Why So Many Thais Have Chinese Ancestry

Chinatown in Bangkok
Chinatown in Bangkok
Kyle Hulme

Visitors to Bangkok last month might have been startled to wake up to the sounds of explosions and bangs, but they needn’t have been — for it was locals simply celebrating the Chinese New Year. Thailand has a significant ethnically Chinese population, and here’s why.

A rich history

Without China, there wouldn’t be a “Thai” people

What are considered modern-day Thai people today actually emigrated from China into Thailand a long time ago. Between the 8th and 10th centuries, the Tai people — that’s descendants of those who spoke a common Tai language — migrated from China down throughout Southeast Asia, with many settling in Thailand. Initially based in the north of the country, they eventually spread further south, settling in the central plains of the country. Today, those descended from the initial Tai migrants make up the vast majority of the Thai population, but it’s the second largest group who have been perhaps the most influential — the Thai-Chinese ethnic group.

Establishing a Thai-Chinese ethnic group

Chinatown in Bangkok

As early as the 13th century, Chinese traders were known to come to the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (one of the many kingdoms that now makes up modern-day Thailand) to do business. The two countries also shared a common goal, or enemy — that of Burma. Burma’s military was powerful, posing a threat to both Ayutthaya and China, and so China also sent armies south to Ayutthaya in an attempt to quash the Burmese threat. With the Burmese eventually repelled, King Taksin — himself of Chinese origin — encouraged Chinese immigration and trade. The Chinese came, often with capital, and gradually their influence grew as they continued to trade and own businesses throughout the kingdom. Towards the end of the 19th century and at the start of the 20th century, Chinese immigration into Thailand was high, with many of those making the move men who then went on to marry Thai women. The population of Chinese in Thailand more than tripled between the 18th and 19th century, and accounted for as much as 12.2% of the population in 1932.

Influence

A Chinese temple in Bangkok

It wasn’t just the numbers of Thai-Chinese that grew in Thailand, but the influence of this group, too. Many businesses and industries began to be dominated by Thai-Chinese. As the 19th century went on, the Thai-Chinese controlled much of the shipping sector, and wielded significant power when it came to exports, having a large hand in the sugar, fish, rice and rubber industries. This influence only grew further, and the mid-20th century saw 50 Thai-Chinese families control between 80-90% of the overall market capitalisation of the economy.

Many Thai prime ministers have Chinese ancestry, such as former PM Yingluck Shinawatra, pictured here in 2012 with then UK Prime Minister David Cameron

The influence of the Thai-Chinese also spread to politics. Many Prime Ministers of Thailand have Chinese ancestry, including Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra and Abhisit Vejjajiva. Chinese culture is also evident at all levels of Thai society, with Chinese New Year celebrated by millions of people, and Chinese temples found throughout the country.

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