Tucked into Bangkok’s Yaowarat Chinatown is a thronging alleyway crowned by a Chinese-style gate, known as Soi Phalit Phon or – by its local name – Soi Sun Yat Sen. Halfway down the street, a small plaque marks the place where the revolutionary leader once spoke to the overseas Chinese in then-Siam, as part of his mission to raise funds and incite anti-monarchist, republican resistance against the Qing monarchy.
Sun Yat Sen visited Siam on a number of secret trips from 1903 to 1908. On his second visit, he established a branch of the Tongmenghui, one of the many Chinese secret societies – or Angyi – that flourished during the era. By 1906, there were at least thirty Angyi in Bangkok.
Sun called overseas Chinese the “mother of revolution.” The Angyi, as the midwives of revolution, had an expressly political purpose – one so insidious that they had been banned multiple times, most stringently in 1898.
Curiously, the law lives on in Section 209 of the Thai Criminal Code, where you can be fined fourteen thousand baht for being a member of a secret society. For good reason, it seems: in Thailand today, Angyi are remembered as mafia-like organizations, with strong connections to the Chinese triads that rule the gambling dens in Cambodia.
However, the Angyi’s political significance and dealings with the economic underworld were fragments of the multi-faceted role they played in the lives of overseas Chinese. They acted as trade unions, welfare associations, racketeers and transfer agents. Most surprisingly, by the end of the Cold War, many had transformed into legal entities, as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and philanthropic foundations.
A brief history of Angyi in Siam
Why did the Angyi exist? Per Wasana Wongsurawat and Zhang Ying’s retelling of their history, they were formed to simulate familial communities for overseas Chinese for whom family was the centerpiece of social, political and economic life. By being able to connect with people who shared the same language, dialect or hometown, one could find the same kind of support otherwise found in an extended family organization. But they also had a strong republican bent – the first Angyi were formed as Han nationalist, anti-Manchu political groups
Studies of Angyi in Siam trace its emergence to the period of King Rama II’s rule (1809 – 1824).
Secret Societies like Ghee Hin, Toh Peh Kong and Ho Seng made their way over the Malaya border to establish branches in what is now Southern Thailand. Southern Thailand was perceived as a “substitute Chinese homeland” because of its role in early modern maritime networks.
Infamously, the exiled businessman Lin Daoqian occupied Patani as part of his vast Maritime empire in 1578 – an early Asian version of British East India. This would precipitate the first trickle of Teochew emigration to Southern Thailand. Phuket most significantly betrays the marks of this sea-borne Chinese influence, with the “Penang connection” still evident in the Peranakan culture that defines the island.
Angyi: mutual aid and labor organizations
A few centuries later, when Chinese laborers arrived en masse under King Taksin (1767 – 82), the Angyi were ready to receive them. These newly arrived but unpopular Teochew migrants needed access to social networks and economic support. As Sawit Kaewwan, renown labor activist and President of the State Railway Union of Thailand, recounts: “Before Thai workers were taken advantage of, it was these Chinese workers who were being taken advantage of by the state.” Unbound to corvée or debt slavery, Chinese migrants were a far more expedient – yet far more easily exploited – source of labor.
In turn, the Angyi stepped in as a mutual aid association. If necessary, they paid for workers’ lawyers, bail, or funeral costs. Although it was not technically an Angyi, the Poh Teck Tung Foundation was originally founded for very similar mutual aid purposes, to provide funeral services for unclaimed corpses in Chinatown. It has now transformed into one of the largest rescue foundations providing such services for all road accident and unclaimed corpses.
Kaewwan also nods to the Angyi as the first breed of trade union. They actively organized strikes and controlled manpower in certain sectors. The most well-known strike was the 1876 revolts of Chinese tin mine workers in Ranong and Phuket, where general strikes soon transformed into riots that left the city of Phuket burning and looted. But riots can be undeniably effective, and officials in both cities soon met with Angyi leaders to improve working conditions in the mines. It was not until the end of WWII that a Thai-led trade union and labor movement would come to the fore.
Of course, they were not really trade unions. Their support was exclusive to the Chinese community, and their loyalty vacillated between Chinese laborers and their wealthy Chinese employers. While they were the dominant form of Chinese labor organizing, they were far from the most egalitarian.
For example, the kongsi – another ethnic Chinese labor organization – functioned as a co-operative, where all members were equal in relation to one another and the emphasis was placed on brotherhood rather than rank. The kongsi system was used in the Thai Chinese shipping and ship-building industry up until the 19th century, where everyone could expect a share of the profits, and were allowed to transport a certain amount of personal goods on the ship too.
It is best not to romanticize the Angyi. Fundamentally, they were hierarchical organizations that served the interests of the (Chinese-owned) economy. Moreover, they had a strong anti-establishment sentiment. Their rise was associated with the growth of Sampheng’s underbelly – the opium trade, the brothels – where their interest in protecting labor or forging relationships with Siam’s rulers was limited.
Angyi as NGOs
There was intense scrutiny of Angyi and ethnic Chinese communities in Siam under King Rama IV, who famously called the Chinese “the Jews of the East” (although, as Wasana shares in her recent book, the context in which he made this statement is oft misunderstood). Specifically, Sun Yat Sen’s influence left the Thai-based Chinese nationalist movement with a strong anti-monarchist and republican bent, and the monarchy responded by forcefully trying to quash Angyi-like organizations.
As a result, some Chinese communities tried to distance themselves from the Angyi. In 1910, the same year the Poh Teck Tung Foundation was founded, the Thai Chinese Chamber of Commerce (TCCC) was founded and legalized. Its membership was rife with Angyi members, but it was considered a legitimate organization and its activities were specifically non-political.
Nevertheless, as Thailand came under Japanese occupation in WWII, their non-political mandate came under pressure. As a powerful pan-Chinese organization, they inevitably supported the war effort of the allied powers under General Chiang Kai-shek (even as the Teochew members of the TCCC initially supported the Guangxi Clique)., Thousands of its members faced imprisonment or deportation; two of its presidents were assassinated.
But by the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War, the new government under Sarit Thanarat lead an effort to stimulate the formation of local NGOs. This was the way out for both Angyi and legalized Chinese organizations: to transform themselves into registered NGOs, and thus avert the watchful eyes of the state.
By this time, the Thai government had already (secretly) established a diplomatic relationship with the PRC, and the Angyi’s political purpose was left behind. In this new incarnation, the organizations were explicitly non-political and far more invested in providing their (often wealthy) members spaces for networking than providing them with the means for survival.
The lore of Angyi lives on, although little attention is paid to its multi-faceted character, or its evolution over the course of Thai Chinese history.
In 2013, a sensationalist story emerged alleging that Thaksin Shinawatra was the direct ancestor of an Angyi leader. According to the story, the Angyi leader in question, Nguan Seng Sae Ku, was imprisoned by the Thai government, and his daughter escaped to Chiang Mai where they set up the Shinawatra clan. “Thaksin is related to the Chinese mafia!” ran the headline. The association with the mafia is, to many Thais, still what Angyi means today.
However, a Manager Online deep dive revealed this to be false. Instead, in an equally sensationalist reading of early 20thcentury Chantaburi history, it was asserted that Thaksin’s ancestors brawled with Abhisit Vejjajiva’s ancestors in an encounter over a century ago.
Even if the threads of Angyi history do not tie so directly to modern political factions, there is reason to believe that the political power of Angyi leaders (sia) lives on in the form of chaopho. Owners of businesses related to drugs, smuggling and gambling laundered their wealth in the form of legitimate, profitable businesses – many through the foundations that coexisted with Angyi, and the NGOs that many Angyi fully transformed into. In doing so, both economic and political power remained concentrated in the same hands, even if the form of the organization looks markedly different.
There remains much to be understood of the complexity of Angyi, and the complexity of the Thai Chinese network throughout modern Thai history. But as historians like Wasana Wongsurawat probe more deeply into Thai Chinese history, we can learn from the simple principle that there is always more than one side to the story.