Cut from the Siam cloth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am


Tens of thousands of Hong Kong people visit Thailand every year to enjoy the pleasures of a country that is familiar yet beguilingly different. But it's not as different as sometimes assumed. Bangkok, in particular, is more Chinese in character than many out- siders suspect.

In older parts of the Thai capital, pottery imported from China, mostly green-glaze balusters, planters and flowerpots and 'lotus pattern' ventilating tiles for walls and fences, can be seen everywhere. Much of it was produced in Foshan, Guangdong.

Chinese faces are common in modern Thailand's urban landscape and, recently, in an astute nod to the next world superpower, Chinese signage, once officially discouraged, has enjoyed a noticeable resurgence.

Connections between China and Thailand go back many centuries, but links with Hong Kong only date to the 1850s. The first treaty that opened Siam (as the country was known until 1939) to British trade was signed in 1855 by King Mongkut and the governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring. One of the 19th century's more remarkable figures, Mongkut - later unfairly caricatured in the stage play and film The King and I - astutely balanced rival British and French territorial interests in Burma and Indochina, and played off both to gain maximum advantage for his own country.

Commercial activity surged after the Bowring Treaty was concluded and Chinese settlers, never far behind a business opportunity, started streaming into Siam. Most came from Swatow (modern Shantou, Guangdong), and even now this group, speak- ing the Chiuchow dialect, remains the dominant Chinese ethnicity in Thailand. Swatow was one of the poorest parts of southern China, and a net exporter of people for generations.

Chiuchow migrants became heavily involved in the Siamese rice industry and, by the end of the century, the wholesale trading, milling and exporting of rice was entirely in Chinese hands. Much was destined for Hong Kong, then as now a net importer of staple foods. In Hong Kong, wholesale rice sale and distribution also remained a Chiuchow stronghold. Since the 19th century, this trade has been centred on Hong Kong Island's Western district, and rice merchants can still be found along Connaught Road West.

Hong Kong's stability under British rule also provided a haven during times of political turbulence elsewhere, and Chinese capital from various parts of Asia, including Thailand, was periodically reinvested in Hong Kong. One successful example was the Bangkok Bank, founded by Chiuchow patriarch Chin Sophonpanich. Chin decamped to Hong Kong in 1957 after one of Thailand's periodic post-war coups and his extended family remains active in public life here. His grandson is former Executive Council member Bernard Charnwut Chan.

Less happily, the Chiuchow influence, and broader Thailand-Hong Kong connections, intersected with the international drug trade from the 1950s. The old Kowloon Walled City, where the Hong Kong government's writ never really ran, was one of Asia's main drug production and distribution centres.

Kowloon City was also just several hundred metres from a major international airport. In the 60s and early 70s, when corruption was rampant and the police and customs were among the best that money could buy, morphine base smuggled inside rice shipments was refined (usually by chemists employed by plastics factories) and then sent on into the wider world via Kai Tak.

Kowloon City remains Hong Kong's Sino-Thai enclave, and numerous Thai-accented businesses create a distinct 'little Bangkok' feel. Excellent Thai restaurants also abound. The chilli-shy Cantonese palate generally prefers sanitised versions of foreign foods, making Kowloon City one of the few places where authentic, reasonably priced Thai food can be enjoyed.

In 2005, Thailand rejected Hong Kong's suggestion of Kapok at a typhoon-naming committee meeting because it is a slang word for testicles in Thai.