The underground train made a usual announcement of arrival before it gradually slowed to a halt at the terminal platform. I was going to get off because it was the nearest station to Chinatown.

As soon as the door opened, the throng of passengers jostled out of the tube. I was making my way through a hugh crowd of people when I noticed that many of them were Chinese tourists with rucksacks or maps in their hands. I was stepping off an escalator and approaching a turnstile when a couple suddenly caught my eyes and rushed to me. Before I could decide what to do, they stabbed me exactly in the face with a question in Mandarin. They must have mistaken me for one of them. Anyway, I struggled to gather my rambling thoughts and tell them the direction in Chinese. Heaving a sigh of relief, I left the tube station and went my own way.

In recent years, people have expressed anxieties about an increasing number of Chinese tourists in Thailand. Sinophobia could date back to the late nineteenth century because Chinese immigrants were arriving in Siam at an exponential rate and thriving in the area of Chinatown. Nevertheless, I am not a xenophobe. Glaring neon billboards, floating red lanterns, and boisterous lion dance shows were colourful spectacles. In the multicultural age, there have been an American coffeehouse, a Japanese convenience store, and a multinational bank in different corners of Chinatown.

I was walking down Charoenkrung Road. Rows of traditional shophouses evoked the early days of Chinese immigrants. I saw an old man feed a caged bird, which was chirping and signaling the dawn of a new day. A tuk-tuk driver was leaving his family and picking up local passengers. People were going about their daily business. I was slowing down my pace when a pleasant smell of incense wafted out from a Chinese Buddhist temple. I was relishing the scent of Chinatown when the explosion of firecrackers broke me out of reverie. The demolition of old buildings for a new tube station was making noise and blocking road traffic.

I crossed the street and entered one of the oldest Chinese medicine dispensaries. A vast array of dried herbs was put on display. I bought sachets of tea leaves and talked to the owner of Da San. She was a chubby middle-aged woman. “My ancestor was from China,” she began the story of her lineage. “I am the fourth-generation descendant who is running the family business,” she continued. “San”, which means a mountain, is the name of her forebear. When he founded the pharmacy, he added another word “Da”, which means large, in the hope of prosperity. “Chinese people are hard-working, patient, and entrepreneurial,” she explained with a smile on her face. I have heard a story of a Chinese immigrant with a sleeping mat and a pillow who endures hardship and rises from rags to riches in Thailand. She asked me whether I was a photographer because she saw me carrying a camera. “I am a lecturer, but photography is my hobby,” I replied and asked to take a photo of her.

The history of Chinese migration could be traced to the nineteenth century. In the face of British imperialism, China lost the First Opium War and signed the Nanjing Treaty in 1842, which led to economic recession and mass migration to different parts of the world. Chinese traders had relied on junks before there was a steamship port offering a direct passage from Swatow to Bangkok in 1857. Chinese immigrants arrived in an unprecedented number and settled in the area of Chinatown until restrictions were imposed in 1945. The resistance to Chinese sojourners was an expression of nationalism. In the early twentieth century, they were compared to Jews and described in a racially derogatory term as chek or Chinamen. In the late 1930s, the military government suppressed Sinophone schools, presses, and traditions. The conflict was resolved in 1975 when Thailand re-established diplomatic relations with China, which has risen to global superpower. The arch of China Gate reflected the allegiance of the Sino-Thai community to King Rama IX. It serves as the head of Yaowarat Road.

I mingled with the throng of people on the main street of Chinatown. Yaowarat Road has been one of the most popular tourist destinations. There were stalls selling items ranging from trinkets to edibles. I was making my way through a hugh crowd of shoppers when I saw a fengshui shop and entered. Amulets, talismans, and tapestries were put on display. “They can ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to customers,” the Thai-Chinese owner replied after I asked her why they are painted in red. There were also paper replicas for the afterlife. “In Chinese culture, the act of burning paper objects can send essential items to our ancestors,” she explained and encouraged me to buy one of them. Our conversation ended when she saw to a group of foreigners coming in and talked to them. Shop owners in Chinatown can speak many languages. They often speak Chinese at home, Thai to Thais, and English to Western tourists.

British imperialism plays a crucial role in the transformation of Bangkok’s Chinatown into

the settlement of Teochew immigrants. When King Rama I found Bangkok as the capital city of Rattanakosin, he relocated early Chinese settlers to the area known later as Sampheng in 1782. It was a port city where Chinese commodities were distributed and the country’s exports were collected. Like China, Siam confronted the expansion of the British Empire. In 1855, King Rama IV had to sign the Bowring Treaty because it would spare the country from military invasions other states in Southeast Asia faced. Siam was therefore exposed to Western civilisation and free trade. In the reign of King Rama V, he decided to propose the state development scheme, which led to the construction of infrastructures including Yaowarat Road and rows of shophouses in 1892. Therefore, the dilapidated area was transformed into the residential and commercial district. The curved street and its meandering course take the shape of the dragon.

No sooner I left the store than I saw a hidden alley and entered. A theft sign was hung in front of the entrance. Inside was a frenetic market where people haggled and jostled in search of daily use items. Unlike modern supermarkets, local stores offer many exotic ingredients, some of which are imported from China. A variety of dried products ranged from shiitake mushrooms to goji berries. The area also housed many grandpa shops. I walked through dim-lit rows of timber houses and found one of the oldest eateries in Chinatown. It has been in business for almost a century.

However, Chinese tradition has been on the wane. “There had been Chinese opera theatres, but they vanished,” said a grilled banana vendor in front of a pawnshop. The vestige of Peking Opera Halls can be found at the Chinatown Rama, which has been adapted to a second-class cinema screening Chinese movies. Chinese opera artists not only entertain the audience but also impart moral lessons. Nowadays, they perform only during festivals or at religious ceremonies owing to dwindling popularity. Even though it is the ancient art of Chinese culture, most troupe members are migrants from the northeast of Thailand.

The sight of Shanghai Mansion confirmed my return to the central area of Chinatown. The building had been a Chinese opera house before it was refashioned into a hotel of 1930’s Shanghai. I dropped into a parlour and asked a receptionist about a portrait of a Chinese woman in my own native language because I thought she was local. Nevertheless, looking perplexed, she replied me in English and smiled. “I am sorry. Where do you come from?,” I asked apologetically. “I am from the Philippines,” she told me politely.

Bangkok’s Chinatown has developed into a multicultural community. It has been one of networks

of labour migration in Southeast Asia. Business owners have recruited migrant workers from neighbouring countries. Filipinos can fill the demand for English-speaking jobs, while those from Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia are manual labourers. They hark back to the early exodus of the Chinese diaspora and highlight the multiethnic palette of Chinatown. However, the situation is precarious because the government has recently cracked down on illegal migrant workers. The regulation of alien workforce is an attempt to rectify the issue of human trafficking, which invokes the fate of Chinese immigrants who worked as coolies or indentured labourers when they arrived in Siam for the first time.

It was at dusk when I left the hotel. Most people were closing their shophouses and going to rest after a hectic day. However, the district of Chinatown leads a double life. At night, Yaowarat Road turned itself into a food street. Dazzling neon signs beckoned visitors to explore the nocturnal mystery of Chinatown. I was crossing the street when local women clad in red cheongsams smiled to me acknowledgingly. I looked away and hurried off. Nightwalkers were plying their trade in the dark corner. When I approached the entrance of the tube station and looked back, they had already disappeared.

 

Thana Boonlert

Thana Boonlert

Thana Boonlert received a BA in English at Chulalongkorn University (2013) and an MA in Comparative Literature at University College London (2016). He is currently a special lecturer in English at Bangkok University. Apart from teaching, he is writing his first nonfiction book and essays. His areas of interest are creative writing, world literature, and modern history.

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