Looking at many Thais donning red dresses during the latest Lunar New Year earlier this week in Bangkok with all the accompanying Chinese music and signs, I think President Xi would have approved of.
Thailand is orbiting closer and closer to the new power center – China. It has been a century and a half since China was a superpower in the region. Now she is claiming her turf back. Thai-Chinese as well, as Thais with no Chinese blood, are responding accordingly – this despite two years of no Chinese tourists due to COVID-19.
It is easier for Thais to identify with the rise of China. We never were colonized by China, unlike Vietnam. We have no contested sea territories or disputed islands, unlike a few of our neighbors. Chinatown was never looted and set on fire, unlike in Jakarta. Many descendants of Chinese migrants have assimilated to the point where the majority speaks little or no southern Chinese dialects – and some think they are more Thai and other Thais.
As much as some Thai-Chinese might want to think of themselves as Chinese, the fact remains that they have largely gone native over the generations and are now a ‘creole’ people of Thai and Chinese cultures. Yet in Thai language, quite a few still refer to themselves or are called by some others as “Chinese”. This is very misleading.
Unless you just flew in from Chongqing, Xian, or Beijing to work in Thailand recently, you are not qualified to be called Chinese. With the rise of China, many imagine themselves to be more Chinese than ever, however. Identity is fluid and it has to be performed repeatedly to create and maintain a cultural identity.
What we are witnessing is a performance by Thai-Chinese and even some Thais with little or no Chinese blood performing (or pretending) to be more Chinese. It is impossible for anyone born and raised in Thailand not to at least become partially Thai due to the influence of Thai language and culture.
(An experiment to artificially isolate oneself from the influence of the host society is taking place at many of the so-called ‘international schools’ in Bangkok and pockets outside the capital like Phuket, where students only speak English at schools, however, and it is creating a new breed of people purposefully disconnected from the host society. Some of these Thais are more fluent in English than Thai even though they have never spent a significant childhood outside the kingdom.)
Being more Chinese can be performed by learning Mandarin, dressing more often in Chinese styles or in traditional Chinese clothes, and practicing the many rituals, particularly ancestor and deity worship.
One clear indication that modern mainland Chinese cultural influence is increasingly carving a space among Thai-Chinese and Thais during the Chinese New Year is the prevalent use of mandarin to verbally usher the Lunar New Year with the words “Xīn Nián Kuài Lè” instead of uttering in local southern Chinese dialects as it was in the past.
Mind you, most Chinese who migrated to Thailand a century or so ago, or many decades ago, were mostly illiterate and Mandarin was never part of the culture of these Chinese migrants. Now, their children and grandchildren are learning Mandarin at schools, however. Chinese food from other regions where the vast majority of Chinese did not migrate from are also becoming more common.
The tongue numbing mala BBQ or hotpot from Sichuan province is one such example. Mala is something relatively new, almost unheard of or unavailable, in Bangkok just a little over a decade ago. Now it is so common and can be had not just in Bangkok’s Chinatown, but beyond the capital itself.
Do not worry too much. We are not becoming Chinese. Chinese culture has for a very long time been blended into Thai culture. Just like Christmas where Bangkokians celebrate by dressing the part for photos and more – it does not mean most are becoming Christians or westerners.
Identity is not static, and many perform well with enjoyment, or too well, too well that President Xi or the Chinese Embassy could have prematurely mistaken it as mission accomplished.
To the Thai-Chinese and non-Thai-Chinese in Thailand – happy role playing. Keep performing and a belated happy Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean New Year!