An Incomplete History

January 30, 2019, 13:15

A history of Chinese immigrants to Thailand, as told by the Museum Under the Golden Buddha of Bangkok.

“Chinese traders travelling by junk from their homeland came to settle in many parts of the Thai kingdom.” I assume “travelling by junk” is a poor translation referring to the type of boat they would sail into the port of Bangkok.

In 1782, Rama I founded Rattanakosin and many Chinese had to move to a different part of town, but there was a labor shortage within the Thai community, so the government turned to Chinese recruitments. During this time, the Chinese were the only people group allowed to enter the country freely, in part due to their “unrivaled endurance and diligence” while being “adept in trade.” When a Chinese person entered the country, they could either become tattooed at the wrist or pay the “phuk pi”—a government tax—to become like Thai citizens, able to work and move freely.

Under Rama II, Bangkok became a hub for “junk building” and trade, generating much wealth for Thailand. Rama III followed in his father’s footsteps, adding to the Royal Treasury. He also had a special interest in Chinese art, influencing its popularity in Thailand. During his reign, in 1825, Great Britain sent Captain Henry Barney to compel the Thai government to abolish its foreign trade monopoly policy.

Fertile Thailand. Those coming in for the first time “relied on help from relatives or acquaintances hailing from the same villages as they struggled to settle in the new land.” Many found work as “coolies”—unskilled laborers—or peddlers of cheap products or food. Grocers, sellers of noodles, rice gruel, porcelain, paper lanterns. Some of the Chinese who became wealthy started “Chao Sua”: houses for incomers in need of patronage. From these houses and the family system they produced came many secret Chinese associations.

At the end of Rama III’s reign, the steamship gained ground allowing for Thailand to trade with the West, in turn decreasing the Sino-Thai trade coming from China. But that wasn’t the end of it, as the steamship also brought in more immigrants looking for work. Eventually, the Chinese community became quite established, and a new road was built called “Yaowarat” which became the center of Chinatown in Bangkok.

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