What does a Thai person look like? How do expectations about citizenship create an ethicized cultural phenotype? In our Identities article, ‘Turbaned northern Thai-ness: selective transnationalism, situational ethnicity and local cultural intimacy among Chiang Mai Punjabis’, we explore family histories, selective transnationalism and regional Lanna identities among Thai citizens with Punjabi heritage and selective cultural identity. This article argues that Punjabi Thais maintain their networks and cultural connections with a historic ancestral homeland, but they also cultivate forms of local cultural intimacy in ways which leapfrog the linguistic and cultural hegemony of Thai national identity. In other words, despite their non-Thai appearance, these Punjabi Thais have deeply local cultural knowledge, speak Northern Thai language fluently and have Northern Thai cultural sensibilities.
The family roots in Northern Thailand have been planted for over a century. Echer Singh is the first Punjabi trader who settled in Chiang Mai in 1905. He participated in the cross-border trade, importing fabric from India and Burma to sell in Chiang Mai. Most Punjabis in Chiang Mai had migrated from the same villages. Later the Punjabis established the Gurdwara Temple which is not only a centre for ritual practices and social events, but it also serves as a space where the Punjabis affirm their communal ties, social relations and economic networks. With the first generation of Punjabis already established in the fabric business, it was easier for newcomers to enter the trade by earning credit from the owner. The newcomers sought new markets in rural areas, carrying their loads of fabric by bicycle. The Punjabi merchants could accumulate capital by selling their goods with installment plans and later with extended loans to their customers.
Punjabis in Chiang Mai assimilated into the local society while they strengthened their social ties with India through marriage. However, the transnational space connecting between the communities from India and Thailand are ambivalent. One Punjabi Thai businessman has chosen to identify himself as a Thai citizen with an attachment to Thailand rather than India.
For immigrants, the important processes of their settlement are adaptation and localisation. Punjabis Thais in Chiang Mai were fluent in Central Thai, Northern Thai language and cultural practices. They adapted with local conditions and ways of life, especially food. Punjabi families cook northern Thai food and Punjabi food on a daily basis. A Namdhari Sikh married a Punjabi Northern Thai woman learned to enjoy Northern Thai cuisine such as khao soi, kaeng hang-le and kaeng ho.
Chiang Mai Punjabis create transnational ties through physical and virtual connection such as marriage, education, religion practices and media consumption. These transnational practices are supported by assimilation processes since Indian immigrants integrate with Thai society through marriage and community engagement. The Indian diaspora community in Thailand selectively retains a distinct appearance through sartorial choices in the secular public sphere and especially through their religious gatherings and participation in rituals.
Chiang Mai Punjabis have gone beyond strengthening co-ethnic social relations within Indian communities. They have also developed social relations with the Thai populace as well as the Thai royal family through social initiatives and development projects. They constructed the 'Chansom Memorial Bridge', participate as volunteers in various social activities and support marginalized people in Chiang Mai.
This research illustrates that multiple citizenship, rather than dichotomizing allegiance, shows the multifaceted and overlapping natures of social identity, economic and social practices. Diasporic practices, for our interlocutors, reinforce Chiang Mai Punjabi’s practical attachment to Lanna language and culture. Northern Thai social identity presents a meaningful form of rootedness, which is based on language, friendship and everyday social connection. For Chiang Mai Punjabis and their local community, Northern Thai identity is not bureaucratically formed or a citizenship presented on paper; it is tasteful, tactile and real.
Image credit: Indian community in Chiang Mai. Used with permission.
Blog post by Arratee Ayuttacorn, Chiang Mai University, Thailand
Read the Identities article:
Ayuttacorn, Arratee, Ferguson, Jane M., Svetamra, Ariya, Santasombat, Yos and Lee, Kian Cheng. (2023). Turbaned Northern Thai-ness: selective transnationalism, situational ethnicity and local cultural intimacy among Chiang Mai Punjabis. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2023.2182962
Read further in Identities:
Integration, transnationalism and transnational Islam
Mimetic minorities: national identity and desire on Thailand's fringe
Border dispositifs and border effects. Exploring the nexus between transnationalism and border studies