Reflections on the Chinese Situation: Part II

 | Fri 28 Feb 2014 14:13 ICT

And it is a situation. Have you read the news lately?

I’ve talked about the racist aspects surrounding the Chinese (hysterical) antipathy pervading our streets at the moment, and how resentment, or envy, or plain primal fear of the other, can be expressed in various ways, which obscures a more abject racism, that is taboo. I mean that you can’t just vent hate; racism, or xenophobia, is carefully woven, and hidden within the new hate rhetoric. I won’t go into a psychoanalytical analysis again, but before I mention some recent events concerning the Chinese hysteria (of which I submit, I am partly fuelling), I have a short anecdote, which may, or may not be relevant. You can make up your own mind.

Right at the beginning of my Thailand trip, 13 years ago, I had a good Thai friend called Deang who introduced me to Chiang Mai. He was not an adherent to the facts I’d read in the guidebooks, far from it. He helped me to see through the surface of popular culture, to scratch under the surface of the tapestry that attempts to encapsulate the story of Thailand. Admittedly, he shared with me many of his own generalisations.

He once told me, “James, there’s a lot of resentment towards the Chinese here. The Chinese came here and they took everything. They worked hard, and Thais, we were lazy, and now look: the Chinese own the country.”

It doesn’t matter if what he said is true – it sounds way too simplistic to be true. What concerns me is that he said it.

So, this week Chiang Mai University announced that they have imposed a new tourist tax in order to, allegedly, prevent tourists (they only mention Chinese tourists) causing public disorder, jumping on free trams, acting out cosplay fantasies, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. At the same time, the Chiang Mai Provincial Land Transport Office announced that because of the mayhem those Chinese have been causing on the streets, special measures will have to taken to protect Thailand from this dangerous virus of Chinese driving. CMU even put together a little survey detailing Thailand’s anti-Chinese sentiment in all its cringe-worthy detail. These little packets of hate can be very dangerous in a wider context.

Thailand already is, and was a long time before Lost in Thailand hit the Shanghai cinemas, the most dangerous place to drive in the world, or at least up there in the top five spots. There’s a lot to be said about Thailand and driving, and I won’t go into it, but perhaps if angered Chinese people were to fight this case, and support their innocence, or shared culpability, they might have a strong point that all this fuss about their cruddy driving is perhaps a fine example of the pot calling the kettle black.

What if the problem is not really about driving skills, and it’s not just about racism either, at least not in an official context? What if there isn’t a problem, or if there is, it’s only as significant as, say, occasionally getting bitten on the ass by an ant?

If the problem is not really there, what advantage could it be to anyone that the public’s ire towards the Chinese, via PR and local/national media, is fired up?  

I don’t believe Chinese tourists are any worse at driving than many western tourists, or many Thais. We can all claim a share of the blame for Thailand disaster ratings. Consider the great white drunk who clambers around Zoe in Yellow at 4 a.m., offering to the sober bystander the goofy spectacle of a primate in heat. Monkey see, monkey do: the couples ride away on their hired bikes. The list of scenarios that out-trump what some people deem bad Chinese behavior is endless. Here’s Ron, one of CityNews’ top commentators:

“On-duty officers directing under-age students, mostly three up without helmets, into the school bike parking area…”

So, why pick on the Chinese?

Maybe the media brouhaha supports certain initiatives to fix an inflated problem that will in turn expect budgets, time, and resources. Maybe the Chinese are being used in some ways to either advance certain departments, or less cynically, just to keep the cogs turning. The Chinese problem, I believe, only exists as much as other minor problems exist: only the media, and a little bit of schoolyard bullying, have blown this thing way out of proportion. It’s become a major problem, and when a major problem comes to town, a hero must clean up the mess. You can invoke other problems that affect a city, such as drugs, or pollution, which will never quite be fixed, because a fixed problem means a lack of opportunities. In short, perhaps inflating a problem that hardly exists serves some people’s purposes? Once the matter becomes public, it also becomes self-perpetuating, because we often see what we hear.

So the deputy dean of CMU thinks that charging these Chinese miscreants money for parking, and entrance, will solve the problem…

Wait a minute, what problem?

I live right next to CMU, and let me tell you, those young Chinese couples walking around the uni are, well, quiet, respectful, not a problem at all, really. Let us compare them to the drunks, criminals, nutcases, hacks, scammers, murderers and hardcore sex offenders that skulk around the capital’s mean streets and the south’s noir beach towns, who, it seems, are blessed with impunity from the police, and the press, and government sanitation objectives. I don’t ever remember reading about the crusades marching into Pattaya to save the city from sin. It seems like the great white marauder has been let off the hook. I’m not against Macabre-land by the way, not in its entirety. My point concerns hypocrisy….and racism.

The sexploitation of Thailand, for example, is a rich and sometimes odious tapestry shielded by the cataracts of injustice, and personal gain. As long as it keeps churning out golden eggs, it will be left by itself. On the other hand, Chinese gals in floral dresses cycling haphazardly up Huay Kaew Road, are trampled in the media, and now taxed at the university gates. We are told they can’t drive, and that they don’t respect local customs.

First of all, what exactly is a local custom? Is it respecting your elders, or is it smoking meth in a local karaoke joint? Is it making merit at the temple, or siphoning money out of your company’s bank account? I really wouldn’t know how to describe a local custom, because I live in the real world, and the real world is very complex.

Morality might be personal, and when it becomes the property of bodies of power, it’s abused, and exploited. It becomes a power-tool, for want of a better word.

The new CMU policy might have less to do with behaviour, culture and customs than it does with making some money. The 100,000 baht fine for uniform cosplay, or a year in jail, may not to its full extent be related to preserving the dignity of an institution and its supposedly inviolate customs. In humanitarian terms, cosplay is harmless, it’s benign. Nonetheless, it’s bigger news than Burmese labour exploitation, or the daily tariffs paid by establishments of the city for certain late-night dispensations. If we are protecting the dignity, the goodly customs, of what constitutes culture, then let us spread the net.

There seems to me a double standard that exists, a double standard that Thai journalists have pointed out many times. It seems that a big problem, whether criminal (trespassing/cosplay) or moral (public affection), is either hidden (Pattaya style) or publicised (CMU style), depending on how it can be exploited. It is up to us, the good public, to see through the machinations of the exploiters and its innate hypocrisy, and perhaps to notice occasionally how the media is used to waft the flames of resentment, or fear, or envy, that already exists, and helps to support initiatives.

Why become part of the xenophobia? Likely (I know bitterness very well) just ‘cos not everything is going our way. Hate pays no dividends, it only serves to put up ugly walls around us, and becomes an extension of official exploitation. We’ve created a Chinese fantasy world a la Daily Mail, a place where our preconceptions seem so valid we fail to see a reality in which far more severe crimes happen every day, all the time, right under our noses.

There are of course many people, mostly Thai people I think, who really believe in the newly created Chinese mythology. That these encroachers from the big smoke over the way have brought with them bad driving, bad habits and unethical behaviour that is ruining their beautiful grand narrative, just as the white man has occasionally been blamed for bringing the country into disrepute for inventing the Thai sex industry. Sometimes I wonder why Thailand is a country in which the selfie, the fictional image, is so prevalent. Is it because, in view of certain boils that stain the face of society, people have been urged not to look in the mirror? The selfie preserves a flattering image, a status quo, an ageless monster, whose intransigency serves a purpose, or purposes. 


James Austin Farrell