Reflections on Mae Salong

Originally published in Columbia University’s Asia Pacific Affairs Journal.

“Most of the hill tribes here smoke opium in the evenings. For us Chinese, it’s almost exclusively the older generation—those who came with the Kuomintang. You haven’t tried opium, have you? Why not? It’s medicine: the world becomes a blur of comfort and quietude after a hard day’s work.”

Two weeks through my stay in Mae Salong, I still hadn’t acclimatized to its peculiar language. A sleepy mountaintop town located near Thailand’s northern border, its population is as enigmatic as its history. Settled by the remnants of one branch of the defeated Kuomintang military that had initially fled to Burma in 1949, the Chinese inhabitants of this village built a formidable opium kingdom here in 1961. The profits were used to fund a counter-attack against the PRC that never came.

Ultimately they traded in their aspirations of returning to China for the more prudent plan of helping the Thai government defeat its own insurgent communists. In return for their efforts they were granted Thai citizenship. Today the guns are gone from Mae Salong, and the former opium fields swell with what will become delicate oolong teas. At night the dark green hills are lit intermittently with the subtle glow of fireflies and the more prominent beams of flashlights: patrols on the lookout for opium smugglers from Myanmar.

By day the languages of the Lisu and Akha hill tribes, as well as Thai, Mandarin, and the Chinese dialects of Yunnan Province mingle across Mae Salong’s landscape, making it exceedingly difficult for visitors to build a coherent picture of the community. While each of the village’s groups mostly communes with itself, important intersections do occur.

On a hot May afternoon, I visited a small neighborhood populated by several of Mae Salong’s most aged villagers. Chinese characters adorned the larger houses, offering blessings. Interspersed between these buildings were the more rustic Akha and Lisu dwellings. I sat with a wizened Akha woman, a middle-aged Lisu man and a Chinese woman whose late husband had been a KMT soldier. We drank tea together, sitting on makeshift stools beneath the awning of her small shop. Each of them spoke varying degrees of Mandarin, allowing us to communicate in a common tongue. In between our conversations, my interlocutors switched between languages with the ease of our languid afternoon. Their rapport was warm and unaffected.

With no real government of their own, and facing the risk of attack from the Burmese to the west, the PRC to the north, and Thai military to the south, the Chinese colonizers of Mae Salong developed deep and lasting relationships with the neighboring hill tribes. Brought together by a confluence of 20th century circumstance, what was once a friendship of necessity had evolved into a paragon of Chinese-minority relations.

Somewhere within the house behind us, an old man coughed; another whooped with euphoric laughter. Beneath my feet, chickens peeped and scuttled across the cracked road, pecking at grain. Scooters whirred by, carrying two or three or even four schoolchildren in clean white and blue uniforms. The day was uncharacteristically dry, but dark clouds were rumbling over Myanmar. For all I knew within minutes a swirling downpour would submerge the gleaming valley below, and all that would remain to characterize this place would be the sounds of my temporary, aged companions, their voices shifting back and forth between the somewhat familiar tones of Mandarin and the languages local to this hilltop two hours north of Chiang Rai.

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