Thais in Hong Kong

Origins and lifestyle

The Thai community in Hong Kong is so vital that there exists a Little Thailand. Go to Kowloon City, in the vicinity of which approximately 35% of the community live, and, surrounded by Thai signs and Thai Buddhas, you may think you are in Thailand. A self-sustainable community, in Little Thailand Thai grocery shops and convenience stores, Thai restaurants and food stalls, and Thai beauty salons and massage parlours abound, where you can lay your hands on authentic Thai spices, snacks, and even Thai shampoo. The convenience of the former Kai Tak airport for the shipping of commodities, and the central location yet affordable rent made it a natural hub for the community.

 

The 7th largest Asian (other than Chinese) ethnic minority in Hong Kong numbering some 11,213,[1] Thais comprise 0.16% of the population. Almost three-quarters of these came to Hong Kong to fill the domestic helper market which was in severe demand; others came for the primary and secondary service industry, such as factory workers, sales or waitresses. Working in Hong Kong – with Hong Kong’s stronger economy as an attraction – has in fact been promoted in Thailand, with the Thai government and agencies offering Thais various Hong Kong-specific training, from attending language courses, to learning about the culture, to learning how to do housework in the Hong Kong setting.[2] With women’s participation in the workforce being historically been high in Thailand, it is also not surprising that 64% of Thais in Hong Kong are women.

 

A particular trend since the 1970s has been that, while most other minority communities in Hong Kong seldom engage in exogamy, intermarriage of Thais with Chinese can be traced back to the 1960s, with some 62% of Thais being married to Chinese[3] – this has implications for culture and language. – as well as return immigration of Thai-speaking ethnic Chinese to HK in the 1980s.

 

Linguistic repertoires and language shift[4]

The Thai language, of the Tai-Kadai family, the national and official language of Thailand, is traditionally the mother tongue of the Thai people in Hong Kong. However a significant proportion of 72.9% of them (above age 5) also use Cantonese as their usual language, and a mere 10% report having Thai as their usual language,[5] and code-switching between Thai and Cantonese is common, depending in particular on role and linguistic environment. A number of factors are revelatory for this language shift in the HK Thai community.

 

Intermarriage. Perhaps the primary factor affecting the linguistic repertoire of the Thai community in Hong Kong is exogamy, that is, intermarriage, in particular to the local dominant community of Cantonese Hongkongers or to Thai Chinese. Both Thai and Chinese cultural values mean that it is usually the male that plays the dominant role in the family, with the female expected to accommodate the husband in all respects, including language use.[6] This, coupled with the fact of their being in Cantonese home territory, almost certainly means that the dominant language in the household is Cantonese, with many having a strong, positive attitude towards Chinese culture and identity and the Cantonese language. In the domains of daily life, the use of Thai is minimised, even amongst Thai friends who know Cantonese; consultants report that they “feel like I have to speak in Cantonese at all times as I am now a Chinese”. In contrast, Thais married to Thais continue using Thai in the domains of home, family and friends.

 

Intergenerational transmission. Thais who have intermarried report that they view their offspring as Chinese, rather than as of Thai-Chinese mixed heritage. The majority nurture their children in Cantonese, largely stemming from the desire for their children to fit in and be part of the local culture, and be no different than local Hong Kong children. A minority use Thai with their children – many starting with terms for Thai cuisine!  — and some have private Thai classes for their children. To them, being able to speak Thai is an identification of their Thai identity and an attachment to their culture. In many cases, being able to speak, and not necessarily write in Thai is what is valued. While some children are fluent Thai speakers, others are passive speakers, replying to their parents’ Thai in Cantonese. In the latter case, these children regard themselves as Hong Kongers and want to be like local Hong Kong students in being able to speak Cantonese and English well. The majority of children attend local schools; the language of peers is of course a strong factor in language choice, with a shift to the dominant local language.

 

Religion. Because Thais traditionally subscribe to Thai Buddhism of the Theravada school, at the institutional level, signs in Thai temples and alms led by Thai monks in temples in Hong Kong are all in Thai. The domain of religion being one of the last bastions of language maintenance is well recognised. Interestingly, at the individual level, for the Thais in Hong Kong, a small shift is observable, with individual choices being practised: while most Thais pray in Thai – “That was the language I was taught to pray in” – some Thais admit that they feel more comfortable praying in Cantonese after all these years in Hong Kong.

 

Workplace.  As the majority of Thai come to Hong Kong for job opportunities, the demands of the workplace play a part in linguistic choices, with many learning and honing their Cantonese for work.  In Kowloon City, Thais in the service sector – in restaurants, grocery stores and massage parlours – tend to use Cantonese with their Hong Kong customers and clients and bosses. With other Thai nationals, significantly, both Thai and Cantonese are used, with Cantonese being preferred especially when the topic of conversation is workplace related.

 

Further resources

Hewinson, Kevin (2004) Thai Migrant Workers in Hong Kong. Journal of Contemporary Asia 34 (3): 318-335.

Hui, Janisa, Teresa Lee and Decem Poon (2013) Tie to the Fab Thai: Language and identity of the Thai community in Hong Kong. LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication project, School of English, The University of Hong Kong. http://hkulcom3001thai.wix.com/thais-in-hong-kong

The University of Hong Kong, School of Modern Languages and Cultures, Thai Section. http://www.thai.hku.hk/

Thai World View (1998-2013) Thailand in HK. http://www.thaiworldview.com/hongkong/thai/thai.htm​

 



[1] Census and Statistics Department, The Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (2013) Ethnic Minorities by Ethnicity and Age Group, 2001, 2006 and 2011 (F401). http://www.census2011.gov.hk/en/main-table/F401.html

[2] Bang-oer (2003), quoted in Hewinson, K. (2004) Thai Migrant Workers in Hong Kong. Journal of Contemporary Asia 34 (3). p.327.​

[3] Hewinson, K. (2004) Thai Migrant Workers in Hong Kong. Journal of Contemporary Asia 34 (3). p.319-320.

[4] Material in this section is primarily based on fieldwork conducted in: Hui, J., T. Lee and D. Poon (2013) Tie to the Fab Thai: Language and identity of the Thai community in Hong Kong, LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication project, School of English, The University of Hong Kong. http://hkulcom3001thai.wix.com/thais-in-hong-kong

[5] Census and Statistics Department, The Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (2012) 2011 Population Census, Thematic Report: Ethnic Minorities. Hong Kong. http://www.statistics.gov.hk/pub/B11200622012XXXXB0100.pdf​

[6] Hewinson, K. (2004) Thai Migrant Workers in Hong Kong. Journal of Contemporary Asia 34 (3). p.5.