While identifying ourselves as Thai, most of us come from a mixed ethnic ancestry. Chinese is the most common among the races prevalent in Thailand. They have intermingled with the locals not only in the major towns and cities but from the northern part of Thailand all the way to the Malaysian Peninsula. However with a long history and relationship with China, the Chinese and the Sino-Siamese have either assimilated into the Thai culture and society or segregated and lived among their kinfolk.
As part of the modern Sino-Thai generation, I know little about my Chinese ancestors. We have blended in and observe Thai culture and customs but mix them with Confucian beliefs. There are only a few Chinese occasions we celebrate: Chinese New Year, the Mid-Year Celebration, the Mid-Autumn or the Mooncake Festival, and the Tomb Cleaning Rituals and Ancestor Worship on Qingming Day. I don’t speak any Chinese dialects and practice Theravada Buddhism while many Sino-Thais follow Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. Although the Chinese and the Sino-Thais have been through hardships and resentment, we are proud of our ancestry and contribution to the Thai history, society, and culture.
The Chinese settled in Thailand several centuries ago. In fact, Thais are descendants of a group of Tai tribes from southern China and other tribes from southeast Asia. When Sukhothai was established, Siam traded with the Middle Kingdom – or China – and was one of the tributary states. Thailand invited skilled artisans from China to build the kilns and make ceramics and Sukhothai became well-known for its fine celadon.
In the Ayutthaya Period, the Chinese were the only ethnic group – apart from the Thais – that lived both within and outside the confines of the city wall. The others were housed depending on the Palace’s assessment of how likely they were to mount an attack. Thus, other Asian traders and envoys lived closer to the palace grounds while the Europeans had to locate much further away.
King Taksin of Thonburi and the Kings in Chakri Dynasty came from a mixed Chinese descent. King Rama III was very fond of Chinese art and style, which heavily influenced many temples and artefacts during his period. The current royal family still celebrates the Chinese New Year and makes a visit to Chinatown every year.
From the Sukhothai Period until the mid-Rattanakosin Period, Phraya Choduek Raja Setthi or Phraya Raja Setthi was a title royally bestowed on grand Chinese traders.
The title means the prosperous chief of the merchants and this position controlled all the trading posts on the left banks of Chao Phraya River which mainly dealt with the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Cambodian and the Dutch.
Originally, the Chinese and the Annamese had their settlements where the Grand Palace is currently situated. They were asked to move southward along the river to where Chinatown is today. Most of these Chinese communities have lived in these areas for more than two centuries and some didn’t even know how to read or write Thai language. Sing Sian Yit Pao, a daily local Chinese newspaper, has been printed here for more than 56 years.
In the 19th century, there was an influx of Chinese immigrants to Bangkok and coastal towns. These new arrivals were industrious and became highly successful. Many have intermarried with the Thais and have expanded their professional sectors beyond business and commerce into political and academic fields as well.
Over time, Chinese communities increased in wealth and influence, creating ill-feeling. King Rama VI was not happy with the ethnic Chinese in his kingdom and in 1914, wrote an article under a pseudonym published in a newspaper, Asavabhahu, calling them the “Jews of the Orient”. He pointed to the similarities he felt existed between the Chinese and Jews: “excessive racial loyalty and astuteness in financial matters”.
Between the 1930s and the 1950s, the Chinese in Thailand also suffered discrimination under the military dictatorship of Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram – even though he was part-Chinese himself. State corporations took over commodities such as rice, tobacco and petroleum, and Chinese businesses found themselves subject to a range of new taxes and controls.
Many aspects of Thai culture have been influences by the Chinese, such as the cuisine in both methods and ingredients. Using oil, wok, noodles and chopsticks come from the Chinese. Street food was started by Chinese immigrants as well as some of the first restaurants and hotels in Bangkok.