02 Apr Heritage Conservation – a lost cause? Here’s why not!
Did you know?
April 2nd is the official Thai Heritage Conservation Day in Thailand. I didn’t know and many others didn’t either. That triggered the idea of the Bangkok Heritage Week. We want everyone to know. This project aims to provide an opportunity to showcase and to experience the stories, innovations and successes of the people, communities and organizations that work in the realm of heritage conservation. It is in their service that we channel our passion and contribution toward that end and here is why we think it is important and urgent.
The predominant reality
Hemmingways, Pom Mahakan and Woeng Nakhon Kasem. Names that sound alien to foreigners but are synonymous for the loss of cultural heritage in Thailand. Three places in a long list of losses to the historical evidence, communal life and architecture of Thailand. One being a European influenced, golden teak-wood gingerbread mansion from the 1910’s which was the home of the Regent of Siam in the early twentieth century. The second was a two century old settlement behind the old city wall. It was among the oldest living communities in Bangkok, if not the oldest. The third being an entire block in Bangkok’s Chinese district that was a functioning Chinese trading community with its characteristic Chinese shop-house architecture. For the most part it seems that the gradual disappearance of heritage in Thailand is not big of a deal. Heritage conservation usually loses out on people’s ‘alarm-scale’ to politics, economic outlook and crime. You could quickly gain a one-dimensional perception of the state of conservation in Thailand when reading the news. Communities and markets fear for their future while conservationists lament the indifference of the government. Travelers bemoan over-tourism and the disneyfication in parts of Thailand. Thainess is promoted by wearing ancient costumes for photo ops while down the road the city’s oldest community is being leveled. Thailand’s richest have never been richer (the top 1% owning 66.9% of the country’s wealth according to the Chairman of Phatra Securitie) and they are bend on turning Bangkok into a Thai carbon-copy of Singapore, Tokyo or Seoul with or without its soul. As the government bans street food vendors, migration of young people leave mainly elderly and toddlers behind in urban and rural communities and inner-city land prices keep increasing, the soul of Bangkok is certainly changing. This article is partly soul-searching at a time where “progress” (however you want to define it) takes precedence over cultural or environmental conservation.
The domain of the elite?
From the opening of Thailand’s first museum in 1874 and the establishment of the Department of Fine Arts. What comes to mind when we think of heritage is the divine and grand architecture of our monuments, temples and palaces. They are among the core symbols of our national identity and civilatory achievements that define Thainess and attract travelers from around the world. They also seem to receive the sole attention of laws and charters governing the recognition and conservation of heritage in Thailand and therein lays one of the problems. Early conservation of heritage was not rooted in nation building lest in boosting tourism but in the piety of ancient Kings. The repair, reconstruction and enhancement of sacred buildings in ancient times was a way of merit-making for the kings. Since 1912, the responsibility of heritage conservation rests with the FAD (Fine Arts Department) under the Ministry of Culture. The department is governed by archaeologists, whose limited views on heritage does not recognize vernacular heritage. Unlike other nations, cultural heritage issues are low on the national agenda which is also reflected in its budget allocation and condition of heritage. We may be among the top-tier nations in terms of tourist arrivals but we lag behind other Asian countries in the scope and quality of cultural heritage management. What incentives would not only recognize but promote all aspects of vernacular heritage as part of the national agenda!? Other countries such as Korea are doing it. Why not Thailand? What ever it takes for the Thai government to give cultural conservation the attention it deserves, there is no point in waiting for their enlightenment.
Within the circles of Bangkok fans, explorers and lovers of architecture and heritage it is easy to get validated and to find common ground for conservation. However, pondering the trends of modernization in Thailand, one could feel lucky that the word conservation made it into the Thai vocabulary. It would be legitimate to ask to what extent heritage still has a place in a country that is embracing the future? Often, people and communities do not feel ownership let alone responsibility for their cultural heritage and for a modern, young, urban middle class, the importance of heritage may just be another swipe on the phone. The old architecture and way of life may be good for an Instagram post but the people living in those spaces may not find anything instagramable about it. Conservation can be a tricky issue when you weigh the beauty and historic value of a property against the quality of life when actually live in them. Do we want to force people to stay the way they are because of a romantic idea we have? What is it that people want? Few questions give rise to such tensions than that of of preservation vs. development.
What is heritage?
When we talk about heritage, what do we mean by that? What is it that we want to preserve? The question of what properly constitutes cultural heritage and who owns cultural heritage has been the focal point of fierce debates between different parties. When the topic of vernacular heritage is thrown into the discussion then The Fine Arts Department “left the chatroom”. Without a clear definition, a million people may hold a million views. Some agree that the beauty of Bangkok does not only rest in the grandeur of touristic attractions but are imprinted in the layers of the city’s different development stages. From the canals, narrow alleys, old communities and street markets to the orchards and mangrove forests in the periphery. Some would argue that they are part of the heritage landscape. They provide livelihood, identity and happiness to people and fascinate travelers and locals alike. They are the symbol of Thailand’s diversity. They keep the memory of our shared past alive. These aspects are embodied by vernacular, tangible and intangible heritage, the ways of life, the heritage of merchants, minorities, craft and agricultural communities that call Thailand their home. Would the archaeologists at the FAD agree? Some might say who cares if these aspects are still the pride and love of many people? Internationally, these aspects are recognized in the heritage conservation community but in Thailand they are facing formidable challenges.
Shift the narrative
Admittedly, reading the article thus far requires a substantial amount of Prozac. Can we still dare to be optimistic about the future or is the Zeitgeist of economic development and the obsession with numbers, from tourist arrivals to GPD the only yard stick to measure success? How do we put the collateral damage on our way to a “civilized” country into the equation? Looking at the challenges one’s hope may erode as fast as our coastlines but as coastal erosion is being tackled by the people, so is the cause for cultural conservation and it’s time to shift to their narrative.
Do you ever realize that we are living in the most exciting era in human history? The Bangkok Heritage Week and this article and everything connected to it is only possible because we have the technologies to take action on the things we care about. It took only three weeks from an idea inspired by a book called “Protecting Siamese Heritage” to the point where people gathered in the real world through the Bangkok Heritage Week. Never have we been more empowered. But what does that mean?
The bright side
It means, to shine light on the things that matter, we don’t just have a little pocket lamp but giant sized LED stadium lighting! Where to shine to? There are individuals in academia, the public, private sector, communities and government who seek a co-existence between progress and conservation. There size and approach is very diverse. From big institutions with a endless track record of heritage conservation to heritage owners adapting to the needs of modern society and bottom up initiatives to reconnect Thai people to heritage. It’s not possible to provide a complete list of all the initiatives and contributors but to give you an idea here are few examples.
The Siamese Heritage Trust is among the largest and most respected and competent organizations that aims to spark public interest and discussion in cultural heritage management through events, lectures, tours and media content. Organizations such as ASA (Association of Siamese Architects), have made tremendous contributions to the conservation efforts in Thailand. ASA regularly provides the architectural design awards. Without their recognition, some of Bangkok’s beloved places may had already met the wrecking ball. Friends of the river is an initiative concerning the development and conservation of spaces along the Chao Phraya River while engaged academics are expanding the borders of what is traditionally seen as old Bangkok. The lines redrawn beyond the close proximity of the Grand Palace to include areas along the water ways and the ancient Chinese commercial districts. The BMA (Bangkok Metropolitan Administration) has recently added people assigned with heritage conservation to the city planning teams. Though zoning regulations have still a lot to wish for, it is a step in the right direction.
The big players – CPB Crown Property Bureau
Among one of the most prominent landlords in the country is the Crown Property Bureau. It boasts more than 37,000 rental contracts of which 93% are rented out at zero or minimal rates to nonprofits and governmental organizations. Their attitude toward conservation is vital as their heritage properties include 24 palaces and residences, 6 office and facility buildings and 1,960 shop houses and commercial buildings. Thanks to the late King Bhumibol’s model of sufficiency economy philosophy and other factors, the management of the CPB’s properties extends to the conservation of their heritage buildings. These projects even invite learning experiences for the general public and people who may want to restore their own properties. One prominent case is the Ruenrit Community, a century old neighborhood along Yaowarat Road which was poised to make way for a commercial development. Instead the CPB granted the community another 30-year lease. Although the new lease may have prevented the demolition, the community is now facing another challenge which is its financial feasibility. The amount needed for the restoration as well as for the 30 year lease of over 200 hundred units exceeded the predictions and the future will show how the community is going to continue on its path.
FAD Fine Arts Department
The Fine Arts Department was founded in 1911 and is the only institution in charge and authorized to register heritage. Its role is to coordinate all government affairs in regards to art and culture. The FAD holds the highest authority in things relating to cultural conservation but can only register only ancient monuments, antiques and objects of art as heritage. The FAD’s part in keeping and restoring cultural heritage has seen outstanding successes and is an incentive to preserve especially elite level structures and monuments. However there are increasing calls from the conservation community to keep up with international best practices and widen the recognition of heritage. In light of existing heritage initiatives and a growing public interest, the FAD’s potential in becoming a key agent in the preservation and enhancement of Thai culture has never been greater.
Creative adaptation of the past to the future
The Ruenrit neighborhood has to evolve into the future with a new makeup and new ideas. How will places like that survive in a fast-moving city like Bangkok where your place is considered a relic once it hits its twentieth anniversary!? Having been around since World War 2 or even 60’s Bangkok not just as a physical place but the function itself is a notable and special feat. No property developer can recreate or replicate these heritage spaces, no matter how much money they have. Only the force of time can. But to be of relevance and value for society you may have to reinvent or repurpose these spaces. How do you keep the spirit and soul of heritage while renovating and re-purposing it? And where do you find the resources and expertise to do so and above all how do you also make them somewhat profitable? Wonders Mr. Poonsak owner of the Kengjean Thang Nguan Hah house.
Are you on your own?
Mr. Poonsak is among the guard of heritage owners who stand against the trend of replacing the old with modern developments. Across the river is his counterpart Mr Poosak, the owner of the So Heng Tai mansion, the oldest Chinese courtyard residence in Bangkok. He faces the challenge of maintaining and up-keeping his heritage property. While the roof is too heavy for the teak wood structure, one of the walls of house threatens to collapse. Without any government support conservation can be challenging. Accepting donations to fund their projects may cast them in a negative light as they are driving cars and outsiders view them as “well off”. People could become suspicious and wonder why they don’t shoulder the costs themselves not knowing that maintenance already absorbs a lot of financial resources without even tackling the main issues.
Appeal for help
But money is not the only issue. Expertise to study and analyse the heritage value and history in case of Mr. Poonsak and public awareness in the case of Ms. Sirinee are even more pressing issues. Ms. Sirinee and her team turned a former residence of Chinese opera artists into a community center and tiny museum called Baan Kao Loa Ruang in the Charoen Chai Community. The space showcases the living link between China and Siam and serves as a space to raise awareness on the conservation of the Charoen Chai Community. Public awareness is needed as the community is located at the door step of the new underground station (MRT) set to open this year. The opening of the MRT will bring big changes to the area. The cancellation of about a hundred rental contracts is a first sign for things to come. People fear, their community (which is Thailand’s last Chinese Joss paper trading community) could be moved out to pave the way for what many suspect will be another shopping mall.
Outside the gravitational pull of the MRT lays a former rice warehouse turned event space called Baan Rim Naam where regular cultural events take place in an intimate and beautiful setting. Swing north, beyond the Chinese borders and you’ll find Bangkok 1899, a 120 year old European Renaissance style home that has been turned into a culture and civic hub. Even our very own bangkokvanguards office, just a stone-throw away from Bangkok 1899, is nestled in the home of an artist who designed it in Spanish colonial style some 50 years ago. We discovered the abandoned building several years back during our walking tours and saw its potential. With the owners we restored it and the main building is now a guesthouse called the Innspire Bangkok while the little sister building is the place where the magic at bangkokvanguards happens. You can find the story here.
More than we can list
The list could go on with heritage buildings turned boutique hotels, restaurants or art spaces such as Baan Silapin and Lhong 1919 or Villa Mungkala. This does not even include conservation initiatives outside of Bangkok. Whether heritage continues in the form of cultural spaces, galleries, museums, cafes, innovation centers, books, maps, tours or oral traditions, they instill pride, identity and opportunity for the city’s residents while keeping the city’s historic DNA alive.
UDDC (Urban Design and Development Center)
While there is no shortage of heritage places, we are also witnessing an increasing number of community festivals with support from organizations such as the UDDC who are using participatory processes to connect communities with their heritage. Events such as Eat in Soi organized by the team of Art in Soi. draws large crowds from far away corners of Bangkok who would otherwise never visit these areas.
TCDC’s (Thailand Creative & Design Center) and the Jedi of Chinatown
TCDC is an organization that fuses the ingeniousness of Thai culture with modern knowledge and technology. This organization organizes the Bangkok Design Week which in 2019 brought thousands of young people in touch with the culture and creative ingenuity of Chinatown’s heritage much to the delight of Khun Somchai Kwantongpanich. Khun Somchai is my personal Jedi of Sampeng, even though he might prefers the title of Sith Lord. His curiosity and passion for exploring his cultural roots and Chinese heritage has made him the Go-to-Guy for laymen and experts alike and earned him an invitation to speak at TEDx. His way of dealing with gentrification is by creating probably the largest private database and archive about the Sampeng/Yaowarat area, creating workshops, conducting study tours, supporting the creation of publications and other projects to pass on the memory to future generations. From hobby historians, to academics, big and small organizations or the passion of a single individual. These are all gleams of hope that provide a more hopeful side of the story of heritage in Bangkok and this needs to be bolstered and amplified.
A driver for sustainable development
Given Thailand’s signatory of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, the case of heritage and livelihood simultaneously touches on several of the country’s sustainable development goals. Be they Goal 10 Reduced Inequalities or Goal 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities. By bolstering and supporting heritage conservation, heritage conservation can be a driving force for sustainable development in Thailand. A growing number of travelers are seeking ‘authentic’ experiences and deeper understanding of real life. They also want to ensure that their money is impacting the planet and local communities and initiatives in a positive way. By expanding the definition of heritage and recognizing its full potential we open the space for innovation in tourism and the service industry in unprecedented ways. We do not want to reduce heritage to be simply an economic opportunity or support the wholesale commodification and disneyfication of culture. Many tourists already lament well-meant tourism initiatives, such as applying standardized Chinese rooftops to street vendors along Yaowarat’s Street Food mile. This was an idea that was floated by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. (Pass me the Prozac!) But if done right, it can lead to a win for the people, for the heritage community and for visitors. It is one thing to read about heritage, it is another to experience it. Already forward thinking social startups such as Local Alike, Trawell, Hivesters and Siam Rise are taking the opportunity to innovate their respective industries and draw a significant audience who do not only believe in their quality experiences but also in their mission of grassroots support, conservation and sustainability.
As Mahatma Gandhi once coined it: “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and the souls of its people.” Preserving our culture is to preserve our hearts and soul. Heritage is more than architecture. Heritage can help us heal our souls and understand ourselves better. April 2nd is an official day dedicated not just to the country’s monuments but to the memory of generations gone before us. April 2nd also marks the birthday of her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. As her father, the Princess espouses the sufficiency economy philosophy. This philosophy is intertwined with sustainable development that serves the health and happiness of the planet and the people. There is no greater way in celebrating the birthday of her Royal Highness and the Thai Heritage Conservation Day than by paying tribute to the legacy of past generations in the spirit of a sustainable future for the nation. For as long as we as citizens, professionals, academics or entrepreneurs remind ourselves and act on that commitment, heritage conservation will never be a lost cause.
Note: I’m writing this fully aware that both, the scope of a blog entry and my own expertise on heritage are insufficient to give this piece of writing the depth, knowledge and academic insights that you might find in other publication on heritage in Thailand. This blog rather reflects my own passion, experience and observation on the topic through years engaging with people and talking to people on the ground. For more input, links or important things I’ve left out, please comment below or send us message.