The Great Game Indochina

Gabriel Walker Land
7 min readSep 20, 2020

“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Most fans of cinema and Hollywood history will recognize that quote.

It comes from perhaps one of the most well-known noir films of all time: Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson, whose character, named Jake, said those words on the screen.

What does that line of dialogue mean? Well, I can tell you.

Chinatown is a crash course in Kowloon Walled City illogic, a never-ending test of anyone’s tolerance for ambiguity and labyrinthine bargaining with a little tip of ‘tea money’ thrown into the mix.

And there is no place that is more Chinatown than Indochina, now more commonly known as Southeast Asia or the ASEAN region.

If you expect things to make sense, I would advise you to steer well clear of Indochina.

There is little room for logic, reason, or rationality here.

And anyone thinking like a colonial will always eventually get their comeuppance around this part of the world, should they try to force their strict white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant or Islamic Sharia moralistic sensibility on the place.

That kind of battle will only drive a passenger mad, or at least leave them soaking in a pool of sweat during the hot season with a broken swamp cooler and a bad case of Dengue fever.

Why ‘Indochina’?

This place never should have changed its name in my opinion.

There is not much going on here but a clash between the world’s two oldest surviving empires, India and China.

Most Thais would say otherwise, claiming their state maintains an individual cultural quality.

It certainly does in the north, though not so much around Bangkok.

Here in this busy, traffic-thronged metropolis, second-, third-, and fourth-generation Chinese families have gained control of the helm.

All the malls as well as the two biggest retailers in Thailand are owned and operated not by upcountry rural Thai families but by Thai-Chinese names that have moved in and cornered the market.

Thailand remains Indochina’s most dynamic, globally recognized country with multiple cultural exports of its own.

And indeed, the Chinese families here have assimilated and consider themselves mostly Thai.

Yet they remain the majority of the merchant class in this country’s largest cities, for the most part, segregated from the original agrarian culture of the region.

Nevertheless, the country has the largest Chinese diaspora in the world while it remains simultaneously dependent on Indian soft power.

On the surface, it would seem like the ‘China’ in much of ‘Indochina’ is winning out.

Dig deeper, and you will find an Indian cultural substructure that upstages the consumerist marketer allure.

It Ain't All in the Genes

Most people in Southeast Asia look more Chinese here than Indian.

Sometimes you encounter individuals from the North or the border with Cambodia who have darker skin and more facial hair, however for the most part, genetically, the Chinese have won out in the Indochina game.

Genes are only one side of the coin though, and while Chinese merchants have managed to woo comely Indochinese brides with shiny objects, the Indian contingent has something China lacks: masculine, heroic, mythical bravado.

At the end of the day, any cuckold from India knows he can gain his way into this regional hodgepodge of soft power conflict, with only a wink and a smile.

While appearances can be deceiving, it’s safe to say that most of us tend to judge a book by its cover, most of the time.

So because the general Thai, Lao, and Myanmar population may appear to be more ethnically Chinese than Indian, one might assume based on a knee-jerk reflex that the Chinese have managed to punctuate the entire discussion based on genetic diplomacy alone.

Well not so fast.

There’s more to the story.

And no matter how many times I hear a Thai person say “I don’t like India people,” I will always shrug and ask why they don’t give credit where it is due.

Because this whole game isn’t just about marriages and progeny.

It’s also about ancient empires and minerals that can be made into hard currency, the resources abundant on the world’s largest landmass.

America found out during the Vietnam War that any kind of conquering to be done in Indochina is easier said than done.

This place is some kind of melting-pot vortex, and it will boggle any strategist looking to change the well-worn customs of a region that has always been the gateway between massive and ancient empires.

What’s Old Is New

Basically what is going on in Asia is the same thing that has always been going on in Asia.

This is the world’s largest landmass and that means it harbors most of the easily accessed mineral, crop, and human resources in the world.

It was a shock to me when I realized that the conflict and socio-cultural tension going on in America is over-dramatized, considering the principle of skin in the game; if most of the world’s mining, lumber, and oil is on the Asiatic continent, all the nonsense going on in the US appears contrived.

The US could be self-sustainable, but not with everyone clamoring to be in the elite class.

The US and the greater American continent has all the resources it needs to feed, house, and clothe its population, but its population wants more. Of course it does.

Otherwise, why would we be sending troops to Afghanistan?

Why would we be sticking our noses in EU, UN, and NATO business?

I’ll tell ya why: because we just want more stuff.

This thirst for hard minerals, new phones, laptops, shiny jewelry and clothing and cars, and any number of inanimate objects, is what fuels our interests in the great game in Asia.

America wants more more more.

More opium, more oil.

The thirst is unquenchable, which is why we keep sending our Navy to the South China Sea.

The whole capitalist system is built on the back of the Great Game.

Go India

I write about this topic because I can’t ignore it: I have spent the better part of the last decade in the thick of it.

I am right here front and center, where East meets West.

India represents the West, and China represents the East.

At least in Indochina, Russia is a third wheel in the Great Game.

While it has resources and landmass it still lacks the population, the rich cultural history, and soft power projection that both India and China bank on.

It is only a matter of time before China and India clash, just as soon as they start building missiles that can easily fire over the Himalayan range.

Meanwhile, they clash here, in Indochina through ongoing soft power conflict.

It has been like this from time immemorial.

Hey, there’s plenty of backpackers and nomads that have spent way more time in India than I have.

I don’t know the country all too well.

However, I could counter with the fact that I have spent a heck of a lot of time in China, which is called, by its inhabitants, the ‘Middle Kingdom’ (Everyone else is basically a suburb to them, got it?).

I know China well enough to know that I would prefer that they didn’t expand their great internet firewall.

There is not as much to export from China as there is from India, for a variety of reasons

China has always been more isolated than India, and much further away from the ancient empires of Egypt and Persia.

This has made India more diverse — in some ways more westernized, in others ever exotic.

China also obliterated much of its own cultural richness in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, thanks to Mao and the gang.

Shopping Malls and Vice, If There’s a Difference

If I were forced to choose sides, I would rather India, than China, subsume Indochina.

China, along with its vast organized crime networks, has brought a lot of casinos, shopping malls, drugs, prostitution, and vice to this borderland.

India has brought Angkor Wat, Buddhism, the written scripts of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.

Right now in Cambodia, farmland is being turned tilled to build casinos for a Chinese clientele, while the peasant class speaks and writes in a language based on Sanskrit and the largest tourist attraction was built by ancient Hindus.

The difference to me as an outsider seems stark, while many Thais I speak to aren’t aware of how much of their tonal vocabulary stems from Sanskrit words.

At the end of the day, it always helps to take a look at the situation and consider it from an impartial perspective.

Me being a foreigner knee-deep in Indochina for almost a decade, I can venture as good an assessment as most anyone.

And from my viewpoint, I see China trying to turn the world into a Disneyland shopping mall, more like glitzy Singapore than a gritty Hong Kong.

India is trying to turn the world more into a bazaar, where everyone can offer something on an open market.

And with that, I have entered the fray, for the Great Game will likely outlast any other global conflict in history.

At least until the tectonic plates shift.

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Gabriel Walker Land

Gabriel is a writer, actor, and musician from Los Angeles. Currently, he is based out of Bangkok, Thailand.