13 Oct The future of Chinatown
The uniqueness and heritage of Bangkok’s Chinatown and its uncertain future.
Usually we think of San Francisco, New York or Vancouver when we think about the great Chinatowns of the world but lets bring Bangkok’s Chinatown into awareness and why it matters, at least for Thailand. Bangkok’s Chinatown is among the oldest and largest in the world and probably the most dynamic and authentic in that lineup. However, Bangkok’s Chinatown has become a contested space between locals, powerful property developers, government and conservationists. As Bangkok’s first port and ancient maritime trade quarters it contains a significant part of Bangkok’s cultural heritage albeit vernacular, every-day or communal heritage which neither enjoys recognition nor protection by the Thai state. Increasing land-prices driven by new mass transit systems, ambitious property development, inadequate regulations, changing consumer behavior, migration, tourism and changing demographics are all forces tugging at the future of one of Bangkok’s most unique and authentic districts. The future of Chinatown will point the way how Bangkok treats its old neighborhoods, communities, heritage and the social-, cultural and economic fabric that has evolved over many generations. As Bangkok has unfortunately already lost many battles in preserving its cultural heritage, it will inevitably have implications for Bangkok’s tourism, further aggravate economic inequality and be a growing challenge for Bangkok’s conservation community. The Future of Chinatown is part of our Urban Future series and examines the threats and opportunities for one of Bangkok’s most historic and worth-visiting districts. We will link the article to more specific stories, projects and events and if anyone is interested to experience and learn about this topic first hand, reach out to our team for our Chinatown Unplugged or a customized learning experience.
Most people have hardly aware how ingrained China actually is in urban Thailand. The Chinese have come a long way since they started migrating into other parts of Southeast Asia more than 2,000 years ago. Today, there are more than 30 million ethnically unmixed Chinese in Southeast Asia, more than in the rest of the world combined. If you add those who have at least one known Chinese ancestor, the number rises to more than 85 million people. With nearly 9 million people or 13% of its population, Thailand has the largest Chinese diaspora in the region. Thailand’s Kings have always welcome and respected the diligence and enterprising nature of the Chinese who arrived from places like Guang Dong, Kwang Tung and Fujian, first by Chinese junk and later by steam ship. Their contributions play a major part in the story of Thailand. In China the saying goes that Thailand is the only country in the world where a Chinese can either completely lose his identity or become a King. They constituted the backbone of the economy and ensured a swift recovery of a war-torn kingdom. Many of the canals that we love to navigate in long-tail boats, were dug by Chinese which transported their goods from and to new frontier regions which expanded their businesses and ultimately lead Thailand to become one of the world’s leading export nations for agricultural goods such as rice and sugar. The increase in taxes financed the rail network and the Chinese cleared the forests and laid the rail tracks which integrated the country and market economy further. They became Thailand’s interface for the global market and are now in control of most the economy and concentrate much of Thailand’s wealth. It has been a journey defined by a complex, sometimes rocky relationship with Thailand’s aristocracy and bureaucratic elite.
Today Chinese assimilation, integration and contributions are evident in many aspects of our day to day lives. Not only the most recognizable companies, malls and skyscrapers but also temples financed by Chinese, the noodles we have for breakfast, the ceramics that adorn our most iconic temples, least not forget the DNA in our blood from the vendor up to the royalty. Even fish-sauce is a Chinese invention for Guan Yu’s sake! Bangkok was the epi-center of the Chinese success story who made up two thirds of all ethnic minorities which in total reached an estimated 75% of the city’s population in the 1900’s. The other migrant groups included a diverse range of Muslims, Lao, Mon, Khmer, Yuan, Indian and other groups whose heritage are the local treasures of the old the maritime quarters along the Chao Phraya river. Of these, Bangkok’s Chinatown is still the largest, most evident and most vibrant yet its heritage value is neither recognized by the government nor much of the public which jeopardizes the memory of Bangkok’s merchant past.
WHAT IS CHINATOWN?
There are two things, one is the identity of the locals and the other is the perception the rest of Bangkok has about Chinatown. The local identity of Chinatown remains that of being Thailand’s first port. People identify themselves as Thai-Chinese with roots to various Chinese speech groups such as Teochew, Hailam, Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese and Hainanese. For the rest, Chinatown is either ‘Yaowarat’ which is synonymous with street food or it is ‘Sampeng’ which is the city’s largest wholesale market where you can shop till you drop. Both Yaowarat and Sampeng evoke images of unbridled street life, crowds and a preparedness to get lost big time.
BEHIND THE VENEER
Chinatown is the bootloader for Sino-Thai capitalism and economic dominance while also being a place where the stories of the city’s bygone days are still alive. Despite its central location, it still has retained the feel of a time-bubble, seemingly disconnected from the international Business District yet bristling with entrepreneurial energy. It is here where the fortunes of Thailand’s largest conglomerates began and companies like CP (Thailand’s largest private company) still hold on to the small properties and shops of their ancestors. Behind the veneer of bustling markets, in the intricate maze of mystic alleys and around communal shrines you encounter the birthplace of Bangkok’s first urban middle class, places and moments reminiscent of the old days when life was not as motorized, digital and airconditioned.
Each shrine contains a little treasure, a hidden message says Khun Somchai a merchant turned passionate historian. It’s a world that rewards the explorer, those willing to leave the comfort zone and follow their curiosity. You can discover anything from abandoned Chinese 19th century villas to artistic cafes and to the raw meat supply sites for local restaurants. Destruction, fires and urban renewal left a jumble of architectural styles reflecting different design tastes of Bangkok’s urban evolution. 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.
LAYERS AND NEIGHBORHOODS
We feel that once we enter Chinatown, our sense of direction and orientation has been formatted from our brains. Chinatown is not a homogeneous and demarcated district but an area that has grown organically over the past 200 years. The pattern of the street network hasn’t changed for the past hundred years which is characterized by an intricate network of alleys connecting various sub-neighborhoods and micro-communities centered around communal shrines, each with their own history, food, dialect group and specialization. The borders between the once dominant communal speech groups have become blurred and intermixed. Chinatown is organized south (by the river) to north with four main arteries dissecting Chinatown starting from Songwad Road with the trading companies, historic warehouses and quiet alleys by the river to the bustling wholesale area at Sampeng further to the vibrant retail and food hub around Yaowarat and Charoen Krung with its old communities and stately Chinese shrines. Flanking the center of Chinatown to the southeast is Talad Noi the ancient port and former blacksmith community with its own rich heritage. To the west along the Khlong Ong Ang Canal are (or used to be) the markets of Saphan Lek and Saphan Han which are undergoing beautification projects by the government. Each neighborhood has its own feel, function and hidden treasures but whereas locals know their way around outsiders often get lost. Communities are trying to address the issue so that visitors can get the best of their time in Chinatown and enjoy a truly unique experience but the time is running against us as many neighborhoods are going through a transition and the outcome is still uncertain.
The only constant in life is change and during its 200 year history Chinatown has been through several transformations. After relocating from today’s Grand Palace area to the inhospitable marshes around Sampeng the community developed from a fort into an overcrowded port area characterized by Junk Trade up until the mid 19th century. In the second half of the 19th century the transformation from a waterbased to a landbased city got completed with the expansion of road networks, electricity, railroad, telegraph and other modernizations. Chinatown became Bangkok’s most densely urbanized and populated area with the first urban middle class and Yaowarat as its first real business center. It became the interface through which Thailand connected to the world market spurred by Western free trade agreements.
The decline started in 1947 when the port was moved to Khlong Toey and with it many of the businesses. The exodus of local Chinese accelerated during Thailand’s rapid urbanization in the 70’s and particularly during the economic boom times of the eighties and early nineties. Many Chinese became wealthy and instead of parking their brand new Mercedes in their living room they wanted to escape the crammed confines to the newly emerging suburbs and gated communities fitted with the amenities of a modern urban lifestyle and best of all, with space, trees and air to breathe. The ancestral buildings remained in their ownership and have been used as shops, warehouses or offices. A visit at night reveals the extent to which Chinatown has been hollowing out over the past decades as entire areas feel deserted. 19% of the buildings are vacant including building of architectural value but without any support or care. Poor walkability of some alleys, lack of access to public space and facilities are making it harder for the elderly to leave their houses and engage in their neighborhood. Instead many are confined to their houses, watch TV without much social interaction. The physical condition of Chinatown is not the only sign of decline, changing demographics is another.
Young people are moving away while the older generation is staying behind. As the old guard retires and passes away much of the intangible heritage from cooking skills or ethnic dialects disappear. The local economy suffers as well as the number of patrons steadily decreases. Long time neighborhood joints such as Guay Jab Songwad have experienced a fall in revenue of nearly 50%. The relevance of community markets and mom and pop stores is declining not only by a change in the demography but also by competition from hyper-stores, Seven Elevens and changing needs of the young people. Long time residents also notice the decline in quality, variety and authenticity of traditional food as society is shifting to mass and industrial style kitchens and production. However, there are still traditional recipes and hidden gems around and there are people determined to preserve the stories, flavors, traditions and craftsmanship of their neighborhoods. Besides, their aim is also to retain young people to keep families close together, especially as the dependence of elderly and the community grows. However change is not only impacting residential communities. Chinatown is the ‘Market Belt’ of Bangkok, connecting nine different markets and specialized neighborhoods. You could also call it the Orchard Road of Markets, which is unique and unheard of in other cities. However, also here, the business community is coming under increasing pressure from new players, the rise of e-commerce and a sluggish economy. The markets are in varying conditions as land prices are rising and government regulations are leaving less room for small local businesses.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Despite facing the challenges of an aging demographic, a declining economy and a resemblance of a comparatively disinvested neighborhood, Chinatown is still one of the city’s most vibrant places drawing over 300,000 shoppers per day. From this baseline Chinatown is now facing the next phase of transformation, the era of mass-transit. As the young people of Chinatown move out, newcomers are attracted by the business opportunities surrounding the new MRT (subway) station. Hence, this new connectivity arrives with a “promotion package” which includes new building codes that promote large-scale property development in a radius of 500 – 800 meters around MRT stations. The resulting increase in land prices spurs the whole-sale takeover of neighborhoods and gentrification at a scale that the old town hasn’t seen since the modernization period of King Rama V. Some communities have taken measure to protect themselves while others are still fending for themselves. It’s a phenomenon that is not limited to Bangkok but a reality for communities in cities around the world. As property development is one of the most powerful capital growth strategies, it holds a lot of political leverage and this poses unprecedented challenges for Chinatown’s people, communities, small businesses and to those who care about the preservation of the city’s cultural heritage. The arrival of the MRT and land-valuation are not the only threats to Chinatown’s heritage though as the picture is more complex and nuanced than at first sight.
IDEOLOGY OF DEVELOPMENT OR THE LACK OF IT
As new players arrive, it needs to be seen how much of the change will be driven by the locals. There are ideas and there are needs but it seems there is a lack of resources that needs to be tackled. One concern is that outside business people will neither have empathy nor an understanding of the local history and heritage. Already some of the area’s largest plots have changed hands to Thailand’s largest developers, displacing hundreds of local residents and wiping out the cultural assets of the area. Other areas are now in focus of developers and are either fighting or are keeping a low profile in hope for survival. For the tourism industry and especially in sustainable and cultural tourism this is an worrying development. It also pits the rights of landowners against cultural rights and has become social justice issue. The future will show whether a multi-stakeholder approach between landlords, developers and locals is possible to drive development that is sensitive to the inclusion of cultural assets and people. A failure to find a balanced path of development could transform a culturally rich area into yet another replaceable cluster of corporate buildings. It would be detrimental not only for Chinatown but for Bangkok’s cultural assets affecting its potential and attractiveness in the long-term as an urban travel destination.
TOP DOWN VS. BOTTOM UP
How much say does a local resident have in the future or the look and feel of their community? Apart from the developments driven by property developers another force we need to examine is “the state knows best” approach in pushing the doctrine of clean, safe and convenient. The government’s attempt to tame the “urban jungle” and to “clean” communities without the inclusion of other stakeholders could also turn Chinatown into a commoditized and disneyfied shadow of its former self. Chinatown is the epitome of the informal economy, comprising thousands of street vendors doing business day and night but their future is uncertain due to government regulations to evict vendors from public space to beautify the city. Some of their initiatives may have brought order but they have also created literal dead zones without life or people. Those businesses that survived the cleanup experienced massive drops in income and locals are scrambling especially in regards to affordable food but this topic deserves an entire article in itself. On the other hand, there are also some hopeful signs of inclusiveness but it has to be scaled up and progressive forces within the bureaucratic state need be empowered before it’s too late. Some decision makers have to shift their focus from the short-term benefits of development to the long-term benefits that inclusive development, public participation and cultural preservation can achieve for Chinatown and the city as a whole. Thailand is already among the countries with the worst economic inequality and we should avoid policies that make matters worse.
How receptive are bureaucrats to protecting Chinatown’s or Thailand’s heritage in general? The reality is that Thailand regards only national heritage such as ancient monuments, artifacts, temples and palaces as heritage. Vernacular heritage such as shop houses, commercial buildings and even modern heritage buildings such as the Hua Lampong Train station or the Old Customs House near the Oriental Hotel are not recognized or protected and are at the whims of those with money. Efforts to counter this have been initiated by local architects such as Dr. Yongthanit and Mrs. Pongkwan Lassus who are demarcating conservation zones for Bangkok and are surveying and registering valuable buildings into a database for the government. It will be up to the senior members in committees and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to understand the importance of this work. They will have to take the steps necessary in preserving not only the character of Chinatown but of old Bangkok as a whole. A reform in the elite’s mindset and attitudes toward vernacular heritage is urgent if the country is to preserve its unique assets. However as difficult as it is to convince government, the landlords and business owners who sit on a lot of the district’s heritage may be as immune to the idea. Heritage conservation is not high on their priority list as their approach of keeping the buildings is rather pragmatic and can serve different functions such as office or storage or no function at all. Most of them are wealthy to the point they don’t need to put much attention to their ancestral building in Chinatown. The government has yet to find a regulatory framework and incentives that balances preservation with the interest of business owners. Also, even if people would like to restore and preserve their heritage buildings, they are often facing three elementary challenges: First, funding. Second, know-how in architectural conservation. Third, future function of the buildings. The government does not offer any support in these three realms so it will be up to citizens to come up with solutions and services to help support those who would like to preserve heritage buildings.
Being hollowed out and in a state of neglect, without a master plan, let alone a common vision, resources and political support for the conservation of Chinatown, what will the future look like? Groups are fragmented and there is no Heritage Trust. The forces pulling at the future identity of Chinatown are complex and powerful. The outlook for many people may be bleak but there is hope. The Chinese take pride in their ancestry and cultural roots and this can be the fuel to reinvent Chinatown and restore it on the map of being a new cultural, culinary and commercial hub. Chinatown will have one unique and important strategic advantage as no property developer can replicate the historic buildings, the stories, the network of tiny alleys and the touch of centuries. We should embrace the history, diversity, imperfections and organic chaos and see them as assets instead of liabilities. We should use them as an inspiration for the creativity and character and adapt them to stand out in a city that adopts the same ‘clean’, modern clutter that lacks soul and character. According to Jan Daga, in Europe it’s not possible to destroy heritage as it’s seen as art that people take pride in, especially symbols such as Michelangelo. Chinatown may not be art but we can make it art, we can evolve its soul and character and turn it into something that not only the Chinese but we all will be proud of. Something that belongs to the people, to small businesses and not only to the big corporations. Tourism and the service industry are becoming massive economic factors.
Chinatown has an opportunity to tap into the potential of its heritage to drive sustainable economic development for its communities and people. They are the living fabric that attract tourists in the first place and they are key in creating a new Chinatown connected to the modern heart of Bangkok while transcending modernization itself. Chinatown should not become a bogus, fake replica of culture that generates cash for a handful of super rich. Across all generations, Chinatown has the opportunity to become the most unique part of the city and to continue to excite, mesmerize and fascinate future generations. I think it is not just an opportunity but a duty to keep the memory of our ancestors alive by creating Asia’s greatest district. It will take awareness, resources and cooperation between generations and across a wide range of stakeholders to pull this off the ground. There are already great examples on how it can be done, what needs to be saved and a will by people and organizations to take the next steps. It’s up to us to generate and support that momentum and invite Bangkokians to explore and experience our living history, our unique heritage and the awesomeness of our local entrepreneurs who move our city into the future.