. 1; Pan, 1991).
The Hokkiens are just a minority among the Chinese in Bangkok, but they are the major ethnic group from China in Malaysia, Singapore and peninsular Thailand. The old centers of southern Thai towns, such as Pattani, Phuket, Ranong and Songkhla, still bear the marks of this Hokkien ancestry.
To some degree these various ethnic groups monopolized a number of professions. Retail dealers were mostly Teochew. Big business was dominated by the Teochew, e.g. rice milling and the trade in rice, imported textiles and western consumption goods. Many tax farmers and owners of pawnshops also were Teochew.
On the other hand, the Cantonese produced many skilled carpenters, mechanics and instrument-makers. As they took pride in their ‘superior’ cuisine, the Cantonese also ran a large number of good restaurants. The little eateries and food stalls, however, became predominantly a Hainanese enterprise (Pan, 1991).
Figure 5. 1-4: Life-size reproductions of daily life in Bangkok’s Chinatown in the 19th century exhibited at the Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Center on the second floor of the Phra Maha Mondop of Wat Traimit.
During the reign of King Rama III (1824-1851), Chinese culture had a significant influence in the higher levels of Siamese society. However, following China’s defeat in the opium war, trade between Siam and China fell sharply. What’s more, excessive taxation had a negative impact on the Siamese economy. During the subsequent decades, western powers dictated the economic developments.
The westerners were annoyed by the many restrictions on capitalist free trade, such as high taxes. Similar grievances with regard to Siam’s neighbors (Burma, Vietnam) had resulted in the annexation of territory by the militarily superior western powers. Siam’s King Mongkut (Rama IV: 1851-1868) was obsessed by the looming western threat to Siam’s independence, and therefore he was very compliant to the economic demands of the westerners. In 1855, Sir John Bowring signed the first trade agreement with Siam, that included conditions very favorable to Great Britain. Within a decade, similar treaties were concluded with the Netherlands, the United States, Prussia, Denmark and France.
Although Bowring took a pride in having put an end to the multiple taxes on trade goods, in fact the old system remained in existence for considerable time. However, the barriers for (western) import products, had been removed effectively, and this had a lasting impact on the Siamese economy. In the 1860s, local industries languished when the Siamese market was saturated with western import products. The diversity of the Siamese economy dramatically declined, and at last just a modest number of products were produced by the country itself, such as rice, teak and tin (Terwiel, 1991).
In Bangkok the offices and trade houses of western companies mushroomed, yet half of the population was Chinese. Many of them were employed by the western companies, whereas smaller Chinese businesses flourished in the intermediate trade and service sector or as commissioners. The trade in rice boomed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Most rice mills were owned by Chinese. Compared to the countryside, Bangkok’s developments had been fast. It had become Siam’s power center in all aspects of life. In 1865, the dominant position of Siam’s capital is also emphasized in a report by the Board of Foreign Mission. It stated that Bangkok had a few hundreds of thousands inhabitants, and nationals from all over the kingdom often paid a visit to this metropolis. It was both the seat of government and the center of religious affairs; nearly all foreign trade and all of the kingdom’s public life took place in Bangkok. ‘Therefore, Bangkok means more for Siam, than Paris means for France,’ the report concluded. And Chinatown was the pulsating, commercial center of this city.
During the reign of king Chulalongkorn (Rama V: 1868-1910), an all encompassing program initiated to modernize the country was implemented. Many institutes and institutions adopted from the west were introduced. The king held the opinion this was the best policy to avert colonization by a western superpower. An important aspect was defining the Thai nation state according to the modern western concepts. Previously, ‘borders’ of the Siamese kingdom were vague or non-existing. Instead of unequivocal borders, there were borderlands consisting of more or less independent vassal states that paid tribute to Siam, and sometimes also to other states, such as Burma or China. Great Britain and France had annexed large territories in Indochina, Burma and Malaysia. To prevent their penetration into the Siamese spheres of influence, these vassals had to be brought under the central administration of Siam. To implement this policy, a modern communication system was required, such as a number of railways connecting the provinces with Bangkok. Constructing of lines to the north, northeast and the south were considered a priority. The labor force for these mega-projects consisted predominantly of Chinese (Weiler, 1979; Gittins, 2014). Also the rapid expansion of the canal system in the Chao Phraya delta depended on Chinese laborers (Tanaba, 1977). The ethnic Thai in Siam were overwhelmingly farmers, and they were little inclined to do other work than farming or to settle in the large and bustling city that Bangkok had become.
‘In the expanding rice-export economy of the late nineteenth century,’ writes historian David Wyatt, ‘Siamese peasants were making the rational decision to specialize in rice agriculture, the occupation of their ancestors, the calling they knew best. They had little desire to do work for other people for appallingly low wages, bound to the equivalent of a time clock, nor were they anxious to live in what must have seemed to them an alien city, dominated by Chinese, carrying on unfamiliar occupations. If they were ambitious, young Siamese set their sights on a career in the bureaucracy or in the Buddhist monkhood…It was Chinese, therefore, who literally built the modern sector of the economy of Siam. They dug the canals and constructed the railways and erected the fine new government offices and shop buildings and bridges of Bangkok. Both independent and as employees of Western firms, they developed the network of institutions and services necessary to make the rice-export economy work: the banks, the warehouses, the wholesale and retail trading concerns, the rice mills, the barge lines that brought the rice to Bangkok, and even the brokers who traveled around the countryside buying up peasants’ surplus rice for shipment ultimately to Hong Kong or Calcutta or Singapore.’ (Wyatt, 1984)
Toward 1880, the Chinese dominated the Chao Phraya delta. Britain Holt Hallett summarized the situation in his long report about his fact-finding mission as follows: ‘Chinamen in Siam seem to be ubiquitous. Half the population of the Meh Nam (the Chao Phraya, SH) delta is Chinese, and very few of the people are without a trace of Chinese blood in them. The Chinese are neither serfs nor slaves, and can go as they will throughout the country….They are the tax-gatherers, and, jointly with the king’s favorites, the monopolists of the taxes of the country. Nearly all the trade is in their hands. They are the shopkeepers, shoemakers, bricklayers, carpenters, tailors, gardeners, and fishermen of Siam; the owners and agents of some of the steamers; the coolies employed in the mills; they man the cargo-boats and unload the ships; and are considered by Europeans the best servants in the country. They are frugal in their habits, quick to learn, and utilize everything’ (Hallett, 1890). At that time, the estimated population of Siam was put down at ten million, roughly composed of more than three million Siamese, three million Chinese, one million Malay, one million Karen and other tribes. The Chinese formed about a third of the population and were nearly as numerous as the Siamese.
The Chinese immigrants integrated surprisingly well in Siamese society, in contrast to other Southeast Asian countries which had their ‘Chinese problems’. Most Chinese immigrants in Siam married Thai women, and sooner or later adopted customs and traditions of the Thai. A nineteenth century foreign visitor to Bangkok found it amazing that many Chinese dressed like the Thai, cut off their pigtails and were ordained as Buddhist monks to live in a Thai monastery for a certain period. Within two or three generations in Siam, he noticed, the Chinese character was no more distinct from the Siamese — the more remarkable as the Chinese otherwise obsessively clinched to their national traditions.
Despite the absence of a Chinese problem in Thailand until the end of the nineteenth century, the Chinese were easily associated with pernicious things in Bangkok’s Chinatown, such as brothels and gambling dens. It’s a fact that these were nearly always run by Chinese. The secret societies of the Chinese also flourished in Bangkok and there were many angyi (Chinese gangsters) active in the city.
McCarthy gives a lively description of Sampeng in the 1880s:
‘The accumulated filth of years had silted up the canals, and the narrow streets were reeking with those intolerable stenches in which the Chinese seem to thrive, while the opium and drinking dens, and other haunts of vice, farmed by the Chinese, were distinguishable by their surrounding filth-heaps.
Gangs of about twenty Chinamen, tied by a narrow cord, wrist to wrist, under the charge of a Siamese official in no particular costume, but armed with a big stick, would pass down the street on the way to the lock-up, where they would be detained until their friends came forward and paid the tax they had tried to evade. As all the Chinese belong to one or other of the numerous secret societies, it is not long before the taxes are paid, and the men liberated…
…assume that there are 300,000 people in Bangkok, and of this number the Chinese form nearly half.’ (McCarthy, 1900: 3)
‘The Chinaman is a born trader, and the country people prefer dealing with him. The consequence is that the narrow streets of Sampeng, seen by few Europeans, are thronged with busy crowds, and the little shop-front awnings, meeting in the middle of the street, make the heat more stifling to the half-naked, happy-go-lucky passersby. Some are on their way to the pawn-shop to dispose of stolen property—perhaps your own hat, snatched off your head in the evening before; other, to the Chinese temples to consult the oracles as to the lucky number in the next lottery, in which they have staked their all. After midnight the successful numbers are shouted through the streets by Chinese carriers, who rival the pariah dogs in making night hideous. Sometimes the crowd hurriedly makes way for a Chinaman, who rushes down the street brandishing a sword, accompanied by others clashing cymbals and beating drums.’ (McCarthy, 1900: 4)
The earliest brothels were located in the heart of Sampeng. In particular notorious was Trok Tout, a little lane named after the infamous Mrs. Tout who ran one of them. In the early days most prostitutes were Cantonese, but later also many Thai women worked in the brothels, often adopting Chinese names, such as Kim. Due to the association of prostitution and Chinatown, ‘Ae Sampeng’ was the common slang word for whore. Mrs. Fang (alias Klip Sakon-wasi) was a well-known owner and manager of a Chinatown brothel in the mid-nineteenth century. Proof of the success of her trade was the splendid temple, Wat Kanmatuyaram, this lady built in Chinatown to acquire considerable merit to bolster up her karmic cycle.
The first gambling houses came into existence during the reign of King Rama III, on recommendation of the king’s Chinese advisor Chin Hong who was the opinion that they would increase the amount of money in circulation. These dens were a success and in 1888 there were 403 in Bangkok alone. In the novel Letters from Thailand an immigrant from China explains that the Siamese were addicted to gambling and used to lose a lot of money, which would end up in the pockets of the Chinese that ran these enterprises (Botan, 1982). The brothels and gambling dens were often next to each other in the same lane. ‘Going in front of the gambling houses’ (pai na rong huai) was a colloquial euphemism for ‘visiting a brothel’. Such lanes were busy congregations of men hanging around, in particular those of the macho type, known as nak leng in Thai. In 1900, these men used to wear a colorful sarong, a shirt of fine fibers with a pattern of flowers and a large imitation Panama head, the typical outfit of these rascals. At last, during the reign of king Chulalongkorn (Rama V: 1868-1910), the gambling dens were curbed, and they were outlawed by his son and successor, king Wachirawut (Rama VI: 1910-1925). Prostitution was made illegal in 1960. In fact, both prostitution and gambling still flourish in the kingdom.
In the early twentieth century, the influx of Chinese immigrants peaked. In contrast to the previous decades, also many Chinese women settled in Bangkok and exclusively married to Chinese men. The Chinese community had become immense, and many institutions were created that solely were to serve the Chinese, such as Chinese schools and a Chinese press. These developments hampered successful integration, and gradually a ‘Chinese problem’ came into existence.
What’s more, king Rama VI feared the economic power of the Chinese. To counter their influence he promoted Siamese nationalism colored with strong anti-Chinese sentiments. The king even wrote a book that expressed despise for the Chinese in Southeast Asia and in which he referred to them as the ‘Jews of the Far East’.
King Prachathipok (Rama VII: 1925-1935) was aware that actually two Siamese states co-existed—a Siamese Siam and a Chinese Siam. His worries were expressed in a note to an American advisor: the king wondered if anything could be done ‘so that the Chinese would become Siamese again’, as used to happen in the past.
The demographic peak of the Chinese minority in Siam was reached toward 1935 when more than twelve per cent of the population was Chinese, while their assimilation came about more slowly than ever before. The king feared that the money of the Chinese might become a factor to dominate Siamese politics.
Since the Chinese revolution of 1911, the Sino-Thai in Siam were a politically conscious group. They showed much interest and enthusiasm for the developments in their motherland with which they had fostered strong ties.
COUP AND SECOND WORLD WAR
In the 1920s, the Southeast Asian markets became saturated with cheap industrial products from Japan, such as cotton fabrics. When the Japanese army invaded Manchuria, Siam’s Chinese community started to boycott the Japanese products. Anti-Japanese demonstrations led to riots. In 1932, a coup made an end to this chaotic situation, as well as to the absolute monarchy. During the following years, the military wing of the coup leaders consolidated its power and outmaneuvering the other groups. Under the leadership of Field Marshall Phibun Songkran ultra-nationalistic politics, including a Cultural Revolution, were initiated (Numnonda, 1978) of which the anti-Chinese undercurrents were manifest. In a 1938 public lecture by Luang Wichit, Phibun’s major mouth-piece, the Chinese were again seen as the Jews of Asia, and it was suggested to adapt Hitler’s anti-Jewish politics to solve Thailand’s Chinese problem (in 1938 Thailand had become the new name of the country). In World War II, Thailand sided with the Japanese.
The years from 1920-1945 were a turbulent period, yet in those years the Chinese laid the foundation of Thailand’s modern economy. Numerous Chinese entrepreneurs had succeeded in accumulating capital and opened banks in Bangkok. The presence of European capital was a major factor that restricted the expansion of this new financial system. However, this restriction was removed during the war when western trade and capital collapsed. The Sino-Thai moved into the economic sectors previously controlled by the Europeans, such as the trade in timber and tin, and banking. The Chinese domination of the financial sector in particular was important, as capital was the key to financing industrial development in the post-war years. (Hewison, 1988; Kunio, 1988).
Letters from Thailand
A vivid sketch of weal and woe in postwar Chinatown is Botan’s novel Letters from Thailand (Botan, 1982), first published in Thai in 1969. The novel is composed of the letters written by a late Teochew immigrant to his mother in China. The novel appeared in a period during which strict measures were enforced in order to enhance the assimilation of the Chinese, and therefore frictions between the Chinese and Thai were to some degree taboo to discuss. In the letters the differences are constantly emphasized and stereotyped, and the book was rather controversial.
The Chinese narrator is initially much surprised and annoyed by the laissez faire attitude and the hedonism of the Thai people. ‘I am willing to respect the Thai, but so far I haven’t seen much to respect (p. 40). ‘Thai love gambling… ’ (p. 51). ‘They never think about politics until it hits them on the head. Then it is too late.’ (p. 167) Thai do not worry about the future, in that regard they are like butterflies: ‘Do you know what the Thai reminds me of, Mother? A butterfly, which lights for a moment on a lovely flower, then soars up into the sky to show off his gorgeous wings. He never thinks of food when he isn’t hungry. The Chinese is like a bee, a plain little fellow busy at his tasks ’ (p. 189). The narrator vehemently disagrees with the many Westerners who admire the joie de vivre of the Thai. ‘Thailand’s greatest admirers are those who have spent two days in the country, mostly foreigners who have no idea of what life here really is. They nod wisely and say that the Thai “really know how to live” and “know the value of an easy life”. They do not guess to what extremes of laziness and irresponsibility this philosophy is carried, or how great is the disregard for order and civilized behavior ’ (p. 129-130).
The narrator knew Thai who were unable to achieve anything else but growing rice. On the other hand, Chinese peasants who migrated to Thailand, often managed to become successful businessmen. ‘A farmer becomes a businessman when the earth is parched and the trade is good. This we can do because of our most essential quality: will’ (p. 73).
Furthermore, the success of the Chinese in Thailand is attributed to their unity, which is more worth than gold. ‘We hire Chinese workers for the factory whenever possible, for they are more dependable than the Thai ‘ (p. 102).
Over the years he lives in Thailand, the narrator becomes more sympathetic to the Thai, and he even becomes aware that the Chinese virtues of hard working and thrift are relative. Dwelling upon the comparison of butterflies and bees he remarks: ‘When a bear comes and steals his honey, the little bee is frantic. “A ha, my diligent friend,” thinks the graceful butterfly as he glides past, “see now how foolish your efforts were!” But what choice does the poor fellow have? Once a bee, always a bee’ (p. 189).
The narrator realizes that the Chinese are not loved by the Thai. They are called jek when the latter become abusive: ‘“You stupid jek … Go back to China … and eat cow shit like you used to do”’ (p. 188). And Thai often poke fun at the thrift of the Chinese. ‘There’s one [joke] about the Chinese family that hung a dried, salted fish over the supper table and looked at it while they ate their rice… so the mother said to the little boy, ‘Quit staring so hard at the salted fish—you’ll be thirsty all night!’ (p. 123). And the Chinese obsessive fear not to lose what they have acquired by working so hard, is reflected in the expression jek tuen fai (‘Chinese warns for fire’) which means ‘in panic’.
The novel was awarded the SEATO Prize for Thai literature in 1969.
In the postwar years, Thailand’s ‘Chinese problem’ was solved by advancing assimilation of the Sino-Thai population. Immigration from China had almost completely come to an end and the ratio Chinese to Thai nationals gradually decreased: 1.6 per cent in 1960 and 0.9 per cent in 1970. In fact the number of poorly assimilated Chinese was still much higher, as among the Thai nationals many spoke Chinese and nourished a Chinese identity. Due to rapid economic development and modernization, and nationalistic education politics (with restriction on Chinese schools), successful integration of the Chinese in Thai society was a fact at the end of the 20th century. Also mandatory Thai surnames and other measures enforced by the Thai administration contributed to this success. Yet, many Sino-Thai remained strong ties with their motherland (Buruma, 1984; Sricharatchanya, 1984a,b; 1988).
Interestingly, beginning from the 1990s, there was a renewed interest in the history of the Sino-Thai, including a revival of Chinese culture. Successful Thai from Chinese ancestry, movie stars and singers, as well as innovative businessmen and businesswomen, were prominent in the Thai media. Many of the influential Godfathers in the provinces were also ‘sons of the Yellow Emperor’ and they became crucial links with the national politics, e.g. by their financial and logistic support for candidates (Ockey, 1993, 2005). Former prime-ministers Banharn Silpa-archa (1995-1996) and Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-2006) (Phongpaichit and Baker, 2004) were the sons of Chinese immigrants, and they did not hesitate to cash in on their Chinese descent and the success story of their rise from ‘humble beginnings’ to billionaire and tycoon.
* This short history is a translation, rewriting and expansion of an earlier publication in Dutch: Sjon Hauser, 1997. Thailands Chinezen en Bangkoks Chinatown. In: Sjon Hauser, Spotlights op Thailand, pp. 7-34. Vieng travel, Bangkok, 1997.
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