Readers' Submissions

Chinese In Thailand

  • Written by Anonymous
  • March 28th, 2006
  • 4 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

Yes, it is true that the Chinese (pure or partially Thai) do control the vast majority of the wealth in Thailand, and business is sometimes conducted in Chinese only. A sub-text of the uprising against Thaksin and the sale of Shin Corp, which won't ever be publicly mentioned, is that Thaksin himself is 1/8th Chinese and Singapore is also Chinese-dominated.

The 1/8th part is deceptive, because identity is patrimonial in nature. Thai culture is similar to Chinese in that way. The family got its start from a Chinese Hakka immigrant, and just because the mothers are Thai doesn't make the family Thai. As far as the Chinese business community is concerned, Thaksin is Chinese enough for their purposes. He's referred to abroad in some Chinese-denominated newspapers with his grandfather's last name, not Shinawatra.

The disproportional control of local economies by a minority of Chinese is not out of inherent greed, because I think the Thai people are as greedy as any. It's a self-selection process with a large population base. Out of the hundreds of millions of Chinese, those willing to leave China to find a new home abroad are the self-motivated and capable. So of course they succeed. They pass those ethics on to family, at least for a few generations, and the next thing you know – Chinese controlled local economy. Such things continue to this day.

When the Thai economy melted down during the 90's thanks to huge sums of fast money sloshing in and out, guess which group took home most of the benefits? The foreign banks and investors needed someone local in Thailand to work with. Hong Kong and Singapore has been the western world's gateway to East Asia for decades, and they remain so today. When it came time for those advisors from Hong Kong and Singapore to direct foreign money into Thai investment projects, guess which companies got most of the money? That's right – the Chinese.

The Thai middle class and nobility has always resented greatly the grasp on commerce which overseas Chinese has. They are not alone. For evidence, you can check out the riots in Indonesia in the late 90's where Chinese-owned businesses were specifically targeted and Chinese women raped. The fact is that throughout Southeast Asia, the economic lifeblood is controlled largely by Chinese people, no matter the name they adopt. The only notable exceptions are Japan, Korea, and Vietnam (which is political in nature). Everywhere else, scratch the surface a little and you'll find a Chinese hand underneath with his hand in the pie along with the locals and westerners. The Japanese have made a dent, except their recent military history makes their participation somewhat suspect. The Thai (and Vietnamese and Chinese) might take Japan's money, but the older generation never quite let go of old animosities.

Back to Thaksin, the Chinese component of the Thai outrage should not be discounted. Had he sold Shin Corp. to a Japanese company, I don't think there would be as much outrage but the simmering suspicion against the Chinese community is always there.

And there is basis for that. Chinese do prefer doing business with other Chinese. When Hong Kong and Singapore firms come looking to do business, they prefer to work with Chinese middle-men because there is a presumption of shared concepts, principles, and language. The Thai people know this, and they only need to look at those same photos Dana referred to in order to see who the really rich and powerful are in their country. It's the Chinese and those related to the Chinese.

There is a chapter in an excellent book called "World on Fire" by Amy Chua which explores this specific issue. Chinese businessmen were able to integrate more successfully into the Thai community than into Indonesia and Malaysia because of the Buddhist connection. Yet Thai people are very much aware of the Chinese elite among them even if you can't tell by the name and outsiders aren't fully aware of them.

When we talk about Thai wanting whiter skin, they're not trying to look like Caucasians. They are trying to look more Chinese. Chinese people prize pale skin as proof that you don't have to work in the fields.

Take a look at the Thai models and pop stars. Now switch to a magazine from Taiwan and compare the pictures. The basic modality is the same. When I saw Tata Young, I assumed that was a Chinese star.

When we talk about racism within Thai society for those from specific regions, they picked that habit up from the Chinese too. The Han Chinese look down on all other integrated ethnicities, including the Hakka (Thaksin's grandfather). Once in Thailand, even the Hakka Chinese could start looking down on Thais in general, which then flows down hill to the Isaan natives.

Thais won't admit to the feeling of jealousy any more than they'd admit to the status of Thailand during the British colonial period or the various periods when Chinese emperors demanded subservience from all neighboring kingdoms.

The Chinese don't like to discuss their control of the Thai economy, thanks to past political disturbances which victimized the Chinese business community. They adopt Thai names and practices in public but retain Chinese culture in private. And they also do business in private.

But you just can't talk about it.

Stickman's thoughts:

Excellent submission.