Bangkok’s ‘new Chinatown’ flourished when a steady stream of Chinese tourists visited the area. As the country prepares to re-open its borders, the question is whether the area will revisit its glory days.
The Pracha Rat Bamphen neighbourhood in Huai Khwang, Bangkok was once a buzzing business area primarily run by new Chinese migrants. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has severely impacted these businesses. They are not the only ones affected. Thai landlords, business partners, and street traders have also gone belly up. With the pandemic situation improving and Thailand’s international borders re-opening, the question remains as to whether the Chinese in Huai Khwang can revive the area’s glory days.
Since 2013, around 7,000 young Chinese migrants have moved into the area, mainly for business and to buy properties. The area has turned increasingly visibly ‘Chinese’ over the years, with Chinese-language shop signs becoming ubiquitous. Unsurprisingly, this area is dubbed the ‘New Chinatown’ of Bangkok — the new upstart compared to Yaowarat Road, which is regarded as the first in Bangkok, given that Chinese settlers had based themselves there in the nineteenth century. However, the moniker is hotly debated as the ‘New Chinatown’ is very much different compared to Yaowarat Road — there is a stark absence of civic spaces such as Chinese clan associations or Chinese temples. Interestingly, new Chinese migrants generally refer to the area by the name of its district, ‘Huai Khwang’, which happens to be the homonym of the Chinese word ‘huī huáng (辉煌)’, meaning, glorious/glory.
From 2016 to when Covid-19 hit in 2020, Huai Khwang was an attractive business and residential area to new Chinese migrants. Younger Chinese migrants, especially volunteer teachers affiliated with Confucius Institutes, students, graduates of the Thai universities, and other temporal residents, found it convenient due to its proximity to the Chinese Embassy and easy access to the Bank of China. Chinese restaurants, logistics services, medical facilities and accommodation with Chinese-speaking staff were also located in the precinct.
… the pandemic has turned Huai Khwang into a ghost town. Huai Khwang’s misfortunes resulted from the nature of the business it promoted and the patrons it attracted. The drastic reduction of Chinese tourists was the main cause.
Over time, many of these new Chinese migrants, such as graduating students or volunteer teachers transitioning out of their part-time or full-time professional work, started running small scale commercial enterprises in Huai Khwang. According to the Huai Khwang district office’s revenue department, new Chinese migrants owned 95 shops in 2018. In all, they rented 181 buildings from Thai landlords, or signed leases through Chinese agents. These 95 shops were engaged in a variety of businesses. They include logistics and transportation services between China and Thailand; selling leather products, bird’s nest tonics and crocodile skin; running Thai massage parlours; and overseeing tourism services for Chinese customers.
Before the pandemic, Chinese tourists formed the bulk of the visitors to the area, followed by temporal Chinese residents. In 2019, 10.86 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand — up from 10.56 million in the previous year. Chinese tour guides excessively promoted Huai Khwang as the ‘New Chinatown’. Also, the area gained popularity through Chinese social media campaigns directed at tourists for Thai goods and souvenirs, which were affordable but had decent quality.
However, the pandemic has turned Huai Khwang into a ghost town. Huai Khwang’s misfortunes resulted from the nature of the business it promoted and the patrons it attracted. The drastic reduction of Chinese tourists was the main cause. Due to the lockdowns in China and Thailand, the number of Chinese tourists to Thailand collapsed, falling from 1.2 million in 2020 to 9,257 in 2021. According to the immigration office of Thailand, the number of non-Immigrant visas issued to Chinese residents throughout the kingdom saw a massive drop.
With the precipitous fall in the number of Chinese tourists, it is understandable that the infrastructure supporting such tourists contracted. The people who run the businesses in the area are transient, temporal Chinese residents. They had moved to Thailand in the past decade seeking better economic opportunities. Thus, the passion of young and new Chinese migrants who act as brokers, middlemen and entrepreneurs follow the trajectory of economic booms. They had little reason to remain in Thailand when the situation turned bad.
When most Chinese owners in Huai Khwang closed their stores to return to China or moved their business elsewhere, Thai landlords, business partners, and street traders also suffered. They lost the income earned as rent-seekers. Monthly commission payments, remuneration for administrative processes and daily sales also declined. Some Thai business partners became mired in debt after their Chinese partners disappeared without a trace.
Road to Recovery
As Thailand prepares to open its borders to tourists and travel again soon, the question is whether Huai Khwang can return to its pre-pandemic glory days, especially with stricter enforcement of the law by Thai authorities.
A good indicator would be the incidences of business misconduct. When business was booming, cases of business misconduct were rampant in Huai Khwang. Reportedly, in 2018, 44 out of 95 shops were found to be unlicensed. Even the number of licensed businesses were somehow inflated because some Chinese stores were registered under the names of local Thais, obscuring the exact number of Chinese businesses. The Thai police monitored illegal business practices in late 2017 and early 2018, and cracked down on Chinese shopkeepers who held tourist visas, Chinese employees without work permits, and shops peddling counterfeit products. Local Thais were also unhappy about the foreign presence, which they considered a threat to job opportunities.
Thus, taking this moment of preparation for re-opening as an opportunity, Thai authorities should envisage how Huai Khwang can be reformed sustainably without an over reliance on new Chinese migrants, while also allowing businesses to flourish despite reforms. Like Yaowarat Road, greater participation from locals, private sector businesses and the authorities might be the key.
Aranya Siriphon is currently Assistant Professor at Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University, Northern Thailand.
Fanzura Banu was Research Officer at the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Pagon Gatchalee is Lecturer in Marketing, Chiang Mai Business School, Chiang Mai University.