Bangkok's Chinese New Year.
Welcome to Trut Chin, Chinese New Year, year of the Rat (picture 3), the first sign of the Chinese zodiac. Yaowarat (Bangkok's Chinatown) is ablaze with red lanterns and banners. Red: the lucky colour that everyone wears in order to celebrate New Year. It is a time for noisy firecrackers, processions, family visits and gifts, making merit at the shrines; a time for dragons, lion dancing, and of course great food.
This will be a good year: the rat is charming, aggressive, hard working, shrewd with money, adaptable, at its best in a crisis and a great problem solver. It has respect for its ancestors and, given the chance, will make a success of its life. In short, the rat sums up how the Chinese diaspora has adapted to life in Thailand.
The Chinese in Thailand:
Chinese men first came to Thailand at the invitation of King Taksin 250 years ago. They came by ship from southern China, travelling, as the Thais say, "with a mat and a pot" and settled in what is now Bangkok, along the Chao Phraya River, where many Chinese shrines still line its banks as it meanders through Bangkok.
They worked hard, they saved their wages, and they married Thai women.
Indeed, people say today that half of all Bangkok people have some Chinese in their ancestry. Estimates put the Sino-Thai population, rather vaguely, at one in seven of all Thais.
Now in Bangkok, all the hard work and careful savings begun by the early migrants has paid off handsomely: the Chinese have been very prosperous. Indeed, they have been pivotal to the very success of Bangkok. They make up a central core of the Thai business establishment, accounting for a large portion of Thailand's present wealth and they have the right connections in mainland China to make the most of investment opportunities there as well.
Of course, most prosperous Chinese entrepreneurs no longer live above their businesses or warehouses in Yaowarat any more. Many now live in the large mansions they have built in the suburbs. But they still come back to Yaorwarat's markets. They still make merit and pay respect to their ancestors at the shrines in Yaowarat and across the river in Thonburi.
Khun Poonsak, for example, still travels back from the suburbs each day to the Gong Wu Shrine at Thonburi where he still manages his family's Chinese bottling plant next door to the now empty house his father built eighty years ago (pictures 4 & 5). There has been a shrine at Gong Wu since King Taksin's days. The elaborate buildings of today replaced the original shrine in 1901 but most of the Gong Wu shrine disciples now come to worship, like Khun Poonsak, from their Bangkok suburbs.
Trut Chin used to be merely a private family affair, with celebrations centred on the home (offerings to the God of Land and the God of Luck, as well as family ancestors), with the exchange of presents to the extended family and a visit to the family's shrine.
But all that has changed. The Thais, ever mindful of business opportunities, have made it more of a Sino-Thai national as well as a big, public occasion, with Yaowarat being visited by royalty, state officials and politicians. Two years ago, the Chinese government strengthened its connection with Thailand by giving two jade dragons to decorate Soon Pratu Chalerm Prakiat, the ceremonial arch into Yaowarat. Indeed, President Jiang Zemin himself blessed the arch when he opened it in 1999. And Thailand now receives huge numbers of Chinese tourists from the mainland to celebrate Chinese New Year in Bangkok, some visiting relatives here.
Today, everyone in Bangkok is invited to join in the festivities, especially visiting the shrines and eating the food on offer. Half the population of Bangkok will visit Yaowarat sometime during Trut Chin. By far the largest and best known in Bangkok is the Leng Noi Yee (Dragon Flower) Temple (pictures 1 + 2). Because of the crowds, the ceremonies take place outside the shrine in the courtyards. Worshippers pay their respects to their ancestors by bringing paper goods for them to use in the afterlife. These guardian spirits look after surviving family members only as long as they are remembered. Hence the importance of showing gratitude. The gifts will get burnt and the smoke rise up to reach the ancestor guardian spirits. As well as the paper gifts, worshippers also offer mandarin oranges (a symbol of gold) to ensure the ancestors' prosperity in the afterlife.
Wallets and prosperity:
Everywhere in Yaowarat spectators light firecracker to chase away evil spirits and to wake up the guardian spirits so that they can get to work to ensure good health, good fortune and prosperity for the coming year.
So the Chinese God of Wealth, Choi Sun, now fully awake, will appear to spread good luck. Trut Chin is a time to hope for prosperity for the coming year. Revellers will clamour to put their wallets (pictures 6 & 7) into the mouths of Chinese dragons and lions, or under the armpits of statues of Chinese deities, or to buy lottery tickets in the hope of making money early in the new year (picture 8).
Lions and Dragons:
The Lion Dance (pictures 9-11) is a popular part of the festivities. The lion, a huge multi-coloured papier-mache head with a long train, is brought to life by two dancers, one in its head and one following behind. Along with the firecrackers, percussionists help the lion to drive away any ghosts or bad spirits: the drums will provide the lion's heartbeat and help to show all the emotions the lions may feel. It is lucky for the lion dance to visit homes or businesses and even luckier if the lion decides to take the owner's head in its mouth! The dancers have two smiling people to accompany them, providing the troupe with good cheer. The dragon's head is hoisted up on a long pole so that it can reach up to the floors above the shops and receive the customary gifts of money in red envelopes.
Making merit through charity work:
Near Leng Noi Yee, the Poh Teck Tung Foundation, a large Taoist shrine, will be packed and even overflowing with worshippers ( pictures 12-14), making merit inside the shrine, or serving free food to those in need across the road in their newly opened premises . Free food has always been on offer for the poor of Yaowarat at times of celebration, although these days most of the people sipping the soup with be the well heeled Sino-Thai Bangkok suburbanites(picture 15).
The Chinese immigrants who founded Poh Teck Tung in 1909, used to walk through the streets of Bangkok, collecting corpses and burying them for free in the Foundation's own sacred land. Dealing with death and tragedy is still the bread and butter work of the Foundation, although it now collects victims at road crashes, fires or the injured at crime scenes. It will also fish out the bodies of suicides from the Chao Praya River in Bangkok. Taking these victims to the hospitals is a crucial service in Bangkok since no government-sponsored ambulance service exist in Thailand. It will also ensure that the more than 1,500 unclaimed corpses (including a fifth of all road deaths) each year receive a proper Buddhist burial in its own cemetaries. These could be Thai migrants to Bangkok too poor to have the body taken home, those who have no close family anymore, or anyone without a Thai identity card - maybe some of the 300,000 stateless persons or 2 million migrants living in Thailand. To do all this work, the Foundation has up to 1,500 trained volunteers as well as full time staff.
"If nobody collects the dead, the bodies would in reality become food for dogs. That is why we have to help", says Khun Chaiya Pong, head of the Foundation.
Trut Chin time is an obvious occasion for Chinese worshippers to support those less fortunate people in Bangkok. Alms giving is an intrinsic part of making merit, and on the last day of Trut Chin celebrations, Poh Teck Tung holds a huge fundraiser to collect money from members of the public to finance all this necessary and dedicated but unsavoury work.
Some pundits argue that the year of the rat will be turbulent: two of the five elements (water and earth) are in conflict for the year. So the rat this year may well have its work cut out to ensure that the people of Bangkok get all the prosperity and good fortune they have sought during this Trut Chin.