13 Oct Here are 10 reasons why Bangkok’s Chinatown is the world’s greatest Chinatown.
Why it’s important for the future of Bangkok’s tourism and why we can’t take it for granted.
Forget for a moment the typical guided tours of Chinatown and what is written in most travel guides. You’re usually taken to the Golden Buddha Temple, a Chinese shrine, the market lanes of Sampeng and the street food of Yaowarat even though these things are nice, they still don’t come close to how diverse, complex and multi-faceted Chinatown really is.
In this article we will give you an overview of:
- What Chinatown is outside your travel guidebooks and what makes it the most exciting place in Bangkok.
- An overview of different neighborhoods and a little bit of history on the different stages of development.
- Why Chinatown is important for Thailand, for travelers and tourism.
- The threats its is facing.
- Potential solutions.
- Advise for you explorers on how to help.
We think of San Francisco or New York when we think about Chinatown, for those who experienced Bangkok’s version will tell you it must be the craziest, most vibrant and most authentic among the great Chinatowns of the world.
In Thailand we call Chinatown by the name of its two main business streets / lanes: Yaowarat or Sampeng. Remember that next time you take a taxi to Chinatown.
What is Chinatown?
Given that over 300,000 people visit Chinatown every day to buy and sell stuff, you can imagine that the perception is that of crowds, traffic jams and chaos but also of lots cheap goods, street food and gold and for not exactly being a heaven for finding parking space but it’s more than that.
Many would agree that it is one of the last authentic districts in the city. For the country and for tourism, Chinatown is more important than any shopping mall a developer can hope to ever build and here is why.
1. Chinatown is one of the largest areas for cultural heritage in Bangkok
Chinatown is nestled along the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River just south of the Grand Palace and has grown over the past 200 years to become the ancient economic engine of Thailand consisting of a patchwork of 17 communities, five dialect groups with their own language, customs, history and food. It is a prime example of Thailand’s minority heritage and a living link to those who built the city.
2. Thailand has the largest Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia if not in the world.
With nearly 9 million people or 13% of its population, Bangkok’s Chinatown is one of the largest in the world and its influence in Thailand cannot be understated.
3. Chinatown is the center of Bangkok’s ‘Market Belt’
Tourists know the Chatuchak Weekend market and those who knows Chinatown, know the famous Sampeng market but did you know that Sampeng is one of nine interconnected markets weaving their way through the old maritime quarters of the city.
4. Chinatown is a treasure trove for fans of old architecture
If you’re not into shopping but want to reminisce over old Bangkok, there are over 5,000 heritage buildings that should be protected but less than thirty actually are. It’s time to help those in the service of protecting them.
5. It’s home to some of the city’s last craft communities
With all the old communities and neighborhoods comes the legacies of crafts, products and trades of a seemingly bygone era. Some are threatened, some are trying to revive themselves. In the age of Americanized shopping malls, Bangkok’s Chinatown still offers you a glimpse of what Bangkok used to produce and sell.
We’re documenting some of these disappearing communities here, click here to support. (coming soon)
6. Chinatown is home to ancient traditions that disappeared in China
The most famous celebration is the Chinese New Year but there are other millennia old customs and celebrations still being observed and celebrated locally, rooted in a peasant ancient China and continued in today’s urban Bangkok such as the Chinese Moon Festival.
7. The cradle of Thailand’s middle class
Chinatown is an important part of the national narrative and rich in stories of the origins of Thailand’s economy and urban society. From the largest conglomerates and racks to riches stories, they all have their beginnings here.
8. A heaven for the Instagram addicted
As Chinatown moves into the future and a new generation takes over, there are those who do not bulldoze their heritage but reinventing it and giving birth to some of the city’s hippest cafes and bars.
9. Escape the city in the city
Many Thais who venture behind the facade of Chinatown will find a quite, peaceful and mystique Chinatown full of charm and history. Amid the historic enclaves and close to the waterfront you’ll find some of the most relaxed, unique and beautiful accommodations that are locally owned and not part of the big hotel chains.
10. The old Bangkok and heritage of the people
Thailand mainly promotes the heritage of its elite such as palaces, temples and monuments while overlooking other aspects of heritage. Thus Chinatown is all the more important as it’s home to some of Bangkok’s oldest vernacular heritage sites.
Meaning the heritage of the common people. From the Colonial inspired shop houses to the stately mansions of Chinese Tycoons to the aforementioned crafts, arts, customs and also food.
We need to raise awareness that Chinatown is more than what government and tourism portrays it to be, else it may fall victim to the wrecking ball.
Why is Chinatown important for the future of tourism in Thailand?
There is no one Chinatown but a patchwork of stories that reflect the history beauty and dynamics of Bangkok as a living city.
Diverse and unique neighborhoods
Chinatown is not a demarcated district but has grown organically over the past 200 years. Its neighborhoods boast different functions, architecture, food, products and ethnic groups. Some communities seem frozen in time others are in the midst of big transformations but all of them are unique and different from the rest of the city.
Behind the veneer of urban chaos and bustling markets, you can find an intricate maze of mystic alleys surrounding communal shrines reminiscent of the old days when life was not as motorized, digital and airconditioned.
Despite continued change and commercial vigor, Chinatown remains a complex patchwork of ethnic, philosophical, spiritual and communal life, encompassing the rich tangible and intangible heritage of the world’s largest Chinese diaspora.
It’s the unique heritage of Thailand’s ancient merchant class and a gateway of understanding Bangkok’s past.
Beyond the tourist attractions
There are neighborhoods such as Songwad and Sampeng considered the origins of Chinatown, traditional communities such as Trok Hua Met or up and coming neighborhoods such as Soi Nana.
You can find communities with bottom up preservation projects such as Ruen Rit, Charoen Chai and Talad Noi, or those that fell victim to top-down developments such as Saphan Han, Saphan Lek and Woeng Nakhon Kasem.
There are ancient communities such as Charoen Chai, Phutarej and Leng Bua Ia that live on under the threat of eviction.
They all contain countless small businesses, picturesque buildings, businesses and hidden jewels that have defied Bangkok’s modernization process.
We will continuously develop this blog post and add link to all these communities and stories of its people and places.
From living heritage to a disneyfied shell of its former self?
A little bit of history.
Chinatown in itself has undergone numerous changes in the past. The big changes started with the first urban development initiatives by King Rama V roughly from the 1880’s to 1920’s which transformed Chinatown from a slum-like dwelling to the Kingdom’s economic powerhouse and the birth place for many of Thailand’s largest Sino-Thai conglomerates that control much of Thailand’s economy today.
Many of his legacies, such as the Singapore inspired Chinese shop-houses lining the street network are still around which lends its unique characteristic and charm to the area.
The decline of Chinatown began in 1947 when the port eventually moved to Khlong Toey and with it many of the businesses.
The decline accelerated with the exodus of local Chinese during Thailand’s rapid urbanization in the 60’s and particularly during the economic boom times of the eighties and early nineties.
People in Yaowarat made a lot of money during that time and they spent it the Western way. However Chinatown being the urban relic of 19th and early 20th century wasn’t up to the task of catering to the new, modern middle class and parking your brand new Mercedes Benz in your living room wasn’t the way to go.
Thus began the exodus to the gated communities of a new suburban Bangkok.
The ancestral buildings remained in traditional ownership given the belief that the destruction of your ancestors’ property spells bad luck to the present business. Those buildings are being used or rented out as shops, warehouses and offices.
19% of the buildings are vacant including buildings of significant architectural value often lacking any support or care.
During the past century many neighborhoods were destroyed by fires or made way for developments in the 80’s and 90’s but there are still more than 5,000 buildings that should be registered for their heritage value but there are no laws supporting their protection.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
Although Sampeng and Yaowarat are not the sought after places to reside, they still remain popular for businesses and despite a gradual decline due to a sluggish economy and e-commerce, land prices are the fourth highest in Bangkok and rents of relatively worn shop-houses range between 50,000 and 300,000baht per month.
For now it remains the hub for the city’s market culture, standing in stark contrasts to the glitzy mega-malls in downtown.
An uncertain future
Chinatown has remained comparatively immune to urban modernization but the recently opened MRT (subway) stations are going to change that. Now with mass-transit lines and zoning regulations in place the heirs of Thailand’s mega-conglomerates return to their origins and zeroing in on Chinatown’s old communities for commercial development.
Are we against development?
My team and I are not against development and we do not want the people in Chinatown to stand still. As much as malls have their space in the fabric of Bangkok, so should have historic places like Chinatown.
However, we are against developing Chinatown into a sterile, commercialized, staged and artificial interpretation of itself without the actual people, stories, customs and cultural DNA that makes places so compelling to visit and to revisit.
If things proceed the way they do, what will be the reason to visit again? Or for travel operators like us to continue our tours? Except for the street food at night maybe (if that’s going to survive government policy) and a few temples?
Why should you care?
I have to write this from the perspective of a Bangkok enthusiast, urban explorer, tour guide and half Thai-half German with roots in both cultures. Why did I fall in love with Bangkok? And why is Chinatown my favorite place and why should you visit?
The answer could be: Visit before it’s too late.
But I want to answer: Visit because it’s real, it’s organic, authentic, complex, bewildering, local and deep. It’s because of people. Chinatown is still a place of the people with a deep history.
Visit because it’s the living linkage of the Thai-Chinese history and the witness of Bangkok’s evolution, its cultural identities, eternalised in a unique urban landscape, in crafts, customs, arts and architecture for future generations to visit, study and take pride in.
Visit because this is the way you can help heritage and old neighborhoods get the recognition and pride while helping them economically.
Chinatown is for the true explorer, just like Bangkok in its nature. It does not reveal itself easily. This complex web of urban life rewards the curious and exploring type of traveler.
A tourism perspective
I’ve been guiding travelers and locals for more than twelve years through the alleys and communities of Chinatown and through conversations, feedback and testimonials I understand the many different aspects that motivate us to travel and explore other places.
Tong from Ari can be as much a tourist as Stefan from Krefeld.
I’m not saying that tourism is the silver bullet or that everything happens because of large-scale developers or government inaction. The problem is more complex but they are a crucial part of the problem and…
…we need these actors to be part of the solution.
It matters for Bangkok, it matters for the people and it matters for tourism and the government should truly understand what tourists want and what locals want.
Covid-19 is now being added to the list of challenges Chinatown is facing and it has laid bare the weaknesses of relying on mass-tourism from a particular country among other short-comings.
This is our opportunity to tackle and overcome these challenges in the long term.
What can we do?
On my Youtube Channel Mike Explores we will check in with the people, the small entrepreneurs, community leaders and others to see how they are dealing and adapting to the pandemic and to explore ways to support now and in the long-term.
Articulate your future
I want Covid-19 to be more than a pause, I want us to us to bring about a world that we want.Adam Sharpe
What we want
We want a city and type of tourism that enriches visitors understanding of the city in a real way, that benefits the local economies and that helps to keep the heritage alive.
We want a city that is inclusive, embraces its diversity, local heritage and looks at its communities not as a liability but as an asset.
We want people to be empowered through the exchange that tourism offers and to utilize their heritage in creative ways for the new generation to innovate. This could be one way forward in nurturing the economical, social, environmental and spiritual health of our neighborhoods.
Our goal is to accompany, document and support the process and ideas and give you the opportunities to connect and fall in love with Bangkok while contributing to a better future.
I need your support to keep our work going. You can stay in the loop by subscribing to our newsletter and be the first to know on the latest contest and events.
Let us know. What aspects of Chinatown would you like to explore?
Bangkok-based experience designer, blogger, tour guide and hobby anthropologist.
I explore and introduce you to the places, people and ideas that matter