The Tragedy of the Thai-Chinese

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A social commentary on how third generation Chinese living in Thailand have discarded the frugal nature that have made the Thai-Chinese so successful in the Kingdom of Smiles.

A social commentary on how third generation Chinese living in Thailand have discarded the frugal nature that have made the Thai-Chinese so successful in the Kingdom of Smiles.

This article was previously published in China in Focus on February 2012, a periodical from the China in Focus Society at Warwick University. The original printed version can be read and downloaded here.

By Karn G. Bulsuk


Racing around in the city in his shiny black BMW, he stops arrogantly at a traffic light to push up his Ray Ban glasses. He’s at the top of his game: custom made shoes, brand name clothes, and a six million baht apartment right beside the BTS skytrain station, in a country where the average middle-class, fresh graduate annual wage is a mere 250,000 baht (UK £515). He spends his Friday nights dancing away at clubs and drinking Johnny Walker with Coca Cola, spends thousands of baht more on meals at classy restaurants and hangs out with his friends, who basically do the same thing.

Most likely than not, he and his friends would be around 20 years old, university students, and most telling of all, Thai-Chinese. It is a comic-tragedy on epic proportions.

The spoilt generation

In Thailand, the Chinese have long been regarded as entrepreneurs and the business people of the Kingdom. In fact, this image is more or less true: more than half of the largest businesses in Thailand were founded by Chinese and are still run by their decedents.

The same admirable stereotypes that are accorded to the Chinese globally also apply to Thai-Chinese: that they are frugal, work exceptionally hard and are excellent business people. In general, they are highly successful and well off both in the economic and political realms.

Many of the stories from first and second generation Chinese illustrate these positive stereotypes. Your correspondent’s grandmother first came to Thailand from China when she was a child. To raise a family of 6, she needed to sell pork at the local fresh market, working 16 hour days every day. Her husband, also equally successful, owned a construction company which built roads in the south of Thailand during the height of the Cold War. Armed to the teeth with M-16 machine guns, bazookas and shot guns in addition to tarmac and tractors, construction was a stop and go affair as they battled communist insurgents, who attempted to prevent road construction to stop the Thai Army from advancing.

Decades of hard work paid off, and they were able to send all six of their children to university. Today, they are a proud member of the upper middle classes: well off and able to fully relax in their old age.

While these stereotypes may have held true in the past, it is quickly being eroded away by the current and upcoming generation which have squandered their parents’ gain and hardship, ironically all with the blessing of their parents. It is the Thai version of the “Little Emperor” problem seen on mainland China, but without child control policies, an exponentially larger issue.

A typical child born in Thailand to third-generation Thai-Chinese would be coddled since birth.
From an early age, parents would act as chauffeurs to send their children to school, extra-curricular activities and most importantly, tutorial schools in the evenings and weekends. Many are not expected to do housework, and even until adulthood, will not have ever cooked, cleaned or ironed a shirt. All meals would be provided by the domestic helper, while clothes would be placed into a basket and magically appear clean, pressed and on hangers the following day.

Once they pass through high school and prepare for university exams, many parents will provide their children with an incentive: a car if they manage to enter into a good university. Common brands include  Toyota Camary or equally often, a Mercedes Benz or BMW. In a country where a 300% import tax is slapped onto imported cars such as a Mini Cooper, they are extremely expensive, clocking in at least 3 million baht (UK £61,776) to over 8 million baht (UK £164,737). Rarer but still common, richer parents may choose to purchase a sports car such as a Porsche for their offspring to race around the traffic clogged streets of Bangkok.

All throughout university, parents would provide their children with an all expenses paid experience. There is no culture of working part time as a student: all fuel, food and tuition costs would be borne by their parents. If they choose to live in dorms, those expenses would be paid as well. They would receive monthly allowances to live comfortably, never having to work for what they spend.

At the average age of 21, these children would graduate from university and get a job, which would pay around 18,000 to 24,000 baht a month (UK £370 to £494). As incentive for graduating with a good Grade Point Average (GPA), or just because parents want to ensure that their children do not need to suffer to travel to work, many parents will choose to purchase apartments for their children, conveniently located near one of the new MRT underground or BTS skytrain system. On average, such apartments start at 3.5 million baht (UK £72,000) and reach for the sky. The amount of money they make for the first 10 years of their career will never be able to pay back the cost of their apartment, yet alone a BMW.

Even then, many of these former children would have the ability to spend every single penny of their salary, as their parents will continue to support them with gasoline fees and in some cases, even provide an allowance for their children. It is common to see fresh graduates carrying Louis Vuttion bags with a BlackBerry, iPhone and iPad tagging along.

After around two years in the work force, the pattern goes that these Thai-Chinese will go to graduate school to obtain their Master’s degree in some subject, related or unrelated to their work. Many choose to go to the United Kingdom, where all expenses from allowances, luxury accommodation, food and tuition fees are fully paid by their parents. Upon graduation, the majority choose not to stay in the UK where they may earn back the cost of their tuition, but choose to immediately return to Thailand to take up a job which may pay between 30,000-40,000 baht per month (UK £618 to £823), while continuing to live in their parents funded apartment and drive their parents bought car. Others may continue to live at home and work in their family business, eating food bought by their mum, using their water and electricity, and never quite leaving the nest.

We are rapidly losing the basic values which have made the Chinese so admired and successful throughout the world. The hard work and spirit of perseverance which defined the very core essence of being Chinese has now gone, leaving us with a generation which are very good at spending money, but not so good at making it. A generation which does not understand that hardship and hard work comes before comfort. A generation that does not understand what it is to be Chinese. And that in itself, is the greatest tragedy of all.



Photo credit: Praphol Chattharakul

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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead: The Tragedy of the Thai-Chinese
The Tragedy of the Thai-Chinese
A social commentary on how third generation Chinese living in Thailand have discarded the frugal nature that have made the Thai-Chinese so successful in the Kingdom of Smiles.
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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead
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