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Thai soft power in China: amulets, dramas, durian

Publication Date : 06-08-2013


"Sawaddee kub, taiguo fo pai hen pang," said Wen Yang, a young manager, who I bumped into accidentally in Wangfujing area and told I came from Thailand. He immediately responded: "Hi, Thai amulets are great", then showed me his stamp-sized amulet, (fo-pai in putonghua), hiding behind his white shirt, hanging on a golden necklace. "It protects me and brings me prosperity," he said.

The amulet I saw was a replica of one of Thailand's famous monks in Changhai Temple, Pattani. Luang Pu Thuad could turn seawater into drinking water with a mere touch of his feet, according to a southern legend.

Yang is not alone. Each year millions of Chinese have been exposed to this country's Buddhist traditions and practices. These days over 3,000 shops actively trade Thai amulets on the Internet, especially on the popular Taobao e-commerce website. At the upscale shopping complex, Sanlitun, I visited one of the two well-decorated shops exclusively selling Thai amulets. Tai fo-tang has hundreds of Thai amulets on display inside well-protected glass cases. The shop's four walls are fully decorated with dozens of posters of portraits of Thailand's famous abbots, such as Luang Phor Koon, Luang Poh Toh, Luang Pu Waen.

What is interesting over here is the proliferation of new types of amulets, popularly known as butterfly amulets, which have been made famous by some provincial Thai monks. The two plus two inch amulet is imprinted with a colourful painted butterfly, which upon close scrutiny, turns out be faces of two women looking at each other. These amulets are for "invitation" or "qing" in Chinese - in Thailand it is called "chao" or "rent" - ranging from over 250 yuan  (US$40) to 3,000 yuan ($486) a piece.

Some Chinese have developed expertise in identifying the amulets' histories and origins from well-known temples and understand their value and significance.

Before the Chinese reach for personal possession of amulets, they visit the famous Thai religious landmarks. Recently the first Thai Buddhist temple, Wat Hame Assawaram, was opened in the compound of the famous Bai Ma Si (White Horse Temple) in Luoyang, Henan. Among Chinese amulet enthusiasts, stories abound about some rich Chinese pay millions of baht to "rent" famous "phra krueang".

Beyond amulets, Chinese popular culture such as films and TV has regularly featured Thailand. Filmed in Chiang Mai, Xu Zheng's comedy Lost in Thailand was a big box-office hit last year, which showed various aspects of Thai culture and scenic views.

Some provincial television stations in places such as Anhui, Sichuan and Nanning also broadcast Thai drama series, mainly about love triangles and jealousy typical of Thai daytime TV series. Songkhram Nang Fa, Athithat Rak and Sud Saneh Ha are popular among Chinese viewers.

Increasingly through its dramas, Thailand is the only Asean nation for the time being to break into Chinese entertainment. Thais will now have to complete with Indian and British drama series; the latter can be viewed through online broadcasts. To promote Thai films in China, joint Thai-Chinese productions are on the drawing board to circumvent the import quota of 34 foreign films each year.

Thai Ambassador Wiboon Khusakul said this trend had been going on for some time before gaining popularity in recent years. Last year 2.7 million Chinese visited - 12 per cent of the 22 million tourists that came to Thailand, topping Malaysians as the biggest group, for the first time in decades. This year, the Tourism Authority of Thailand predicts 3.3 million Chinese visitors will come to Thailand.

The putonghua speaking envoy reiterated that Thailand must maximise the current excellent Thai-Chinese relations with this sort of "soft power" coupling with multi-pronged strategies on economic or non-economic matters.

For instance, the Chinese love to eat Thai durian and monthong, which is widely available in supermarkets. As the only country to allow fresh durian exports to China, the Thai supplier has yet to develop reliable logistics and standards that can fulfil the appetites of a 1.4-billion people market. That is why frozen durian from other Asean countries is now available.

Two-way trade totalled $69.9 billion last year with Thailand gaining a trade surplus. Wiboon said that fresh fruit comprised 20 per cent of Thai exports; other items were rubber, tapioca and rice. "Still more could be done," he added.

However, when it comes to food, the spicy Thai has yet to win over China's 5,000 year-old cuisine! Only 100-plus Thai restaurants are in China of an estimated 23,000 world-wide. There is only 26 in Beijing, with various sizes and tastes. Today tom yum still finds suan-la-tang (hot and sour soup) unbeatable.


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