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.

Luk Krueng (People of Mixed Thai Blood)

People with mixed Thai blood are referred to luk krueng, which means “half-children.” For many years they were discriminated against partly because it was assumed they were children of unions of American servicemen and Thai prostitutes. [Source: New York Times, August 29, 2002]

In the Vietnam War era, thousands of babies were born to Thai women and American GI fathers, many of who left Southeast Asia before their children were born and never saw them. The majority of luk krueng, however, are the products of other unions between Thais and mostly European-looking non-Thais.

In the mid 1990s it became very fashionable to be luk krueng and it remained that way for a while. Half-Thai school children were plucked from international schools and groomed to be stars. By the early 2000s they dominated the local fashion and entertainment industry. Many top television, hosts, models and singers were luk krueng.

"People like my Eurasian-looking face, especially my nose," the model Kathaleeya McIntosh told Newsweek. "A lot of Thai women are even getting nose jobs to copy this Eurasian look." Thais bought blue contact lenses to look more beautiful. In a 2000 Thai poll of the sexiest men and women, seven out of the nine top scorers were of mixed blood. Luk krueng are also admired for their perceived Western-style confidence, swagger and go-getting attitude. An American political science professor in Thailand told the New York Times, “I think of it as a metaphor for the move from traditional Thailand to a more Western or modernized global culture.

Famous Luk Krueng

People like Tiger Wood (half Thai mother); the singer Tata Young (American father, Thai mother), who has sold more than 10 million albums and has sung n front of the royal family; the comedian Morris K (half Thai, half African-American); and the model Kathaleeya McIntosh (half-Scottish, half-Thai) were all the rage in the alte 1990s and early 2000s. McIntosh was praised by the Bangkok Post for her “slim face, brown almond-shaped eyes, a stunning cocktail which turns heads and gets cameras clicking.” as Even the Miss Thai entry in the Miss World contest in 1996 was half Thai and half English

Sirinya Winsiri, a leading model who has appeared in ads for Lux spao and Omega watches, was the first blue-eyed Miss Thailand. She has an American father and Thai mother. One of the biggest singers in the early 2000s was a blonde-haired Swede. The son of NGO workers, he lived most if his life in Thailand and spoke and sang in fluent Thai. He sold over a million CDs and cassettes.

In 2001, Christy Gibson, a Bangkok-based, 22-year-old, blue-eyed blonde daughter of a Dutch mother and British father, became a big singing sensation in Thailand. With perfect Thai pronunciation and a lovely voice, she was credited with helping to revive luk thung, Thai country music. Gibson said, "By adopting their music, I am telling Thai people how beautiful their culture is. In modern society it is easy to forget one's traditions. We want to tell the Thais you have a beautiful culture. Hold on to it."

Still prejudice towards Luk Krueng endures. Winsiri told the New York Times when she was a child, “I’d be walking down the street and people would basically point their fingers and yell, Farang! Farang! It was really blatant. They were laughing and pointing. It was very hard for a young kid to take.”

Giles Ungpakorn, a half-Thai, half-British political science professor are Chulalongkorn University told the New York Times, “Every single day of my life in Thailand, people impress on me that I’m not Thai, something that would be considered very rude in the West. Thailand is extremely explosive nationalistically, so that I am never regarded as a Thai citizen when people look at my face.

Chinese Snakeheads and Thais Abroad

About 40,000 Thais in Los Angeles. At one timer there were 15 Thai-language newspapers there. Many Thai immigrants to New York City make their living as bagel makers.

In a 1996 Gallup survey 15 percent of the Thais asked said they would like to leave Thailand. About 40 percent of these said they wanted to go to Britain, 27 percent said they wanted to go to the United States.

Many Chinese snakeheads use Bangkok and Thailand as transhipment centers. Many have Thai immigration officials on their payroll. When a migrant gets caught the snakeheads inform his family and try to get them to wire money. See China

Refugees in Thailand

As of 2004 Thailand hosted some 188,400 refugees from Burma, many of them ethnic, non-Thai-speaking Karen who fled their country in the face of fighting between Karen rebels and Burmese troops.

In the 1970s and 80s Thailand dealt with the influx of three million refugees, which included boat people from Vietnam and people fleeing the Khmer Rogue in Cambodia, the Communist regime in Laos and the generals in Burma.

Tens of thousands of refugees from Myanmar live in Thailand near the Myanmar border. Most are members of ethnic minorities—namely Karen, Shan and Muslim Rohingyas—that have been persecuted and/or have battled for independence from the Myanmar government. Over the years they have also included some students and pro-democracy activists.

See Karen

Stateless Origami Whiz Kid Get Thai Passport

In 2009 AP reported: “A stateless boy who was born in Thailand to Myanmar migrants was granted a temporary passport so he can represent the kingdom at an origami competition in Japan with paper planes that can fly for 12 seconds at a time. Twelve-year-old Mong Thongdee caught the hearts of many Thais with his distraught plea - broadcast nationwide - to be allowed to compete, and unwittingly drew attention to the plight of nearly half a million stateless people in Thailand who legally cannot leave and return to the country. [Source: AP, September 4, 2009]

TV stations showed him sobbing quietly after the Interior Ministry initially denied his request. "I really want to go because I have been practicing hard, but I know the adults say I can't go because I have no citizenship," he tearfully told reporters. The next day, Mong was ushered into Parliament for a meeting with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who promised the paper-folding champion that he would be granted temporary travel papers. Mong received a travel document for non-citizens, valid for one entry, said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Vimon Kidchob.

Mong, who lives in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, won a national origami airplane championship in August 2008 with a plane that flew for 12 seconds. He was later selected to attend the Origami Airplane contest in Chiba, Japan. The Interior Ministry at first denied his request, citing a law saying that attempts by people of Mong's status to leave and re-enter Thailand could present "a threat to national security." Interior Minister Chavarat Charnvirakul told local media the boy would have to represent Myanmar instead, even though he is not eligible for citizenship there either.

Mong's ethnic Shan parents have only temporary permission to live and work in Thailand, so although he was born in the country he has only temporary resident status. Under normal circumstances, if he left and tried to return, his status would be revoked and he would be barred entry to the land of his birth. The rejection of his initial application for temporary exit papers dominated Thai newspaper front pages. The Lawyers Council of Thailand petitioned the Administrative Court on Mong's behalf.

Wongsak Sawaspanich, a ministry official in charge of the case, said Thursday's decision to issue the papers was made on "legal and humanitarian grounds" and rebuffed reporters' speculation that the ministry had caved in to public pressure. After meeting with Mong, Abhisit acknowledged the problem of stateless people and pledged to task the National Security Council with improving their access to education and health care. But Wongsak said Mong's legal status was unchanged, and he remains on a list of people who will be considered for repatriation to Myanmar in February 2010.

Vietnam-War-Era Thai-American Children

Some Thai children have fathers from the Japan, the United States or another country who they never see. Some of the fathers occasionally send money. Others have no contact whatsoever. Vietnam was not the only place where Amerasian children—the product of mostly unions between Asian women and American soldiers—were born during the Vietnam War era. Thousands of babies were born to Thai women and U.S. servicemen stationed in Thailand, which was home to several American military bases, and many were left behind.

Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post: “For as long as she can remember, Jang Rattanapim has carried a snapshot of her father. Whenever she felt low, she said, she took the yellowed photo of the handsome young U.S. gunship pilot from her wallet. "I would talk to my dad's photo when I felt I needed somebody," said the tall young woman with sharp Anglo features and creamy Thai complexion. Long ago, her Thai mother told her that her father had been killed during the Vietnam War. In truth, he left Thailand two days before she was born. [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, December 19, 2003]

Last spring, Jang met her father, Bryce Menninga, for the first time. It happened thanks to a former U.S. military-intelligence officer named Gene Ponce, who has made it his mission to bring together U.S. veterans and the children they fathered during the Vietnam War. "It's a miracle," said Jang, who at 5 feet 7 inches towers over her friends. "It's the best thing that's ever happened in my life." "The fathers are getting old," Ponce said. "In their consciences, they know that they left a child that they may never know. For some, it's been on their minds for quite a while. Now they just want to close a chapter in their lives."

Ponce's mission began with his own story. When he was a 23-year-old airman stationed at Korat Air Base 32 years ago, he fathered a daughter by a Thai woman. He wasn't ready for marriage, but there was no way, he said, that he was going to leave his daughter behind. After negotiating with his girlfriend and her parents, he brought his daughter to the United States. Vassana lived with Ponce's parents until he married several years later. Ponce and his wife raised Vassana and two children of their own. Today he is retired, remarried and living in Bangkok with a Thai wife, Supawan Ponce, his interpreter and partner in sleuthing.

His idea to hook up fathers and their children took shape in December 2000, when he moved to Thailand and began thinking about the children he saw in the orphanages he visited as a young man. He started building a database of veterans and civilians who served in Thailand. It has about 100,000 names. He also has 10 Web sites devoted to pilots, soldiers and sailors who were assigned to Thailand during the war.

As of 2003 Ponce was working on 46 cases. Ten are requests from fathers, 16 from sons and daughters, 20 from mothers of Amerasian children. The requests come from the United States, from Thailand and from Europe. He has a Web site, If a father doesn't want a meeting, Ponce tells the son or daughter he couldn't find him. "I know it's not correct," Ponce said, "but after finding a father, you know you just can't tell the child, 'He said no.' "

Reunions between Thai-American Children and Their Vietnam-Vet Fathers

A reunion in Bangkok in October 2002 for Thai and U.S. military and civilian personnel who had served in Thailand unexpectedly advanced his project. He was standing in the lobby when a woman approached and said she had heard he had a veterans database. She asked if he would be able to locate a friend in the United States. Ponce found the friend's name in his database, contacted him on her behalf and soon had his first success. Delighted, the woman spread the word. Among the people she told was Tuenjai Rattanapim, who had been a bartender at the officers club at Ubon Air Base during the war. In January, she contacted Ponce, telling him she had a daughter who had never seen her father, a former pilot. She wanted to know what had happened to him. She had his name, the approximate dates of service and one photograph.

Ponce's database yielded no hits, so he searched Internet phone directories and found just one Bryce Menninga, in Texas. On his first try, he reached Menninga's wife. When Ponce called back a few days later, Menninga was "very silent," Ponce said. In "shock" was how Menninga described his reaction in an e-mail reply to questions. "In the next few minutes I experienced panic: How do I tell my family? Suspicion: Does somebody want a lot of money? And thankfulness: She found me, and I may really get to meet her." He asked for a little time to tell his wife, Kathy, and two daughters, Crystal and Brandy, who did not know about Jang. But he wanted to see his Thai daughter.

A few days later, the Ponces, Tuenjai and Jang gathered in Bangkok. "Jang, your father's still alive," Tuenjai said. "Gene has found your father." "But you told me he's dead," Jang said. "I lied to you," she said. "I was shocked," Jang recalled later. She relayed her mother's explanation for withholding the truth: "She told me, 'I did it because your father had already left and I didn't know if we would ever find each other again, and I didn't want you to be unhappy about that. And so I told you that he died in a plane crash.' " Jang has memorized the date — April 24 — the time — 11:55 p.m. — and the flight — Northwest 001 — that brought her father to her. She recalled their first embrace at the airport. "He was trembling and he held me very tight," she said. "He said he was so sorry. Both of us cried."

Menninga recalled the meeting: "I was messy, smelly, dirty and extremely fatigued. I picked Jang out of the crowd immediately, mostly by her height. "We hugged each other for a long time, shedding a few tears in the process. ... It was an unbelievable experience. The more I got to know her, the more I was impressed with her." "I thought about Jang many times," he wrote in his e-mail. "I felt quite guilty about not being there or doing more for her and also very sad about missing her growing up. ... Being young and foolish ... it never occurred to me to report her birth to U.S. authorities." Now, he wrote, Jang is finding it difficult to obtain a visa to visit him in the United States. Menninga, 58, a commercial-airline pilot, is thrilled Ponce found him. "It filled a void I expected to take to my grave," he said.

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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