Hi-so in Thailand: Lifestyles of the (not so) rich and (moderately) famous

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The term “hi-so” is used frequently in discussions about Bangkok life, but it’s a term that has taken on new meaning and moved beyond the boundaries of what it was originally supposed to refer to. What is hi-so? The Thai media would have us believe that hi-so is a person who attends lavish parties, who appears in glossy magazines, and who is seen to have a lot of money. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

There is a thin line between high-society and high-profile, but it is a line that exists. The problem (perhaps problem is too strong a word) is that those who might be classed as high-profile would like to cross the line into high-society, while those who are high-society take offense to this.

“Hi-so” is a word often misused. High-society is a birthright and is not directly related to money. It’s about a surname, it’s about tradition, and it’s about how someone is raised. It’s not something you can buy into. The general public seems to get confused about what hi-so is. If somebody becomes popular or if someone is on TV or in a magazine often enough then those people are immediately labeled as hi-so.

How many times have you heard people referring to a “hi-so restaurant” or something similar? Perhaps such statements are the manifestation of a general fascination with wealth (something not limited to Thailand). These great family names, which have long represented power and money in Thailand, are now joined by other families, “new money”, so to speak. These people have been elevated in the public eye to a point of envy, but it seems that from this lack of differentiation between new and old money comes the perception that money, fame and popularity = hi-so..

And then there’s those Thai celebs and clingers-on who crave to have their face plastered on pages, who go to parties without being invited, and try to impose themselves on a scene that they don’t belong to. I would say that real hi-so does not refer to a person who desires fame or who has to flaunt his or her wealth. The Thai media loves to throw the hi-so label around but it’s really quite a redundant term.

I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts on this because I’ll bet there’s a long history of Thai tradition that can be traced back when looking at what hi-so actually is, or was.

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8 thoughts on “Hi-so in Thailand: Lifestyles of the (not so) rich and (moderately) famous

  1. I do agreed with you on the term "Hi-So". There is a different between High society and High Profile. I do believe that if ones can change their own path in life. Meaning, a working class or lower class decided getting a higher education and soon after a great career, and so that person derserve to be in high society becuase that person earn it. I think that old money and new money is the same and it doesn't matter how people want to interpreted because even the "old miney" was once a new money too. I believe that if people believe they are "Hi-So" so lets it be because it doesn't concern my life. Sometimes, those who are "Hi-So" carries themselves with so much class and manner and are sensitive to others it is nice to know. But I must say if a "Hi-So" person looks down on other people its really show that not all "Hi-So" have class.

  2. a fair observation. But it's not strictly tue that "hi-so" means having the surname or birthright to match. In Thailand, money…and lots of it… will usually suffice. The use of surnames only goes back a handful of generations here, and the concept of "birthright" is not quite the same as the European sense of the word. In England one can still be a Lord, even as ones forbears have steadily whittled away the family estate down to nothing over the years. You don't lose your status (or maybe just a little). But in Thailand only one thing counts to be admitted as a fully paid-up member of the hi-so club…MONEY! Because the Chinese traditionally made up the merchant class, most hi-so families have marked Sino-Thai features and backgrounds. Ever seen all those gorgeous TV commercial gals, or Miss Thailand? They look notably more Chinese because it's the Chinese merchant class that sponsors the Thai economy.

  3. its all false people,, we have in UK we call these people YUPPIES back in the 80s

    and now we call them ass holes

    Hi-so assholes

  4. I was once referred to as 'Hi So' when I went to meet a fellow American while traveling in Bangkok. As a self-made business woman, I can hardly describe how offended I was that this self-righteous prick presumed to tell me who I was and what my career reflected based solely on the fact that I was white, well-dressed (or more accurately FULLY dressed) and on holiday in Thailand. After experiencing the beauty and graciousness of the Thai people, this was the last thing I had ever expected coming from a white American teacher also far from home.

  5. It is apparent from reading the words of some English contributors, that they have little understanding of English social life. Yuppies were never from any English Hi-So status. The name gives that away, they were Young and Upwardly mobile. They were people with high ambition, not high class. The "so called" upper classes in England generally held their status by a commonality in social values and behaviour. Wealth was never a unique factor. This a point often missed on most Americans and not a few British citizens.

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