27 Jul Heritage preservation, a lost cause?
The challenge of keeping the historic memory of the common people alive.
As discussed in the previous blog, there is not agreed definition of heritage on the national level, let alone recognition and protection of Thai vernacular heritage. At first glance it appears that the average Bangkokian is preoccupied with problems other than the protection of the city’s heritage. Bangkok has way too many urban issues to be resolved before people create an emotional connection to the issue of heritage preservation. Also, as discussed in “what is heritage” the perception of heritage is that of what the state and tourism promotes to the world. There is nothing to worry about the antiques in our museums or the grand UNESCO sites and attractions. These are the symbols of our national identity as much as they are the country’s cash cows. However, other aspects of Bangkok’s tangible cultural spectrum can’t be taken for granted anymore. Whether it’s our street food, vernacular architecture such as old shop houses, traditions, crafts, market culture or community life. The future of vernacular tangible and intangible heritage is uncertain and if we fail to act on that, its disappearance will not only be regrettable later on from a cultural perspective but also opportunities for sustainable economic development and addressing inequality will be lost and can’t be recovered. This blog is by no means a complete, in-depth article on cultural heritage but rather a brief introduction on some of the challenges the preservation community is facing.
Official Heritage Conservation Day
One would wish that heritage preservation in Thailand would have a better starting position given that Thailand even has an official day dedicated to the preservation of its cultural heritage. The day coincides with the birthday of her Royal Highness Princess Sirindhorn on April 2nd. However it seems that hardly anyone is aware of such auspicious day but we hope to change that.
One word that is central in describing urban change and involves topics ranging from hipsterfication to cultural rights is the word gentrification. What is gentrification other than being a highly emotionally charged word? The word gentrification has more than doubled as a search term on Google and mentioning of it in media has increased significantly over the past ten years as it affects cities and people all over the world. People talk a lot about it but mean different things. The idea that old neighborhoods becoming new or improved is over-simplified as gentrification is quite complex. Some people think of hipsterfication or we think of adapting run-down structures for new use, construction of highrise buildings, spread of boutiques, cafes and wine bars or the restoration of old architecture, these are all symptoms of gentrification but for many it goes deeper than that.
Dictionary definition: Gentrification a processes of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.
Stanford sociologist Frederic Stout sees what happens in cities as a struggle between the government elite, the free-market, and communities influenced by demographic shifts in age and structural changes in the economy. Aging members of the industrial economy live in many of the older neighborhoods while young people are migrating away from old-town and rural communities to live either closer to the new business centers or in new suburban real estates. In many communities, mostly the elderly and toddlers are left behind, and through changes in the economic structures, their businesses, crafts and industries are loosing their significance. This can be observed especially in Bangkok’s Chinatown area.
On the other hand, we see an influx of a new, young and creative class that is opening cafes, bars, galleries and hostels. Some people see these “gentrifiers” as the new employees or employers of a new economy. Even we discovered an abandoned property that belonged to an artist in the 60’s. It sits in the middle of an old community, right in the heart of Bangkok’s old town. we convinced the landlords of its potential and the property was restored. We helped establish a guesthouse called “Innspire Bangkok” and set up our base there. We employed people from the local community and enjoy good relations with them since then. We always fall in love with beautiful old architecture but are saddened by the state of neglect. As we are outsiders with higher income, settling in an old, sometimes disinvested community and bringing in new ideas makes us likewise guilty of gentrification. Are we an asset or a threat to Bangkok’s old neighborhoods?
The repurposing of old structures and turning them into small hostels, cafes, boutiques, galleries or offices are comparatively low-key in comparison to changes happening in Chinatown and other parts of Bangkok where entire neighborhoods with architectural heritage value are bulldozed to make way for shopping mall developments and “beautification”. It is a worrisome development for many locals and anything is possible these days according to Joe and things are beyond their control.
Effects of gentrification
The most adverse affect of gentrification is not just the loss of our historic memory and diverse culture but the displacement of people. When your rent suddenly goes up 50% you have no other choice but to move to suburban or exurban areas. Far away from the businesses and work places which means more time spent commuting, less time spend at home as well as increased isolation, depression and stress levels. Even long-time residents who can manage to stay in gentrifying areas may develop a sense of isolation and reduced sense of belonging when their friends and family have been displaced and the character and makeup of the neighborhood has drastically changed. While some people see it as “progress”, somebody else described it as the spacial expression of economic inequality and it constitutes a threat to the city’s vernacular heritage and many of its residents. Another effect that can potentially happen is that as investors redevelop entire neighborhoods, public space is being cleared of street vendors to upgrade property value of these new developments. While the value for developers goes up, the quality of life of locals goes down as many of them depend on the access of affordable food both for income and consumption. Thus gentrification is for many also a social justice issue.
Increasing land value
Land prices are particularly increasing in the areas where mass transit systems are expanding. In Chinatown the new MRT (subway) stations have just opened and land value has doubled every year for the past five years. Some of the biggest plots in the Chinatown are due for redevelopment which includes Chinatown’s oldest market, a vintage neighborhood once famed for being the hub of motors and musical instrument shops, Thailand’s last Chinese Josspaper trading community among other areas. Locals fear that outside investors show little empathy and understanding for the local history and culture. Given the track record of development projects the concern is justified. We have dedicated an entire blog on the future of Chinatown. But not only Chinatown but other parts of Bangkok are going through massive transformations as well. The financial power of Thailand’s richest is unprecedented in the country’s history and allows them to buy up entire neighborhoods. It is a development that can be seen around the world.
Real estate controls the majority of the world’s assets with an estimate net-worth of 217 trillion dollars which is 36 times the value of all the gold ever mined according the book Capital City, gentrification and the real estate state. Real estate and especially housing is a huge part of the global capital growth strategy and Thailand’s richest families are investing their fortunes into more shopping malls, more condos and hotels. This growing concentration of capital in real estate impacts urban planning as the land price becomes the central economic determinant and the dominant political issue. We witness the state where real estate capital has inordinate influence over the shape and future of our cities, the perimeter of our politics and the lives we lead. City planners therefore sit uncomfortably between inflating real estate values while safeguarding residents best interest. Organized money can thus thwart the best laid urban plans and the best efforts to preserve a city’s cultural heritage.
Inadequate urban planning
In 2019 the updated urban plans were published and caused quite a stir as land-use regulations absorbed old town areas which were earmarked on the map in white as they contain high cultural assets into red the zones, signifying commercial development similar to the central business district. Especially as subway lines are connecting the old and new parts of the city, the city offer incentives for property developers by allowing large scale property development in a 500 – 800 meter radius around new subway stations. This means future subway station in the old parts of Bangkok may improve accessibility but also pose a a substantial threat to old, historic neighborhoods such as Nang Loeng and its famous Nang Loeng market. Communities, architects and conservationists have called for an amendment of the zoning regulations to include a special red code for areas with high heritage value. The urban planning department has only recently introduced a few specialists looking into conservation issues however time will tell whether they will be able to make an impact in the state machinery that governs a megacity of 18 million people. So far, there are no signs that the government will heed to the demands to amend and introduce laws and regulations that recognize and support preservation efforts of historical districts. The forces that determine the future are of economic nature and ambitious business interest may overrule and thwart even the best conservation plans.
With so much potential money to be made the challenge is landownership and the attitudes of landlords upon which the future of properties and neighborhoods rest. One of the conservation projects that is under threat is the Charoen Chai Conservation initiative lead by Sirinee Urunanone and her team. Part of the project is Baan Kao Lao Ruang aka the Charoen Chai Historic Hut. Sirinee and her team aim to restore the former residence of Chinese opera artist into a space that can host various activities, be an example for architectural conservation and to showcase the cultural value of the community. The community serves as a living link between China and Siam dating back to the era of King Rama V. It is Thailand’s last joss-paper trading community and has received support from locals, expats and tourists alike but its future is uncertain. Despite the conservation group being very active, locals have no choice but to wait for the response of the landlord to decide their future. The community is located right next to the new underground station (MRT) and the owners may develop the land for higher profits. The cancellation of people’s rental contracts are a first sign for things to come. “Who wants to invest in our community space, if there are no guarantees through contracts?” Sirinee ask.
Hemmingways, Pom Mahakan and Woeng Nakhon Kasem. Names that sound alien to foreigners but are synonymous for the loss of cultural heritage in Thailand. These are only three places in a long list of historical evidence, communal life and architectural heritage that disappeared from Bangkok’s cultural landscape. The first (Hemmingways) 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. Pom Mahakan was a two century old settlement behind Bangkok’s old city wall. It was among the oldest living communities in Bangkok. Woeng Nakhon being an entire block in Bangkok’s Chinese district that was a successful trading community, also known as the Thieves Market. Read more here in Somchai’s story. In a city like Bangkok where traffic congestion, floods and pollution is getting all the attention, the destruction of our cultural resources doesn’t seem to rank high on people’s list of urban issues. The areas of significant cultural and architectural heritage are finite and powerful business interest combined with public and government inertia could lead to the whole-sale demolition of much of Bangkok’s history and character outside the domain of temples and palaces. Massive investments in mass transit systems, usher in the next wave of rapid urban development and we can’t take the city’s diverse heritage and authentic character for granted anymore. READ A NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ARTICLE HERE
Against the backdrop of market forces, whole sale gentrification, infrastructure development and inadequate regulations stands the elite’s view of heritage which recognizes only national heritage such as palaces, temples and monuments linked to the aristocracy, Buddhism and the State. The definition of heritage is determined by the word Satan Boran which means ancient place and the only organization who has the authority and power to register and protect heritage sites is the Fine Arts Department under the Ministry of Culture. The Fine Arts Department (FAD) itself is governed by Archaeologists who do not recognize vernacular heritage or even modern heritage. As such the heritage of Thailand’s minorities, merchant class, urban-, rural, tangible and intangible, traditions, arts and crafts and even Thailand’s natural resources are up for sale if the price is right. As happened recently to Britain’s historic embassy. The plot was sold for 426 millions Pounds to make way for another shopping mall development by Central Group.
A lost cause?
Taking all these factors of government attitudes, capital power, inadequate urban planning, lack of public awareness, into consideration, changing demographics, etc. will the heritage and memory of the common people, of those who built the city still have a space? Can we be optimistic for the preservation of Bangkok’s heritage or is it a lost cause? What needs to happen? Is there a way forward? In the next article we explore why there might be hope.