Chinese New Year Culture in Thailand

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新年快樂!Happy Chinese New Year to everyone! Ethnic Chinese around Southeast Asia and the world celebrate the lunar calendar “Year of the Pig,” beginning 5 February. 

There will be many days of festivities in places like Hat Yai, Thailand…a town largely founded by ethnic Chinese immigrants in the early 20thcentury. The culture is well-kept in the city over many days of activities…school children reciting & performing Chinese language & arts, parades of gods from the Chinese temples, family gatherings honoring ancestors & sharing meals, communities exchanging blessings.

I spent an extended time observing & analyzing these activities in 2012 and 2013, learning lessons about the continuity & interaction of diverse cultures in a community.  It’s often easier to see the characteristics of a culture by looking at it in contrast to other cultures. By looking at how Chinese families & organizations adapted to their Thai home, I found the that the Chinese-influenced culture maintained some distinguishing characteristics, including supporting volunteer community organizations that serve the public & remind people of their roots. 

Please enjoy some images of the events, & if you’d like to learn more, you can read my article written for Chulalongkorn University’s Center for Thai Studies publication, Rian Thai.

In the days leading up to New Year Day, the local Chinese school, SriNakorn, hosted many days of entertainment. This included a “China Kids” contest.
Students from local Chinese language programs participated, reciting Chinese language, dressing in costume, and performing for the judges.
Each ethnic Chinese house will have 3 areas for offering sacrifice. The table outdoors is for general blessing, then areas inside will be for ancestors, and for various gods in the Chinese pantheon.
I was invited to join in the festive dinner by one kind, warm family. The bottom left shows the mix of modern and traditional culture!
The New Year is a time for getting together with family, and dressing up.
A parade from the commercial area to the SriNakorn Chinese School kicked off the official celebrations. The Provincial Governor opened the ceremony with a speech extolling Thai-Chinese friendship, and the local Chinese organization and business leaders all joined in.
The entertainment is a mixture of Thai, Chinese, and modern elements.
A troop from Mainland China gave an acrobatic performance. The Chinese School’s committee and community leaders donated most of the money to bring in the entertainment.
The night after the young children competed for “China Kid,” young ladies competed in a talent & beauty contest.
The young women mostly chose to perform songs or dances in a perceived “Chinese style.”
The monetary prizes were quite generous, donated mostly by the ethnic Chinese organizations of the city.
Chinese martial arts are popular.
The biggest draw of all the nights was a Thai-German pop star, who had no apparent connection to Chinese culture. He sang Thai pop songs.
The main religious community functions occur at the central Siang Teung complex of temples, hospital, and emergency response service. The Siang Teung committee invites area temples to bring the images of their gods to display, and then to parade through the town to give blessings and collect donations.
A spirit medium and his team use a spirit stick, called a dmai geel, to communicate with spirits and to put blessings on things, such as this motorcycle. The team blessed the obucha fai ding, which is a particular type of tree that is adorned with gold foil or written prayers, and then raised in a ceremony. It is considered to be a type of communication between the gods and earth.
People from a wide area come to Siang Teung to worship, including from Malaysia. The Chinese pantheon includes a well-known 9 emperors which are represented above. Meanwhile, a Muslim woman provides birds, which people will donate money for, and then release, to gain merit.
Siang Teung also hosts entertainment, but this actually serves a religious purpose. The entertainment is considered to be enjoyed by the temple gods.
The entertainment included traditional Chinese opera, in the southern Chinese style, as most ethnic Thai-Chinese ancestors hail from Fujian or Guangzhou China in the south. A jolly Confucius character accepts donations for the Siang Teung Foundation.
Unlike Theraveda Buddhism which is dominant in Thai society, the Mahayana Buddhism of the Chinese culture accepts female monks.
Many of the young generation are encouraged and taught by parents to perform religious rituals at the temple.
A few days after New Year’s Day, Siang Teung holds a very significant ritual starting well before sunrise in the main temple. The gods that have come from the local temples are carried on litters by devotees.
The ceremony begins in the temple in a chaotic, cacophonous parade in the closed temple, followed by the even louder event outside under countless firecrackers.
The local military commander and respected ethnic Chinese business leaders ceremoniously carry one of the litters, and the commander prays for blessing before opening the doors of the temple.
After the raucous dancing about with the gods in the temple courtyard, the litters parade all day through town, blessing local businesses and households and receiving donation.
While the gods parade about town, another parade forms, with marching bands, costumed children, special performing troops, and more religious images.
This performing troop is from Yala, a Thai-Malaysian border province.
The dragon performing troop came from Nakhon Sawan province, far to the north.
One of the last events of the multi-day celebrations is a fire-walking ceremony. Participants must work to be ritually pure before crossing the coals.

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