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.