BANGKOK — It was a reception fit for a king. His arrival Tuesday at Bangkok airport was carried live by all five of Thailand's TV networks. His neck was draped with garlands, and scores of excited fans held up placards welcoming him. Government officials competed with one another to sing his praises.
The esteemed visitor was neither royalty nor pop star, but American golfing Wunderkind Tiger Woods. He's in town for a tournament - and will earn a reported half-million dollars just for showing up.
Golfing is popular here, especially among the political and social elite, but Mr. Woods's reception can hardly be explained by his 7-iron skills. Instead it's his ethnic background that has Thailand in a tizzy: His father is African-American; his mother is Thai.
Woods's welcome reflects a sea change in Thai attitudes toward luk kreung, or "half children." Thirty years ago, children of Thai and non-Asian parents were looked upon with suspicion, the product of wartime relationships between American soldiers and "loose" Thai women.
But this rapidly industrializing nation has developed a taste for things Western, and stigmas are falling away. Many luk kreung with Western looks are today enjoying unprecedented success.
Never mind that Woods was raised in the US and can manage only a few words of Thai. He's a hero here.
He will receive a royal decoration on Sunday, and a minister has proposed giving him honorary Thai citizenship, a distinction officials say has never been conferred before.
But in the old days, the luk kreung and mixed marriages in general were frowned upon.
"Attitudes were conditioned by the types of foreigners Thais tended to see," argues Paul Wedel, executive director of the Kenan Institute of Southeast Asia in Bangkok and himself a father of two, school-age luk kreung.
"When I came to Thailand in 1972, it was the height of the Vietnam War," he says.
"There were 50,000 American troops stationed in Thailand, and a lot of soldiers had what could be called typical wartime liaisons with Thai women which didn't last very long.
"The war and Thailand's role as an R&R center also led to a rapid growth in prostitution," Wedel adds.
"The assumption of Thais who saw a foreigner with a Thai woman was that the foreigner was a soldier and the Thai was a [prostitute].
"Also, a lot of mixed-race children were abandoned by their fathers, which reinforced the notion of them being the result of shameful relationships."
Nowadays, foreign partners in mixed marriages tend to be long-time residents who sport silk ties and mobile phones rather than M-16s and grenades.
A number of luk kreung have also broken through the prejudice barrier and earned respect through their contributions to Thai society.
One of the most famous "half children" is Mechai Viravaidya, head of the Bangkok-based Population and Community Development Association and a man credited with first sounding the alarm about Thailand's AIDS problem.
Making a mark in media
It is in the media, however, where luk kreung have made their biggest breakthrough. Mixed children are now ubiquitous in Thai films, advertisements, soap operas, and pop music.
"Luk kreung are very big at the moment," says Piyachat Cholasapt, an executive at Siam Studios, a local TV ad production house. "They're seen as looking more beautiful than ordinary Thais."
One of Thailand's hottest luk kreung is Willie McIntosh. The son of a Scottish father and Thai mother, Mr. McIntosh spent his first 16 years in Thailand before going to the US for his high school and college studies.
Returning to Thailand proved to be a lucrative move for the model, who has become famous for his Honda Motors spots and now hosts two TV game shows.
"The possibilities for luk kreung and Eurasians here are very good," explains McIntosh.
"Before, our mothers were looked down upon because people thought they were fooling around with GIs. But now that we've proven ourselves and done good things for Thailand, people have become more open and are starting to like us more.
"I think our attraction is not just physical. Eurasians look more international and many have a high degree of education," he adds. "Thais are attracted to that high quality of life."
Still some prejudice
But certain prejudices remain. Woods's African-American background stands out among the Caucasian-Thais who dominate the media.
In a country where 57 percent of the population are farm workers, dark skin is still seen by many Thais as a sign of poverty. "It has a lot to do with Thai class values," explains Mr. Wedel.
"The thinking is that people out in the fields have dark skin, while people in the palaces are light-skinned." Woods's popularity in fact may have as much to do with his financial success as with his ethnic background and athletic capabilities. The golfer's two previous visits to Thailand passed without fanfare.
In a rapidly developing country where conspicuous consumption rules and "two Mercedes in every garage" has become the motto for the nouveau riche, Woods's $60-million endorsement contracts with Nike and Titleist have drawn lots of attention.
"Everyone seems interested in the fact that he's getting paid a lot," says Ms. Cholasapt, the advertising executive. "For Thai people, that's a lot of money."