In Thailand, ethnic Chinese find hope in heritage


CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Descendants of the Republic of China (ROC) troops stranded in Thailand after the Chinese Civil War are striving to reconnect with their roots — and open up future opportunities — by learning their parents’ language.

Chinese-language education has become a tradition for students in the northern Thai villages where offspring of Chinese soldiers, largely from southwest China, wound up after the ROC moved its capital to Taipei and the People’s Republic of China was founded on the mainland.

In Ban Mai Nong Bua, north of Chiang Mai City, some 1,600 students spend their days at regular Thai schools and their nights at Yixin, a cram school where they brush up on Chinese language and, for most of the students, write in traditional Chinese characters.

When regular schools take a break in October, these students continue to show up at Yixin to learn phonetics and practice reading with books provided by Taiwan’s education ministry.

They are tracing their heritage, and, at the same time, setting themselves on a path to a better future.

By arming themselves with language and cultural skills they can find careers other than farming, like translators or tour guides, said school head Shen Qingmin.

Career choices are also limited in nearby Ban Arunothai, where well over half of the villagers scrape by as farmers, according to Yang Guoshun, the head of a Chinese school in the village.

“A lot of people are in poverty here, living off the land day-to-day,” Yang said. “The ones who can do so make their way to Bangkok or Phuket to work as tour guides, where they do better for themselves.”

Being able to speak Mandarin Chinese — an official language in China, Taiwan, and Singapore and spoken by ethnic Chinese worldwide — creates other possibilities for rural Thai-Chinese, such as opening their own businesses.

Yang Xueqing, a board member at Yixin, used his understanding of Chinese to pursue a college education in Taiwan. After returning to Thailand and working for a few years in Bangkok, he moved back to his hometown to open an orchard.

But the 43-year-old recalls that despite his relative success, bad weather could hurt lychee and tangerine yields, meaning up to a year without income.

He and his family have since shifted their attention to ranches, and he now hopes to draw tourists seeking a respite from city life to his four ranches around Chiang Mai.

With knowledge of Thai and Mandarin, ethnic Chinese in northern Thailand are uniquely equipped to thrive in business, as Yang has.

All of the good opportunities lie away from the rural north, Yang advised, but as soon as young people collect enough experience and capital in other places, they will be poised to come back home and make a better life not just for themselves, but for their communities as well.