Amulets: Thai soft power, exported as far as China

SUNDAY, APRIL 21, 2024

Thai soft power might be manifesting in the form of amulets, as its influence extends all the way to China, to the extent that renowned celebrities there are showing interest without any special promotion.

This leads to the buying and selling of amulets and talismans, evolving into an "auspicious economy" that significantly impacts the Thai economy, especially in terms of tourism and the Buddhist commerce sector, which is worth tens of billions of baht.

Today, amulets are not merely objects of religious reverence. It cannot be denied that they have become high-value economic commodities.

The amulet market in Thailand has an annual trading value of tens of billions of baht and continues to grow steadily, especially among Chinese tourists who have a deep respect for Buddhist virtues and a penchant for collecting amulets.

According to research by the Kasikorn Research Centre in 2019, it was estimated that the amulet market in Thailand had a value of about 17 billion to 23 billion baht. This estimation was based on sales to Thai individuals alone, excluding sales to foreign tourists or exports.

Thomas Patton, an anthropologist at City University of Hong Kong, said the first time shops related to Thai amulets appeared in Hong Kong was around 2008-2009. Hong Kong residents were captivated by the world of Thai talismans and magic as means to grasp spiritual solace.

Amulets: Thai soft power, exported as far as China

This interest was particularly noticeable among the working-class population, who felt the impact of the global financial crisis in 2008.

"BB”, a Thai vendor who livestreams sales of Thai products to China through the Douyin platform, said that originally, Chinese people, whether from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia, all had beliefs and faith in the blessings of the Buddha for prosperity.

However, the awareness of Thai amulets increased notably when Chinese celebrities, including those from Hong Kong, began to wear them during events instead of conventional jewellery.

It began with Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan, who wore an amulet during film shoots, including scenes where he had to perform stunts multiple times. On one occasion, an accident occurred during filming, but fortunately, no one was injured. This sparked curiosity among the film crew about the amulet Jackie Chan wore around his neck. It turned out to be from Luang Phor Phrae, Wat Phikun Thong.

Cecilia Cheung, a Chinese actress, travelled to Thailand and decided to buy amulets for 150,000 Hong Kong dollars, including "Kuman Thong", a household divinity of Thai folk religion for good luck.

Additionally, Qin Fen, a young Chinese idol, walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival wearing a Luang Phor Ruay bracelet and a black suit.

Luang Phor Ruay amulets have gained immense popularity among the Chinese population, ranking among the top amulets highly sought after. Its Buddhist virtues are believed to enhance wealth and prosperity, leading to a resurgence of their fame.

Consequently, Chinese devotees flock to Wat Tako, a renowned temple in Ayutthaya province, to pay homage. Luang Phor Ruay, a revered monk, is celebrated for his abundance of blessings, compassion, and ability to provide safety and security.

Jeans Muangnont, a respected amulet expert, said that nowadays, there's a significant influx of Chinese tourists inquiring about Thai amulets and talismans both in physical stores and online channels.

They constitute a substantial proportion of customers alongside Thai locals despite lacking expertise in authenticating or distinguishing genuine from counterfeit amulets.

Some customers are selling Thai amulets in China, highlighting the high demand and popularity of Thai amulets among the Chinese population. However, this demand is still relatively small compared with the overall population of China.

It is not only amulets that are becoming Thai soft power in the field of beliefs. But the universe of beliefs emerging in the Buddhist circles is showing its magic without needing to be promoted, such as world-class actors and actresses like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and Fabio Cannavaro, or Ed Sheeran, a famous British singer. They got Thai tattoos that are both beautiful and magical.