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. Have you tried opium? 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 village’s Chinese inhabitants built a formidable opium kingdom here in 1961. The profits were used to fund a counter-attack against the PRC that never came.

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 the groups mostly commune among themselves, 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 on makeshift stools beneath the awning of her small knick-knack shop. Each of them spoke varying degrees of Mandarin, allowing us to communicate in a common tongue. In between our conversations, I listened as my interlocutors switched between languages with the ease of our languid afternoon.

Facing the risk of attack from nearly every front, the Chinese colonizers of Mae Salong developed deep and lasting relationships with the neighboring hill tribes. Brought together by a confluence of twentieth century circumstances, this interethnic rapport was more unaffected than I had ever encountered in Mainland China.

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 up to four schoolchildren in blue uniforms. The day was uncharacteristically dry, but dark clouds were rumbling over Myanmar. 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 obscure languages local to this hilltop two hours north of Chiang Rai.

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