Thailand is a tropical country in South-East Asia, bordered by Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Cambodia. Many Thais have moved to neighbouring countries such as Singapore, and further still to the United States, Australia and New Zealand. The main reasons people left were the large disparities between rich and poor, and a lack of good jobs. Thais found the space and quiet of New Zealand a far cry from the crowds and noise of their capital, Bangkok.
Prior to 1980 there were very few Thais living in New Zealand. Early arrivals were often Colombo Plan students. In 1981 there were only 303 resident Thais, but this figure rose to 2,838 in 1996, and by 2013 the population had reached 8,052.
In the early 2000s many arrivals were short-term visitors. Young Thais were part of an influx of Asian students, and some found the cities very slow and quiet after Bangkok. In 1999 the 1,741 Thai students generated $28.5 million in foreign exchange.
There have always been more Thai women than men in New Zealand, and they are more than twice as likely to be married as Thai men. Not all women immigrants have remained willingly. A number were lured to New Zealand with promises of employment in restaurants, only to be forced to work in the sex industry. Some who had been kept against their will were able to escape, alerting police to the problem. In 1999 the Human Rights Commission set up a safe house programme to help Thai women break out of prostitution.
Most Thais have settled in Auckland and Wellington. In 2013 over 80% lived in the North Island; just over half were in Auckland, with its warmer climate and greater employment opportunities. In 2013, 76% of New Zealand Thais were Buddhist, and many of the remainder were Christian.
In 2013 about half of Thais were employed in service and sales, agriculture and fisheries, and other manual occupations, but over 40% were office workers, technicians and professionals.
Despite the small number of Thais in New Zealand, their rich culture and distinctive customs have become more recognised. New Zealanders may see Thais greet each together with a traditional wai – holding the hands together in front of the chest in a praying gesture, and bowing from the waist. Aspects of Thai culture can be experienced at events such as the Loy Krathong Festival (Loy means ‘to float’, and a krathong is a lotus-shaped vessel made from banana leaves). In November 2003 it was celebrated in Newtown, Wellington. Participants could buy krathongs and float them in a pool – this symbolises carrying away bad luck, and allows the person an opportunity to make wishes for the new year. The festival also featured traditional dancing, a fashion show and Thai cuisine. Similar events were held in Auckland and Christchurch.
Sireena Worboys arrived on a scholarship in 1976. She taught her New Zealand-born children the Thai language and although they picked it up, she noted some big differences:
‘When I ask them to do something in Thai, their movement is so slow. But when I ask them in English, they just move so quick’. 1
Thai cuisine is very popular and there are many restaurants around the country. In Asian food stores traditional ingredients such as lemongrass and shrimp paste are readily available, and Thai spices are increasingly used in Kiwi cuisine. Thai immigrant Supunnee Walton helped introduce Wairarapa people to Asian foods by opening a shop in 1992. She closed its doors in 2001 – partly because of the proliferation of similar outlets.
New Zealanders have also picked up the national sport of Muay Thai, more commonly known as Thai boxing or kick boxing. Developed more than 2,000 years ago, the sport has grown in New Zealand, which has numerous Thai boxing gyms and trainers.
Buddhism is the cornerstone of the Thai community. Images of Buddha are sacred and treated with great respect. Buddhist monks trained in Thailand arrived in New Zealand in the late 1990s. Living a life free of material possession, they are exemplars for their community; they also serve as teachers, counsellors and even business advisers. Members of the community often have monks bless their homes at housewarming parties.
In April 2003, Christchurch Thai people celebrated the Song Kran Festival, the most important event of the year – in the Thai celestial calendar it signifies the end of one year and the start of another. April in Thailand is hot and humid, and people throw water at one another and onto the ground to show respect for the earth. New Zealand Thais dispensed with this ritual as the weather was too chilly for wet skin.
In May 2000 the South Island Thai community celebrated the opening of their temple, Wat Buddha Samakhee in Christchurch, after years of fundraising. During the late 1990s the Christchurch Thai community held Kathina ceremonies, in which special yellow robes are offered to monks. The Miss Noppamas beauty contest also featured at the Loy Krathong Festival, helping raise funds for the purchase of the temple.
In 2002 a Buddhist temple opened in Karori to serve Wellington’s 500-strong Thai community. Before this they had worshipped at a temple in Stokes Valley.
Groups such as the Mahamakut Thai Buddhist Trust in Auckland and Thai Buddhist Trust in Christchurch enable Thais to continue to practise Buddhism, and provide a place for social gatherings.
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Thailand.
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
Bell, Daphne, ed. New to New Zealand: a guide to ethnic groups in New Zealand. Auckland: Reed, 2001.