When Thailand’s popular, anti-military government graffiti artist “Headache Stencil” posted xenophobic rants about Chinese people infected with the coronavirus, many of his Thai and foreign fans were shocked, outraged and disgusted.
“Hey Chink! Please go back to ur shit-eating country. Our government need ur money to keep their power but you all not welcome for us now. #notwelcometothailand #backtourchinklandpls,” he wrote on January 26 on his Twitter site, which has over 6,000 followers.
He claimed, without corroborating evidence, that coronavirus-infected Chinese were traveling to Bangkok because Thailand’s hospitals were better than China’s and that they were endangering Thai lives as a result.
The English-language, anti-Chinese slur is uncommon in Thailand, a nation with a large and economically powerful Sino-Thai population and the world’s largest Chinatown, meaning the artist likely aimed to reach a mainly foreign audience.
Headache Stencil often tweets several times a day, but mostly in the local Thai language.
In 2018, he gained wide support and pride of place in some of Bangkok’s edgier art galleries when he illustrated Bangkok’s dilapidated streets with wall graffiti showing a large clock, politicians’ faces and other satirical imagery.
But his overtly racist messaging has turned off many of his followers and fans, even as Thailand grapples with a rising number of coronavirus cases last reported at 26, among the highest number outside of China worldwide, and at least one case of Chinese-to-Thai transmission.
“Disturbing to see such blatant racism by an artist that used to be respected by many liberals in Thailand,” tweeted Mathias Peer, the Bangkok-based correspondent for the German business newspaper Handelsblatt.
“I’m afraid that the debate over the #coronavirus will increase racial hatred against people from China. This is not acceptable!” Peer wrote on January 26.
Peer posted a screenshot of the overtly racist tweet which was still on Headache Stencil’s Twitter site and their thread as of February 4. The Thai artist, however, dug in against the criticism of being racist.
“Enjoy using my tweet caption. I dont think Thai ppl will support what u think after we knew what chink plan to come to Thailand with virus cuz better that hospital in China. Thats call murderer for me and others Thai. I dont care to racist ppl that wanna kill others. Enjoy yourself,” Headache Stencil wrote.
The Bangkok-based correspondent for Singapore’s Straits Times, Hathai Pia, said Twitter’s monitors should be informed that the artist is using their platform to spread racism.
“You can report the tweets. I did. Quite shocking actually,” she tweeted.
“I was one of those who did respect his art,” tweeted “That Daeng Sauce”, who is based in Bangkok and sells smoked fermented sauce. “Not any more. The total lack of remorse is even more telling.”
A person nicknamed @megafan44 replied, “Honestly disheartening to see him say that. Seems weird for someone to be anti-dictatorship but also be a racist.”
“It’s sad that this has now developed into hate speech such as this racist tweet,” wrote Richard Barrow, an online columnist who reports about tourism in Thailand. Barrow, who has nearly 145,000 followers, also posted a screenshot of Headache Stencil’s quote.
On Tuesday (February 4) Barrow tweeted an online poll which asked his followers:”Now that three Thai drivers have been infected with the #coronavirus from their Chinese passengers, what should the Thai government do now?
“Keep calm and carry on? Ban travel from China? Deport Chinese tourists?
“I really hope ‘deport Chinese tourists’ doesn’t win. That should never be an option. You could ban travel from China, but people are now being infected from travel to other countries.
“I think Keep Calm and Carry On is the best option, but the government needs to be more proactive,” Barrow wrote.
Reflecting the spread of anti-Chinese racism worldwide due to the virus, Thailand’s Prachathai news site published on its Facebook page an editorial cartoon by Bangkok-based Stephen Peray, which he headlined, “Sinophobia is now a global health emergency.”
The French cartoonist, who signs himself as Stephff, drew a big angry Caucasian man spewing flames from his fanged mouth, while his balding head was also on fire under a hat emblazoned: “Make Racism Great Again.”
The man is portrayed yelling at a young woman who looks Chinese and pulling her luggage on rollers, as many Chinese travelers are regularly seen doing in Thai cities.
In Thailand’s second-largest city, Chiang Mai police told a Thai restaurant owner to remove a sign in front of her eatery which said in English: “We apologize we are not accepting CHINESE customers. Thank you.”
Tourist police told Waraphat Thapiang, 33, that her sign could “affect national security,” according to Thailand’s Khaosod English news-site. Surprisingly, police suggested she could rewrite her sign to say politely but deceptively: “We ran out of food” in Chinese.
“I wrote that sign in the first place because I don’t know which one of the Chinese customers who [ate] at my restaurant was infected,” she said after agreeing to the suggested rewrite.
Waraphat wrote the first sign when she saw worried Thais leave her Kloijai Khaosoi restaurant in Mae On district when they realized a group of Chinese tourists were dining there, she said.
Chiang Mai is usually thronged with Chinese tourists who marvel at its opulent Buddhist temples, revel in its relatively low prices and gather at sites popularized in films seen in China.
Thailand does not have laws preventing people from being barred entry to places based on nationality, race, religion, gender, size, age, odor or other reasons.
“It’s not illegal. It’s their right to do so,” Tourist Police Chief Lieutenant General Chettha Komolwantana told Khaosod English. “However, it’s inappropriate because it can cause damage to the country’s reputation.”
Prayut Chan-ocha, who took power in a 2014 coup and was democratically elected prime minister in 2019, has reminded Thais that hate speech is illegal and that violators would be prosecuted.
China, meanwhile, allowed Thailand to evacuate 138 Thais from the locked-down city of Wuhan to an air force base in U-Tapao near Bangkok on February 4.
Some Thais perceived the evacuation as a slow response by Beijing after several other countries were permitted to fly their citizens out earlier.
“The delay drove many Thais to think that Beijing isn’t valuing the relationship, despite significant pledges by the Prayut administration to buy military hardware,” the Bangkok Post said in an editorial headlined, “Evacuation is Long Overdue.”
“By giving Thailand the cold shoulder, Beijing has raised serious doubts over whether China was ever really a good friend to Thailand in the first place,” the English language newspaper said.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.