If you know your South-East-Asian history or have lived in Thailand for some years, you will already know the role that the Chinese have played in Thailand over the past couple of hundred years. Chinese influence is everywhere in Bangkok and has permeated every part of Thai society, but how did that come about and where did it all start?
Early History of Chinese in Thailand
Even though we think that Chinese influence in Thailand started in the 1800s, it goes back much longer than that. A famous 15th Chinese explorer who was also a eunuch, Zheng Ho, said that even when he visited Thailand, which was then known as Siam, there were Chinese already living there because women were plentiful as there were a large number of monks in Siam. Whether or not the reports were accurate, it shows that Chinese influence in Siam has been prominent for hundreds of years.
Moving to more modern times, thousands of Chinese immigrants that came from Southern Chine settled in Siam and had a massive impact on the development of the new Thai capital city in 1782 that went onto becoming Bangkok, or by its local name, Krungthep Maha Nakhon. Bangkok’s Chinatown was born, which is currently known as ‘Yaowarat’ and is one of the largest Chinatowns in the world.
With one of the largest communities of Chinese outside of China, Yaowarat sandwiched between the Krung Kasem Canal and the Chao Phraya River. Even today, Bangkok’s Chinatown is one of the most visited parts of the city and wows visitors with its temples and colourful markets, its gold shops, and warehouses. The area has played a massive role in trade between China and Thailand over the past 200 years.
The Chinese and Trade in Bangkok
Trade between the then ‘Siam’ and China goes right back to that 15th century period when a variety of products traded between the two nations. The trading of rhinoceros’ horn, ivory and kingfisher feathers were frequent during this period and was the start of a relationship between the two countries that are still prominent today 500 years later.
A lot of the early trade between China and Thailand took place in the then capital of Siam, Ayutthaya. By 1820s, thousands of Chinese began moving from Ayutthaya to Bangkok. Which kick-started a trade boom until around 1840, attracting lots of Chinese explorers and businesspersons trading in all manner of items such as pepper, tobacco, tea, sugarcane, indigo, and cotton. In the late-1800s, trade began to suffer between China and Siam as the Opium Wars were taking control of China and had a massive knock-on effect of trading.
By the 19th century, European forces were starting to rear their heads in South-East-Asia, most notably in Siam and things were about to change, especially in terms of trading options for the Siamese. Around this time, the ports of Bangkok filled to the brim with Chinese trading boats where some dialects spoken in the harbours. Siam, and more appropriately, Bangkok, had become a major destination for Chinese exports and had become a hub for Chinese trade distribution to other places across Asia and Oceana.
Bangkok had become a major city because of its relationship with Chinese traders, even before it had become a powerful city in Thailand.
The Chinese were an intrinsically important part of the growth of Bangkok during the 19th century, controlling most of the economy, all the trade and Thailand’s relationship with the outside world.
By the early 1900s, almost 10% of the entire population of Thailand was of Chinese descent. Early Chinese immigrants had integrated and intermarried with locals, but the newer group of Chinese settlers in the 1800s and early 1900s were from high-standing and wealthy Chinese families and did not want to integrate with the Thai populace or their culture. This encouraged Chinese nationalism in Siam, which grew at the same time as Thai nationalism. Which culminated in separate schooling for kids and created a rift between the two cultures in the same city.
The legislation written in 1909 that required people to adopt Thai surnames, which was apparently aimed at the prominent Chinese families in Siam and threatened Chinese identity and also caused resentment from the Thais against foreigners. Many of these Chinese families adopted Thai names, but in name only and carried on with their business while becoming alienated and separated from the rest of Thai society. It was extremely testing social times in SE-Asia.
The Tea Trade Between China and Siam
Everywhere we look today in Bangkok or another major city in the world, all we see are coffee shops. Coffee has become a massive part of society today, but it hasn’t always been that way. Before Starbucks and triple Mochas, tea was the drink of choice for the masses, which was no more evident than in Asia and more specifically, China and Siam.
For hundreds of years, boats bearing tea products from China majestically sailed along to Chao Phraya River in Bangkok transporting tea from China to the then Siam.
Tea consumption first started in China almost 5,000 years ago and was first introduced to not only Thailand but also Europe in the 1500s by the Chinese. The date of first trade of tea between China and Siam is unknown, but it was before the construction of Bangkok and went way back to boats full of tea sailed into the capital, Ayutthaya, via the South China Sea, to the Thai areas of Rayong and Chonburi. These areas are still massive port destinations today between China and Thailand.
As Chinese settlers moved from Ayutthaya to the newly created Bangkok, it opened up new trade routes along Chao Phraya River that shipped tea into the new capital from China. Over the past 60-years, Thailand has been growing its own tea, but its roots started with Chinese traders and settlers.
Modern Day Chinese Influence in Bangkok
Although the roots of Bangkok are very much Chinese, since the 1950s, there were massive restrictions on Chinese immigration that we are only beginning to see lifted today. Nearly all of the Chinese now living in Thailand were born here and did not speak Chinese anymore. However, the major ruling families in Bangkok are known as Chinese-Thai, as are many political and industrial leaders in Thailand. The roots between Thailand and China are now indeed sown and an intricate part of the fabric of society that is Thailand.
Even today, the majority of wealthy families in Thailand descended from either Chinese traders or high-society Chinese-Thai families. One of the most exciting things we currently see in modern Bangkok is the massive increase in Chinese now visiting Thailand as a holiday destination, so it seems that the relationship has finally come around to create a full circle.
Interesting Facts about Chinese in Thailand
As China is now an intricate part of the history of not only Bangkok but Thailand as a whole, there are some interesting facts about the relationship between Thailand and China. Thailand has one of the largest Chinese communities of any country in the world where an estimated 10% to 14% of the Kingdom are ethnic Chinese, which breaks down to approximately 6 to 9 million people. They have integrated mainly with Thais and have intermarried across the generations but are still considered to be Chinese.
Although many of these Chinese-Thai people are proud of their Chinese roots, they do not identify with China anymore. Is estimated that 80% of Chinese Thai people speak Thai at home.
The relationship between the Chinese living in Thailand and the locals is pretty amazing and one of the most cooperative in the world when compared to the relations between Chinese in other SE-Asian nations. Is mainly due to the deep historical bonds we have talked about in this article. It said that in the olden times that wealthy Chinese settlers and merchants offered their daughters to be married at the royal court to create strong ties between the wealthy Chinese families and the Royal Family. Most would agree it was a smart move that has helped the wealthy Chinese families to take control of massive parts of Bangkok and the Thai economy and politics in modern times.
With the new influx of tourists from China that we are seeing across Bangkok and Thailand today, it is interesting to understand the long-standing and complicated relationship between the two nations. This bond will not be going to break down anytime in the near future, which will be a smart move by the Thai as China is once again beginning to wake from its stupor.