Chinese and Japanese influence on Thai music

Centuries of Chinese immigration to Thailand have built a large diaspora community. The Chinese in Thailand range from the “Sino-Thai” - Thais of Chinese descent, who have assumed Thai cultural identity, and speak Thai as their first language - to ethnic Chinese who speak a Chinese dialect as first language and who retain a Chinese way of life. There is considerable diversity among Chinese Thais, including the Teochew (pronounced (H)Dae (R)Jiu) who account for over half of the six million strong population, the Hokkien, the Hakka, Hainanese and Mandarin speakers. After Chinese intervention helped to drive back the Burmese in 1767, King Taksin, who was himself of Teochew descent, actively encouraged Teochew immigration and trade. The Chinese population in Thailand jumped from 230,000 in 1825 to 792,000 by 1910. By 1932, approximately 12.2 percent of the population of Thailand was Chinese and by 1987 this had increased to about 14 percent. During the past 30 years the Sino-Thai community has gradually come to dominate politics and business in Thailand including the music industry, partly via the use of the Teochew dialect as a business language.


Chinese Influence on Thai Classical Music

India is the most important cultural influence on classical Thai language, literature and art but there are strong Chinese influences on classical music. The Thai classical mahori (musical ensemble) uses several instruments that are very similar to Chinese instruments such as the sor u (fiddle with half coconut head) and sor duang (fiddle with small cylindrical head/resonator), probably derived from the Chinese er-hu . The Thai khlui (bamboo flute) may be of Chinese origin. One of the 12 standard Thai mahori repertoire categories ( samniang ) is Jin (Chinese).

 The khim (dulcimer) was introduced to Thailand in the late 1800s by Chinese immigrants living in the Yaowarat Chinatown district of Bangkok. It is a direct descendent of the Chinese yang chin (which originally came from Persia). The gu zheng (floor zither) (pronounced guu joeng) is also popular in solo performance. All of these adapted instruments are used in dontri Thai prayuk (Thai fusion genre) and Ware (2006) notes that in recent years, Chinese immigrants have blended Thai classical with Chinese classical music to create a separate prayuk repertoire. Traditional Chinese theatre or niu is very popular, particularly around the time of Chinese New Year. It is important to note that these cultural influences are so well integrated into Thai culture that most Thais would claim these instruments and art forms as authentically Thai.


There has been little, if any, Japanese influence on Thai classical or folk music genres. In terms of cultural input, the earliest significant Japanese contribution was in the form of films which were imported from Japan in 1902 during the latter part of the reign of Rama V.


The beginning of Japanese Political Influence


Following the 1932 coup that ended the era of absolute monarchy in Thailand, Luang Phibunsongkram gradually rose to political prominence and served as Prime Minister from 1938-1944 and 1948 to 1957. His regimes were marked by persistent social engineering and the manipulation of mass media and he established a new popular music known as phleng Thai sakon by combining Western harmony and traditional Thai melodies. He moved Thailand into line with Japan before and during WWII and definitely aspired to be like the Japanese by conducting programs of modernization. Consequently, after the Japanese invasion in 1941, Phibunsongkram was able to retain power and Thailand retained nominal independence, though it signed a treaty of alliance with Japan and declared war on the Allies. It is probable that phleng Thai sakon was influenced at this time by the nationalist Japanese genre ryukoka . Japanese films were extremely popular in Thailand during and after WWII and the bands that played during screenings would have certainly performed some ryukoka hits. It should be noted that the Chinese community in Thailand experienced some discrimination during Phibunsongkram's period of influence.


Chinese Communist influence during the 1970s

In 1973 massive demonstrations by students led to the overthrow of the Thanom and Praphat military regime. One significant element of the student protests was phleng phuea chiwit or “songs for life”. Despite the students' Communist ideology, “songs for life” was clearly derived from American folk rather than Chinese or Soviet music. Between 1973 and 1976, “the democratic era”, there was an outburst of leftist creativity, and Marxist writings, especially those of Mao Tse Tung, became freely available. However, the October massacre of students at Thamasat University in 1976 forced many activists and students to flee to Laos and the Northeastern region of Thailand known as Isan, where they found refuge with Communist insurgents. During the Isan insurgency the Thai student leaders continued to write in the “songs for life” genre but they were also encouraged by the leaders of the Thai Communist Party to write marches in the Chinese style. The Thai guerillas, most of whom were Isan peasants, preferred to listen to Thai lukthung (country song) and so disobeyed orders not to listen to government radio. They composed alternative lyrics ( phleng blaeng ) for well known lukthung songs and sang them instead of the Chinese style marches. The Communist Party leaders ordered that lukthung was not to be used because it was too commercial and its “cha cha cha” rhythm was unsuitable for marching. Popular music was thus a source of cultural friction which was just one of the reasons why the insurgency lost support and eventually petered out. Furthermore during this period the Sino-Thai community did not wish to be identified with the Communist insurgency and moved towards greater integration within Thai society.


Again there was negligible influence from Japan during this period although the most famous “songs for life group”, Caravan, later scored a big hit by covering “Hana” (flower) by Okinawan minyo (roots) musician Kina Shokichi, under the title “Dork Mai Hai Khun” (flowers for you). Indeed, the Thai student movement was opposed to what they viewed as Japanese expansionism – the first task of the National Student Center of Thailand at Chulalongkorn University in 1972 was to organize a boycott of Japanese goods. When Tanaka Kakuei toured Thailand in 1974 he was greeted by demonstrations protesting against perceived economic domination and renewed Japanese ambition. These protests led to a softening of trade tactics by Japanese governments which eventually resulted in Thailand becoming a manufacturing base for Japanese companies. In retrospect Caravan's 1985 cover of Kina Shokichi's “Hana” forecast the shift in influence, from America to Asia (especially Japan), that was to take place in Thai society during the 1990s.

 Chinese television shows in Thailand and related songs

Many Chinese historical and social dramas have been shown on Thai television since the early 1960s. Because of this many Chinese theme songs became popular in Thailand. Frances Yip, a Canto-pop singer who sang many TV theme songs for the Hong Kong TVB series during the1980s and early 1990s, was very famous in Thailand because she sang Chinese songs in Thai, albeit with a Chinese accent. The 1980s was the high point of Chinese influence on Thai popular song. Many popular singers had their own records of Chinese songs sung in Thai, such as Dorkmai Pa ดอกไม้ป่า (Wild flower duo) and the Hot Pepper singers. Many of these songs were the theme songs of Chinese dramas such as Pao Bun Jin เปาบุ้นจิ้น (Chinese Judge Pao) and Jao Phor Sianghai (Shanghai mafia). The lasting influence of these dramas was observed during the PAD's (People's Alliance for Democracy) 2006 protests against Thaksin Shinawatra, when Prof. Zhuang Mei-Long's Chinese theatre troupe performed stories involving Judge Pao challenging “square-face” Thaksin . Nithithat Promotion dominated the production of Chinese influenced music during the 1980s with singers such as Pimpooyom (Iu) Rueangroong and Paijit Aksonarong and the above mentioned groups Dorkmai Pa and Hot Pepper.


The build-up of Japanese economic influence in Thailand

Thailand became a major manufacturing base for Japanese companies during the 1980s, mainly due to the appreciation of the yen . The aggregate Japanese direct investment during the 1990s amounted to some 40 percent of total foreign direct investment in Thailand for that period. Manufactured products such as cars now make up 65 percent of Thai exports to Japan. In 2007, the two-way trade amounted to over 50 trillion yen with the trade balance 3:2 in Thailand's favour. This build-up of Japanese economic influence was not accompanied by an integrated soft power program – probably because of resistance to perceived Japanese hegemony in the region.


Recent Chinese and Japanese influence on Thai pop


Recent Chinese influence on Thai pop

Chinese influence on Thai pop has decreased noticeably during the past 20 years. This is somewhat curious considering that businessmen with Chinese ancestry control most of the Thai music companies. However the decline of Nithithat Promotion demonstrates that Chinese popular music in Thailand has never been integrated to the same extent as the Sino-Thai community. Thai singers performed Canto and Mando-pop songs but these genres did not greatly impact Thai genres. The demise of Nithithat as a producer of new music in 1995 coincided with the rise in popularity of J-pop. Since then C-pop has failed to excite interest among young Thais – perhaps because the Chinese diaspora has been so successful in becoming Thai. However, the most probable cause has been the stagnation of the Hong Kong music industry when compared to its Japanese and Korean counterparts. In 1997 Murko Whitfield of marketing company Reed MIDEM stated: “I think Hong Kong is burned out. You still have the four Canto-pop kings and I think people are fed up with it. Cantonese repertoire sales are going down.” Apart from the uncertainty created, the 1997 reunification with China has also possibly played a part in reducing the influence of Canto-pop in Thailand because there is still considerable suspicion of Communism in Thai society.


While it would be wrong to assert that there has been no Chinese influence on the Thai music industry over the past 10 years, even the exceptions illustrate an overall reduction in Chinese influence. The China Dolls consist of two young Sino-Thai women called Hwa Hwa and Bell. They formed in 1999 and performed at the Asia 2000 Music Festival. Best known for their song “Muai Nii Kaa” (I am a Chinese girl), they had a very strong Chinese image and sang in both Thai and Mandarin. This actually confused their Thai audiences and towards the end of their career they were beginning to have more success in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and China, than in Thailand.


China Dolls
Figure. Hwa Hwa and Bell: The China Dolls


Apartment Khunpa is an alternative group in Bangkok with Sino-Thai members. Along with other members of the Thai entertainment industry they joined the protests by the PAD (People's Alliance for Democracy) against Thaksin Shinawatra. One way to view the recent political unrest in Thailand is as a struggle for dominance within the Sino-Thai community. Thaksin Shinawatra is of Hakka descent, whereas Sondhi Limtongkul is Hainanese ( Lim being the Hainanese pronunciation of the common Chinese surname Lin). Apartment Khunpa were part of Sondhi Limtongkul's campaign to mobilize the Chinese diaspora against Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party. In the song “Mueang Yu Hu” (Yoohoo Land) they sing:


Don't need an economy, don't have colleges

Don't have academics, don't have research

Don't have Chinese love Chinese (Jin rak Jin), don't have Indian love Indian (Khaek rak Khaek)

(It's not strange if Thais do not love other Thais (Thai mai rak Thai).


It would be easy to read this as just another attack on Thaksin's Chinese ancestry but that is not actually the case. Such attacks have been made but Apartment Khunpa appear to be making the point that Chinese Thais should not support Thaksin just because he is Sino-Thai, that they should think for themselves. The song also implies that no matter what their ancestry all Thais are Thai. This demonstrates the political and social integration that the Sino-Thai community has achieved. In marked contrast, Apartment Khunpa's Brit-pop and jazz influenced alternative music emphasizes the present paucity of Chinese influence on Thai pop music.


Recent Japanese cultural influence in Thailand

Although Japan began to invest heavily in Thailand during the 1980s, Japan's exporting of J-pop only really boomed during the late 1990s. The reasons for this separation in time include Japan's preference for economic benefits, slowness to capitalize on or to organize an international agenda and the residual resistance by Thais to perceived Japanese imperialism left over from the 1970s. By the time Thailand really took notice of J-pop its key elements had been in place for over a decade: the Idol system developed by companies such as Johnny's Entertainment, synchronization between television dramas and pop music and a copyright system that included karaoke. Of these elements only the Idol system was influential in the Thai context. Thai television grasped the concept of synergy/cross promotion and the value of linking acting to music very early in its history. Siriphon (2004) records that in 1965 a show titled Lukthung Krung Thai achieved great popularity because Channel 4 used television actors and actresses to sing the songs (2004: 181). It may be that it was the interest of Thai music companies that led to the sudden increase in the popularity of J-pop, rather than any Japanese intervention. Thai music companies such as Grammy and RS Promotions began to copy the Japanese Idol system from about 1995 and it is from this time that J-pop began to make an impact in Thailand. For example Utada Hikaru sold more than one million copies of her three albums between 1999 and 2005 in Thailand alone.


Indeed, Japan's interest in Thailand during the 1970 and 1980s was economic in nature, and it was only from the beginning of the new millennium that Japan consciously set out to build soft power through cultural activities. Although it was established in 1972, the Japan Foundation's role was redefined to emphasize cultural investment when it was granted the status of an independent administrative institution in 2003. An example of this new interest in cultural exchange was the Japan Foundation's J-ASEAN Pops 2003 project, a belated attempt to capitalize on the popularity of J-pop throughout East Asia. J-ASEAN Pops concerts were staged throughout 2003, headlined by Johnny's Junior and Yuri Chika. An artist from each ASEAN country recorded a version of the “image song”, “Treasure the World”, in his/her own language and style. The Asian community of “Treasure the World” is a utopian vision of an Asia without borders, an Asia without linguistic difficulties or bad weather. Typical of recent Japanese attempts to engage with South East Asia, the J-ASEAN Pops project tries to avoid any suggestion of imperialism. The vaguely spiritual and environmental message appears to have been designed so as to not offend any country and there is certainly no mention of heavy industry or thorny historical issues.


“Treasure the World” English Lyrics: When I step out the door I am met by the sun And I look to a sky that protects everyone Then I call out my joy to be borne by the wind Sharing love for this world that we're in. When the sun fades away and a stillness descends I gaze up to the stars in a night without end

Then I call out my joy to be borne by the wind Sharing love for this world that we're in. And my love flies over fields over valleys bearing grain

Over rivers that travel throughout lands Through the roaring of the sea through the falling of the rain I call out to all my friends.

Let us sing out our joy to be heard everywhere Let us share all our dreams let us watch them with care Let us live everyday and together let us say

We will treasure the world that we're in.


However, the main aim of the project clearly was to achieve soft power political, rather than economic, benefits. Despite the apolitical message and medium of pop music, the rhetoric of the organizers betrayed the political aim, with Japan being situated as the leader of a wider Asian region:


It has often been pointed out that popular music has developed in East Asia, including ASEAN countries, thanks to the strong influence of Japanese pop music. Similarly, the popular music of Japan has in turn been greatly influenced by American and European music. In other words, it could be said that it has become easier for the people of East Asia to assimilate popular music originally made in Europe and the United States, after it has passed through the sensory filter of the Japanese people.


This quote from Ben Suzuki, the assistant director of the Japan Foundation, emphasizes Japan as the leader of East Asia and the representative of East Asia to the Western world. The theory proposed here, that East Asian countries were unable to assimilate Western popular music without Japanese help, is erroneous. Countries such as Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia were absorbing rock'n'roll and rock concurrently with Japan during the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, significant adaption of Western popular music has just as long a history in Thailand as in Japan, extending back to brass band music of the 19 th Century, which contributed to the formation of phleng Thai sakon in the 1930s.


In a speech celebrating the ASEAN-Japan Exchange Year of 2003, Prime Minister Koizumi's message of Japan and ASEAN “acting together, advancing together,” continued the idea that ASEAN would be best represented and protected by Japan. Such sentiment echoed the Japanese ambassador to Thailand's statement in 1997, referring to preserving cultural traditions in the face of Westernization : “ As two Asian nations with long distinctive cultural heritages, Thailand and Japan can together face this challenge, which has a profound significance not only for our two countries but for all the non-Western world.” Thus, since 2003, Japan has sought to make the most of its cultural currency amid increasing competition from South Korea and China.


Despite the lack of a planned program and the handicap of history, Japanese cultural investment has certainly deeply affected Thai society. Over the past 10 years Japan has surpassed America as the leading influence on Thai teen fashions and entertainment. Japan has become an important destination for Thai university students studying overseas and Japanese cultural investment helps to support the Fine Arts in Thailand. For example Thai student Doungnapha Phuengthongkum placed second in the 9th Osaka International Music Competition. Since 2004 the Japanese / Korean look has replaced the Eurasian as the most preferred image in Thailand. The following quote from Thai pop singer Ice Saranyu illustrates the shift in influence there has been in Thailand within the last 10 years: “Back then [2002][Thai] people were not yet into the ‘Japanese/Korean look' like they are now. Luk kruengs (Eurasian people) were more sought after and a must for Thai media at that time.” This quote, however, demonstrates that Japan has not been the only country to benefit from the construction of pan-Asian pop. Indeed high school student surveys by Toyoshima (2008) suggest that, in comparison to other Japanese cultural forms such as Manga or Anime, J-pop has not achieved wide popularity in Thailand and has remained a relative subculture.

It is extraordinary that the Thai pop music scene does not show more influence from China considering that the owners of the major record companies are Sino-Thai. During the 1980s there was a higher level of influence from China, which had mostly disappeared by 2000, along with the most “Chinese” company Nithithat. This indicates that a well integrated diaspora may not always benefit the home country politically or culturally. Certainly the Sino-Thai community has benefited China economically because they have facilitated trade between the two countries. Yet the Sino-Thai community has been at pains to separate itself from any notion of Communism. It appears that the dominant position of the Sino-Thai in Thai politics and business has actually reduced the Chinese cultural content in Thai pop music. Thai entertainment companies have so far found it more difficult to break into Chinese speaking markets than Japan and Korea.Japanese industrial investment in Thailand was not accompanied by the systematic export of J-pop but when J-pop did reach Thailand it revolutionized the Thai entertainment industry. South Korea received greater soft power benefits than Japan from its entertainment industry because, coming after Japan, the Koreans were able to study the Japanese approach and completely integrate their system. Now as various Asian countries including Thailand start to market their pop music in China there may be an opportunity for China to regain the initiative by copying the Korean approach. A completely integrated approach involving government and private entertainment companies, with talent identification, training, promotion and distribution and cross-cultural schemes may allow China to create soft power in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia. The Chinese content, which is deeply established in Thai culture, could mean that such a program, correctly handled, might not be viewed by Thais as foreign or imperialistic. An inter-cultural program that would assist Thai companies in creating musical products for the vast Chinese speaking market could result in significant soft power benefits for China. As Maliangkay (2008) facetiously forecast, “a Thai-dal wave” may happen, but I would suggest it is possible only if preceded by a Chinese earthquake.