On Chiang Mai’s Nimmanhaemin Road, a fashionable tourist hub packed with visitors from China, a group of four women, all high school teachers and in their mid-20s, hesitantly accepts the request for an interview. Hesitant, as they are aware of the undertone of negativity to any discussion on Chinese tourists and Thailand’s – and much of the world media’s – often unattractive portrayal of them.
It’s their first time in Thailand. They are here mostly because of Thailand’s affordability and its accessibility from Guangdong province in southern China, where they are from.
They also happen to be following in the footsteps of their Teochew ancestors who moved to Thailand in the early 20th century, when waves of immigrants fled a then impoverished China to seek fortune and happiness in the Land of Smiles.
“We have heard a lot about our ancestors migrating to Thailand, the lore of Chinese migration that are part of our childhood memories,” says Lin Ju.
Lin says she is proud of the “hardworking Chinese in Thailand” who contributed so much to the economy back home at a time when China was yet to arrive as an economic powerhouse.
The Thais, says her friend Lin Miaofang, are friendly, hospitable and thankful for the tourism dollar the Chinese bring. “The media exaggerates Chinese behaviour – a few cases don’t reflect the behaviour of an entire nation.”
Farther up the street, a couple from Jiangxi (江西) province agree. “This subject itself makes me angry. The media in Thailand and at home always pick up the most outrageous cases,” says Shan Xiaolian.
Thai people in general have no antipathy towards the Chinese, adds his girlfriend Teng Rui, who teaches primary school English and etiquette, which she calls “moral education”. “It’s only the media.”
In recent years, Thai media has bristled with stories of misdemeanours by Chinese tourists. Some viral videos have featured gluttonous Chinese diners stacking their plates with prawns, an anti-Chinese rant by a Thai celebrity over queuing etiquette in a Korean airport, skylarking youngsters dressing up in Thai university uniforms, and a Chinese tourist drying her underwear at Chiang Mai airport. Belligerent, unruly, noisy and disrespectful are the most common adjectives used in Thailand when it comes to Chinese tourists.
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The constant bad press has led the Chinese government to issue a good behaviour manifesto for citizens planning international travel. Though the misdemeanours may be negligible compared to the more loutish and even violent behaviour of some Western tourists on any given night in some of Thailand’s infamously seedy joints, it is invariably the Chinese who get the most headlines.
This popular revulsion actually goes far deeper than the antics of a few tourists,and is rooted in both the economics of Chinese tourism and the history of Chinese immigration in Thailand.
In the words of Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor Thawatchai Arunyik, China was until recently was “a rising star” as a source for tourists. In June, the Tourism Council of Thailand (TCT) forecast international tourist arrivals to reach 33.87 million in 2016, up 13 per cent on 2015. The reason for the boom was the influx of Chinese. In 2015, 7.9 million came to Thailand – over a quarter of the total inbound tourism figure. Initially, that number was expected to reach 10 million by the end of this year, another record.
But media reporting on Chinese visitors forced Thai authorities to sit up and take notice, especially as it began to take a toll on the tourism industry. The controversy over so-called “zero-dollar” tours illustrates the problems typically associated with the economics of Chinese tourists: Tour operators attract Chinese tour groups with super-cheap packages that promise free food and accommodation, but once in Thailand, the hapless travellers are coerced into buying goods and services at exorbitant rates from Chinese-run operations. As the money is mostly channelled back to China, the local economy gains little from the surge in Chinese tourists even though they soak up local resources.
The Thai government cracked down on these tours in September, leading to a steep drop in Chinese arrivals.
It imposed an arrival fee of Bt1,000 (HK$215) and a minimum Bt1,000 per day fee for inbound Chinese tour groups as part of the crackdown, leading to a year-on-year drop in Chinese tourist arrivals of 16 per cent in October and 30 per cent in November.
The number of expected inbound Chinese tourists is now being revised down from 10 million to 9.1 million for 2016. The TCT estimates the decline will continue into the first quarter of 2017, with Chinese tourist arrivals falling by a fifth in the first quarter. The drop in numbers has forced the government to backtrack, waiving fees until February 28 and cutting the visa on arrival fee by half for 19 other nationalities.
But what really lies at the heart of the negative portrayal of Chinese tourists that has stirred the government into action? According to Peter Hessler, an American author of several books on China, including Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, the spate of negative reports are part of what he calls an adjustment period relating to how Chinese culture interacts with the rest of the world.
Thailand is hardly the only country where there has been criticism of Chinese tourists. Japanese media this year called for “Chinese-only zones” to limit instances of what it considered poor etiquette. Anger boiled over again last week after reports of scuffles between stranded Chinese tourists and Japanese police. Vietnam, meanwhile, has stated it may expel Chinese tourists following a viral video showing a tourist misbehaving with a banana vendor.
Hessler believes geography and history may be playing a big part in the hostility towards Chinese tourists. “Asian countries are more aware of the rise of China and are somewhat wary of it,” he says. He cites Egypt, where Chinese tourism has risen 200 per cent this year, giving the industry a much-needed push at a time when Western tourists are staying away.
In Egypt too, Chinese tourists have drawn attention for not tipping and their tendency to not conform to the appropriate dressing standards. “But it’s interesting that I’ve seen very little backlash in Egypt, the people are very positive about China,” says Hessler. China, he says, has never had any stake in the Israel-Palestine issue, which colours Egyptian perceptions of Western tourists. “China represents no threat at all to Egypt.”
Hessler, who once lived in Egypt, also believes the natural Chinese penchant for history contributes to positive attitudes towards them. Chinese tourists in Egypt routinely choose museums and temple sites over beaches and drinking, he says, and engage “more deeply in such things than Americans of the same class”.
This positive reaction in Egypt, according to Hessler, shows the negativity surrounding Chinese tourists is not a universal phenomenon. Chinese in Egypt behave the same way as in other countries, but the Egyptians, he says, laugh at their cultural misdemeanours.
On the other hand, he says, if similar misdemeanours were made by groups from Israel, there would be an outcry. “People’s historical, political, cultural baggage comes with them when they travel, and locals will interpret them in many cases through that lens,” says Hessler, adding the collective memory of Thai and Chinese cultural intersection probably has more to do with Thai reactions to supposed misdemeanours of Chinese tourists than anything else.
In his essay “Riddles Of Yellow And Red”, historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson outlines how the Chinese came to control much of Thailand, and the present power struggles in Thailand involving various groups of Chinese coming to the country. On the rise of the Chinese diaspora, Anderson says it didn’t take long until “the economy of Thailand was almost entirely in the hands of different Chinese-speaking groups”, and at some point later in time, politics as well.
On the influx of Chinese immigrants at the beginning of 20th century, Anderson says: “In Bangkok, for example, the Teochews controlled 97 per cent of all pawn shops and a similar proportion of rice mills. They also accounted for 92 per cent of Chinese medicine people. Sawmilling for the timber trade was overwhelmingly in the hands of Hailamese – 85 per cent. People who specialised in the leather business, on the other hand, were 98 per cent Hakka, and nine out of ten tailors were Hakka, too. Some 59 per cent of Bangkok’s machine shops were Cantonese-owned. And 87 per cent of rubber exporters were Hokkien.”
The Thai-Chinese control over the Thai economy remains undiminished to this day. Dhanin Chearavanont, the richest man in Thailand today and the head of conglomerate CP Group, is of Chinese descent. So is Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, the second richest man in the country, and the Chirathivat family, which is ranked third. Among the Thai-Chinese who have crossed over from business to politics, the most famous is the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a grandson of an immigrant from Guangdong who continues to hold significant influence in Thai politics despite his self-imposed exile.
“After the second world war, there were many Chinese military strongmen that ruled the country, but the Chinese were always successful in business, which caused some amount of jealously. We wanted the Chinese to come, we wanted their skills, but were also jealous of their money. We used derogatory terms such as ‘Thai Jek’ for the Chinese,” says Nusara Thaitawat, a former journalist who owns a restaurant in Chiang Mai’s touristy Old City.
Half-Chinese herself, Nusara believes current anxieties over Chinese tourists are related to their sheer numbers. “We never had this many Chinese. The number is overwhelming, we are just not prepared for the sheer volume. In the 60s the American influx brought the ‘ugly American’ and in the 80s, it was the Japanese. Thais feared the Japanese would buy up the country. The flood of Chinese tourists brings back that same fear.”
Martin Vensky-Stalling, a senior adviser at the Chiang Mai University Science and Technology Park, echoes the tension between the lure of Chinese tourism dollar and the threat of Chinese money buying up everything Thai. He says the media reaction has been “overblown” and Chinese tourists have been a blessing for the economy, but: “One concern is that more and more businesses catering for Chinese seem to be owned by Chinese.”
Hessler also sees a link between the negative perception of Chinese tourists and the economic transformation of China “in the sense that it’s created an intensely competitive, intensely fast-moving society, that rewards people to push and make quick decisions, doesn’t necessarily reward thoughtfulness, or being concerned for your neighbour”.
This will improve over time, he says, adding it’s a very good thing that more Chinese are travelling overseas, it’s good for the economies of other countries and for the Chinese after decades of isolation. “There will be bumps along the way, but on the whole it’s a good process.”
The bumps are most evident when it comes to tour groups, typically the low-spending ones that seem to be taking most of the flak in Thailand.
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One tour group in Chiang Mai was mostly of the opinion the media had exaggerated the issue, though the younger men in the group said part of the problem was caused by the regional diversity in codes of behaviour among Chinese travellers.
“Some people are still not able to adapt to local cultures when they travel,” says Wang, a 30-year-old tourist from Shanghai.
“But people are learning from word of mouth and domestic media about instances of bad behaviour. China has developed rapidly in a short time, maybe social etiquette has for some failed to keep pace with economic growth.”
Agreeing is a 70-year-old standing next to Wang, also from Shanghai. From a generation of Chinese not used to travelling abroad, or speaking to the media, he prefers not to give his name. But as the end of what has been an awkward interview approaches, he gives a big smile, draws out a cigarette packet and politely offers his interviewer a smoke. ■