There is a cultural connection between China and Thailand that stretches over many centuries. A large percent of Thais have Chinese ancestry. You can see Chinese characters, Chinese architecture and Chinese temples all over Thailand. Even the present royal dynasty, the Chakri Dynasty has connections to China. This does not mean, however, that there is any type of cultural clash in Thailand between the two influences. The Chinese-Thais are some of the most integrated and respected overseas Chinese communities in the world. Rather it is a case that Chinese culture has become part of Thai culture, enriching it and the people as a whole.
Chinese immigration to Thailand began as early as the Thirteenth Century. It began mostly with traders from Fujian and Guangdong arriving in the then capital, Ayutthaya. The King at the time welcomed foreigners as a source of income for his kingdom. By the 1700s Burmese military might was growing and was threatening to over-run Thailand. The Qing Emperor of China sent armies to protect Thailand. These efforts ultimately failed but it had the result of greatly increasing the number of Chinese settling in Thailand. By 1910 720,000 Chinese had moved to Thailand. Today Chinese ancestry is claimed by 15% of Thais.
It is interesting to note that King Rama VI (1910-1925) who himself had Chinese ancestry cleverly realized the need to properly integrate the Chinese community into Thailand. He passed an edict that made all Chinese adopt Thai surnames. It also became compulsory to learn the Thai language at school. That is why today even though many people in Thailand can trace their ancestors back to China they do not speak Chinese or feel like foreigners in a foreign land. Famous Thais with Chinese roots include Rama V, Thailand’s most beloved former King and Thaksin Shinawatra.
Aspects of Chinese culture can be found all over Thailand and in many aspects of Thai life. When I first went to Bangkok I was shocked to find Chinese characters, Hanzi, on so many shop signs all over the city. In China town in Bangkok a few traders still speak the Teochew dialect. Ancestor worship is prevalent in Thailand. There are Chinese temples all over Thailand. The island of Koh Samui appears on Chinese maps dating back to 1687. Both Koh Phangan and Koh Samui retain many of the old Chinese wooden fishermen’s houses. Much of the food that tourists eat in Thailand is actually based on Chinese ideas of cuisine. It was only when a friend on the beautiful Koh Phangan beach of Thong Nai Pan introduced me to Thai cooking that I realized how different it was to the fare offered to tourists in restaurants.
Today Thailand and China have important trading links. They are both members of ASEAN. Thailand is a net exporter of food. South East Asia is the rice bowl of the world. It is also rich in timber and rubber. These are vital for the continued growth of China’s industrial base. At the same time while European and American tourism and investment in Thailand has slowed down due to the 2008 financial crash Chinese tourism to Thailand has increased. In places like Koh Samui, Phuket and Koh Phangan the number of Chinese visitors is increasing year upon year.
The Thais are rightly proud of their independence and their culture. This culture includes Chinese culture and people of Chinese ancestry. It is very much a success story that shows how one culture can enrich another.