Chinese Assimilation in Thailand vs. Malaysia

by Thailand Lawyer on August 8, 2011

Contributed by Guest Blogger Jennifer Patin

A television station in Malaysia was recently the focus of outrage by members of the country’s Chinese and Malaysian Muslim populations. The station aired an advertisement intended to inform about respectful Ramadan practices, but soon experienced heated backlash against the anti-Chinese racism interpreted from the ads. The ad used a female Chinese actress who displayed ignorance about how to conduct herself around Muslim Malaysians during Ramadan. Chinese viewers were offended that a Chinese person was singled out as a symbol of ignorance, while some Malaysians thought the ad implied that Muslims are not tolerant.

The video can be viewed here.

The indignation that eventually caused the television station to withdraw the ad speaks to the racial tension between ethnic Malays and Chinese Malaysians, which has colored the past and present. Chinese in Malaysia make up a larger percentage of the population than Chinese in Thailand. Chinese that have lived in Malaysia for several generations are still largely considered Chinese by the ethnic Malay majority, which has been criticized for portraying Chinese negatively in books, movies, and media. In the late 1970s, the Malaysian government put laws in place that amounted to affirmative action for the ethnic Malay majority to curb the economic dominance of Chinese Malaysians.

Chinese in Thailand have also experienced discrimination, but seem to be better assimilated into the population. The assimilation of Chinese into Thai society could be for three reasons: valued Chinese contributions to Thailand’s economy; Thai nationalism; and culture and religion.

Chinese merchants were some of the main traders in rice in Thailand in the early 1900s. They made up a significant amount of the labor force, and were depended upon in Thailand for rice and other goods. The Chinese later gained prominence in industries like banking, finance, and manufacturing, where they are still major players today.[1] Chinese traders eventually learned the language and customs of Thailand and were accepted as an essential force in Thailand’s economic growth. Where Chinese contributions to the economy in Malaysia caused hostility that led to changes in the constitution, Chinese involvement in Thailand’s economy was and continues to be regarded as vital.

Thailand underwent a strong period of nationalism around the time of World War II. During this time, the Chinese in Thailand started to change their last names to Thai names and become Thai citizens. By law, Chinese had to use Thai names in order to become citizens. Once the Chinese became citizens of Thailand, they experienced less racial-based discrimination and started to self-assimilate even more into Thai society. Thailand also started promoting Thai education in language and history in schools and began limiting the Chinese language studies.  As a result, Thai Chinese pupils communicated mostly in Thai outside of home and became further integrated in Thai society.

Chinese presence in Thailand dates all the way back to Rama I, who was part Chinese. Thais and Chinese have intermarried over the years, celebrated Buddhist holidays together, and influenced each other’s cuisine. Thais are accustomed to celebrating Chinese religious holidays and have never protested against Chinese religious observances.  It is even desired by some Thai women to “look Chinese” by having fairer complexions.

Chinese in Thailand have long established their roots, shown their willingness to assimilate, and been largely accepted into Thai society. Their influence is palpable and there are currently no significant signs that racism will blemish Thai Chinese life in Thailand as it has in Malaysia.


[1] Chantavanich, Supang, “From Siamese-Chinese to Chinese Thai: Political Conditions and Identity Shifts among the Chinese in Thailand,” in Suryadinata, Leo (ed.), Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1997.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

William September 6, 2011 at 18:57

Hi Jennifer!

Not sure if you actually live in Thailand, but I do, and have for more than 5 years. 8 years in Japan before that and 3 years travel before that. I’m also a teacher here in Bangkok, and have had my fair share of political, religious and cultural conversations with more students than I can count. So my opinion of the Chinese in Thailand comes from my personal experience in the country.

Most of my students are Chinese Thai by the way.

IMHO:
This is one of the most Class and Race divided societies in Asia. There is a huge gap between the social, economical, political, and educational status of the Chinese Thai population and the “Pure” Thai population. Guess who’s on TOP? The Chinese!

I’m glad you see the Chinese Thais as ‘assimilated’ because I don’t see it. I see it more like they have “dominated”. The average middle class Chinese or Chinese Thai living in Bangkok is NOT looking to assimilate with “Pure Thais” and when I say “Pure Thais” I mean “Brown Skinned” Thai people.

If you are NOT white skinned with more than a little Chinese blood in your veins and money in the bank, you are basically stuck in the lower strata of society, and you are NOT even considered beautiful; simply based on the tint of your skin.

“Si Dom Mai Saway” “Black is NOT Beautiful”. It’s almost a Mantra here in Thailand. If I had 30Baht for every time I’ve heard that, I could go to Chinatown and buy a lot of noodle soup.

I little Thai boy or little Thai girl, unfortunate enough to be born born Thai with Brown Skin in this country, grows up with a deep sense of inferiority, resentment and a marked lack of opportunity especially in Bangkok. This in a country where most people are Thai-Thai and Brown Skinned, NOT Chinese-Thai and white skinned. Though you wouldn’t know it in Bangkok.

The level of discrimination and bias is really quite unbelievable, and it’s Chinese Thai on Thai discrimination pure and simple. The haves and the have nots. The “Whites” and the “Blacks”. The Us and the Them. The city people and the country people. It’s the same old story around the world, why would you assume Thailand would be different.

***You wrote:
“there are currently no significant signs that racism will blemish Thai Chinese life in Thailand as it has in Malaysia.” You got that right! Kind of!

If you mean that the Chinese Thais are NOT likely to be VICTIMS of Racism…I agree. But you fail to mention that it’s the Chinese Thais themselves who ARE the RACIST ones, against other Thais. Although most of them don’t realize it, because after all, “Si Dom Mai Saway” “Black is NOT Beautiful”. Right?

Regards,

William from the USA

Guru December 2, 2011 at 13:53

William,

It’ s funny when you see brown skin Thai you jump to conclusion that is a real Thai!, then you see pale Thai you say that is a Chinese!

First of all, do you know Mon people? do you know Thailand was once Khmer empire? do you know Isan region was once part of Laos?
OK, let use your little brain to think where are those Mon/Khmer/Laotian people now?? DO YOU KNOW WHO IS REAL THAI?
Do you know the history of Thailand???

There is no discrimination among Thai, Chinese-Thai, Thai of Chinese descent or wherever. But Thai people as a whole tend to look down on brown skin Thai who is of Mon/Khmer/Laos descent.

Taohu February 2, 2012 at 15:10

William ,you’re right You have lived here long enough to see that fact. I’m Chinese Thai myself but most of us are willing to assimilate and consider ourself Thai rather than Chinese.

Eishoku Chen July 24, 2012 at 15:19

I thought I might weigh in. There is a certain amount of
truth on both sides of the argument.

I have friends who are also, like myself, ethnic Chinese.
Come on. Let’s be honest. Our parents want us to marry
within our ethnic Chinese communities.

In Malaysia, frankly, I do not know how a Malay, Tamil,
Orang Asli or Dayak can obtain a business loan. Read the
sign boards to the shops on any high street and the
story is clear. No one is wrongly posting Chinese family
names on the VAST number of businesses. The ethnic-Chinese
families that own them do that.

We can live in denial and watch the resentment build or
we can be honest with ourselves and build bridges.

With the rise of Mainland China, tensions and resentment
will only grow, I’m afraid as our communities, rightly or
wrongly, will be considered to be given favorable treatment
in business and cultural ties with the PRC and our nationalism
may even be called into doubt in matters of sovereignty like
the islands in the South China Sea in the Philippines, Malaysia
and Vietnam.

Eishoku Chen July 25, 2012 at 13:09

I thought I might weigh in. There is a certain amount of truth on both sides of the argument.

I have friends who are also, like myself, ethnic Chinese. Come on. Let’s be honest. Our parents want us to marry within our ethnic Chinese communities.

In Malaysia, frankly, I do not know how a Malay, Tamil, Orang Asli or Dayak can obtain a business loan. Read the sign boards to the shops on any high street and the story is clear. No one is wrongly posting Chinese family names on the VAST number of businesses. The ethnic-Chinese families that own them do that.

We can live in denial and watch the resentment build or we can be honest with ourselves and build bridges. With the rise of Mainland China, tensions and resentment will only grow, I’m afraid as our communities, rightly or wrongly, will be considered to be given favorable treatment in business and cultural ties with the PRC and our nationalism may even be called into doubt in matters of sovereignty like the islands in the South China Sea in the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Pat May 3, 2014 at 07:59

It’s hard for me to talk with you about this.

Pat May 3, 2014 at 08:16

I’m not saying that William intended to write partly false statements. I’m exasperated when reading his comment. I find other Thai women pretty and this is not being affected by brown skin. William might say that my grandparents were able to understand Chinese and so I’m a descendant of Chinese in Thailand and so I have dignity and have a good job . I don’t think that makes me a bad person.
William, do you have more to say about your students in Thailand? Why is Chinese assimilation crucial to you?

Kunpiwak Thongkam October 22, 2014 at 16:58

I know a girl. XXXXXXX Horveckul. She was born to a Thai father ( 3/4 Thai 1/4 Chinese ) and a Chinese mother of Thai nationality ( Her parents were from China). She was born in San Francisco. Moved to Thailand at 6. She then went studying overseas in Switzerland at 11 and then moved back to San Francisco 2 years later ( Her parents were in Thailand, only she and her older siblings went ) . She’s gorgeous to be honest. She didnt look Thai at all. She had really fair skin ( like koreans ), she had big eyes and was tall/slim ( 178 cm, 53 kg ). About the thing on being more Thai, she barely speaks Thai at all. I think she only understands about 40-50% but doesnt speak at all, well except for Sawadeeka. In contrast although she lived Overseas, she learned chinese and was semi fluent in chinese. ( She speaks fluent English and French. Semi fluent – Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Thai. Average – Shanghainese )
In order of fluentcy
1- English
2- French
3- Chinese,Korean,Japanese
4 – Thai
5 – Shanghainese

If people asks her what race she is in america, she’d just say i’m Chinese American.
She comes from a wealthy family. Although she isnt ashamed to be Thai, she doesnt exactly show her pride of being Thai.

nakornkaen@gmail.com January 13, 2015 at 13:27

Not all laotian in isaan have brown skin.
By average people in central thailand browner skin tone than people in isaan.
Thai chinese people do not look down thai because they have already assimilated to thai.

华夏 January 14, 2015 at 08:06

That lady IS Chinese American.
Why should she say otherwise?
We are defined by race first. The reason white Americans stopped differentiating themselves and calling themselves Polish american, french american, Anglo American, german american, is because the typical white american does not look any different from any European ethnicity. Europeans are basically the same race. Chinese and Thais are not.

华夏 January 14, 2015 at 08:11

Pat, you should not be attempting to assimilate. Your race is who you are. It’s what the world sees when they see you. It’s defined in our DNA, it’s written in our face. In fact, you should be ashamed of yourself for losing your language. The blood that runs in your veins is not Thai, it’s Chinese blood. In Singapore and Malaysia, a Chinese should be ashamed if he does not know his local language eg teochew, hokkien, etc. Everybody knows mandarin. Do you realize that mandarin though, is much more practical to know, is not our language? It’s a northern dialect. We are southern Chinese.

You need a life changing experience to understand who you are. A stint abroad. Then you will understand and know who you are.

Overseas Thai March 2, 2015 at 12:59

华夏, your comments really disgust me. You have been brainwashed by your communist government to believe in some perverse form of Chinese superiority complex. You do NOT have the right to question someone’s right to choose their own identity.

As for me, I was born in North America but my parents and three of my grandparents were all born in Bangkok and I go there at least once a year. Thailand is basically my second home and I consider myself 100% Thai. If anyone asks, I always tell them I am Thai or Thai-Canadian even though my blood is 100% Chinese. I cannot speak Mandarin or any form of Chinese dialect and neither can my parents so why should I consider myself Chinese? My family name is Thai, I speak Thai at home, and I follow the Thai version of Buddhism. I have every right to call myself Thai and I do not feel any connection to arrogant Chinese such as yourself. Good riddance.

Pet Yap March 26, 2015 at 00:51

As a Malaysian Chinese, I think Religion is the main reason why Chinese in Malaysia who are majority Buddhist did not integrate with Malay Majority who are Muslim. Converting to Islam to Malaysian Chinese is basically losing your root because Islam prohibit all forms of worship except for their Allah, that mean Chinese has to change their practice, diet (can not eat Pork for example) and life style(can not drink). It is much easier for Chinese to identify themselves as Thai, because becoming Thai does not require the change of religion and life style.

tui April 15, 2015 at 00:31

Thai-chinese is a fake story, but just a big mouth of chinese immigrants who are forced by Thai army to speak thai. I am a Thai women from the light skin raace, and I have no chinese blood. I am white from white Dai race of Altai Mountains and white mon-khmer. Thai kings are white significantly from white Dai race plus white mon-khmer, not chinese blood. We once had half white Thai and chineese king, and this king with chinese boold was killed becuse he had foreign chinese blood, and new Thai kings without chinese blood were chosen to rule the country. Current Thai kings have no chinese blood, and are white from white Dai Race of Altai Mountains plus white mon-khmer.

People with chinese blood are not that great and are darker than white Thais with whte blood from white Dai racee plus white mon-khmer.

Super high IQ peeople in Thailand (such as doctors, engieneers) are white from whtie Dai race and white mon-khmer and have no chinese bloods, but these group of white Thais who have no chinese blood are just a mnority group. Most of studients who can successfully be selected to study medicine, engineering have no chinese blood but have white Dai race blood plus white mon-khmer and more white than chinese immigrants and are super tall.

The story of Thai chiese is wrong. For example, Taksin is white significantly from white Dai Race (50%), and white Mon-Khmer (45%) and han chinese (less than 5%) because his chinese blood is remote blood, not closest blood. You can see that his chinese blood is very low and is insignificant, and we cannot consider him as a chinese descent, and he is significantly a descendant of white Dai race plus white mon=khmer.

Recent chnese immigrants are darker than white Dai race and are gneerally short, not tall. They generally maried black southeast asian aborigines, so Thai-chinese people are very dark and short and many of them work at bars, and Thai bar girls are generally mixed race of chinese blood and black people.

Thailand is a land of black majority and white minorrity and is colonzied by white Thai under the culture of white Dai race. Chinese migrants have to marry black women who are not Thais, and their children are dark skinned, not white. Thai=chinese are gneerally dark and supershort. Women from Thailand who are married to chinese immigrant are supershort, tall and very dark. White thai girls never marry chinese who are supershort.

Many chinese famiities cannot pass the national entrance to thai universities, and they are low IQ . None of chinese immigrants and Thai chineee cannot become scientists. Thai scientists are white Thai race with white blood from white Dai racce and white mon-khmer.

tui April 15, 2015 at 00:38

Many chinese famiities cannot pass the national entrance to thai universities, and they are low IQ . None of chinese immigrants and Thai chineee can become scientists. Thai scientists are white Thai race with white blood from white Dai racce and white mon-khmer, and more white than chineese immigrants.

Most of thai chinese are dark skin, because chinese men could get only dark southeast asian aborigines who are supershort, not tall white thai girls. White thai minority without chinese blood are the smallest in the number but the most smart guys of Thailand, and are Thai kings and queens, military leaders, scientists. Chinese immigrants are generally supershort, not tall and darker than white thais of white Dai race blood and white mon-khmer blood.

tui May 16, 2015 at 06:11

Our white god blood of thailand is not chinese but in fact the white mon khmer and the white dai race. this white blood is thailand’s royal class, soliders and policemen and academics.

our thai kings DO NOT have any chinese blood. the white people in Ayudthaya are descendants of mixed white Dai race of altai moutains and the white mon-khmer (paya Kosan Pan). For example just 1 out of 10 of these white people married out to a chinese immigrant. so you can see that chinese was not an ancestor of the white majority from the ruling class in Ayudthaya. that half thai Taksin and his royal family was killed by the majority of white people who were descendants of white mon-khmer and white dai race. No later thai king was a descendant of that half thai haft chinese king. Our later thai kings have no chinese blood automatically, and our royal thai court do not marry any chinese people for 250 years. but our Thai kings are white and lighter than chinese because they are the descendants of the white mon-khmer and the white dai race who ruled blacks in today’s thailand. Chinese people NEVER rule any blacks but the white mon-khmer and the white dai race defeated black kings and colonized blacks.

Our nothern thai girls are lighter than chinese and even have milky skin that is almost white like paper and they are descendants of the white Dai Race and never marry any chinese men. As such, you can see that a lot of white people in thailand do not have any chinese blood. a lot of my friends at the number one high school (Triam Udom Seuksa Payatai) and the number one university (Chula) are lighter than chinese immigrants, in fact they are descendants of white mon-khmer and the white dai race, and their skin, when explosed to strong sunshines, turn pink or a little red. they are the super high IQ of thailand, but they are just the minority group. Many chinese immigrants fail to pass our national examination but have to study at open universities and private universitiies.

Prat May 17, 2015 at 09:23

True

jj May 20, 2015 at 15:52

why isnt the comments shown? I can only post but not see it.

Lukhreung November 19, 2015 at 11:54

@Tui

Lol you must be a delusional Thai. I’m half Norwegian half Thai-Chinese and let me tell you. Our Thai Kings have chinese blood. They HAVE chinese ancestors. Thai Chinese DOMINATE Thai economy and the politics. Almost every leading family in Thailand are Thai Chinese or have Chinese blood. All Thai Chinese are dark skinned? Lol. This just showed what an immature delulu that u r.

Proud Thai November 29, 2015 at 11:05

I know someone who is of Thai-Chinese descent and is also from the United States.
She was born and raised in New York. Though she did spent 4 years of her childhood in Bangkok. Her father is Thai and has chinese ancestry while her mother is a 2nd generation Thai-Chinese. As expected, she comes from a very well off family. Her surname is Thai … : Hxxxxxhul
Although she doesnt speak fluent Thai (probably speaks and understands about 50%) , she still is able to communicate in Thai with her family in Bangkok.
By ethnicity/blood , she is Chinese. But no one can change the fact that her family is from Thailand. She usually identifies herself as :” I’m from America, my parents are from Thailand, but im of chinese descent. ” Basically one answer that covers it all. She appreciates both Thai and Chinese culture as well as American culture in which where she grew up. She understands and speaks a bit of mandarin chinese as well. She acknowledges and is proud of her Chinese ancestry and is also a proud Thai.

Sexpathere December 27, 2015 at 14:42

As a sexpat living in Thailand,
I love it when both thais and Chinese fight among themselves. Leave the Thai women to us you cucks. Ahahahaha

Soo March 15, 2016 at 11:13

Oh come on, stop it! Stop your discussion! This sums up everything: We are human!

Stevenson April 24, 2016 at 03:13

I’m a keen reader of Tai-Kadai linguistics and history. This article is rather interesting to me.
The people of Thailand today come from 3 main groups:

1. The indigenous Austro-Asiatics, i.e Khmer, Mon who are of darker skin race
2. The Tai-Kadai who migrated from Guangxi about 1,000 years ago. They assimilated and mixed up with the native Austro-Asiatics.
3. The Chinese, the recent immigrants.

These 3 groups all mix up with each other in a certain degree. These days, they all consider themselves ‘Thai’, a newly invented autonym, due to the nationalism and formal education in Thailand. Visiting Bangkok, a tourist could easily recognize that the Thai locals do not look similar to each other. Some are dark skin, some are lighter skin, some have scurly hair, some have straight hair.

My conclusion is that Thailand is a multi-racial country in disguise of a nation-state due to nationalism and education.

Mat S June 26, 2016 at 05:14

@ Steven,

I am a Thai Chinese. You are right that Thailand is a multi-racial country and that there is no “Thai” as a race. However, Thailand’s successful assimilation story is not just about education or nationalism. It’s the uniqueness of the culture itself. The Japanese and the Korean are both nationalistic and have an education system that supports and emphasizes the superiority of their cultures. But did they manage to absorb the Chinese? I use to be a lawyer and the boss at the firm I work with was a Sikh man, who is culturally Thai first and collects buddhist amulets. The former chief of the Thai Supreme Court was also a Sikh man. The point is that there is no ethnic or political barrier for advancement or social mobility in Thailand, as long as you speak the language and adopt the culture. That’s why Thailand assimilate other races so well.

Mat S June 26, 2016 at 05:32

华夏

Your comment disgusts me. Although I’m 70% Chinese, most of us are proud to be Thai because of the country has probably the most tolerant attitude in the whole of Asia. Who wants to be a racist Chinese like you, to be honest?

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