Thai Chinese

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Thai people of Chinese origin
Wat mangkon kamalawat.jpg
Visitors at Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, one of the most prominent Chinese Buddhist temples in Thailand
Total population

(9,349,900 (est)
14 percent of the Thai population (2012)[1]

up to 26,000,000
Thais of at least partly Chinese descent (around 40 percent of the Thai population) (2012)[2])
Regions with significant populations
Varieties of Chinese (Teochew, Hakka, Hainanese, Foochow, Cantonese, Hokkien, and Southwestern Mandarin)
Theravada Buddhism
Mahayana Buddhism, Chinese folk religion, Sunni Islam and Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Thai people • Southern Chinese • Peranakan
Overseas Chinese

Thai Chinese consist of people of full or partial Chinese ancestry – particularly Han Chinese. Thailand is home to the largest overseas Chinese community in the world[3][unreliable source?] with a population of approximately nine million people, accounting for 14 percent of the Thai population as of 2012.[citation needed] It is also the oldest, most prominent, and best integrated overseas Chinese community. Slightly more than half of the ethnic Chinese population in Thailand trace their ancestry to eastern Guangdong Province. This is evidenced by the prevalence of the Minnan Chaozhou dialect among the Chinese in Thailand. A minority trace their ancestry to Hakka and Hainanese immigrants.[4]

The Thai Chinese have been deeply ingrained into all elements of Thai society over the past 200 years. The present Thai royal family, the Chakri Dynasty, was founded by King Rama I who himself was partly Chinese. His predecessor, King Taksin of the Thonburi Dynasty, was the son of a Chinese immigrant from Guangdong Province and a Thai mother. With the highly successful integration of historic Chinese immigrant communities throughout Thailand, a significant number of Thai Chinese are the descendants of intermarriages between Chinese immigrants and native Thais. Many Thai Chinese have assimilated into Thai society and self-identify solely as Thai.[5][6]

In modern times, Thai Chinese exist at all levels of Thai society and have a strong presence in Thailand's business sector and politics[7][8][9][10][11][12][13] with most of Thailand's former prime ministers and the majority of parliament having at least some Chinese ancestry.[14][15]


Thailand has the largest overseas Chinese community in the world.[3][unreliable source?] Fourteen percent of Thailand's population is considered ethnic Chinese.[citation needed] One Thai academic of Chinese origin claims the share of those having at least partly Chinese ancestry is estimated at about 40 percent,[2] but without an accurate census or nationwide DNA testing, there is no credible evidence to support this theory.[2]


For assimilated second- and third-generation Thai Chinese and even some first-generation immigrants, it has remained principally a personal choice whether or not a Thai person of Chinese descent chooses to identify himself as ethnic Chinese.[16] Nonetheless, nearly all Thai Chinese self-identify as Thai, due to their close integration and successful assimilation into Thai society.[17][better source needed]


Thai Chinese in the past set up small enterprises so as to eke out a living as street vendors, a profession passed on to the present day.

Han Chinese traders, mostly from Fujian and Guangdong, began arriving in Ayutthaya by at least the 13th century. According to the Chronicles of Ayutthaya, King Ekathotsarot (r. 1605–1610) had been "concerned solely with ways of enriching his treasury," and was "greatly inclined toward strangers and foreign nations," especially Portugal, Spain, the Philippines, China, and Japan.

Ayutthaya was under almost constant Burmese threat from the 16th century onward, and the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty was alarmed by Burmese military might. From 1766-1769, the Qianlong Emperor sent his armies four times to subdue the Burmese, but the Sino-Burmese Wars ended in complete failure, and Ayutthaya fell in the Burmese–Siamese War (1765–1767). However, the Chinese efforts did divert the attention of Burma's Siam army. General Taksin, himself the son of a Chinese immigrant, took advantage of this to organize his force and attack the Burmese invaders. When he became king, Taksin actively encouraged Chinese immigration and trade. Settlers mainly from Chaozhou prefecture came to Siam in large numbers.[18] Immigration continued over the following years, and the Chinese population in Thailand jumped from 230,000 in 1825 to 792,000 by 1910. By 1932, approximately 12.2 percent of the population of Thailand was Chinese.[19] However, the early Chinese immigration consisted almost entirely of men who married Thai women. The children of such marriages were called Sino-Thai[20] or luk-jin (ลูกจีน) in Thai.[21] These Chinese-Thai intermarriages declined in the early 20th century, when large numbers of Chinese women also began immigrating to Thailand in the early 20th century.

The corruption of the Qing Dynasty and the massive population increase in China, along with very high taxes, caused many men to leave China for Thailand in search of work. If successful, they sent money back to their families in China. Many Chinese immigrants prospered under the "tax farming" system, whereby private individuals were sold the right to collect taxes at a price below the value of the tax revenues.

In the late 19th century, when Thailand was struggling to defend its independence from the colonial powers, Chinese bandits from Yunnan Province began making raids into the country in the Haw Wars (Thai: ปราบกบฏฮ่อ). Thai nationalist attitudes at all levels were thus colored by anti-Chinese sentiment. Members of the Chinese community had long dominated domestic commerce and had served as agents for royal trade monopolies. With the rise of European economic influence, however, many Chinese shifted to opium trafficking and tax collecting, both of which were despised occupations. In addition, Chinese millers and rice traders were blamed for an economic recession that gripped Siam for nearly a decade after 1905. Accusations of bribery of officials, wars between the Chinese secret societies, and use of violent tactics to collect taxes served to foster Thai resentment against the Chinese at a time when the community was expanding rapidly due to immigration. Chinese were also accused of producing poverty for the Thai peasant, charging astronomically high interest rates, when in reality, the Thai banking business was highly competitive.[22] In 1879, the Chinese controlled all of the steam-powered rice mills, most of which were sold by the British. Though most of the leading businessmen in Thailand were of Chinese extraction and accounted for a significant portion of the Thai upper class, some Thai-Chinese during this period lived in huts with no electricity and toilet facilities.[22]

From 1882 to 1917, nearly 13,000 to 34,000 Chinese entered the country per year from southern China which was vulnerable to floods and drought, mostly settling in Bangkok and along the coast of the Gulf of Siam. They predominated in occupations requiring arduous labor, skills, or entrepreneurship. They worked as blacksmiths, railroad laborers, and rickshaw pullers. While most Thais were engaged in rice production, the Chinese brought new farming ideas and new methods to supply labor on its rubber plantations, both domestically and internationally.[22] However, republican ideas brought by the Chinese were considered seditious by the Thai government. For example, a translation of Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People was banned under the Communism Act of 1933. The government had regulated Chinese schools even before compulsory education was established in the country, starting with the Private Schools Act of 1918. This act required all foreign teachers to pass a Thai language test, and for principals of all schools to implement standards set by the Thai Ministry of Education.[23]

In the years between World War I and World War II, Thailand's major exports, rice, tin, rubber, and timber were under Chinese control. By 1924, ethnic Chinese controlled three of the nine sawmills in Bangkok. Market gardening, sugar production, and fish exporting was dominated by the Chinese. Despite British dominance in the Thai economy in the 1890s, the Chinese controlled 62 percent of import-export businesses that operated as agents for the British as well as the Chinese.[22]

Legislation by King Rama VI (1910–1925) that required the adoption of Thai surnames was largely directed at the Chinese community as a number of ethnic Chinese families left Burma between 1930 and 1950 and settled in the Ratchaburi and Kanchanaburi Provinces of western Thailand. A few of the ethnic Chinese families in that area had already emigrated from Burma in the 19th century.

The Chinese in Thailand also suffered discrimination between the 1930s to 1950s under the military dictatorship of Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram (in spite of having part-Chinese ancestry himself),[24] which allied itself with the Empire of Japan. The Primary Education Act of 1932 made the Thai language the compulsory medium of education, but as a result of protests from Thai Chinese, by 1939, students were allowed two hours per week of Mandarin instruction.[23] State corporations took over commodities such as rice, tobacco, and petroleum, and Chinese businesses found themselves subject to a range of new taxes and controls. By 1970, more than 90 percent of the Chinese born in Thailand had abandoned Chinese citizenship and were granted Thai citizenship instead. In 1975, diplomatic relations were established with China.[25]


Intermarriage with the Thais has resulted in many people who claim Thai ethnicity with Chinese ancestry, or mixed.[26] People of Chinese descent are concentrated in the coastal areas of Thailand, principally Bangkok and Paknampho( Nakhonsawan ).[27] Considerable segments of Thailand's economic, political, and academic elite are of Chinese descent.[2]


Due to their assimilation during the Red Scare period in the 1970s, nearly all ethnic Chinese in Thailand speak Thai exclusively. Only elderly Chinese immigrants still speak their native varieties of Chinese. In the modern Thai language there are many signs of Chinese influence.[28] In the 2000 census, 231,350 identified as speakers of a variant of Chinese (Teochew, Hokkien, Hainanese, Cantonese, or Hakka).[2] The Teochew dialect of Chinese has served as the language of Bangkok's influential Chinese merchants' circles since the foundation of the city in the 18th century. Today, businesses in Yaowarat Road and Charoen Krung Road in Bangkok's Samphanthawong District which constitute the city's "Chinatown" still feature bilingual signs in Chinese and Thai.[29] A number of Chinese words have found their way into the Thai language, especially names of dishes and foodstuff, as well as basic numbers (such as those from "three" to "ten") and terms related to gambling.[2] Chin Haw Chinese speak Southwestern Mandarin.

Trade and industry[edit]

British East India Company agent John Crawfurd used detailed company records kept on Prince of Wales's Island (present-day Penang) from 1815 to 1824 to report specifically on the economic aptitude of the 8,595 Chinese there as compared to others. He used the data to estimate the Chinese — about five-sixths of whom were unmarried men in the prime of life — "as equivalent to an ordinary population of above 37,000, a numerical Malay population of more than 80,000!".[30]:p.30 He surmised this and other differences noted as providing, "a very just estimate of the comparative state of civilization among nations, or, which is the same thing, of the respective merits of their different social institutions."[30]:p.34

Of the five billionaires in Thailand in the late-20th century, all were all ethnic Chinese or of partial Chinese descent.[31] On 17 March 2012, Mr. Chaleo Yoovidhya, of humble Chinese origin, died while listed on Forbes list of billionaires as 205th in the world and 3rd in the nation, with an estimated net worth of US$5 billion.[32]

In 2013, the new number three on the list of Thais by net worth was Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, chief stockholder of multinational conglomerates ThaiBev and Fraser and Neave, having a personal net worth estimated at US$6 billion (£3.8bn; €4.4bn.) The sixth of 11 children of a poor street vendor who migrated to Bangkok from southern China, Mr Charoen continued to speak Teochew, his native Chinese dialect, as well as Thai.[33]

Mid-20th century Thailand was isolationist, its economy mired in state-owned enterprises. Over the next several decades, internationalization and market-oriented policies led to the dramatic emergence of a massive export-oriented, large-scale manufacturing sector, which in turn jump-started the economy joining the Tiger Cub Economies. Virtually all of the new manufacturing establishments were Chinese controlled. Despite Thai affirmative action-based policies in the 1930s, 70 percent of retailing outlets and 80-90 percent of rice mills were controlled by ethnic Chinese.[34] A survey of Thailand's roughly seventy most powerful business groups found that all but three were owned by Thai Chinese.[35] Although Bangkok has its own Chinatown, Chinese influence is much more pervasive and subtle throughout the city. The Chinese control more than 80 percent of companies listed on the stock market. Kukrit Pramoj, the aristocratic former prime minister and distant relative of the royal family, once said that most Thais had a Chinese "hanging somewhere on their family tree."[36][37] In Thailand it is said that 50 ethnic Chinese families controlled most of the country's business sectors or 81-90 percent of the overall market capitalization of the Thai economy.[9][11][12][38][39] Highly publicized profiles of Chinese enterprise attracted great public interest and were used to illustrate the community's strong economic presence.[40] More than 80 percent of the top 40 richest people in Thailand are Thai of full- or part-Chinese descent.[41] Thai Chinese entrepreneurs are influential in the sectors of real estate, agriculture, banking, and finance, as well as wholesale trading.[42][43] From an economic standpoint, overseas Chinese are seen as a fraction of the wealth they have created and added to the host country's economy, and representing what the Chinese have spent on themselves and their families.[44] In the late 1950s, ethnic Chinese comprised 70 percent of Bangkok's business owners and senior business managers[8] and to 90 percent of the shares in Thai corporations are said to be held by Thais of Chinese extraction.[45][46] 90 percent of Thailand's industrial and commercial capital are also held by ethnic Chinese.[47] Ninety percent 90% of all investments in the industry and commercial sector and at least 50 percent of all investments in the banking and finance sectors is controlled by ethnic Chinese.[48] Economic advantages would also persist as Thai Chinese controlled 80-90 percent of the rice mills, the largest enterprises in the nation.[44] In 1890, despite British shipping domination in Bangkok, Chinese conducted 62 percent of the import-export business, operating for agents for Western shippers as well as their own. They also dominated rubber industry, market gardening, sugar production, and fish exporting.[49]

Of the 25 leading entrepreneurs in the Thai business sector, 23 are ethnic Chinese or of partial Chinese origin.[50] Thai Chinese also control 96 percent of Thailand's 70 most powerful business groups with the exceptions being the Thai Military Bank, the Crown Property Bureau, and a Thai-Indian corporation.[51][52][53] Family firms are extremely common in the Thai business sector as they are passed down from one generation to the next.[54] Ninety percent of Thailand's manufacturing sector and 50 percent of Thailand's service sector is controlled by ethnic Chinese.[54] According to a Financial Statistics of the 500 Largest Public Companies in Asia Controlled by Overseas Chinese in 1994 chart released by sociologist Dr. Henry Yeung of the National University of Singapore, 39 companies were concentrated in Thailand with a market capitalization of US$35 billion and total assets of US$94 billion.[54] In Thailand, ethnic Chinese control the four largest private banks, of which Bangkok Bank is the largest and most profitable private bank.[55][56]

Thai Chinese businesses are part of the larger bamboo network, a network of overseas Chinese businesses operating in the markets of Southeast Asia that share common family and cultural ties.[57] Following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, structural reforms imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Indonesia and Thailand led to the loss of many monopolistic positions long held by the ethnic Chinese elite.[58] Nevertheless, Thai Chinese are estimated to own 60 percent of the national trade, 90 percent of all local investments in the commercial sector, 90 percent of all local investments in the manufacturing sector, and 50 percent of all local investments in the banking and finance sector.[59][60]

Thai-Chinese businesses in China[edit]

Thai-Chinese-run businesses are now the largest investors in China among all overseas Chinese communities worldwide.[61] An example is the Charoen Pokphand (CP Group), a Thai conglomerate with US$25 billion in annual sales founded by the Thai-Chinese Chearavanont family. It is currently the single largest foreign investor in China with hundreds of businesses from agricultural food products, to retail and leisure, to industrial manufacturing and employing more than 150,000 people in China.[61] It is known in China under well-known household names such as the "Chia Tai Group" and "Zheng Da Ji Tuan". CP Group also owns and operates Tesco Lotus, one of the largest foreign hypermarket operators with 74 stores and seven distribution centers throughout 30 cities across China. One of CP Group's flagship businesses in China is a US$400 million Super Brand Mall, the largest mall in Shanghai's exclusive Pudong business district. Reignwood Pine Valley,[62] China's most exclusive golf and country clubs, were founded and owned by a Thai-Chinese business tycoon, Chanchai Rouyrungruen (operator of Red Bull drink business in China). It is cited as the most popular course in Asia. In 2008, Mr. Chanchai became the first owner of a business jet on the Chinese mainland.[63] Anand's Saha-Union, Thailand's leading industrial group, have so far invested over US$1.5 billion in China, and is operating more than 11 power plants in three of China's provinces. With over other 30 businesses in China, the company employs approximately 7,000 Chinese workers.[61] Central Group, Thailand's largest operator of shopping centers (and owner of Italy's leading department store, La Rinascente) with US$3.5 billion in annual sales founded by a Thai-Chinese Chirathivat family, have recently opened three new large scale department stores in China.[61]


A Chinese temple in Bangkok

First-generation Chinese immigrants were followers of Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. Theravada Buddhism has since become the religion of many ethnic Chinese in Thailand, especially among assimilated Chinese. Very often, many Chinese in Thailand combine practices of Chinese folk religion with Theravada Buddhism.[64] Major Chinese festivals such as Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival and Qingming are widely celebrated, especially in Bangkok, Phuket, and other parts of Thailand where there are large Chinese populations.[65]

The Chinese in Phuket are noted for their nine-day vegetarian festival between September and October. During the festive season, devotees will abstain from meat and mortification of the flesh by Chinese mediums are also commonly seen, and the rites and rituals seen are devoted to the veneration of Tua Pek Kong. Such idiosyncratic traditions were developed during the 19th century in Phuket by the local Chinese with influences from Thai culture.[66]

In the north, there are some Chinese people who practice Islam. They belong to a group of Chinese people, known as Chin Ho. Most of the Chinese Muslims are descended from Hui people who live in Yunnan, China. There are currently seven Chinese mosques in Chiang Mai,[67] one of them is Baan Haw Mosque, a well known mosque in the north.

Dialect groups[edit]

The vast majority of Thai Chinese belong to various southern Chinese dialect groups. Of these, 56 percent are Teochew (also commonly spelled as Teochiu), 16 percent Hakka and 11 percent Hainanese. The Cantonese and Hokkien each constitute seven percent of the Chinese population, and three percent belong to other Chinese dialect groups.[68] A large number of Thai Chinese are the descendants of intermarriages between Chinese immigrants and Thais, while there are others who are of predominantly or solely of Chinese descent. People who are of mainly Chinese descent are descendants of immigrants who relocated to Thailand as well as other parts of Nanyang (the Chinese term for Southeast Asia used at the time) in the early to mid-20th century due to famine and civil war in the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong (Teochew, Cantonese, Hainan, Hakka groups) and Fujian (Hokkien, Hakka).

Teochew and Hokkien[edit]

The Teochews mainly settled near the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. Many of them worked in government, while others were involved in trade. During the reign of King Taksin, some influential Teochew traders were granted certain privileges. These prominent traders were called "royal Chinese" (Jin-luang or จีนหลวง in Thai).

The Hokkiens constitute the largest dialect group among the Chinese in Songkhla, Satun, and Phuket.


Hakkas are mainly concentrated in Chiang Mai, Phuket, and central western provinces. The Hakka own many private banks in Thailand, notably Kasikorn Bank.


In the southern Thai provinces, notably the Chinese community in Phuket Province, the assimilated group is known as Peranakans or Phuket Baba. These people share a similar culture and identity with the Peranakan Chinese in neighboring Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia.[69][70][71] Ethnic Chinese in the Malay-dominated provinces in the south used Malay, rather than Thai as their lingua franca, and occasionally intermarry with the local Malays.[72]:14-15


Substantial numbers of Chinese people of (mainly) Yunnanese descent can be found in villages around Chiang Rai Province especially Santikhiri. These are descendants of Kuomintang soldiers who fought against the Chinese Communist soldiers in the 1940s, before fleeing to the northern regions and settling among the local people.[73][74][75] The Chinese Muslim community, also known as Haw or Hui settled in parts of northern Thailand during the years of the Panthay Rebellion, who eventually formed a distinct community in Chiang Mai by the late-1890s.[72]:93

Linguistic concentrations[edit]

  • Teochew
  • Hakka
  • Hainanese
  • Cantonese
  • Hokkien


Almost all Sino-Thais, especially those who came to Thailand before the 1920s, possess a Thai surname, as was required by King Rama VI in order for them to become Thai citizens. The few who retain native Chinese surnames are either recent immigrants or resident aliens.

Sino-Thai surnames are often distinct from those of the general population, with generally longer names mimicking those of high officials and upper-class Thais[76] and with elements of these longer names retaining their original Chinese surname in translation or transliteration. For example, former Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-Archa's unusual Archa element is a translation into Thai of his family's former name Ma (trad. 馬, simp. 马, lit. "horse"). Similarly, the Lim in Sondhi Limthongkul's name is the Hainanese pronunciation of the name Lin (林). Or it may have been done for them. For an example, see the background of the Vejjajiva Palace name.[77] Note that the latter-day Royal Thai General System of Transcription would transcribe it as "Wetchachiwa" and that the Sanskrit-derived name refers to "medical profession."

For immigrants came between the 1920s and 1950s, it is common to simply prefix Sae- (from Chinese: , "surname") to a transliteration of their name to form the new surname; Wanlop Saechio's last name thus derived from the Chinese and Chanin Sae-ear's last name mean . Sae is also used by Hmong people in Thailand.

Many Thai Chinese people who immigrated after the 1950s use their Chinese surname, without Sae-.

Notable Thai Chinese[edit]



Thai Prime Ministers of (partial) Chinese origin[edit]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Disaphol Chansiri (2008). "The Chinese Émigrés of Thailand in the Twentieth Century". Cambria Press 
  • Supang Chantavanich (1997). Leo Suryadinata, ed. From Siamese-Chinese to Chinese-Thai: Political Conditions and Identity Shifts among the Chinese in Thailand. Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. pp. 232–259. 
  • G. William Skinner (2008). "Chinese Society in Thailand: An Analytical History". Lightning Source 
  • Tong Chee Kiong; Chan Kwok Bun (eds.) (2001). Alternate Identities: The Chinese of Contemporary Thailand. Times Academic Press. ISBN 981-210-142-X 
  • Skinner, G. William. Chinese Society in Thailand, an Analytic History. Ithaca (Cornell University Press), 1957.
  • Skinner, G. William. Leadership and Power in the Chinese Community in Thailand. Ithaca (Cornell University Press), 1958.
  • Sng, Jeffery; Bisalputra, Pimpraphai (2015). A History of the Thai-Chinese. Editions Didier Millet. ISBN 978-981-4385-77-0. 

External links[edit]