Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Time of uncertainty lies ahead for Bangkok’s ethnic Chinese

The passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej adds to a sense of anxiety felt by a community whose fortunes and sense of identity have varied over generations

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 October, 2016, 8:04am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 October, 2016, 8:04am

Like millions of other Thais, grief-stricken ethnic Chinese are trying to grapple with a unfamiliar period of uncertainty following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Liao Rongcheng, who owns a roadside café stall near Bangkok’s Chinatown, said he was concerned about the future with the passing of the 88-year-old monarch.

“It’s like our nation will be sailing without a rudder,” said the 75-year-old, who was born in Thailand. “We’ve heard the prime minister say we will overcome the difficulties if we stick together, but of course we’re still worried,” Liao said. “It will inevitably have an impact on everyone, compounded by the rather difficult economic situation at the moment.”

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He added that the younger generation, faced with greater competition and difficulties finding a decent job, may be more likely to be affected.

Chen Deying, 26, whose family are rope merchants in the city, agreed: “Besides the grief and uncertainty over so many issues – such as the funeral arrangements and the royal succession – many of my friends are wondering what’s next and what’s going to happen to our nation, our families and ourselves.”

Chen and his mother paid their respects to the revered king on Friday as tens of thousands dressed in black gathered near the capital’s Grand Palace.

“Many people were hoping and praying until the last moment that the king might recover. It was touching to see so many people who found it hard to accept the reality,” Chen said.

But compared to their parents, the younger generation of ethnic Chinese have reacted differently to the death of the king.

My generation follow more closely the news about political and social developments related to our lives and our future
Chen Deying, or Sirapol Kwangtongpanich

“Unlike my parents’ generation, we use Facebook and other social networking tools to express ourselves more freely,” Chen said. “And generally, my generation follow more closely the news about political and social developments related to our lives and our future. We are keenly aware of the political uncertainty facing the nation.”

It’s true we are in grief, but we have to move on. We care more about our future as we are struggling to cope with the difficult and changing economic environment,” said a young woman who refused to be named, citing the sensitivity of the topic in the light of Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law bars people from criticising the monarchy. “Frankly I don’t feel so strongly about the king as my parents do.”

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Other ethnic Chinese also said they were not interested in Thailand’s volatile domestic politics that saw frequent coups and military control of the state during the king’s 70-year reign.

“I don’t see any benefits in caring about politics and I don’t think my life will be affected by his death,” said a 70-year-old ethnic Chinese surnamed Liu.

Likening the Thai king to Communist China’s “Great Helmsman” Mao Zedong, Liu, whose family moved to Thailand some 90 years ago from Guangdong, noted that many ethnic Chinese had been victims of political correctness.

“I don’t want to criticise the king, but some people like to use the king as a tool or a banner to silence their critics and bully others, just like they did in China,” he said.

He also noted that some senior Thai officials refused to admit they were Chinese descendants or spoke Chinese.

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Both Liu and Liao recalled that ethnic Chinese were subject to discrimination and restrictions and other unfair treatment after the second world war when the king led an anti-communism movement backed by the United States. Chinese was no longer taught in the school curriculum and many Chinese schools were closed, they said. Many ethnic Chinese were forced to abandon their Chinese nationality and adopt a Thai name to get into schools.

“As a result, many ethnic Chinese don’t even speak Chinese and my sons and daughters, who are in their 40s and 50s, tend to think they are 100 per cent Thais,” said Liao. “We can only communicate in Thai and they are not proud to be Chinese descendants,” he said bitterly.

Many ethnic Chinese don’t even speak Chinese and my sons and daughters tend to think they are 100 per cent Thais
Liao Rongcheng, cafe owner, Bangkok

Things began to change over the past two decades. “People used to think speaking Chinese was out-of-date when China was mired in poverty and political strife. But now, especially since the turn of the century, it has become trendy to speak Chinese, which is even taught at primary education,” said Chen’s father, Chen Mingquan, 54, an expert in the history of Bangkok’s ethnic Chinese.

Chen Mingquan has been invited to give talks and teach at various colleges in the capital and gave a TED presentation on the subject of Chinatown’s history two months ago.

“Many young ethnic Chinese don’t actually accept their identity as Chinese descendants and I just want to help them realise that many cultural elements and various foods they’ve known since childhood originated in China,” he said.