The Teochew Frontiers | bangkokvanguards
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TECHNOLOGY

The Teochew Frontiers

TECHNOLOGYTECHNOLOGYTECHNOLOGY

Exploring Bangkok’s Chinatown, listening to people’s accounts of the past and meeting like-minded explorers tracing their roots sparked my curiosity about what the world back then. Especially by exploring deeper into Bangkok’s Chinatown, one is able to find traces of this bygone era, crumbling buildings and lost places, what started out as a passion for urban exploration turned into a journey to my own story and my own family. My great grandfather (from my mother’s side) was a Teochew Chinese. He immigrated from from the Guang Dong province to Siam and eventually settled and started coconut sugar production in Samut Songkhram. This world was basically the Thailand I knew as a child and teenager. In the early 19th century, American missionaries first documented Chinese dominated settlements along the Maeklong river engaged in coconut sugar production.

Giant Swing
Exploring our roots. K. Somchai says that if people knew more about the history and role of their communities it could elevate the status of their community.
Giant Swing
My great grandfather who migrated from Chao Zhou to Siam probably around the turn of the 20th century.
Giant Swing
His old Daoist shrine. Daoism and Buddhism has coexisted for thousands of years.
Giant Swing
The peacock feather symbolises dignity and beauty but also the goddess Guan Yin which is a family guardian.
Giant Swing
Tracing our ancestors. There are not many records, such as birth certificates unlike in Europe where the church kept most of the records, not so in a Buddhist country.

The fan rattles as we sit in one of the hidden Chinese communal shrines in Sampeng. Khun Somchai points to the signboard. Why did people come here? Why was this important? He wants to understand why the things are the way they are? Where does it come from? Where did the neighbourhood got its name from? “It’s like a jigsaw, like a detective work.” he says and I feel I have a lot in common with drive to explore and to understand places related to his roots.

While my great grandfather may took advantage of the new rail system in his search for opportunities, my grandmother and her relatives still relied on the traditional waterways. Canals remained an essential infrastructure for cross-provincial transport for both goods and people well into the 20th century. Different routes to Samut Songkhram and the western periphery were available. Either directly via Mahachai to Maeklong. The Nakhon Chaisi to Ratchaburi or northwest Nakhon Pathom – Ratchaburi. It will be these routes that I’m going to focus my upcoming surveys and research.

Bangkok marked the beginning of a new journey for millions of impoverished Chinese like my great grandfather and like many my great grandfather came with a “one-way ticket” some time during the later stage of King Chulalongkorn’s reign (1868 – 1910) or during era of King Rama VI (1910 – 1925).

“Maybe because when we search the origins of our community, we find a part of ourselves in there. It’s like a treasure hunt.” Somchai Kwangtongpanich

Chinese labor and their enterprising nature elevated Thailand not only rank among the world’s top producers and exporters for rice and sugar but ensured Bangkok’s regional competitiveness. The landscapes and places I explore were moulded in their wake and as I learn more about the history of the Chinese in Thailand, I view the train I take, the canals I travel on or cycle alongside with new eyes.

During his time at the turn of the 20th century and by the time my grandmother first arrived in Bangkok on barge in the 1940’s, the city has been transitioning from a water-based city to a land and road-based city. The reforms of King Rama V (King Chulalongkorn) in light of foreign pressure, the introduction of the market economy and new technologies accelerated this rapid transformation. The new transport network allowed people, especially Chinese to settle far away from the crowded confines of Sampeng. The train connection from Bangkok to Maeklong via Mahachai opened in 1905. Today this route has become a popular way for tourists to take a more off the beaten path option to the Umbrella Market in Maeklong.

With my cousin in tow, we walk over to our aunt’s house. Walking our coconut plantation evokes memories of my visits during summer holidays when I was a kid. Even my own childhood memories seem to be from ancient times. The area was so much less developed than it is today. No six-lane highway, no tarmac, not as many concrete buildings. There was no sightseeing on our program, no Grand Palace, no islands, just local life with grandma and that’s how I fell in love with Thailand.

Maeklong the capital of Samut Songkhram, like most of the coastal market centres had a large population of Teochew Chinese. They brought with them new technologies from China and specialised in the fishing industry, salt production and agriculture. The Teochew are the majority among Thailand’s five main Chinese ethnicities; the other four being the Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese and Hailam.

Another reason for the transformation of Bangkok’s countryside was Thailand’s transformation from self-sufficient, small scale paddy cultivation to become a global player in the rice export and sugar industry. King Chulalongkorn made it a national agenda to recruite indented labor from southeastern China to build the necessary transport infrastructure. I’m not aware whether my great grand father was hired for that purpose but I’m glad he was not among the thousands of Chinese who perished from tropical diseases while clearing the forests, excavating canals and constructing Thailand’s road and railway network.

The trees still stand thick around us. I come into view of a small wooden house. I have only faint memories but the canals were much wider, filled with water, deep enough that my relatives bathed in them. Yes, we bathed either by using rain water from huge jars in the outdoor or bathed right in the canal. Walking through plantations to your neighbours meant to cross canals by balancing on a bamboo pole. Now, these are irrigation ditches are silted, a sign that urbanisation is on the advance and agriculture on the retreat.

Everyone seems surprised about my mission to shed some light on the origins of our family. The humidity is heavy and leafing through old documents becomes a CrossFit exercise. A heated guessing game ensues in an even hotter living room. Did grandfather arrive during the era of King Rama 5 or Rama 6? How did he get here? Whom can we ask? How old is the house? My great grandfather’s Daoist shrine perched on an altar watching over us while we’re taking wild guesses. Fresh offerings are placed in front his black and white image and that of my great grandmother. It turns out that my cousins are at a loss when it comes to the history of our great grandfather.

Where did the Teochew migrants settle and what is left of their heritage?

Historically the Teochew Chinese had a reputation of being seafaring renegades and smugglers. Their expertise in sailing and sea transport made them the dominant group in the coastal market towns near Bangkok. But they also controlled over 90% of the rice mills, pawnshops and pharmacies, and engaged in the fishing industry, salt and sugar production. Other ethnic groups such as the Hailam dominated the timber trade and sawmills, machinery was in Cantonese hands, nine out of ten tailors and the whole leather industry was owned by Hakka and rubber export was the domain of the Hokkien. The Teochew were also agriculturists and so was my great grandfather who eventually began his life as coconut sugar producer in Samut Songkhram.

He was among the growing number of traders and merchants, craftsmen, tailors, pharmacists, chefs, performers and farmers who not only made up Bangkok’s dynamic urban society but also settled in the coastal towns, the new market places and frontier regions of the river basins around Bangkok. As my family is from Samut Songkhram my focus will be on the western regions along the Tha Chin and Maeklong rivers for the foreseeable future.

The Maeklong and Tha Chin river basins were characterised through Chinese mercantilism and agricultural production. A slow-paced world of canals, plantations, a water-based lifestyle, floating markets and rural communities. In light of Bangkok’s rapid industrialisation, my goal is to find out how much of that world is left so that we can embark on a slow-life journey that lets us forget that we’re living in the 21. century?

Bangkok marked the beginning of a new journey for millions of impoverished Chinese like my great grandfather and like many my great grandfather came with a “one-way ticket” some time during the later stage of King Chulalongkorn’s reign (1868 – 1910) or during era of King Rama VI (1910 – 1925).

While my great grandfather may took advantage of the new rail system in his search for opportunities, my grandmother and her relatives still relied on the traditional waterways. Canals remained an essential infrastructure for cross-provincial transport for both goods and people well into the 20th century. Different routes to Samut Songkhram and the western periphery were available. Either directly via Mahachai to Maeklong. The Nakhon Chaisi to Ratchaburi or northwest Nakhon Pathom – Ratchaburi. It will be these routes that I’m going to focus my upcoming surveys and research.

Chinese labor and their enterprising nature elevated Thailand not only rank among the world’s top producers and exporters for rice and sugar but ensured Bangkok’s regional competitiveness. The landscapes and places I explore were moulded in their wake and as I learn more about the history of the Chinese in Thailand, I view the train I take, the canals I travel on or cycle alongside with new eyes.

During his time at the turn of the 20th century and by the time my grandmother first arrived in Bangkok on barge in the 1940’s, the city has been transitioning from a water-based city to a land and road-based city. The reforms of King Rama V (King Chulalongkorn) in light of foreign pressure, the introduction of the market economy and new technologies accelerated this rapid transformation. The new transport network allowed people, especially Chinese to settle far away from the crowded confines of Sampeng. The train connection from Bangkok to Maeklong via Mahachai opened in 1905. Today this route has become a popular way for tourists to take a more off the beaten path option to the Umbrella Market in Maeklong.

When I was young I didn’t know that paying respect to our ancestors is a traditional Chinese practice and for the first time I noticed how old this wooden house actually is. It’s the house he built, sitting on stilts. Flood were common, sometimes flooding for months each year. The house is simple and a perfect example of the light wood structures that characterised the amphibious life along the river and canals. It actually belongs to a museum. Most of  the traditional rural dwellings have disappeared along the main roads but they can still be found in the depth of Samut Songkhram’s plantations. Since I’ve started reading about history and heritage preservation, I see these houses through different eyes but I think my relatives might want to send me to see a shrink for being so interested their house.

TIt was already a period of rapid modernisation and nation-building, an era when Chinese immigration peaked as the onset of World War 2 put a stop to it.

Exploring Bangkok’s Chinatown, listening to people’s accounts of the past and meeting like-minded explorers tracing their roots sparked my curiosity about what the world back then. Especially by exploring deeper into Bangkok’s Chinatown, one is able to find traces of this bygone era, crumbling buildings and lost places, what started out as a passion for urban exploration turned into a journey to my own story and my own family. My great grandfather (from my mother’s side) was a Teochew Chinese. He immigrated from from the Guang Dong province to Siam and eventually settled and started coconut sugar production in Samut Songkhram. This world was basically the Thailand I knew as a child and teenager. In the early 19th century, American missionaries first documented Chinese dominated settlements along the Maeklong river engaged in coconut sugar production.

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