Tracing ancestry

Tracing ancestry

To mark the 48th anniversary of Thai-Chinese diplomatic relations, Life explores the influence of Hokkien and Teochew migrants in the Kingdom


With Thailand serving as a significant commercial hub for centuries, Chinese merchants played a key role in bridging cultural linkages through marine trade prior to the establishment of diplomatic ties between Thailand and China in 1975. To celebrate the 48th anniversary of this milestone, Life explores Bangkok's early communities to learn more about our ancestry.

Chinese descendants have preserved their beautiful traditions for generations. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)

With the discovery of the Ban Kao civilisation in Kanchanaburi, people may have moved from southern China and settled in Thailand between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, based on a collection of ancient containers and the bones of Mongol people.

They learned how to grow rice in plain fields near rivers and make jewellery out of clam shells and animal fangs. This proves they interacted and exchanged goods with people from far-off places.

During the Sukhothai period, King Ramkhamhaeng opened the border for commerce with many countries, and a collection of distinctive blue and white porcelain served to disseminate Chinese culture across Southeast Asia. Thai craftsmen adopted Chinese techniques to construct ceramic kilns in Si Satchanalai and Sukhothai and make a considerable amount of underglaze blackware for export.

In the Ayutthaya era, a group of Chinese traders decided to reside in Siam and engaged in the import and export industry before many Chinese people migrated from Guangdong, Fujian and Hainan during the Thon Buri and early Rattanakosin periods. With their skills, they primarily worked as construction labourers, goldsmiths and rickshaw pullers before moving into business.

Back in the late 17th century, Chinese migrants were asked to relocate outside the city wall when King Rama I planned to establish a new capital on the east banks of the Chao Phraya River and erect the Grand Palace at the heart of Rattanakosin island.

Situated in the Sampheng neighbourhood, Bun Samakhom Vegetarian Cafeteria showcases a combination of Thai and Chinese architectural art. (Photo: Pattarawadee Saengmanee)


During the reign of King Rama I, Chinese villagers left the Tha Tian neighbourhood and settled near the Wat Sampluem and Sampheng canals, which expanded into the biggest market in the city. Later, Song Wat and Ratchawong roads were built to connect with a network of main streets.

Today it remains Bangkok's biggest wholesale market for fashion accessories, household goods, stationery and home décor items. Here, visitors can see a number of ancient Chinese shrines scattered among rows of classic shophouses that bring back good memories of the early Rattanakosin period.

Just a 500m walk from MRT Sam Yot station to Soi Wanit 1, Chun Siang Cho Sue Shrine is tucked away off the beaten path at the end of Trok Hua Med, which was once lined with ornamental Thai columns and jewellery stores.

Chun Siang Cho Sue Shrine on Soi Wanit 1 was built in 1887 by Hokkien migrants. (Photo: Pattarawadee Saengmanee)

Hokkien migrants erected this shrine in 1887 to house a gilded carved wood statue of Lu Dongbin holding an elixir bottle, a fly whisk and a sword to fend against evil. Pilgrims can sit in front of him and ask for success in school, business and exams.

To serve as guardians, the walls are covered with colourful tiled stuccos of a white tiger and green dragon, while auspicious plants and animals such as a lotus, peony, dragon and bat have been intricately carved into the shoulder poles.

Not far from Trok Hua Med to Trok Krai, Teochew traders spent 15 years building the first vegetarian cafeteria in the Samphanthawong district, which King Rama V named Bun Samakhom Vegetarian Cafeteria. Before being expanded into a two-storey complex, the original building was made of wood.

With a structure evocative of a Thai scriptural hall and interior decorations based on Hokkien-style architecture, its contemporary design is a fusion of Thai and Chinese art, including a series of striking tile murals that illustrate Chinese opera artists performing Three Kingdoms.

Inside, it enshrines a row of carved wood statues of Jiu Huang Ye (Nine Emperor God who takes care of nine stars), Chao Mae Tubtim, Skanda Bodhisattva (Wietuo Pusa), Avalokitesvara holding a lotus in his hand, Guan Yin and Tudi Gong (Village God).

Bun Samakhom Vegetarian Cafeteria showcases a combination of Thai and Chinese architectural art. (Photo: Pattarawadee Saengmanee)

In an effort to protect this area after it caught fire multiple times, A Nia Keng Shrine was built between two communities near the Ratchawong Pier to house a figure of Guan Yin. It was built to face the road or river rather than the way feng shui dictates in order to attract tourists.

The ground is reserved for a local god, and above it is home to a sacred wood carving of Guan Yin wearing a hat with a Buddha-inspired pattern. In the middle, a big joss-stick pot faces inside, allowing Guan Yin to keep her eyes on the communities as worshippers pray for prosperity, protection and health.

During the Vegetarian Festival, local vendors in Talat Noi offer a variety of dishes and snacks with Thai-Chinese twists. (Photo: Saranyu Nokkaew)

Talat Noi

After King Rama I constructed the new capital, Talat Noi functioned as a booming trading port and a gathering place for sea merchants on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. Lined with old shophouses and second-hand auto part shops, it is one of Bangkok's oldest Chinese communities, which has managed to preserve its unique lifestyle and rich ethnic past for decades.

During the Vegetarian Festival, this area is transformed into a popular dining spot for pilgrims where they can savour a wide range of traditional Chinese food and desserts like gana chai (Chinese braised vegetable with black olive), mee wan (sweet noodles served in syrup with assorted toppings of fruits and herbs) and tup tap (freshly made peanut crisps).

Situated in the Yaowarat neighbourhood, Baan Kao Lao Rueng Museum tells the history of the Charoen Chai community through collectables and creative workshops. (Photo: Pattarawadee Saengmanee)

At the same time, the ground of the Chow Sue Kong Shrine is converted into a stage for traditional Chinese opera, while a massive statue of Chow Sue Kong is enshrined inside, where a crowd of worshippers can pray for good health, a peaceful life and fortune throughout the year.

To celebrate a hybrid of Hokkien and Teochew-style architecture, this sanctuary was built in 1804 and fitted out with a collection of colourful murals portraying Chinese opera artists and lifelike lion-inspired sculptures supporting the shoulder poles.

During the Vegetarian Festival, local vendors in Talat Noi offer a variety of dishes and snacks with Thai-Chinese twists. (Photo: Saranyu Nokkaew)

The century-old Heng Seng store, which specialises in colourfully handmade pillows, beds and home décor, is one of the pioneers. The shop began making a variety of durable mosquito curtains and prayer pillows for use in Chinese shrines during the reign of King Rama V.

Its cushions are made of sateen and stuffed with white silk cotton and coconut fibre using special techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation to create a delicate but firm feel. They are available in various sizes and are embellished with the Chinese character fu embroidered on them as well as lotus and peony prints on chicken skin cloth.

The century-old Heng Seng shop in Talat Noi is famous for Chinese-style handmade cushions, pillows, beds and home décor. (Photo: KTC PR Press Club)


Thanks to the expansion of new roads to link with Charoen Krung, King Chulalongkorn spent eight years constructing Yaowarat Road and it rapidly transformed into a new booming commercial centre, known as Chinatown, home to the largest Chinese community in Thailand.

This 1.5km road is flanked by classic shophouses, herbal stores, gold shops, the old market, stunning Chinese temples, Chinese restaurants and teahouses as well as chic boutique hotels, making it a popular destination to witness how the old and modern coexist.

To educate younger generations and foreign visitors about the value of Chinese-Thai cultural heritage, local residents from the third to fifth generations founded the Charoen Chai Conservation and Rehabilitation group in 2011 and converted a small two-storey house into the Baan Kao Lao Rueng Museum.

The century-old Heng Seng store in Talat Noi is famous for Chinese-style handmade pillows, beds and home décor. (Photo: KTC PR Press Club)

Sitting in the heart of the country's largest wholesale market for joss paper and other ritual supplies, this local museum exemplifies the history, beautiful Chinese customs and way of life through the exhibition of rare items that have been passed down through families in the Charoen Chai neighbourhood.

The legendary fortune teller Pung Teng Lung Xian's corner serves as a reception, and the ceiling is trimmed with a string of red handmade lanterns in various styles. A sizable map on the wall shows the location of famous tourist attractions, eateries and other shopping options. On the other side, an altar table displays a full set of joss paper to highlight Chinese paper-cutting traditions, while a dressing area is stocked with Chinese opera costumes and props.

The Charoen Chai community is home to Bangkok's biggest wholesale market for joss paper and ritual supplies. (Photo: Thanarak Khunton)

For lunch, visitors can visit the Yaowarat Old Market and enjoy a wide selection of street food such as freshly steamed dim sum, noodles with homemade fish balls, hoy jor (deep-fried crabmeat and shrimp dumplings) and egg noodles with shrimp dumplings.

Tucked away in the old market, the Leng Buai Eia shrine is home to statues of Leng Buai Eia, Guan Yu (God of War) and Tain Hou (Queen of Heaven), whom travellers can pray for prosperity, safety and good health. It was built in 1843 and the Teo Chew Association of Thailand spent 10 million baht renovating it as a tribute to the dragon god.

Leng Buai Eia Shrine was constructed in 1843 to pay homage to the dragon god. (Photo: Karnjana Karnjanatawe)

Leng Buai Eia Shrine was constructed in 1843 to pay homage to the dragon god. (Photo: Karnjana Karnjanatawe)

A figure of Goddess of Mercy is housed in the A Nia Keng shrine to guard the bustling residential and commercial areas of Sampheng. (Photo: Pattarawadee Saengmanee)

Chow Sue Kong Shrine in Talat Noi is a fusion of Hokkien and Teochew-style architecture. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)

Situated in the Yaowarat neighbourhood, Baan Kao Lao Rueng Museum tells the history of the Charoen Chai community through collectables and creative workshops. (Photo: Thanarak Khunton)

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