Sharleen Su /photo byJimmy Lin /tr. byGeof Aberhart
Every year, a celebration of Songkran is held for Thai migrant workers in Taiwan. Songkran, a name that derives from the Sanskrit saṃkrānti, meaning “astrological passage,” coincides with the rising of Aries and marks the beginning of a new year in the Thai lunar calendar.
In mid-April each year, New Taipei City takes on a decidedly Thai flavor.
On the morning of April 21, 2019, New Taipei City Plaza in Banqiao District played host to the Ninth Annual Sepak Takraw Competition and Songkran Festival, drawing over 10,000 migrant workers from across Taiwan to come enjoy their own fun new year festivities. Despite not being a Taiwanese tradition, as the number of immigrants from Southeast Asia living here has increased, the event has grown ever larger and more vibrant, becoming a highlight of New Taipei’s cultural calendar.
Songkran in Taiwan (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Pure and sacred water
Songkran is a traditional new year celebration in Thailand and is a particularly important holiday for the Thai people. Water, particularly the splashing of water on one another, is at the heart of the celebration of Songkran. Asoke Srichantr, a well-known Thai-language broadcaster in Taiwan, explains why this is: “To the Thai people, water is the source of all that is holy. Thailand is a nation built on agriculture, and so water is considered essential, even sacred.”
In the celebrations of Songkran, the splashing of water on each other represents both covering one another with blessings and washing away each other’s misfortunes from the previous year. During the celebrations in New Taipei City, a small-scale water fight is held, and a golden Buddha statue is specially brought down from Ling Jiou Mountain for participants to wash with water in worship. “Traditionally we pour water over the elderly during Songkran,” says Srichantr, “which is a show of respect and a repenting for personal trespasses over the previous year. The elders will also sprinkle some scented water over the heads of the younger folk, symbolically giving their blessings.”
The Songkran festivities were kicked off by a ceremony with Thai monks reciting from the sutras.
Thinking of home
The hospitality and sincerity of Taiwan have led to Songkran celebrations here taking on a different look. Ms. Li, who married a Taiwanese man but hails from northern Thailand originally, says she makes a point of inviting her friends and family here to join in the festivities. “We came here today to experience the atmosphere of the Thai new year,” she says. Before the celebrations began, she and her friends went to a booth to get some food vouchers. The plaza features a lineup of stalls selling various authentic Thai snacks and desserts, filling the air with a tempting aroma, and for which vouchers can be exchanged free of charge.
For Thai people living far from home, it is a wonderful chance to once again sample the sweet tastes of home.
Homesickness vs. health insurance
Hu Wenxue, who is here with Ms. Li, also comes from northern Thailand, and is the daughter of a Nationalist soldier stranded in northern Thailand at the end of the Chinese Civil War. She especially took time out to join the Songkran celebrations, laughing that it was because she missed Thai food and so she came to join in the fun.
When she was 22, Hu flew to Taiwan on her own with the help of a friend of her father who lived on the island. Her father had made many friends during his time in the military, including a number who came over to Taiwan with the Nationalist forces in their withdrawal from Burma. “Things were tough in northern Thailand then, so I wanted to go see what things were like elsewhere,” says Hu. These days she is well accustomed to Taiwanese culture, and while she does sometimes miss Thailand, she still hopes to make Taiwan her long-term home, especially given the advantages of Taiwan’s National Health Insurance system, which she rates highly.
To add to the enjoyment, the organizers invited well-known Thai rocker Pee Saderd to perform.
Sepak takraw is a game of both speed and skill, making for exciting matches.
The game of the Monkey God
In addition to the festivities, there are also a variety of other services on offer for free, from haircuts and massages to health checks and legal advice. In the central plaza, in front of the stage, a tense and breathtaking sepak takraw tournament takes place. The sport of sepak takraw (aka kick volleyball) is said to have originated in India, and legend has it that it was played by the Monkey God Hanuman and a group of monkeys. Eventually it spread to Thailand, becoming one of the country’s traditional sports.
Although the scale of Taiwan’s Songkran festivities cannot compare with those in Thailand itself, they have become a focal point for Thais in Taiwan, helping build community cohesion. Both permanent immigrants and migrant workers from Thailand spread the word through social networks, encouraging each other to share in the fun as they come together for the day to chat and catch up. Many Thai residents of Taiwan bring family with them, and can be seen with their picnic blankets spread out, enjoying food and beer in the shade of the trees around the plaza. In the afternoon, Thai rocker Pee Saderd takes the stage to perform, having been specially invited for the event. Many of the Thai people in attendance make a point of staying to catch his performance, singing along and creating a vibrant atmosphere.
Huang Aili, originally from Chiang Rai, has even dressed up for the show. Wearing brand-new handmade traditional Dai clothing, a garland in her hair and a frangipani tucked atop her ear, she cuts an eye-catching figure and is warmly welcomed by the crowd.
Her daughter has come with her, handling all the bags so her mother can focus on putting on a show. “I took her by motorbike to the high-speed rail and she was already dressed up,” she says. Huang, who now lives in Tainan, still dearly loves Thailand and keeps up with events both there and in Taiwan through the Thai-language programming that is broadcast on Radio Taiwan International. Ninety-eight percent of her contacts on the instant messaging app Line are Thai.
Thai workers from all over Taiwan took a hard-earned vacation and came together to celebrate Songkran and usher in the Thai New Year.
Taking care of the workers
Having now gone on for nine years, the New Taipei City Songkran Festival continues to be a great way for workers from Thailand to get a taste of home. According to New Taipei City Labor Affairs Department commissioner Chen Rui-chia, Taiwan currently hosts around 60,000 Thai workers, with some 7,000‡8,000 in New Taipei City. The Songkran Festival gives these migrant workers a chance to let off some steam while also giving the Taiwanese public a chance to better understand and appreciate another culture.
“In fact, in terms of how it treats foreign workers, Taiwan is among the best in the world,” says Chen. “We work with charitable organizations on these kinds of events to provide all sorts of helpful services for workers, such as haircuts, healthcare, checkups, and even an advice service.”
Taiwan’s policies for taking care of Thai workers have been quite successful so far, and the Songkran Festival has been well received, including getting expressions of appreciation from the Thai government and the Thailand Trade and Economic Office in Taipei. The Thai government has even asked representatives from other countries to visit Taiwan, learn from what it is doing, and organize similar events, says Chen. As it turns out, Taiwan’s famous island hospitality has become another effective avenue for “soft diplomacy,” helping Taiwan reach out to the world.
Across Taiwan, celebrations of Songkran take place with a Taiwanese twist, highlighting the cultural melting pot the country is becoming. This photo shows the Songkran Festival held at Huaxin Street in New Taipei City’s Zhonghe District. (photo by Jimmy Lin)