Now, It's Hip to be Chinese; many Asians flaunt Roots to China as Nation gains C
January 4, 2007 8:16am CST
Now, It's Hip to be Chinese; many Asians flaunt Roots to China as Nation gains C Now, It's Hip to Be Chinese; Many Asians flaunt Roots to China as Nation gains Cachet By James Hookway Bangkok, Thailand -- KITTI JINSIRIWANICH HAD little idea that heavyweight advertisers such as Nokia and BMW would come knocking at his door when he began selling a photocopied magazine bound together with ratty bits of string. His magazine, Da Jia Hao -- "Hello Everybody" in Chinese -- recounts humdrum daily life in the crowded back streets around his family home in Bangkok. His neighborhood, however, happens to be the tight grid of streets that comprise this city's old Chinatown. In just a few months, Da Jia Hao has become a cult hit among Chinese-Thais from Bangkok's suburbs looking for a way to reconnect to their ancestry. "It looks like being Chinese is cool," says Mr. Kitti, a 27-year-old ethnic Chinese, as he flips through mock-ups of his magazine's glossy new look. Mr. Kitti's readers aren't the only Asians taking a fresh look at their roots. Ethnic Chinese who have lived quietly for centuries among the islands and peninsulas of Southeast Asia also are warming to a culture they had in many cases learned to suppress, as China has evolved into more of a trading partner than a military threat and assuaged neighboring populations' long-held resentments -- and fears. In some instances, such as in predominantly Muslim Indonesia -- where ethnic Chinese were attacked in bloody riots in 1998 -- the assertion of Chinese origins takes a subtle form: relearning long- forbidden art forms such as dragon-dancing, for example. A more public transformation is evident in the Philippines, whose president recently welcomed a Taiwanese pop singer to tour the presidential palace -- an honor usually reserved for American film actors or Latin American soap-opera stars. The newfound openness is testament to the profound influence trade is having on the balance of power in Asia. As U.S. dealings in the region increasingly are dominated by a military focus on terrorism and nuclear arms, China is enhancing its image through economic ties. "China isn't interested in military expansion; it will seek tribute through trade, like it did before the Western powers came to Asia," says John Gokongwei, the patriarch of a Chinese-Filipino business clan with interests spanning petrochemicals and telecommunications to snack food and airlines. China's neighbors are equally eager to trade. After pledging to create an Asian free-trade zone by 2010, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao received a standing ovation at a regional summit last fall. The enthusiastic reception for Mr. Wen contrasts with the fallout from China's approach to Southeast Asia in the 1960s: Mao Zedong's regional aspirations prompted an anticommunist pogrom in Indonesia and laid the groundwork for dictatorship in the Philippines. For decades after, Chinese across the region were viewed with suspicion, and took care to keep a low profile in countries where they had lived for generations. Now, with China embracing elements of capitalism, businesses such as Thailand's CP Group and the companies of Chinese-Filipino tycoon Lucio Tan have investments in China that rival the empires they have built in their home countries. As China increasingly serves as an economic engine for nearby countries, ethnic Chinese at the economic center of life across Southeast Asia are seen as less of a threat and are more willing to acknowledge old blood ties. This is seen vividly in Thailand, where Chinese long have blended into the fabric of local life. "There are so many cultural and philosophical beliefs that the two countries share," says Vikrom Kromadit, leader of a Chinese-Thai business association. "I would say that today, no country in the world is as close to China as Thailand." Other Thais agree. Bangkok's Kasikorn Research Center last year asked the city's residents whom they considered Thailand's closest ally. Three-quarters said China, while 9% said the U.S. National borders already are being blurred in Chiang Saen, a port on the banks of the misty Mekong river near Thailand's northernmost point. A few years ago, Chiang Saen was a tiny outpost best known for its crumbling Buddhist temples and proximity to the opium-growing region known as the Golden Triangle. "There wasn't much here," says Surapong Chaiyanit, head of the government's land office in the town. "But Chiang Saen has now become a very important place for Thailand: the gateway to China." China is two-day's sailing upriver from Chiang Saen. River steamers bring cargoes of apples, electric goods and rubber sandals down the Mekong through Laos and Myanmar to Chiang Saen, where they are loaded on trucks and driven to Bangkok. Chinese restaurants and gold shops line the river banks, waiting for customers from the north. Many of the boats plying the Mekong fly the Chinese flag; Ren Zhu captains one of them. He watches as porters load consumer goods such as electric rice cookers into the hold of his vessel. "We have high hopes for Chiang Saen," says Mr. Ren, who has been sailing the Mekong route between China and Thailand for three years and has learned to speak rudimentary Thai. "It feels like home." While older Chinese-Thais still are occasionally nervous about proclaiming their Chinese identity, their children show fewer qualms. Many are taking lessons in the Chinese-language schools that have sprung up in Bangkok in the past few years. Some wealthy Chinese-Thai parents have begun sending their children to study in China, after a century of the well-off being schooled in England and America. Others are turning to Mr. Kitti's magazine, Da Jia Hao. Within its pages, readers can peruse cartoon strips depicting the rags-to-riches stories of some of Thailand's most famous businessmen or learn some basic Chinese phrases. Ethnic-Chinese rapper Joey-Boy regularly appears in Da Jia Hao, often robed in a variety of Chinese silk gowns. The first issue of Da Jia Hao was little more than a few photocopied pages bound with string. Mr. Kitti's mother predicted it wouldn't sell. But it did. The magazine struck such a chord with Chinese-Thais that it attracted the attention of Bangkok's Manager Media Group. With its help, Mr. Kitti launched a glossy version of his magazine in November. Sales have been brisk, Mr. Kitti says, amounting to 50,000 per issue. International brands such as Samsung, Hutchison Whampoa, BMW and Nokia have begun buying full-page advertisements to tap the affluent ethnic Chinese market. Mr. Kitti's older relatives are somewhat bemused by his overnight success, however. "They say they can't believe I'm selling all this old Chinese stuff to the youngsters," he grins.