02 Apr What is heritage? Thailand’s struggle for the recognition of vernacular heritage
What is the definition of heritage?
The question of what is heritage calls for soul searching with the risk of clashing ideologies and values. In the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, few people may care to answer the question of what is heritage but the question has significant ramifications for cultural preservation and thus for tourism. It touches on the identity of people, the urban condition, our collective memory and the link to our past which influences the character of our city. The discourse on heritage has mostly been limited to being a discourse among academia but occasionally finds its way into the mainstream media when film fans are up in arms by plans to demolish the Scala Theater, one of the Bangkok’s oldest and last stand-alone cinemas. Foodies go on a revolt, when they hear rumors of vendor evictions in their favorite neighborhoods and when favorite expats haunts such as Hemingways make way for yet another Condominium it may evoke the William Wallace in us. Though we belong to different and often overlapping tribes, e.g. foodies, expats and architecture fans or movie fans, our emotions are triggered by the same issue, gentrification and the disappearance of our heritage and local way of life. These are only three examples of an endless list of the places, sights, sounds, communities, products, traditions and details we love about Bangkok that fall prey to the city’s development. These articles aim to beg the question what development means and whether it makes the city a better and happier place? This is the first of three articles looking at the condition, challenges, role and outlook of heritage in the urban future of Bangkok.
When people talk about heritage, they can mean different things. Our views may differ from yours and the view of architects or locals may differ from that of the government. The definition and recognition of heritage determines what can stay and what must go as we evolve into the future. An open discussion is important because policies and actions can either destroy or protect heritage with wide reaching social-, economic and cultural consequences for the city and its people. When we think of heritage we immediately think of heritage on a national scale, such us our iconic temples and palaces which are rightly so our national symbols that attract millions of visitors. We take great pride in the artistic, spiritual and political achievements that these monument represent. But heritage goes beyond that and we should not overlook the importance of vernacular heritage. Once we have seen the main temples what else attracts culturally interested visitors? There is a lot to experience in Bangkok as a lot of the city’s heritage is rooted in its diverse ethnicities. 75% of the population in the early 1900’s were of various ethnic minorities who imprinted their legacies in culturally diverse neighborhoods. Much of it were trading and craft communities that fueled the economic growth of Thailand.
It’s here outside the Grand Palace Compound in the side alleys, along the water way, where our fascination for the beauty of the ordinary, organic and often chaotic communal life unfolds. This may not be shared by all Thais as it’s normal to them. They may have a different view on beauty and valuable heritage that often does not include their own communities and neighborhoods. In Asia the old loses in the perception of value and beauty against the promises of a modern, shiny, “civilized” urban future. The dream of a modern urban middle class accelerated in the sixties when Thailand began to shift from a predominant peasant society to an industrialized nation. Within forty years, the population working in agriculture dropped from 84% to roughly 40%. In the wake of this rapid and almost uncontrolled industrialization and urbanization, the condition of heritage and gentrification becomes an expression of inequality. However, even after these tremendous strides in development, Bangkok is not a city that belongs to the middle class only. A large part of the city’s population makes up the urban poor and a working class that fuels Bangkok’s informal economy. They too have as much right to the city as everyone else. The future of the city is not only determined by pursuits of profits but also by ideology and the idea of what constitutes beauty, order and civilization and it doesn’t seem that vernacular heritage has found a place in that definition. It also aims to override the organic nature of mega cities, the diversity and complexities of intertwined social, cultural, economic and historic layers. The fate of Bangkok’s cultural heritage will be decided between the front lines of bottom up and top down developments with often opposing views.
The Elite view on heritage
Conservation of heritage in the old days was rooted 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. 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. They also seem to receive the sole attention of laws and charters governing the recognition and conservation of heritage and therein lays one of the problems. Since 1912, the responsibility of heritage conservation rests with the FAD (Fine Arts Department) under the Ministry of Culture. The Fine Arts Department holds the highest authority in things relating to cultural conservation and is the only institution in Thailand authorized to register heritage. It coordinates all government affairs in regards to art and culture and has seen outstanding successes in preserving especially elite level structures and monuments. However, the key terminology in drafting the act of protecting heritage is the word Boran Sathan, which translates as ancient place. As such the FAD only registers ancient monuments, antiques and objects of art as heritage. The law-makers and people in charge at the FAD are archaeologists and they do 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. Thailand 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. Countries such as Korea are promoting all aspects of their heritage as part of the national agenda, why not Thailand? 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.
The importance of vernacular heritage
When we talk about heritage, what do we mean by that? The question of what properly constitutes and who owns cultural heritage has been the focal point of fierce debates between different parties. When the topic of vernacular heritage (hence local heritage, minority heritage, tangible and intangible heritage) is thrown into the discussion then The Fine Arts Department has just “left the chatroom” because they hold a very strict and narrow view on heritage (namely archaeological sites, palaces and temples). Some agree that the beauty of Bangkok does not only rest in the grandeur of touristic attractions but is imprinted in the layers of the city’s different development stages. Another dimension that hasn’t found its way into the halls of power is the cultural significance of the people who are the holder of heritage. Heritage is complex but “when so something is very old and when it had importance then it is already makes it heritage”. Pongkwan Lassus.
Intangible heritage gives you information of the lives of people in the past. From the canals, old communities and street markets to the orchards and mangrove forests, these are all part of the heritage spectrum. Tangible and intangible heritage, the ways of life, the heritage of merchants, minorities, craft and agricultural communities that call Thailand their home. They have been around for generations, built the country and are the symbol of our diversity. However, would the archaeologists at the Fine Arts Department acknowledge them as part of Thailand’s heritage? Internationally, vernacular heritage is recognized in the conservation community but in Thailand they are facing formidable challenges. But it’s not only a problem of definition, when it comes to architectural heritage, there seems agreement among architects in Thailand what’s considered architectural heritage but the government wouldn’t know what to preserve and what to manage because there is no inventory or database on Thailand’s valuable buildings. To know what needs to be protected and managed it would be crucial to begin by creating an inventory according to Pongkwan Lassus. An inventory for the Chinatown area has already been started and it’s in the hands of the government to take this data to create the tools and regulations that help to preserve it.
Some may argue that even if the government would recognize vernacular heritage, would owners of heritage buildings do so as well? In Chinatown we find the largest concentration of heritage buildings, rooted in Bangkok’s Chinese merchant class. Most of the Chinese who got rich moved out of the crammed confines into the emerging suburbs during the 70-90’s. However they kept the ownership of their ancestral buildings, neither selling nor demolishing them but keeping them as storage facilities, offices or simply empty. Often these buildings are kept without much care and maintenance. If an agency would register them as heritage with restrictions attached as to modifications of the building, its owner might as well prefer to knock it down in order to keep his options for future business open. But they are also great examples of the benefits in preserving and repurposing valuable buildings for the owners, the neighborhood and the general public. Despite the challenges, the owners of heritage properties such as So Heng Tai or Keng Jin Tang Nguan Ha are determined to preserve their heritage. Another reason for optimism is that the younger generation seems to be open to the idea of restoring and reinventing their family’s heritage buildings. It will be seen, what affect it will have on the preservation of the old trading quarters of Chinatown as well as other parts of Bangkok and whether a growing economy around heritage buildings will move government to recognize it accordingly.
Others such as Khun Somchai have been on a personal quest to learn and understand their ancestral roots and became advocates of their neighborhoods and go-to persons for an increasing number of people interested in the history and heritage of Bangkok’s older districts.
The focus on the definition of heritage however should not rest alone on the physical or tangible aspect of heritage, e.g. our architecture or products but emphasis should be placed on the intangible heritage that rests with people. The local wisdom, knowledge, traditions and customs that make tangible heritage possible. While architects are trying to preserve our ancient buildings, community leaders are trying to keep traditions, professions and local wisdom alive. Ancient old professions, festivals and communal life are all part of the living heritage of Bangkok’s urban communities and people take pride in them. They want to share their stories, keep their communities alive and improve the quality of life for the people, especially the elderly. After all it’s people who are at the heart of the cities and who create culture. Wiping out our neighborhoods often wipes out the cultural DNA of Bangkok. Thanks to many great leaders within these communities, some communities are starting their own preservation initiatives. It is in their own utmost interest to play an active role in the city’s discussion of the future role and importance of urban communities. If they remain passive, without a vision for the future, without an identity and means to express that, the chances to fall victim to the development of the city are much greater.
Getting the conversation started
To start any preservation initiative and to know what we want to preserve we need to start talking. We need to bring people together across different sections of society and especially local communities and create channels for people to engage with heritage, to rediscover, understand and build identity with their city outside the hustle and bustle. What makes young people click with heritage when they visit Talad Noi and post on Instagram? From here further action steps towards preservation can arise. These conversations can happen in online conversations and online communities as well as in the real world. After all, engagement with heritage should also bring financial sustainability to the guardians of heritage.
It is one thing to take pictures of beautiful locations but it’s another to keep it alive and give it relevance in an ever modernizing city. Without function and without funding it will be impossible to preserve let alone get the recognition by the government and public. The Bangkok Heritage Week, blog content, educational tours for universities, international media outlets and projects such as “Transitions” are our attempt to inform and connect people to threatened beauty and stories of our city. It is on us, you the reader, academics, entrepreneurs, community leaders and citizens to make the government realize the value of Thailand’s diverse cultural heritage,
Please, let us know your opinion on Bangkok’s heritage and how whether there can be more done to preserve it