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(September 18, 2018) Is Huai Khwang really a new Chinatown? - Kavi Chongkittavorn

Bluntly speaking, Huai Khwang, which has been dubbed a new Chinatown, is not really a Chinatown in the truest sense of the word -- not another Yaowarat for sure. The 400-metre strip along Pracha Rat Bamphen Road at best represents the dynamic and raw passion of new Chinese entrepreneurs, wanting to make money from millions of Chinese tourists through social media. New Chinese restaurants with dishes from Yunnan and Guangxi, especially the spicy mala hotpot as well as Chinese-style coffee shops, give this small business district the facade of a Chinatown.

Upon close scrutiny, those numerous shops adorned with huge Chinese characters and ads are the front offices for online Chinese companies or traders -- pure and simple. They are selling Thai products, especially rubber pillows, cosmetics and esoteric items to Chinese buyers who are visiting Thailand. Questions are being asked: Why Huai Khwang? Why pillows?

In the past five years, Huai Khwang has suddenly become the talk of the town due to the meteoric rise of Chinese shops and restaurants. Local media quickly dubbed this neighbourhood "New Chinatown". To the Chinese traders, Huai Khwang is a trading depot because of its central location, easy-going locals and friendly environment. The local community is familiar with the presence of overseas Chinese. Another convenience is the Chinese Embassy nearby.

To Thais, Huai Khwang and Ratchadaphisek Road have long been considered a new entertainment area, with huge massage parlours and nightclubs, not to mention chronic traffic jams. However, new arrivals from China in the past decade, especially young entrepreneurs and students, are the new driving force pushing Huai Khwang into the limelight. Utilising and building on the existing network of Chinese descendants from Mae Salong and Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. They are the children of the former Kuomintang army left behind after China's liberation war of 1949. Some of them are doing business and opening shops in Huai Khwang and elsewhere. However, today the majority of businessmen in Huai Khwang come from Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong.

Beginning in 2008, there were surges of Chinese tourists and students coming to Thailand. The number of Chinese tourists jumped exponentially from a few million to nearly 10 million in one decade. So, too, with Chinese students -- from a few thousand in the past century to tens of thousands at the beginning of the 21st century. Currently, a total 37,000 Chinese are studying in various Thai universities -- the largest number in any Asean member. The Chinese newcomers (xin qiao) have no intention of integrating into Thai society -- they are here for the new opportunities in business. They like living in Thailand but remain loyal to China. The old generation of Chinese (lau qiao) came because they wanted to get out of China and become assimilated in Thailand.

The proliferation of social media and the availability of WeChat in 2011 -- the so-called Chinese Facebook that allows them to buy products online -- has boosted Thai-Chinese trade dramatically. Recently, the online selling of durians hit news headlines when Jack Ma's online company sold 80,000 of the malodorous fruit in one minute.

Indeed, Chinese entrepreneurs realised that with this tool, they can make tonnes of money by selling Thai products and gifts. All they have to do is to create certain "brands" or "exotic items" that Chinese tourists can buy during or after their visits here. To accomplish this, they use social media to extol the virtues of certain products from Thailand with comments and reviews; hence the pillows, white skin cream and milk products.

One curious item lots of Chinese tourists are very fond of are Thai amulets. But they are not the traditional ones Buddhists put around their necks. Some, particularly butterfly amulets, are only popular among the Chinese, and unheard of among the Thais. Among the Chinese tourists, there are certain phra ajahn -- chief monks -- they revere and whose temples they donate money to.

For decades, Thais have also fancied Chinese-made products, apart from food. For instance, "white pearl cream"-- krim kai muk -- has been a must-buy item for Thai tourists visiting China. Now, the trend has reversed. The popularity of Thai TV series in China in recent years has promoted Thailand's reputation as a tourist destination and Thai-made products. Lost in Thailand, a Chinese movie filmed entirely in Thailand in 2012, has also been a big factor in making Thailand a household name in the Middle Kingdom.

This helps explain why Huai Khwang has many shops selling pillows and cosmetics. The shops are crucial as "showrooms"-- evidence they are genuine companies registered in Thailand selling unique Thai products. Some buyers visit the shops just to make sure.

As pillows become popular, Chinese merchants continue to think of new products to promote via WeChat that Chinese tourists will buy for delivery to their homes. Gone are the days when edible bird's nests were the No.1 gift from Thailand. Chinese tourists now order big online, taking home only snacks and dried fruit.

These shops' survival depends on the influx of Chinese tourists. If their numbers recede, some would shut down right away as there would be no need to have showrooms. Numerous products on sale at shops along Pracha Rat Bamphen are strictly for the Chinese. Thai consumers won't buy them as they are available outside Huai Khwang and some are fake. For instance, there are many fake Thai rubber pillows. Some pillows are mage in China in Guangdong, which are sent to Thailand for rebranding and repackaging and subsequently sold to Chinese consumers. In Thailand of late, fake cosmetic products have caused many people serious health problems.

It is about time that Thai and Chinese authorities tackle these challenges and cooperate to ensure that the Thai products being traded online are genuine and certified by the authorities. Otherwise, it could cause a backlash in the long run.