สวัสดีปีใหม่จีน: Happy New Years from Bangkok!

February 14, 2013
Bangkok's Chinatown, with the city's ubiquitous dtuk-dtuks!

Yes, we know!  Cheng & Tsui doesn’t have many Thai customers, but because we know our customers love learning languages, we decided to teach you a few new words in another Asian language!  Sawatdii (สวัสดี) bpii-mai jiin(ปีใหม่จีน) is how you saw “Happy Chinese New Year” in Thai.  Like many countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand has a large Chinese population that has become influential political and economic power players in Thai society.  While the Chinese-Thai population is only around 15%, other estimates suggest that almost 50% of Thai citizens have Chinese ancestry.  Most Chinese lineages in Thailand date back six generations, but some date as far back as the 15th century (before the time Columbus discovered America)!  Like Sino-Mauritians, Sino-Thais have always been successful entrepreneurs and politicians in Thailand; an informal estimate in the early 2000s suggested suggests that 50% of Thailand’s GDP comes from Chinese families.

วัดมังกรกมลาวาส, or, Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, or 龍蓮寺, hosts one of Bangkok's largest Chinese New Year celebrations. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Despite this prominence, Chinese Thais place more emphasis on celebrating traditional Thai holidays (such as the traditional Thai New Year, Songkran) over Chinese holidays.  Furthermore, most Sino-Thais speak Thai fluently, and while they may be able to speak Cantonese or Mandarin with their elders, little emphasis is placed on developing reading, writing, and speaking fluency.  Although Chinese-Thais have a strong cultural identity within Thailand, tensions between Thailand and China during the Cold War as well as the strength of Thailand’s national identity have limited Chinese Thai’s cultural links with mainland China.  While Sino-Thai identity preserves many cultural aspects of mainland Chinese society, these elements are always prioritized below preserving elements of Thai culture and society.  For instance, at the end of the 19th century, in a modernizing campaign to establish a Thai nationalist identity, King Chulalongklorn mandated that all Chinese-Thai families adopt Thai surnames–although the decree met with some resistance, most Chinese-Thai families formally adopted a Thai surname within one generation.

Songkran, the preferred New Year's Celebration in Thailand.

One of the largest elements of Chinese culture to be preserved among Thai-Chinese is the Chinese New Year!  I am a little suspicious that the reason why Chinese New Year is still celebrated throughout Thailand (even by non-Chinese Thais!) is the Thai’s national motto of “สนุก (sanuk),” or fun!  Thais are so lucky they get to celebrate Three New Years: first, the Western New Year on January 1st, Songkran (featured above, most well-known as the “water-fighting” festival where water is meant to cleanse you of your wrongdoings in the past year), and Chinese New Year in February.  For Thais in Bangkok who want to celebrate Chinese New Year, they often travel to the Yaorawat area of Bangkok (the city’s historic Chinese core).  Some Chinese Thais take the weekend to travel to their families around the country (much less congested than in China!) and those in Bangkok typically have a small Reunion Feast with families and friends.  Almost all Thai houses are swept and cleaned in preparation for Chinese New Year and most Chinese-Thais decorate their houses with red signs and light up firecrackers for a few nights.  Wealthy Chinese Thais often vacation at this time of the year.

The one problem with celebrating Chinese New Years in Thailand: do you eat Chinese or Thai food? Thank goodness for food stands!

In our next post, we will be going to the world's largest overseas Chinese New Year celebration.  Do you know where it is?  Here's a guess:  it's in the land down under!  See you then!