Little distinction between ethnic Thai and Chinese amid close ties

Little distinction between ethnic Thai and Chinese amid close ties
Photo shoots before Chinese New Year are common at the big gate that marks the entrance of the Yaowarat Road gold district. Thai Crown Princess Sirindhorn will launch Bangkok's three-day celebrations there today.

Thailand's popular Crown Princess Sirindhorn will open three days of raucous festivities in Bangkok's Chinatown today, walk with the dragon dancers and mingle with the thousands of people who fill Yaowarat Road from end to end in celebration of the Chinese New Year.

Sampheng - an old name for Bangkok's Chinatown - erupts in noise, music and celebration over the three days that the main street, Yaowarat Road, is closed to traffic.

Dragon and lion dancers, complete with crashing cymbals, roam the area. By nightfall, the main big dragon is lit with LED lights and the red and multi-coloured paper lanterns form a roof of light over the road, stretching more than one kilometre.

The Crown Princess, one of the most popular among the royal family, makes it a point to visit Sampheng every Chinese New Year. It is a sign of the close bond that the Chinese community has formed with the country.

For more than 400 years, successive Thai monarchs have welcomed Chinese immigrants and allowed them to maintain their own unique culture while assimilating in Thailand.

The result: There is little or no useful distinction left any more between ethnic Chinese and ethnic Thai.

Mr Jitti Tangsithpakdi, 74, chairman of the Gold Traders Association and a member of the executive committee of the Thian Fah Foundation Hospital, remembers how he started on Yaowarat Road more than 50 years ago, selling anything he could get hold of on the street at night, after finishing a day's work at the bottom rung of the family's gold business.

Today, in a black chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce Ghost, he glides to a stop outside his own gold shop on that very street.

"If you want gold, you have to come here," he said. "On this one street, Yaowarat, just about 1.2km long, there are around 100 gold shops.

"And all Thailand's big banks? They all started here."

Like most ethnic Chinese, Mr Jitti grew up bilingual, learning and speaking the Chinese dialect of Teochew and Thai.

His business card is trilingual - in Chinese, Thai and English. But today, for the most part, like almost all the residents of Sampheng, he speaks in Thai.

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