“Forget it, Jake — it’s Chinatown!” is a classic line from a classic movie, but a Chinatown in LA, London or Sydney is going to stand out far more than a Chinatown in Bangkok or Chiang Mai will ever do. Chiang Mai’s so-called Chinatown is the Worarot market and commercial district though apart from a few more shop signs than usual being in Chinese and a few lanterns festooned on buildings around Chinese/Lunar New Year you wouldn’t usually be able to tell — for the simple reason that most central commercial districts in most Thai cities, whether Hat Yai, Nakhon Sawan, Surin or Chiang Mai are full of Thai citizens of ethnic Chinese origin.
Statistics vary enormously but it’s a safe guess that between 20 and 30 percent of the population of Thailand is in fact of ethnic Chinese origin. Indeed Chinese trading communities certainly existed in Mon ports and entrepots in the region before the Thais even migrated to Thailand.
The majority of that Chinese minority live in cities and many of those are involved in commerce. Unlike in many other Southeast Asian countries however the Thai Chinese community is highly assimilated, with the majority adopting Thai language, culture and Thai names — even, for example, the current prime minister.
So, Worarot certainly does have a large number of Thais of Chinese origin but walking around you’ll see Thai street food for sale (mainstream Thai cuisine has long incorporated many Chinese dishes, including chicken rice, dim sum and noodles), and if you do hear Mandarin or Cantonese being spoken it’ll probably be by a Chinese or Singaporean tourist.
Incidentally, many of the more recent Chinese migrants to northern Thailand are Yunnanese Muslims and so don’t celebrate what is strictly-speaking the Mahayana Buddhist New Year. To be pedantic, there’s no such thing as “Chinese New Year” — the Vietnamese celebrate Tet, which is their own version of the Buddhist lunar new year, as do Mongolians. People practising Theravada Buddhism, the predominant religion in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, celebrate new year on a fixed date every year: April 13 for New Year’s Eve, April 14 for New Year’s Day.
So, what is it about “Chinatown” anyway? Perhaps in the more staid Western cities, Chinatown conjures up a more vibrant, exotic quarter of the city, with interesting food and possibly more street life — but really, who needs that in an average Southeast Asian city anyway? China’s only a 45-minute flight from Chiang Mai … so if you want the real deal, it’s not too far away to actually go.
By Mark Ord.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.