Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Sampheng: From Ethnic Isolation to National Integration

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Sampheng: From Ethnic Isolation to National Integration

Article excerpt

"Ethnicity depends on self-identification or self-categorization" (Spira 2004, p. 251). It arises ultimately from a social group's struggle to distinguish itself from its neighbours in cultural terms for its collective self-preservation and well-being. Its operative agents are myriad, as far-reaching as the human imagination, ranging across language, place of origin, mythology, kinship, religion, occupation, technology, ornamentation, cuisine, etc. Yet, efforts to infuse the concept of ethnicity with broad theoretical content invariably encounter perplexing analytical problems, simply because no amount of intellectual gymnastics can overcome the logical conundrum implicit in imposing "objectivity" (culturally neutral constructs) envisaged by the outside observer upon the "subjectivity" (culture-specific perceptions) of the inside participant. Compounding the difficulties of this logical contradiction are the complications attendant upon the constantly evolving self-identification of ethnic groups, particularly in the presence of emerging nationalism (Connor 1994). For example, Wang (1991), in seeking to apply an interdisciplinary methodology to the issue of Chinese identity in Southeast Asia under the impact of the nation-state, finds the derivation of a general approach "elusive".

In considering the dialectics of objectivity-subjectivity and ethnicity-nationalism with respect to Thailand's Taechiu (Chaozhou) population, a uniquely tangible, territorial indicator of ethnic identity is Sampheng, the quintessentially Taechiu settlement established downstream from the Thai capital of Ratanakosin in 1782 by royal fiat and known today as "Bangkok's Chinatown" (Van Roy 2007a). The history of Sampheng exemplifies the link between Taechiu ethnicity and its evolving adaptation to the Thai nation-state. It demonstrates the accommodation of the primordial sentiments (emotive, subconscious, socially-derived) of ethnicity to the political exhortations (rational, conscious, policy-directed) of the nation-state.

From Changlin to Ayutthaya and Thonburi

The Chinese mainland littoral extending from Taiwan to Hainan follows a great south-westward bending arc towards the Southeast Asian sub-continent. Along that 1,000 kilometer-long seaboard have resided for millennia a string of ethnic minorities--principally the Hokkien, Cantonese, Hainanese, Hakka, and Taechiu--that have been gradually but never fully absorbed into the dominant Han culture. It is only in the past century that the cultural distinctions between the region's various ethnic groups, most readily distinguishable in terms of locale and dialect, have been sharply attenuated under the pressures of Chinese nationalism, Communist ideology, and rampant industrialization.

Among that regional cluster of ethnic minorities, the Taechiu have historically occupied a comparatively inconsequential position. Populating the relatively resource-poor, flood- and famine-prone Chaoshan Plain and Han River delta straddling southern Fujian Province (the Hokkien heartland) and central Kwangtung (the Cantonese cradle), they may well have been among the region's autochthonous lowland peoples, pressed by later intruders into this relatively inhospitable zone. Considered impoverished country bumpkins by their more sophisticated Hokkien and Cantonese neighbours, they eked out a living as peasant agriculturalists, sea-salt farmers, fisherfolk, food processors, and coastal traders (Chang 1991, pp. 29-31). Their intrepid maritime skills, coupled with their stubborn defiance of imperial Chinese rule, earned them a lasting reputation in government circles as recalcitrant smugglers, pirates, and renegades (Antony 2003, pp. 19-53 and infra; Supang 1991). As one early nineteenth-century Western observer noted, "[The inhabitants of] Chaou-chow-foo, the most eastern department of Canton province, ... are, in general, mean, uncleanly, avaricious, but affable and fond of strangers. …

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