Thailand had the largest Chinese population in Southeast Asia. Ethnic Chinese make up 10 to 14 percent of the population of Thailand, or around than 6 million to 9 million people (the range in numbers has to do with how mixed-blood Thai Chinese are counted). They are largely assimilated and many have intermarried with Thais. Many Chinese became Thai after a few generations. Many recognize their Chinese heritage but no longer identify with the Chinese ethnic group. An estimated 80 percent of Chinese Thais speak Thai at home. Thais intermarry with the Chinese more than the Malaysians do.

Most are second or third generation Hokkein (Hakka), Tae Liu (Chao Zhou. Chiu Chao), or Cantonese. In the north there is also a sigificant number of Hui—Chinese Muslims who emigrated to northern Thailand in the late 19th century to avoid persecution in China. Teochew, the Southern Min dialect of Chaozhou, has traditionally been the primary dialect of the overseas Chinese communities in Thailand whereas Hokkein, the Southern Min dialect of Fujian, has traditionally been the primary dialect of many Overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore Indonesia, and the Philippines.

The Chinese in Thailand arguably get along better with the majority population than in any other country in Southeast Asia. This is due in part to historical reasons and partly to Thai tolerance of foreigners. In the old days wealthy Chinese offered their daughters to royal court as wives and consorts in an effort to establish royal connections.

People interested in the lives of Chinese and Sino-Thai peoples in Thailand are referred to the work of Anne Maxwell Hill (1988) and William Skinner (1957).

Early History of Chinese in Thailand

Trade between Siam and China existed from an early period. Rhinoceros horn, kingfisher feathers and ivory were among the items sought by the Chinese. The famous 15th-century explorer-eunuch, Zheng Ho, commented that when he arrived in Siam there were many Chinese who lived there because the women were easy to get. He also commented on the large number of monks and the fact that women seem to run everything.

By the time the Europeans arrived in what is now Thailand, Thai harbors were filled Chinese junks and Thai ports were home to Chinese that spoke a number of dialects. Siam was a major destination for Chinese exports and was a major transshipment center for goods to other places and islands in Asia and Oceania. Bangkok was a Chinese trading post before it was an important Thai city. King Ram I was married to the daughter of a rich Chinese merchant.

By the 19th century, the Chinese were an important segment of Thai society. They ran much of the economy and controlled trade and in many ways were Thailand’s window to the outside world. In both Thailand and China their money help strengthen the economy and finance the construction of many temples and buildings. Many of the hardworking and enterprising Chinese in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are from the southern Chinese province of Fujian. In Thailand many are also from Chaozhou area of Guangdong Province.

The accommodation between Thai and Chinese historically depended in part on the changing economic and political interests and perspectives of the Thai monarchs and others in the ruling group. Also relevant were the roles assigned to the Chinese at various times, e.g., in the nineteenth century, that of tax farmers. Under the tax farming system, private individuals were sold the right to collect taxes at a price below the actual value of the taxes. The barriers between Thai and Chinese became more rigid in the early twentieth century with the emergence of Thai and Chinese nationalism and also the increased tendency of Chinese females to accompany male immigrants, which reduced the amount of intermarriage. Consequently, despite a level of Chinese integration in the host society surpassing that found elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Chinese remained a separate ethnic community, although the boundaries became less defined in the more mobile post-World War II society. The Chinese spoke a number of southern Chinese dialects, the most important being Teochiu, which was used by most Chinese as a commercial lingua franca.

By 1910 nearly 10 percent of Thailand's population was Chinese. Whereas earlier immigrants had intermarried with the Thai, the new arrivals frequently came with families and resisted assimilation into Thai society. Chinese nationalism, encouraged by Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Chinese revolution, had also begun to develop, parallel with Thai nationalism. The Chinese community even supported a separate school system for its children. Legislation in 1909 requiring adoption of surnames was in large part directed against the Chinese community, whose members would be faced with the choice of forsaking their Chinese identity or accepting the status of foreigners. Many of them made the accommodation and opted to become Thai--if in name only. Those who did not became even more alienated from the rest of Thai society.

Rise of Anti-Chinese Sentiments

After Imperial China collapsed in the early 20th century, Chinese in Thailand were discriminated against. Their schools were closed down and they were barred from certain jobs and business. The Thai King wrote a tract called the Chinese the “Jews of the East.” Some of this was based on prejudice and ignorance. Some was based on worries that Chinese revolutionary politics might spill into Thailand.

Thai nationalist attitudes at all levels of society under Rama VI were colored by anti-Chinese sentiment. For centuries members of the Chinese community had dominated domestic commerce and had been employed as agents for the royal trade monopoly. With the rise of European economic influence many Chinese entrepreneurs had shifted to opium traffic and tax collecting, both despised occupations. In addition, Chinese millers and middlemen in the rice trade were blamed for the economic recession that gripped Siam for nearly a decade after 1905. Accusations of bribery of high officials, wars between the Chinese secret societies, and use of oppressive practices to extract taxes also served to inflame Thai opinion against the Chinese community at a time when it was expanding rapidly as a result of increased immigration from China.

Many Chinese changed their name and took other measures to try and hide the fact they were Chinese. They government made it easy for them to become Thai citizens. Many intermarried with Thais. Over the years many Chinese became more assimilated to Thai culture and lost their bonds to China. Some though continued to speak Chinese at home, quietly practiced Chinese customs and religion and retained their Chinese names.

Another wave of anti-Chinese occurred when Mao Zedong seized power in China after World War II. Since 1948 there has been a government policy restricted Chinese-language instruction in Chinese schools.

Assimilation of the Chinese in Thailand

Because of severe restrictions on Chinese immigration that were put into effect in the early 1950s, the great majority of Thailand's Chinese in the late 1980s had been born in Thailand. Not only did most Chinese speak Thai, many also acquired Thai names (in addition to their Chinese ones) and were Mahayana Buddhists (one of the major schools of Buddhism, active in China, Japan, Korea, and Nepal). Although many Thai resented the significant role the Chinese played in commerce and envied their wealth, the Thai also admired Chinese industriousness and business acumen, a pattern common elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Except for a minority, the Chinese not only were Thai nationals but also had, in some respects at least, assimilated into Thai society; many spoke Thai as well as they spoke Chinese. Most of the descendants of pretwentieth-century immigrants and those people of mixed Chinese-Thai ancestry (the so-called Sino-Thai) were so fully integrated into Thai society that they were not included in the Chinese population estimates.

Assimilation has been easier for Chinese in Thailand—where the people speak a language somewhat related to Chinese, practice Buddhism and there are many Chinese influences in the culture—than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. In Thailand, many Chinese have taken Thai names. Assimilation has been a continuing process. Chinese were encouraged to become Thai citizens, and in 1970 it was estimated that more than 90 percent of the Chinese born in Thailand had done so. When diplomatic relations were established with China in the 1970s, resident Chinese not born in Thailand had the option of becoming Thai citizens; the remaining permanent Chinese alien population was estimated at fewer than 200,000.

In the 1980s, when China began to emerged as an economic power, being Thai Chinese became kind of fashionable. Thai Chinese were instrumental in forming close relations with China. There was a re-emergence of Chinese pride and more open expressions of Chineseness. Television dramas began touching on relations between Thais and Chinese. Men of Chinese decent became prime ministers and Miss Thailand began looking more like Chinese than Thai.

Chinese and Business in Thailand

Bangkok has a large, influential Chinese community. They are said to be fond of shopping and new condominiums. Bangkok supports six daily Mandarin-language newspapers. At one time half the population of Bangkok was at least part Chinese by descent. Even the royal family has some Chinese blood.

Many of the businesses in Thailand are owned by Chinese. Thais have traditionally been involved in farming and governing while Chinese ran commercial and industrial activities. In the 1970s, about 75 percent of all the shops, banks and factories in Bangkok were Chinese owned. In 1995, 11 Thais were listed as dollar billionaires. All but one were of Chinese descent. At that time 12 of the 15 commercial banks are owned by Chinese families. Ethnic Chinese tycoons were hit hard by the Asian financial crisis. Many were technically bankrupt for years.

Historically, the Chinese served as middlemen in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Partly for this reason they were found everywhere in Thailand, particularly in the towns. There was, however, a major concentration in the Bangkok metropolitan area and another in the central part of peninsular Thailand, where many Chinese were engaged in several capacities in the tin mines and on the rubber plantations. Although many Chinese played an important part in the ownership and management of economic enterprises and in the professions, a substantial portion had less lucrative and significant occupations.

Chinese and Class and Status in Thailand

The social status of the Chinese economic elite has traditionally been ambiguous. After World War II, a limited number of Chinese business families, who had begun as middlemen financing aspects of agricultural production and marketing, became bankers and industrial and commercial entrepreneurs. These families had considerable economic power, and they clearly influenced some political decisions through the Thai military and bureaucrats with whom they had connections. Whether the Thai in general granted them the prestige ordinarily given to those holding high posts in government was another matter. [Source: Library of Congress]

These Chinese businessmen should be distinguished from the many Thai in the military and the civil bureaucracy who had Chinese ancestry. In many cases, this Chinese ancestry was several generations removed. In any case, such individuals were considered Thai, operated chiefly in a Thai social and cultural milieu, and were evaluated on the same social scale as other Thai.

Until the 1970s, persons who were fully Chinese entered the bureaucracy only at the middle levels or, if higher, as technical staff. This was in part a matter of Thai policy, in part a matter of Chinese orientation. The Chinese were not indifferent to political power or administrative skill as desirable qualities or as sources of prestige, but they adapted to the limits imposed by their minority status. Within the Chinese community there was a hierarchy of political influence, and there were organizations (ranging from chambers of commerce to community groups and mutual aid societies) in which Chinese had the opportunity to exercise their power and skills. Even there, however, political power and prestige flowed to those who had been successful as entrepreneurs, whereas among the Thai, achievement in the military or the bureaucracy preceded access to significant economic opportunities or resources. Chinese in the economic elite who moved into important positions in Chinese-centered organizations or, occasionally, other organizations, not only gained prestige within the Chinese community but also became the links between that community and Thai elites, particularly with respect to the establishment of economic ties.

By the early 1970s, significant numbers of Chinese had been admitted to the higher bureaucracy. According to one analyst, they held roughly 30 percent of the posts in the special grades (upper ranks) at that time. Presumably they were the sons and daughters of wealthy entrepreneurs and had acquired the higher education necessary for admission to the bureaucracy's upper ranks.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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