The Chinese are coming
Over the weekend, when China and Chinese people around the world celebrated the Lunar New Year, many news updates inevitably had a Chinese theme.In Thailand, we were told that spending over the New Year holiday would hit Bt45 billion. Tourism authorities were upbeat on the number of Chinese visitors to Thailand this year, expected to hit 3 million.
It was a surprise that the Australian tourism authority also talked about the same thing. Despite the appreciation of the Australian dollar, official data shows that China last year leapfrogged the UK for second place, to account for 10.2 per cent of Australia's international tourism market, compared with 6.3 per cent in 2007. Hotel operators there are also feeling optimistic about the prospect of more Chinese visitors. The Novotel in Sydney now has green tea, Chinese TV channels and newspapers, and the staple congee in the breakfast buffet.
This will continue, given the forecast that by 2020 there will be 100 million Chinese tourists travelling the world. Three million this year for Thailand, the number could be more than 5 million by then.
They are everywhere. In Hokkaido a few years back, a Chinese lady greeted me in Mandarin (probably because of my small eyes, but certainly because of my complexion). She was part of a big tour group.
Chinese issues have become regular news for Thais. Just as Asean is to implement regional integration, all eyes are on regional disputes with China over islands believed to be located on top of vast gas and oil deposits.
Ahead of US President Barack Obama's visit to Thailand, there was concern that our "too-friendly" approach may upset China.
To prepare for the "Chinese" tourist invasion, many companies offer free training courses in the language. The Economic Reporters' Club also sponsors reporters taking similar courses at any school. I'm not included, though. Trying it in my free time, I became convinced it is too difficult for someone older than 40 with daily work. A tip from a banker who has spent a few years in Thailand: Ignore all the characters and focus only on sentences that can make your life easier while in China or when interacting with the Chinese.
My favourite radio programme, famous for English-language country songs, last weekend also featured Chinese country songs.
Hua Chiew University for years has built up a big library of Chinese textbooks and decades-old journals. It also as a section devoted to traditional Chinese medicine. If you want to know about the power of "chi" energy, nothing is better than a book written by a Chinese expert.
In a country with a recoded history that dates back 4,000 years or more, there is a lot to learn from. As I learnt from a set of rare books at Hua Chiew University, ancient Chinese gurus did a great job of keeping records. In one book of plants, they had illustrated the plants and detailed their properties as well as the right propagation methods. I also enjoyed Chinese fables. My favourite is the story of Lord Buddha and a female spider.
Here's the story: There was a spider in a temple compound. She was dreaming about a man but ignored the tree that gave her shade. When the Buddha saw the spider, he asked what was the most valuable thing and the biggest cause of sorrow in one's life? She replied, "To have what we want and to lose what we treasure."
A thousand years passed and the Buddha asked her the same question. She gave the same answer. The Buddha then suggested that she be born as a human, and caused that to happen. The spider was born into a noble family and, as a teenager, met the man she loved (in a reincarnated form, of course). She was convinced that he would love her in return, but he ended up marrying a princess. The girl became engaged to a prince, whom she ignored. She was tormented. But the Buddha revealed that the prince in his former life was the tree at the temple, which took good care of her, and in this life would do so again. Then the Buddha asked her the question again. The spider was enlightened. "The most valuable thing in one's life is the present (which ones need to nurture). Then, there is nothing to be sorry about when the present becomes the past."
I was reminded of Chinese period dramas, when words form quotes that can take you days to decipher. Take this example: "Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness", from Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War. Many quotes of his can still be applied today, like "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer", and "A leader leads by example, not by force". I am convinced that William Shakespeare would have loved Sun Tzu.
China is something we can't avoid. The Chinese population is 1.4 billion, or 20 per cent of the world's total. A belated happy Lunar New Year!