The Uncles and Aunties of Chinatown
This is the first of a two-part series exploring Thai-Chinese views on the Hong Kong protests, and how Thai-Chinese citizens stay informed.
On the main street of Yaowaraj – home to Chinese immigrants who sailed to Thailand over a century ago and their descendants – Wan Pek Tang sits selling both Thai and Chinese newspapers.
“We have to be neutral. We have to filter our news,” 80-year-old Wan Pek said, rifling through copies of Tong Hua Daily News, Universal Daily News, and Kia Hua Tong Nguan.
While pundits and internet idols preach their views about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong online, the uncles and aunties of Chinatown, say they’ve weathered enough Cold War-era media storms to be on guard against modern “fake news.” Some also said they still felt a blood tie with China, whether Hong Kong or mainland.
Wan Pek says he usually reads Chinese newspapers published in Thailand (his Chinese is better than his Thai) and on occasion scans Chinese newspapers.
“First, the protesters came out against the extradition bill. Then the Chinese, who can’t back down, brought tanks to Shenzhen,” Wan Pek said, when asked to recount his understanding of the recent protests in Hong Kong.
“However, I don’t think the Chinese soldiers will use their full force against the protestors after this,” he said. “They’re too afraid, with foreigners intervening and watching.”
A 78-year-old regular strolled up to Wan Pek for his daily dose of political discussion. Though he refused to give his name (“I’m not giving you either my Thai or Chinese name! What if they send someone to kill me?”), he had plenty to say about media literacy.
“We have to check where the news comes from. China’s isn’t so good. We have brains, don’t we? So use them. Weigh what percentage of a piece of news is good, bad, or just plain slander,” he said. “You yourself have to judge. Don’t believe everything you read.”
So does he favor any side?
“Why do I have to take a side? China isn’t communist anymore. And why do I have to agree with America? They’re farang. I’m Thai!” he said loudly.
But for Wan Pek, centuries-old animosities between West and East continue to ring true – he couldn’t stop bringing up the Opium Wars.
“Before, foreigners got the Chinese addicted to opium,” he said. “Now farangs are inciting Hongkongers to create more problems…I just want Hong Kong to be safe again.”
Thailand has one of the world’s largest – if not the largest – diaspora of overseas Chinese. About 9 million Chinese are believed to have settled in the kingdom, and that’s not counting their Sino-Thai descendants (look jeen).
Over the past centuries, they came to Thailand for various reasons, such as fleeing poverty, war, political strife, and natural disasters to seek new opportunities.
Though many learned uncles and aunties accepted an interview on the streets of Yaowaraj, many also refused. Some said they do not keep up with current events or refused to “talk about anything political.”
One man said he was afraid he would give misinformation since he only “gets his news from Line.”
Further down the road, Porngam Sae-ngui, 57, runs a larger newspaper and magazine roadside shop. Unlike Wan Pek and his customer, Porngam gets her news from the international news sections of Thai newspapers – her go-to reads are analytical pieces in Manager Newspaper and Thai Rath.
“When you’re neutral, you can see both sides of the issue. I don’t believe everything I read, and I can tell if someone is trying to influence me,” she continued. “I would rather people read information from both sides, and then decide for themselves what to believe.”
Porngam said she doesn’t want to see bloodshed.
“On the one hand, I sympathize with Hong Kong. But I also understand China needs to rule on many aspects,” she said. “I just want there to be a peaceful dialogue. I don’t want things to escalate and China to send in the troops.”
Porngam wants to see more tourists shopping at Yaowaraj, but isn’t sure how the protests will influence the local economy.
“In the end, we’re all siblings with the same ethnic blood. Lives are more important than policies. I don’t want to see more Chinese blood shed,” Porngam said.
On a side road off Yaowaraj, Wichet Lumsuwan, 48, sits at his stand selling durian, lucky envelopes, and waving cat figurines. Wichet’s nephew says he often likes to discuss politics with people around him.
“I’m in favor of Hong Kong,” Wichet said, “Especially after that Thai boxer went there to cause trouble.”
Thai boxer Arthit Ruenpech was allegedly part of a white-shirted mob that attacked Hong Kong protesters and commuters in July.
“Hong Kong and China share the same ethnicity, but Hong Kong was a colony so of course its culture is more Western. We know China is more conservative, and democratic Hong Kong can’t adjust to that kind of rule,” Wichet said.
Wichet has never been to China or Hong Kong himself, though he is descended from Chinese immigrants. He said he’s familiar with spotting propaganda from the Cold War days, during which he read both Thai and Chinese papers. Nowadays, he mostly watches Channel 3 news to get his info.
“I believe the idea of the Chinese being ‘poor commies’ still lingers among many. People are naturally afraid of this, or of becoming this, including Hongkongers,” he said.
For Wichet, only time will tell who’s on the right side of history, despite his sympathies for Hong Kong.
“Time will prove everything. The situation can change in an instant,” he said.
This is the first of a two-part series exploring Thai-Chinese views on the Hong Kong protests. In the next installment, we ask young Thai-Chinese what they think.