When Chinese migrants came to Thailand centuries ago, most arrived with hardly anything. Despite discrimination and appalling hardships they survived by working hard and believing in a better future
T he Thai expression, “to travel with just a mat and a pot” describes how many Chinese migrated to Thailand.
They travelled with few belongings, enduring many hardships, in the hope if they could get here they would enjoy a prosperous life.
If they died on the way, so be it. Staying in China would probably have meant a slow death from hunger and deprivation anyway.
It has been said that conditions in China were so bad a family was satisfied if there was rice. If a single Chinese olive came their way, it was a special meal. But biting into it was forbidden: It was passed from father to mother to children to suck on, so each could savour a little of its flavour before eating a meal of rice soup. If no olive was to be had, a stone soaked in salty sauce would do.
If things were as bad as that, it’s not surprising people would travel any distance to avoid a slow starvation.
And there was the additional motivation that, if a young man found a job and a better life, his parents and siblings would also benefit.
Many people, who arrived as part of a mass migration to Thailand in the 1800s, came with little more than a mat and a pot. Nevertheless, they did indeed find success here.
Some became wealthy and famous enough to rank among the country’s leading citizens. But first they had to overcome many obstacles. They had to work hard if they were to survive, and they had to save hard.
They also faced discrimination-the stigma of being considered inferior and second-class citizens.
When the migrants first arrived they would work as coolies, doing manual labour. They would spend the minimum amount of money, saving hard until they had enough to buy equipment and be a coffee vendor. If they couldn’t find anywhere to set up shop on land, they’d do business from a boat.
Then, after putting aside a certain amount of money, they’d switch to selling construction materials. Bit by bit, their businesses would grow.
Many Chinese immigrants who came to Bangkok started off by pulling rickshaws, which earned them the disparaging name Jek Laak Rot or Rickshaw Chinks among the local population.
From this lowly position they sought to move to the status of coolies who carried ore in mines or paving stones for building roads. They kept an eye out for work at rice mills or saw mills, or tending vegetable gardens, as such jobs were considered desirable, and led to better work later.
The rickshaw coolies had the lowest standard of living, just a step above beggars and vagrants. Their dirty, haggard appearance was such that people referred to them as manut phaahana-human beasts of burden.
Prof Phanee Bualek wrote on the subject in a paper entitled, Rickshaw Coolies and the History of Thai Labour. She said from the time the first rickshaws appeared in Bangkok in 1887 until they disappeared in 1953, about 6,000 Chinese immigrants made a living from them.
There were two basic types, she said; strong and agile young men and sickly old men whose state presented a sad picture of the final burden inflicted on those struggling to stay alive.
Chinese rickshaw pullers who didn’t have anywhere to live made their homes in their vehicles.
Prof Phanee wrote that most were opium addicts, and once the cost of their habit and food was subtracted from their slender income, nothing was left.
Some became sick and died close to the opium parlours they frequented, others succumbed to exposure.
Others still, feeling life so deplorable, hanged themselves from trees beside the road.
To survive and move on to better work, they had to be tough and determined men who could live on next to nothing and resist the temptation of opium. This accounted for probably not more than 10 percent of them.
Statistics exist for the number of Chinese who entered Thailand between 1918 and 1933. The greatest number for a single year was 15,460 in 1927, and the lowest was 1,800 in 1932.
Supakit Nimmaannarathep, former vice president of the Ministry of Commerce’s Commercial Registration Bureau, is a Hainanese Chinese from Lampang.
He said most Chinese emigrants into Thailand came from southern China.
“They belonged to different ethnic groups, each with its own language-Taechiew, Hainanese, Khae, Hakka and Cantonese,” he said. “This made them seem very different from each other.
“Each group came to Thailand a different way. The Hokkiens were good sailors. They were primarily merchants, and since their port city was farther than others, they had no problem making journeys by sea.
“They tended to go down to southern Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. Most were rice merchants, and when they arrived they continued in the trade. Many leading Thai rice-merchants, like the Iemsuri family, are of Hokkien descent.
“The Taechiews came from the port city Swatow further down the coast. They came via the Gulf of Siam and came ashore in Chon Buri and Samut Prakan. Once in Bangkok, many dispersed around the country.”
Preecha Phobsook, editor of Bang Saen, a regional newspaper published in Chon Buri, said the Taechiews are the largest ethnic Chinese community in Thailand.
“Then there are the Hainanese, the Cantonese, and the Khae,” he said.
“They came here in many different ways. The people who came before the World War One came by sailboats called sampans.
“By the end of World War Two most came by steam ships.
“The smokestacks of the boats were generally painted red, so we called them red smokestack boats. One sank in Chon Buri harbour and the hull is still there.
“The first place they came to was Koh Si Chang. When they arrived they felt safe. It would have been the first time they had stood on solid ground since boarding the boat. On the island was a shrine called the Phaw Khao Yai Shrine. The Chinese had great reverence for it. Once in Thailand, every Chinese New Year they would return to wai it.
“Generations later many still pay their respects there.
“The immigration procedure on the island was quick and uncomplicated. You just told the officials your name and where you came from, and they’d give you an ID.
“Many people would then get on a boat to continue to Bangkok, and come ashore at Yan Nawa or Ratchawong. Others would go to Chon Buri, and stop off to rest at the Boon Thao Kong Shrine before going further.
“At the shrine was a vegetarian resting place offering free food and shelter. The people who maintained it usually knew where the members of the various sae, or big Chinese families, were living. Once the new arrivals traced their relatives they went off to find them.
“In the old days, amphoe Baan Bung in Chon Buri was just like China! There were Chinese people everywhere, and they would take jobs growing sugar cane and making brown sugar.
“The first Chinese to arrive had an advantage as they could get land to cultivate. The people who came later had to find other work. Now it is a tradition among the Chinese at Baan Bung to eat vegetarian food. The whole district is vegetarian!
“Their culinary culture is something they brought from China. Most dishes were either fried or boiled, because the part of China they came from was poor and didn’t have much of a cooking tradition. Today there is a restaurant in Chon Buri that serves authentic Taechiew food. It’s called Paw Sriniyom.
“Each Chinese ethnic group specialised in a particular kind of work. The Hainanese used to work for foreigners. Some worked on ships, others in hotels. They liked service-type work. That’s why most hotel owners in Thailand today are of Hainanese descent.
“They’re very good at making Western food-they learned it from Westerners-but they mix in Chinese ideas, too. They make stew, sliced beef salad, bread, all delicious.
“The Cantonese liked machinery. That’s why today most machine and metal-casting shops are Cantonese-owned. Khaes are good at growing tobacco and making shoes, and if you go to shoe shops around Phraeng Sanprasat, you’ll see they belong to Khae families.”
Praphruek Sukonratanamethee is a consultant to the Office of the Prime Minister in the area of Thai history recorded in Chinese-language sources. He is also a consultant to the Chinese Studies Institute at Chulalongkorn University.
He said ships travelling between China and Thailand had only a short period in which to make the journey.
“They could only come in winter when the wind was blowing from the north. They would come via Vietnam, sail around Cambodia, and then enter the Gulf of Siam. Or they could go south, passing Surat Thani and landing way down south. When they saw a green shoreline, they thought it would be a place to stay until they found their way to Bangkok to work as coolies.
“Their hopes focused on a time far into the future. Some came alone and left their parents behind. Some had wives and children, but came alone.
“They came to make money and to try to send some of it home. A system called khoykuan evolved by which they were able to send money home and convert it into Chinese currency through a middleman who would deduct a percentage as payment. But many failed, and didn’t make enough to send anything home. Or they died.
“Finding family members already in Thailand and helping each other out was very important. There was a hotel at Hua Lamphong that was glad to provide food and lodgings to those who had not yet located their relatives.
“Among the different Chinese ethnic groups who arrived at the same time, the Khae were the toughest, because their home territory lay deep inside China. They had to make a long, difficult journey to reach their port of departure in China.
“They travelled from point to point by water. From Bangkok they went north to the big Chinese community at Nakhon Sawan, and from there dispersed to other provinces.
“Subsequent generations didn’t follow the work traditionally done by their ancestors. All the communities placed a strong priority on education. Over the years we find more and more Chinese doctors and engineers. Government work was desirable as it provided a secure income.
“As Chinese families became increasingly established their traditional forms of work was taken over by Thais from Isan. Today Hainanese dishes like khao man kai are made by people from Isan and even Chinese opera is performed by northeasterners.”
Prof Phonphan Chantharojananon, of the Faculty of Anthropology at Ramkhamhaeng University, is an expert on Chinese traditions. She said the Chinese who came to Thailand were very serious about the things they considered auspicious, and their beliefs were a source of strength.
“Upon leaving China they would have high hopes for the future, and would reinforce them by visiting local shrines,” she said.
“They would carry ash from incense sticks on their journey, believing it possessed sacred powers. When they arrived at their destination, they would put it in a special receptacle to worship, and when they had made some money they often built a shrine to contain the ashes.
“The Taechiew community, like the Hainanese, have a shrine devoted to a celestial being known as Mae Thabthim. The one worshipped by the Taechiews is in the middle of Talat Kao in the Yaowarat area. The Hainanese shrine is at the base of Chang Hee Bridge.
“The Taechiews and Hainanese don’t have any sacred images in their homes, so they have to bring ashes from incense burned at the shrines in their villages. But the Hakkas have religious images in their houses. They’re called Faa Jukong, and they represent a male deity with black skin and upward pointing hair.When we see these sacred images, we know which Chinese ethnic group they belong to.
“Ways of worshipping also differ and something that has a positive meaning for one group may have negative connotations for another. For example, the Cantonese make an offering of dough sprinkled with sesame seeds and deep-fried. They call it maa thong in Cantonese. But the Hainanese don’t like it, because the word maa means ‘obstacle’ in their dialect.
“Many of the differences between groups arise from the different meanings certain words have in various dialects.”
But the phrase “with just a mat and a pot” is still a source of pride to Chinese people in Thailand. The words refer to the many great achievements made by immigrants who were impoverished and despised. Having arrived with the barest necessities many attained wealth, prestige, and equality through their own dedication and hard work.
These words have levels of meaning that speak of industry, toughness, and a capacity for frugality-qualities at the centre of a virtuous and productive life.