At times you come across an inconspicious piece of paper, a black and white piece of paper that we’d rather quickly use to scribble some notes on and yet sometimes it contains some information that if investigated a little deeper leads to an interesting and important story. That’s how we found out about a small museum in Charoen Krung soi 23 and the community connected to it and their story that we would like to tell.
Located in an ancient Chinese rowhouse and due for some serious renovation, it informs visitors about the history, the struggle and the cause of the Charoen Chai community. The threat of redevelopment, eviction and demolition of the entire neighborhood for profit-oriented purposes is looming over this otherwise busy and yet picturesque neighborhood. As Bangkokians we ask ourselves whether the removal of the old regardless its cultural value is the way Bangkok should reinvent itself!? Shedding ones past, rejecting its pioneering communities and their heritage that sets a city apart from another is bad news for any city that seeks to maintain its unique identity and this is happening to cities all around the world. Globalization is eroding the traditional but does it always have to be that radical way?
We met Pee Art, one of the community leaders who works on the preservation project and we agree that we do not oppose development, especially if it increases convenience and life quality but it should integrate and secure the future of indigenous communities and don’t sweep them off the map. Meeting people like Pee Art always inspires us. Their cause is somewhat hidden beneath a light-hearted surface of smiles and humor but that should not distract one from their struggle and their courage. The onslaught of the modern capitalist forces into the last of Bangkok’s indigenous areas is a fatal intrusion for local residence and a devastating intrusion for the city’s identity and our personal identity with Bangkok as well. People, like Pee Art’s father are specialized in the art of producing Chinese paraphenelia for temples, weddings and other ceremonies and often these family have been working in their niches since the reign of king Rama V. In this regard it is already a unique part of Bangkok that can’t be found elsewhere. Ever since Daniel and I have been regular visitors here, having our cameras ready like John Wayne his revolver, ready to capture what makes this community so great but it’s hard. It’s a difficult undertaking because one has to experience it himself and it’s often not done by a stroll through the alleyways alone. It’s those moments that come when you don’t expect them but when you’re generally receptive for the beauty. It happened when I sat on a stool waiting for Pee Num in front of the Historic hut for roughly 20 minutes, watching and observing my surrounding in the early hours of the day. The steam of the kitchens, and the canopies covering the alleyway through which the sun rays of the early day shone, immersing the laneway with its lanterns and golden paraphernalia into the warm light of the morning suns, nuns and monks passing by and the tones of Chinese instrumentals filled the air. Of course I did not have a camera with me at that very moment which I regret till today. I felt transported back in time, to the Bangkok of 1910 maybe and the big question that arose from here is for how much longer will this precious kind of Bangkok community exist if we don’t strive to preserve them. As they said to us ”If this community falls, so will many others follow”.
In order to get a better understanding of the situation and to carry the message of Charoen Chai beyond the realm of Soi 23 we met Pee Art, Pee Lek and Pee Num for a video interview and we’re currently in the process of editing and translating it, however it takes some time since we have full-time jobs to handle but we’re on it and will post it soon. In the meantime we ask those who care to preserve Bangkok’s identity and heritage and the old parts of this wonderful city to join this Facebook page to build a community that stands behind people like the Charoen Chai preservation group to support a sustainable development that is embedded in the local fabric as to preserve its culture and the livelihood of its inhabitants. Stay tuned
When Bangkok was established as Siam’s capital on the Rattanakosin site, the early foreign communities of Bangkok were distributed south of it along the river. The Chinese, the Indian and the European communities are the ancient and most significant foreign communities in Siam and they are all assertively Chinese, Indian and Western but they also have two things in common - they are also distinctively Bangkok and they are connected through one road, namely Charoen Krung Road. It is argued whether Charoen Krung (Prosper the city) or Rama IV Road is Bangkok’s first road. Whether it is or not doesn’t play a role as much as it is Bangkok’s lifeline at which Bangkok’s history and early development can be read. Built in 1862 by king King Rama IV it supposedly served Westerners to pursue their healthy lifestyle of riding horses and their carriages and to connect the European community to the royal compound further north. Charoenkrung runs parallel to the river for 8.5km, from the ancient outer city walls of the elite space of royal-religious Rattanakosin to Dao Khanong in the south. Like many other cities in the world, the birthday place is given by the river and commerce and immigration expanded the city in successive waves and Bangkok’s history and the development of its urban, social and cultural fabric can be read along Charoen Krung Road. In the early stages, trade was controlled by the royal elite but with the expansion of trade, the need for labor rose and the communities along Charoen Krung grew fast and the entry ports into Siam shifted in their significance from the royal controlled Rattanakosin domains (Tha Chang pier) downstream to the Chinese ports along Sampheng where the diaspora of Chinese immigrants started to become the dominant force in the trading business. Influx of Chinese immigrants to fuel the need for labor turned Bangkok into an almost predominantly Chinese city and the Chinese became the city’s first bourgeois, the urban middle class that triggered the explosion of the first real estate development of traditional Chinese shop houses where family-run businesses would operate downstairs in the open-front shops, whilst the owners would live upstairs on the second floor. This early 20th century phase of Bangkok’s urbanization has its remnants scattered around Chinatown, whilst also European style row-houses with the same functions can be seen along Charoen Krung Road and further north in various areas in and around Rattanakosin. These distinctive masks of Bangkok are unfortunately threatened by demolition to make way for new developments and many of these old houses are in dire need for renovation. Beside the Chinese row-houses another outstanding feature of the Chinese community as well as for the Indian community is the intricate and uncontrollable maze of narrow and often claustrophobic alleyways and passages that connect the riverside docks and the commercial arteries. This incredible maze grew organically without the slightest notion of urban planning and harbors a myriad of interesting facets of the Chinese evolution in Siam. Smaller in scale but not less intense is the community of the Indians around the Pahurat Road (built in 1898) which consists of the fragments of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim immigrants who focus on the textiles trade. The choice of silk, cotton, wool and cashmere is overwhelming and the entire district appears to be one huge labyrinth of market lanes that are also interlinked with Chinatown’s Sampeng. Chinatown and Little India meet on the unrecognizable bridge that spans across the second defensive moat of old town Bangkok (Saphan Lek) thus it seems as if the Indians were placed as a buffer between the elite royal compound of Rattanakosin and the commercially powerful Chinese. These Asian communities are congested and vibrant whilst the old European quarters maintained a rough semblance of order, a small world, partly UNESCO protected, in which one does not only find one of Asia’s densest concentration of fivestar hotels (The Shangri-La, the legendary Oriental, Sheraton, Hilton Millennium and Peninsula -the latter two on the other side of the river), a major trading center for antiques and the global center for jewelry trade but also fine examples of European architecture, though lots of it is in a state of decay. From here Bangkok expanded eastwards 50 years ago and heralded the start of the next phase of urbanization and globalization that can be read in the skyline of Suriwong, Silom and Sathorn. When we think of modernization and globalization we see the impressive skyline of Bangkok, the skyscrapers of Silom and Sathorn and we tend to overlook the Charoenkrung corridor that served as the gateway for the European, Chinese, and Indian communities that made the pioneers of urban Bangkok. It’s the hybridization of their commerce, culture and people through uncontrolled development, immigration and rapid commercial expansion that gave Charoen Krung the status of being the nucleus of a Western civilized Bangkok. It stands for the replacement of the Thai Khlong (canal) and the imposition of roads and international commerce that heralded the end of the aquatic world of early Bangkok and its villages, orchards and paddy fields. Within the realms of Charoen Krung the majority of today’s Bangkok’s ancestry arrived who then turned first urban middle class and cooperate Thailand was born and its wake the first department stores and high-rise buildings were built. It’s the road that connected the royal Thai elite to the world in a modern urban sense and from here the city first grew eastwards, devouring the original peaceful canals and orchards of Silom and Sathorn and then in the eighties grew skywards creating one of the world’s top ten skylines. regardless the visual dominance of Bangkok 2.0, it is the Bangkok DOS version and its exciting urban muddle between Charoen Krung and the Chao Phraya River that is so exciting and fascinating to explore and for that one needs to roughly follow or stay somewhat close to one road - Charoen Krung Road. Charoen Krung is the
If visitors to Thailand want to see ruins, they visit the ancient temples of Ayutthaya, the splendid and formidable structures of their time. However due to the lack of temple ruins in Bangkok, we have come to explore a different type of ruin, modern day symbols of wealth and power that were not destroyed by an invading army but by the dynamics of our complex economical system. Ayutthaya was raised to the ground but Bangkok is still standing though with the financial crisis of 1997 the entire Thai economy at that time collapsed, leaving behind countless bankrupt companies and over 300 unfinished major real-estate projects, all scattered and abandoned in various stages of construction, eye-sores many say, over-grown remnants that are sometimes merely basement levels and sometimes real giants soaring up to 50 floors. They would linger on for years, decaying before our eyes, forsaken symbols of the nineties economic boom and bust, protruding from the urban landscape of a tropical mega city whilst the city itself moves on in its relentless growth. They’re the knocked out teeth in the smile of Bangkok as the locals say. It’s urban life and death next to each other, these parallels that are so typical for Bangkok, giving this city yet another layer to explore. For us they are more than
simply decaying concrete mammoths, they’re part of Bangkok’s history, part of the urban DNA, frozen symbols of the city’s development from an insignificant trading post to an international metropolis. They are the playgrounds for urban explorers but their number is shrinking, most of the abandoned skyscrapers have now been resumed and have become or are becoming the glittering skyscrapers they were supposed to be but others are still towering like giant, intimidating hollows in which
time has stopped. Once you enter those buildings you probably won’t find a licensed tourguide roaming around with a group of yellow-capped tourists thus this sort of venture is neither promoted in a guide book nor on the “to-visit-list” of Bangkok tourists. At this point we need to say that it is against the law(!) and dangerous. So, you neither want your family to bail you out of jail nor pay the hospital fees for you. The most prominent of these ghost towers is the Sathorn Unique, a 47-storey abandoned residential tower, haunting the skyline on the southern tip of Sathorn Road just a stone-throw away from BTS Saphan Taksin (stone-throw away gets en eery meaning here) Making it into the world’s top-ten of the largest abandoned man-made structures, it has its own feel and atmosphere some say it’s creepy others find it fascinating, however… if you’re from Bangkok, don’t ever take your Blackberry addicted girlfriend into this place, one careless and wrong step and you may disappear in a hole though the journey downwards would be long enough to type a final message into your BB.
This said we strongly advice you to NOT ENTER this building and if you do so it is at YOUR OWN RISK. This building is private property. There’s been a lot of stories and myths around this former sister project of the now famed Bangkok State Tower (also called Lebuna State Tower). That building was as well abandoned for a number of years hard to believe if you have ever sipped your Martini at their Sirocco bar. Whilst the Bangkok State Tower was revived its sister Sathorn Unique perished and has been in a state of decay eversince. According to engineers a structure may be exposed for some ten years to tropical climate conditions after that, you better build it again from scratch instead of repairing it. So, the question that many of the architecture fans of Bangkok haunts is whether Sathorn Unique will ever be revived given its 80% completition. For most Bangkokians however this building has become a daily sight and only those living in its shadow are concerned. With nearly 50 storeys this building is the dominant structure and people wonder whether the whole thing will collapse one day. Having to deal with steel and rubble falling from a almost 200m above and smashing through a roof of a car on one occasion.
or dropping into the surrounding bushes gives indeed a reason to look sceptical towards the ceiling before going to bed. What is a worry for some is a relief for others, especially homeless who’ve seeked refuge there and were able to choose to inhabit one of the 659 residential units or set up camp on the roof top with its half finished dome. Today lots of weired and religious symbols bear witness of its former inhabitants who have now been banned by blocking access to the upper residential units from level 9 onwards and a grilled chicken munching guard has been placed permanently at the base of the tower making only the pack of fierce looking dogs the only residents of the tower. Over the past years Sathorn Unique has not only attracted the homeless and apparantly “religious sects” but also the creative folks among Bangkokians with art projects involving Sathorn Unique, also architecture fans keep their eye on the development of the tower and photographers use this uncommon micro-cosmos as a backdrop for nudity shots, which indeed makes some bizzare pictures. So, what do people think of it? What do you think of decaying buildings in the middle of residential zones? Usually, foreigners look at the building with a question mark on the forehead. “Maybe for us they’re great eyesores, because Americans can’t deal with things that are unresolved,” says Paul Katz, a principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox architects in New York, who has spent time in Bangkok. “But Asian cultures understand the world isn’t perfect…everything isn’t always finished.” Mr. Katz describes the buildings as “poetic,” adding they’re “not completely boring to look at, especially when things start growing out of them.” and we totally agree with Mr. Katz, especially if you got trees and bushes growing in almost 200meter height and mosses and grass turn balconies into a second Wimbledon ground. It is these things that you find only in Bangkok and if you’re on top of the building feeling like Will Smith in “I’m Legend” overlooking this awesome city, you wish they’d neither resume construction nor tear it down because it would bereave Bangkok of one of its fascinating features, a feature that makes Bangkok what it is, a place that surprises us, intrigues us and never fails to truly bore us regardless whether you’re the average tourist or a die-hard urban explorer.
We will post more on the status of abandoned buildings in Bkk soon.
Many of us are surrounded by so much history and so many stories, some of them never become told, and parts of our history fades into oblivion. As half Thais we’ve made it our mission to explore and better understand our Thai roots and there’s no better age in doing so then in this day and age. With all the communication and media tools available, we’re able to capture the stories of people and places, learn about our Thairoots and share it with you in the process.
One of our first projects is about Bangkok’s oldest remaining Chinese residence. For us it’s one of those places that make Bangkok what it is, an intriguing and beautiful Asian city, rich and diverse in culture, history and identity, despite facing immense challenges of modernization. The surroundings of the house alone are worth a visit with their huge, spiritual Banyan trees
We’ve asked the communities on Facebook what kind of business they think to find in such an old, traditional residence
a) diving pool
c) snooker hall
most people guessed snooker hall but actually it’s a diving school and we’ve made a video for those in disbelieve but this is just the beginning.
The next step is the actual interview with the owner of the diving school and his mother who are the owner of this marvelous residence. They are the descendants of wealthy Chinese traders that ran a trading business between Siam and China during the Ayutthaya period. Both of them are of course highly knowledgable, the mother is the local communit leader and they have a lot of things to share.
Thus we would like to invite you to send us questions so that we can translate them into Thai and ask the Pochinda family directly in our upcoming video interview. This family faces a particular challenge in maintaining this house and with the interview we would like to spread the message out but you will here it from Khun Poosak himself what it is. Feel free to submit your questions, regarding the history of Bangkok, the life of Chinese immigrants, the Chinatown of Bangkok, traditional Chinese homes, customs, traditions, etc. we will be happy to include those questions in our interview.
With all the attributes of a megacity Bangkok can easily appear to predominantly be a city of the future and in search for the origins of Bangkok the first way usually leads to the city’s icons namely Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, Vinmanmek Masion, etc. and then it’s back to the shopping malls or the hotel pool.
But what about those who are not content with a city tour comprising the main attractions? Those in search for traces other than temples that reflect the Bangkok of the early days?
One such place is the Pochinda residence. It’s not a palace or temple, it’s one of the oldest and last remaining residential buildings built by Chinese traders in the early days of Bangkok around 19th century. In the past Bangkok was a predominantly Chinese city and those interested in the historical roots of Bangkok will find that outside Rattanakosin Island (home to the Grand Palace, etc.) the Chinese community even predates the founding of Bangkok. It is thus the oldest community and not only a buzzing commercial center as it seems at first sight but rich in the history of Bangkok’s growth from a peasant community to a trading town.
The Pochinda residence is one fine example on how wealthy Chinese traders lived roughly 150 years ago but it’s unfortunately a very rare piece of Bangkok’s history. We were fortunate to getting to know the descendants of these Chinese traders, namely Khun Poosak and his mother, who is not only the local community leader but also the owner of the Pochinda Residence. Having the opportunity to talk to them helps us to better understand Bangkok’s history, its cultural heritage and identity and thus we decided to prepare an interview with them and would like to invite our bangkokvanguards community to submit their questions if there’s something they would like to know about this old Chinese home, Bangkok’s Chinatown and the Chinese community in Thailand.
With the interview we would like to share knowledge and insights and at best even help to preserve places like Pochinda Residence. Preserving history and ones roots is more important then ever given the rapid development that replaces integral parts of Bangkok’s and our identity for profitable highrise buildings.