27 Jul Heritage preservation, a lost cause? The challenges of keeping the history of Thailand’s common people alive
A Heritage Conservation Day that nobody knows about
We wish that heritage preservation in Thailand would have a better starting position given that we have an official day dedicated to the preservation of our cultural heritage. The official Thai Heritage Conservation 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 and therein lays one of the challenges for the conservation community. As discussed in the previous blog, there is no agreed definition of heritage on the national level, let alone recognition and protection of Thai vernacular heritage. Also the general public seems little aware and the average Bangkokian seems preoccupied with problems other than the protection of the city’s heritage. Bangkok has way too many urban issues waiting to be resolved and we are way too busy making money before being overly concerned over the issue of heritage preservation. Also, as discussed in “What is heritage?”, the perception of heritage is usually linked Thailand’s tourism promotion. 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.
One word that is central in describing urban change where the new takes over the old is the term gentrification. It involves topics ranging from hipsterfication to cultural rights and affects cultural heritage as much as regular working class neighborhoods. The word gentrification is a highly emotionally charged word that 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 buildings 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 and businesses 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. 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 increases, the quality of life for locals suffers as they depend on the access of affordable food, both for income generation as well as consumption. In case of displacements, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has no responsibility in providing housing or alternative locations, in some cases people are left on their own devises sometimes on very short notice in other cases the government works with organizations such as CODI who are working with the urban poor on community development. Hence, gentrification is for many also a social justice issue.
The rise of land value
One force that is beyond the control of people is the increase in land value which particularly increases in the areas earmarked for mass transit systems. 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 where 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. The Chinese alone spent around 1.3 billion USD last year alone on Thai properties according to the Bank of Thailand. 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 changed old town areas with high cultural assets (earmarked on the map with a white zoning code) into red zones in line with the modern the modern central business district. New subway lines are now connecting the old with the new Bangkok with large scale property development being approved in a 500 – 800 meter radius around the subway stations. Upcoming subway stations in the old districts may improve accessibility but also pose a threat to 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 create a special red zoning code for areas of high cultural heritage value but so far such suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. Only very recently has the City Administration begun to include a few specialists on urban preservation into the urban planning teams. Time will tell whether it will make a difference in the machinery that governs a megacity of 18 million people. Even though it’s a step in the right direction, so far, there have been no signs that the government will heed to the demands apply regulations in recognition and support of historical districts. The power of capital and ambitious business interest may overrule and thwart even the best conservation plans. This begs the question that if cities are an investment strategy, aren’t city planners just wealth managers then?
With inadequate or none-existing regulations, the fate of communities rest with the land owners. Given the business opportunities at hand, they are among the most powerful stakeholders in the preservation and development of our city. One of the most prominent landlords is the (CPB) Crown Property Bureau. Their attitude toward conservation is vital as their properties include 24 palaces, 6 office and facility buildings and 1,960 shop houses and commercial buildings, 37,000 rental contracts in total of which 93% are rented out at minimal rates to nonprofits and governmental organizations. 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. One prominent case is the Ruenrit Community, a century old neighborhood in Chinatown which was poised to make way for a commercial development but were given another 30-year lease. Like the Ruenrit Community CPB has been working on many of Thailand’s cherished architectural sites including temples, palaces to Author’s Wing of the Oriental Hotel. Their projects consist of four key elements: Extensive research on the history of the premises, examining all architectural details, fine tuning the renovations and writing detailed plans for the care and maintenance of the property. These projects can provide a learning experience for the general public who may want to restore their own properties. With the proper permission, anyone can visit these sites to consult with the relevant specialist on the finer points of architectural restoration.
Other communities are not as lucky with their landlords so it seems. One of the conservation projects that is under threat is the Charoen Chai Community whose conservation initiative is 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, to 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. Despite the conservation group being very active, locals have no choice but to wait for the response of the landlord to decide their future. At this stage there is no official stance but only rumors. 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 cultural 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. The areas of significant cultural and architectural heritage are finite, they are not endless. Once gone they are gone and you can’t get them back. This realization has yet to arrive not only with Bangkok’s powerful business community but as mentioned with he public and the government. If nothing changes, the whole-sale demolition of much of Bangkok’s history and character outside of temples and palaces will be inevitable. Many of our travelers love Bangkok because you can still see history where as in the cities where they come from they bemoan that you can’t see much of the old days any more and everything looks the same. The authentic character and many small details that we love about Bangkok can’t be taken for granted anymore and we need to gear up our efforts to preserve what is left. READ A NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ARTICLE HERE
Adding to the pressure of capital, market forces, whole sale gentrification, and inadequate laws is the elite’s view and definition of heritage which recognizes only national heritage as heritage. A topic we discussed in our earlier article What is Heritage?
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 even places such as Britain’s historic embassy can’t be spared from demolition as happened recently when 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 into account, will Bangkok local, vernacular and even modern have a space in the future vision of Bangkok? Can we be optimistic for the preservation or is it a lost cause in face of all this? We will keep our fingers on the pulse of heritage preservation and keep updating our articles regularly with new stories in which we will focus on not only the issues and problems but to see whether there is a way forward and if yes, what we, small travel companies, you the traveler and locals can do to contribute to the preservation efforts in Thailand. More on this, in our next article.