Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Chinese Community in Chiang Mai

                                                                by Jim Goodman

gate to Chiang Mai's Chinatown
       Ethnic Chinese constitute the largest minority of Thailand’s population.  Though Chinese had always lived in Thailand as merchants in Ayutthaya, they began seriously migrating in the early 19th century, after the establishment of the Chakri Dynasty.   At first, they moved mainly into the capital Bangkok and the cities on the east coast.  Chiang Mai may have had a few resident shopkeepers at that time but large-scale Chinese immigration to the northern city only got underway from about 1870, when the semi-autonomous state of Lanna was becoming more fully integrated with Siam.
Chinese shop in Kad Luang
       The first Chinese community was in Watgate, on the east bank of the Ping River, outside the city proper.  They later took up residence on the other side of the Ping River in what is today Warorot Market, or Kad Luang (Big Market in the Northern Thai dialect), as well as the lower part of Tha Pae Road.  It was a small and slow influx in the beginning, of pioneers from Southeast China originally, setting up shop-houses and angling to establish themselves as merchants.  A population count in 1884 put their numbers at around 2000.
       Most of them originated from Bangkok and spoke the Guangdong, Hokka and Teochow dialects of southeast China.  Others were Hui from Yunnan, Muslim Chinese who spike a Chinese dialect close to Mandarin.  They had fled the fierce reprisals of Qing Dynasty troops at the end of the Muslim Revolt (or Panthay Rebellion) in 1872.  Hui refugees from Yunnan settled downriver from Warorot, around what is now the upper end of the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar on Changklang Road.  They built a mosque on the first lane, renamed Halal Street today, which was long ago replaced by a modern building more in the Middle Eastern style.  Local Thais referred to them as Jin Haw.
Chinese gold shop in Warorot Market
       Over the next few decades, as Siam began reaching out to integrate economically and politically all parts of the country, one result was a movement of more Chinese to the north.  By 1919 Chiang Mai had 3600 Chinese residents.  The initial wave of Jin Haw had subsided, but non-Muslim Yunnanese were trickling in, eventually establishing a neighborhood around today’s Anusarn Market, a few blocks down from Halal Street.
       The bulk of the immigrants, however, came up from Bangkok.  They were an overflow of successful immigration to the capital, who moved north to cities like Tak, Lampang and Chiang Mai where there was less competition in their particular trade, profession or business.  As a newcomer community, one that relied on commerce rather than land for its maintenance, its success depended on the close bonds it knitted within itself.
Chinese temple near Muang Mai Market
       Chinese could plunge confidently into the adventure of relocation because they could count on the solidarity and assistance of already established, resident Chinese communities.  Moreover, they could also benefit from the extension of credit by their contacts back in Bangkok.  The attitude of the time (and conditions then) was that Chinese should help other Chinese to succeed.  It was good for the community.
       Based around Warorot Market, Chinese ensconced themselves as the principal merchants of the city.  They controlled the retail trade, money lending and the commercial river traffic.  At the dawn of the 20th century Chiang Mai-Bangkok river commerce consisted of one thousand sampans annually, carrying two and a half tons of cargo.
Pung Tao Gong Chinese temple
       Chiang Mai exported animal hides and horns, lac dye, lard and teak logs.  From Bangkok it imported clothing, fabric, thread, matches, kerosene, soap and iron tools.  The balance of trade was always unfavorable to Chiang Mai.  The journey could take three weeks, though some only went as far as Nakhon Sawan and met cargo boats there coming up from Bangkok.
       Another occupation the Chinese got into in the late 19th century was tax collector.   They could do this because the local autonomous government had a lot of powerful nobles who were responsible for tax collection in their spheres of influence.  Wealthy Chinese businessmen simply bribed the nobles to get the tax collection concessions.  In a particularly notorious case, a Chinese businessman named Teng Sophanodon, from the Kim Seng Lee Company, constructed a Bangkok palace for Lanna’s King Inthawichayanon, in return for the right to collect taxes on pigs, cattle, opium, tobacco, betel nuts and leaves and coconuts.
stone lion at Pung Tao Gong
making s lantern at Pung Tao Gong
       Sometimes the Lanna nobles agreed to the tax collection concession after accepting the bribe, but then changed their minds when a competitor offered a bigger bribe.  This led to lawsuits, aroused the attention of Bangkok and led to Rama V’s reforms of the whole tax collection system in Lanna, at the same time further reducing Lanna’s autonomous authority.  In 1899, resistance to the new system spawned a revolt in which animosity was particularly directed at Chinese tax collectors.  Subsequently, government tax collectors took over the job.
Warorot temple at New Year
       The nature of Chiang Mai commerce changed again in 1921 with the inauguration of the railroad link to Bangkok.  A highway followed a few years later.  Trains and trucks could now carry greater amounts of cargo much faster than boats and at a cheaper rate.  Chinese in Chiang Mai began consolidating control of all the import-export trade.  With greater contacts across the country and access to credit, the Chinese were able to displace the Shan, Burmese and Indian competition, who had no such advantages, and from 1932 began buying out their rivals.
       Foreign manufactured goods, primarily from Great Britain, but also from Germany and Japan, began flowing north.  With a dramatic expansion of rice farms throughout the north, rice became Chiang Mai’s principal export south.  Chinese traders were involved in every step of the production process.  They purchased the rice brought in by caravans from distant places.  They set up rice mills in and around the city.  They tendered high-interest loans to farmers and confiscated their lands if the farmer could not repay the loan.  They constructed irrigation canals and dikes and controlled the rice shipped to other parts of the country.
New Year--a time for serious selfie-examination
making noodles on Wichayanon Road
       Their rising prosperity encouraged other Chinese immigrants, who knew they would be accepted and assisted by the Chiang Mai Chinese community, as well as draw credit support from their connections in Bangkok.  When the Warorot area became congested, the Chinese community expanded north, past the Nakhon Ping Bridge to the Muang Mai market area, today mainly a food market, open all night.
Chinese specialities on Chang Moi Road
       While it was a very tight community, it did not remain a purely Chinese one.  The majority of the immigrants were male, so there was a shortage of ethnic Chinese brides.  Many of them took Thai wives, though in this highly patriarchal society their children identified as Chinese, even in later decades when they used the Thai language domestically more than one of the Chinese dialects.  The men of the Jin Haw community, augmented by ex-caravan members, sometimes married women of the Muslim Malay and Bengali communities, from colonial Malaysia and Burma, who began arriving in Chiang Mai in the early 20th century.
       Now in the 21st century the Chinese no longer control the Chiang Mai economy as extensively as they did in the past.  Yet they are still the most important players, expanding into real estate and banking in recent decades.  The Warorot and Muang Mai neighborhoods are still dominated by Thai-Chinese and the markets there are quite active, even with the modern competition of shopping malls and supermarkets. 
scribe writing messages to gods and ancestors
a well-known symbol of China
       A big, red wooden gate on Chiang Moi Road, about a block west of the Ping River, marks the entrance to Chiang Mai’s Chinatown, otherwise known as Warorot or Kad Luang.  Typical Chinese-style, curly-headed stone lions, like the kind commonly mounted in front of bank buildings, stand at the base on each side of the gate.   All kinds of shops and sidewalk stalls exist in this area, both inside and outside the covered markets, selling all kinds of products, including those traditionally marketed by Chinese merchants, like temple and festival decorations, herbal medicines and the numerous gold jewelry shops.
       On Kuangmane Road, the first lane to the right down Chang Moi Road after passing through the gate, stands the most venerable Chinese temple, a rather simple structure with yellow walls and tiled roofs, upturned at the corners in the typical Chinese style.  In more recent decades, Chinese residents have built two more temples in the Muang Mai area and quite a fancy one on the riverside road past the flower market.
stage performance on Kuangmane Road
singer in classical Chinese costume
       Called Pung Tao Gong, this is the moat outstanding Chinese temple in the Kad Luang area, with most of its buildings added in the 21st century;  the gate, a two-tiered pavilion within and a seven-tiered pagoda with a ceramic vase on top.  Dragons flank the tops of the entry gate and pavilion, writhe around a tall pole in the courtyard and the pillars of the entrance gate and flank the way to the altar inside the main temple building.  The deities within are mostly Taoist ones but a small shrine to the right houses a Thai Buddha statue as well as a Chinese bodhisattva image.
       Besides new temples in Warorot and other sites, the other main development in the Chinese community this century has been an increasing ethnic awareness, resulting in a much more enthusiastic celebration of traditional Chinese holidays, Lunar New Year in particular.  Kad Luang holds three days of celebrations.  The streets are closed off to vehicular traffic and stalls go up all the way down Chang Moi road and on WIchayanon Road between the two covered markets of Warorot and Tonlamyai.
Chinese opera performance, 2014
       Red lanterns saturate the whole area, suspended above the streets, strung on poles, hanging in front of the temples and flanking food stalls in the streets.  Tables and chairs, set up in the middle of the street, provide convenient places to dine on the meals, drinks and snacks offered in the rows of stalls on either side.  A couple tables on Chang Moi Road are reserved for a checkers tournament.
       Besides the special foods, stalls also market clothing, lanterns, jewelry, handicrafts and dolls.  The red color also dominates the people’s clothing, from the red t-shirts worn by dragon dance teams and shop workers to the high-collared, side-fastened, red and gold Chinese dresses, with split sides, donned by the women.  There’s lots of selfie action these days by folks dressed in their festival best.
       Beyond shopping and eating, entertainment also draws people to Kad Luang.  Until a new coffee shop replaced it, a stage opposite Pung Tao Gong featured classical Chinese opera performances at night.  These have disappeared from the program, but in some years a small stage goes up at the end of Kuangmane Road to hold afternoon shows of classical dances and songs.  Temporary bamboo gates are also erected on this lane for the occasion.
Chinese opera character
pole-dancing, dragon-style
       At the corner of Chang Mai and Wichayanon Roads, during the festival a red stage becomes the venue for a beauty contest, with the competitors dressed in classical silk dresses and elaborate headdresses in the Qing Dynasty style.  Singers and dancers also perform here, but the show ends rather early the night before New Year as attention shifts to the dragon dances whirling around in the plaza in front of the stage.
       A dozen or so team members prop up each of the two dragons as they cavort in the street accompanied by two lions, one red, one yellow.  After this the lions perform separately and in the final act one of the dragons climbs a pole and spouts fireworks and flames from its mouth when it reaches the top.
lion dancer inside Warorot Market
       On New Year’s afternoon a dragon and the two lions emerge from a lane near the Kad Luang Gate and head for the market.  Their purpose is to collect donations from the shop and stall keepers, so they don’t perform any dance.  However, they enter the Warorot covered market and make a route through most of its lanes and even the dining area downstairs.  When they pause, people place money in the dragon’s mouth or tie banknotes to one of the strings making up its beard.  In return, the dragon master severs beard strings to give the donor as a souvenir.  The procession lasts two hours and makes numerous stops, especially at the gold shops.
       At night song and dance performances take place again on the stage.  One or two acrobatic acts or kungfu demonstrations might add variety to the stage entertainment, which is augmented in the evening by a burst of fireworks illuminating the sky behind the stage. 
       The day after New Year is more subdued.  The street stalls are still up and busy and some shows are on stage again after dark.  But many shops in the lanes close for the day for their proprietors and employees to spend time with their families.  New Year activities—renewing kinship ties, venerating gods and ancestors and putting their ethnic identity on display with decorations, dances and temple action—come to a close.  The rest of the year the Chinese community reverts to its principal pre-occupations of business and making money.

the dragon collecting donations inside Warorot Market
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