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

Performing Identity: Musical Expression of Thai-Chinese in Contemporary Bangkok

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

Performing Identity: Musical Expression of Thai-Chinese in Contemporary Bangkok

Article excerpt

   To come from elsewhere, from "there" and not "here", and hence to be
   simultaneously "inside" and "outside", is to live at the intersections of
   histories and memories, experiencing both their preliminary dispersal and
   their subsequent translation into new, more extensive, arrangements along
   emerging routes.

Chambers 1994, p. 6

   Diaspora discourse articulates, or bends together, both roots and routes to
   construct what Paul Gilroy (1987) describes as alternate public spheres,
   forms of community consciousness and solidarity that maintain
   identifications outside the national time/space in order to live inside,
   with a difference.

Clifford 1997, p. 251

Recent studies of diaspora have problematized widely accepted terms such as immigrant, minority, exile, and refugee as multi-locale dwellings and attachments, transnational travel, and virtual communication have become increasingly common in the late twentieth century.(1) Trans formed global conditions have unsettled the boundaries that once delineated various forms of migration, and scholars can no longer ignore the tensions and contradictions experienced by displaced people who are enmeshed, both physically and ideologically, in multiple histories and communities. In response to this inevitable consequence of the late-capitalist global predisposition, James Clifford (1997) suggests that we need to focus on the metaphors of "connection" and "linkage" in tracking diaspora, rather than in simply identifying the ideal features that define it. The key to a critical understanding of diaspora and displaced communities, according to Clifford, is to stress the relational positioning of peoples so that we can accurately reflect the "entangled tension" that is inherent in their articulations of identity (ibid., p. 249).

This paper examines such linkages among the Teochew-Chinese in Thailand. While I agree with the fashionable view that identity is fluid and situational, I also maintain that people often carry certain deeply held and uncontested ideas of who they are with them at all times. This notion of the essential self -- fixed and uncontested assumptions that informs and grounds an individual's sense of being -- is a pre-condition and an indispensable ingredient for the invention, construction, negotiation, and transformation of identity. In this essay, I rely on music as a point of entry to uncover these complex processes.

Similar to other forms of expressive culture that are constituted within discursive practice and representation, music has the ability to express, assert, enunciate, and reproduce cultural identity in subtle and non-threatening ways. Because of the performative nature of music, it is loaded with symbolism and significance for both performers and audiences (Becker and Becker 1981; Baily 1994; Waterman 1991; Turino 1989). Music, therefore, is a logical site but one that has been overlooked in the study of identity until only recently. Based on ethnographic data collected in Bangkok during 1994-96, I argue that the notion "Chineseness" for the Thai-Chinese is wedged in the interstices between the subjective view of "who they are" either as Thai or Chinese and the way they interface with history and their day-to-day reality. Its articulation is never predetermined or guided by a master trope but is a result of an ongoing process of negotiation and strategic positioning.

When Ah Xing -- a third-generation Thai-Chinese who lives in the outskirts of Bangkok -- starts his day at the break of dawn on his motorized three-wheeler tuk-tuk, he knows exactly where to go to wait for his clients. Unlike most of his peers, who cruise the street for customers, he has a regular clientele and a somewhat routine schedule for his various daily deliveries. Ah Xing is proud of this and attributes his business success to his linguistic ability to converse fluently in Thai, Teochew,(2) and Mandarin -- an indispensable symbolic capital that enables him to set up his business network with the different ethnic groups in the city. …

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