CHIANG RAI – The village of Mae Salong in Thailand’s picturesque, mountainous northern frontier is home to thousands of ethnic Chinese who were originally from Yunnan.
They are descendants of soldiers who were part of the “Lost Army” – the 93rd Division of the Kuomintang – who retreated south after the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and spent decades roaming the mountainous region between China’s Yunnan province, the Shan State area of Myanmar and Thailand.
Aided by the US government and its allies, the group first settled in Mong Hsat, in present-day Myanmar, where they continued to fight Communist forces in Yunnan and armed groups along the border areas.
They also became involved in the notorious drug trade in the Golden Triangle to finance their military campaigns.
Between 1950 and 1960, several thousands of soldiers from the 93rd Division were eventually evacuated to Taiwan. But those who remained began to move their operation south to Thailand in the 1960s after international pressure from the Myanmar government.
In the 1970s, they were officially granted refuge in Thailand after agreeing to help the Thai government fight Communist guerrillas in the area. Many of them settled with their families in Mae Salong, Chiang Rai province.
Today, a soldier still stands guard at the tomb of General Tuan Shi-wen (1911 – 1980), the leader of the soldiers who settled in Mae Salong, which is also called “Santikhiri” or “peace mountain” in Thai.
From Battlefield to Tourist Attraction
The area has seen tremendous change over the years.
In the 1980s, oolong tea plantations replaced the opium poppy fields of Mae Salong and soldiers laid down their guns to become farmers.
And in the 1990s, the region became popular with tourists for its beautiful scenery, cool weather and close proximity to hill tribe communities.
Tourism has transformed Mae Salong, and many locals now profit from running inns, shops and teahouses.
The Chinese of Mae Salong continue to celebrate their colourful history as a way of maintaining their distinctive identity and a sense of community in this corner of northern Thailand.
“Many tourists come, and it is both good and bad,” explained Surapol Saiphetkornsakorn, a local guide who is also a descendant of one of the 93rd Division’s soldiers.
“We must strike a balance in tourism where we can benefit from it while keeping our culture, the natural environment, and maintaining our livelihood at the same time,” Surapol said.
Yunnan Chinese Heritage
Many descendants of the 93rd Division hold dual Thai-Taiwanese citizenship and continue to celebrate their heritage.
Tuan Ya Nee, the granddaughter of General Tuan Shi-wen, explained the community’s cultural identity and heritage to Channel NewsAsia.
“Every household in this community uses the Yunnan Chinese dialect as our mother tongue, and we can all speak Mandarin. Thai is our third language,” she said.
“But we now consider ourselves as Thais. Because of the late King Rama IX, we all now have Thai citizenship and we no longer have to migrate anywhere. We now have bonds to this land and to our King,” she added.
The children in Mae Salong continue to learn Chinese at the Xinhua school, a local school which was founded by the soldiers of the 93rd Division.
Sompong She-win Wontrakul, the director of the school, explained that Chinese New Year is the time when alumni come to celebrate the occasion at the school.
“There have been 2,000 to 3,000 people who (have) graduated from this school. During the Lunar New Year every year, we host a reunion with all the alumni. They help us by donating money and helping develop our school,” Sompong said.
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Panu Wongcha-um has been a journalist since 2010, Panu has covered extensively many political, economic and cultural events in Thailand and Southeast Asia. Panu graduated with a Master of Arts in History from the National University of Singapore and was a recipient of the ASEAN Scholarship as well as the NUS Research Scholarship.
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