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