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