17 Oct The future of heritage – The opportunities for Thailand and why we have to act now
Reading our previous articles, one’s hope for cultural preservation erodes as fast as the coastlines in Thailand. The speed and nature of rapid urbanization, economic development, political indifference, inadequate policies and other issues pose a serious threat to the future of vernacular heritage. But as with coastal erosion, so with cultural preservation, both are tackled at the grassroots level by passionate and committed people. While in Europe much of our heritage is preserved and protected, it seems that the speed and scale of development supported by government in Thailand and Asia in general doesn’t even seem to allow us to reflect and understand about what we are losing or what is worth protecting. Under these conditions we want to explore ideas and existing initiatives that are working on solutions to protect Thailand’s vernacular heritage.
Heritage of the people, for the people
The definition of heritage in the eyes of the elite is based on the idea of ancient places and usually relates the symbols of the monarchy, Buddhism and the state. In the shadow of that triangle of glorification lays the memory of the common people, the minorities, merchants, our grandparent and generations before that. Their way of life, tangible and intangible which could be summarized as vernacular heritage. As unlikely as you’ll find their stories in our history books as unlikely is the official recognition let alone support of vernacular heritage. It is people though that make the cities and who are at the heart of every culture. Heritage preservation should not only be associated as a domain of academia or the elite alone, instead the conversation has to shift to people of all walks of life. From school kids to community leaders, from hobby historians, to travel bloggers, artists and business owners. But how do we connect them? To what end?And what what do we mean by preservation?
Few questions give rise to such tensions than that of preservation vs. development. Preservation doesn’t mean to freeze people in the past. Unlike antiques in museums, the type of preservation we are talking about is the living heritage that is still around albeit in various conditions. It includes architecture and buildings but buildings have people in it. Culture is dynamic, heritage has to evolve and stay relevant for an ever changing society, values, needs and markets. Some things may be difficult to save and if people want to move on, we are not here to tell them you have to stay like that for any romanticized ideas we hold. But for those who own and want to preserve, share and evolve we are here to support.
Shift the narrative to a human-centric perspective
We are living in the most exciting era in human history. We have the technologies to take action on the things we care about. In our article “Heritage Preservation – a lost cause?” we outlined the issues and challenges facing heritage preservation; in this article we want to shine some light on the people and ideas that are rising to the challenge of finding a balance between preservation and development. It’s far from a complete list but we seek to extend the list further and hope to inspire you to follow, connect and support the movement of preserving Thailand’s heritage. As a saying goes, the culture rests in the soul and wisdom of the people, it is the people then we need to focus on. History is seldom based on the story of an unknown individual. When the Pyramids were built, we talk about the pharaohs to whom these pyramids were built for, we talk less about those who built them let alone knowing the details, thoughts and views of an average worker at that time. We know how society was organized but see it as a narrative of the collective. To get a deeper understanding and appreciation of heritage we need to look at the individual that is part of the heritage spectrum. Whether it’s Chinatown’s last blacksmith or craft people of Charoen Chai. As generations come and go and industries die, new things will be born and each generation operates in a different context with different values and like every country, Thailand is facing its own challenges. Heritage preservation in face of rapid development is one of the the issues Bangkok is facing and through Hyperlocal we aim to better understand the ideas, views of people on the topic. Much of our content originates from the minds of those related to the theme of heritage preservation. Simply type heritage preservation in the search bar and find all the stories. The goal is to give a complex topic a human face and real experience.
At the highest level of affecting change in favor of heritage preservation, there are progressive architects such as Dr. Yongthanit and Khun Pongkwan Lassus who sit in the boards of many committees including government committees. They are working hard to break through and reform the entrenched and obsolete mindsets with respect to heritage preservation to affect changes in the laws governing heritage. As the new generation moves up and crucial partners in government agencies change, there is still hope for the future. Dr.Yongthanit Pimonsathien and his team have expanded the definition of old Bangkok beyond the Grand Palace to include the city’s ancient canals and Chinese quarters. Within the new boundaries they started to create an inventory and identified and registered more than 300 valuable buildings. The actual number is estimated to be around 7,000 buildings of which currently only 26 are protected. The next crucial step is to have the laws and regulations to protect them but it’s not in their hands whether the government will be using the data for that purpose but it’s a step in the right direction. For now, it’s up to the building owner to decide what to do with the heritage building and the decision is not simple as heritage owners are facing three major questions. First, funding. Preservation is very funding intensive and most people will advice them to knock the building down and rebuild. Second, know-how access to the expertise, materials, etc. to undertake conservation work. There is no centralized system to access when it comes to seeking support. Third is the question of function. What purpose will the building serve, especially in light of the investments that went into preserving it.
“The roof is leaking and there is not enough space for the aircondition and the compressor. An architect complained that I placed the compressor outside. It makes my house look ugly and not beautiful. So, I told him, look, I’m also a human being. I feel hot, the same way you feel hot. If you’re an architect, would you please decide on where to keep the compressor so it looks beautiful? Can you do that? He had no idea.”Somchai Kwangtongpanich
Weighing the beauty and historic value against the quality of life or the economic potential can be difficult. Heritage buildings can be an immense financial burden, given the high maintenance costs and the costs to adapt them to a modern way of life. Do we want to convince people to stay the way they are because of our own romantic ideas? If they want to move on, who are we to tell them otherwise? If landowners and tenants want to preserve and improve their heritage buildings, then they should receive support as well. How do we provide land owners with the knowledge and resources to preserve their heritage? What are the challenges for them?
“I have been looking after the house since I was nineteen and saw the house in its prime and in its lowest point. It has become my passion and part of my heart. I’m trying to keep it for as long as I can and I have never thought of selling it. I’ve been offered 1.2 billion baht (40million usd) for this house and I said ‘No’. I turned down offers even when money on the bank account was low. Even today, we are not rich by any means but my dream is to bring this house back to life again.”Poosak Posayachinda
The gravitational pull of mass transit stations attract big businesses driving large scale transformations. In the face of the eviction, neighborhoods such as Woeng Nakhon Kasem, Pom Mahakan and others serve as a reminder to Bangkok’s neighborhoods. Some communities are oblivious of the threat, some are aware but keep a low profile while others don’t sit idle and let fate run its course but start initiatives to be on the radar of Bangkok’s cultural landscape. They utilize their cultural identity and uniqueness to attract visitors, not only to forestall eviction but to develop economically and thereby improving the community. It is of great importance for the community to be part of the city’s economic value chain, assert their role and join the discourse for the city’s future. They should no long be seen as a burden but as an asset to the city. The So Heng Tai house is nestled right in Talad Noi, one of Chinatown oldest sub-neighborhoods. This 230 year old Chinese courtyard house is the cultural center piece of the neighborhood. Though facing numerous challenges, it’s owner Mr. Poosak is on a quest to restore it to its former beauty. At the same time the community striving to preserve its traditions and has created a volunteer group called We Love Talad Noi to help revive popular festivals such as the Vegetarian Festival. They also aim to develop community based tourism to preserve the craft and local wisdom and to generate income for the community. Talad Noi is probably one of the most active communities in promoting their heritage together with Charoen Chai, Kudi Jeen and Nang Loeng. While in Charoen Chai you can experience Thailand’s most beautiful Moon Festival other communities have their own strategies to draw on their heritage as a driver for preservation and sustainable economic development. The approach of Community Based Tourism (CBT) for cultural preservation and economic development has drawn the attention of many other urban communities but many of them lack the know-how and human resources. While CBT in rural communities is a growing segment in tourism, some experts have doubts whether this type of tourism can be replicated in an urban context. This may be an opportunity for community leaders and young, purpose driven social entrepreneurs to prove them wrong.
Take a stroll along lower Sampeng lane and you will pass a number of shops specializing in the sales of ropes, a legacy of its history as a port. One of the business owners is K. Somchai. When in his office is like Clark Kent but once people, universities, government or bangkokvanguards walk through his door to learn something about Chinatown, he turns to be Superman. For us he’s the Jedi of Chinatown who has been on an incredible journey of discovery to understand his own cultural legacy. His unrelenting curiosity, passion and willingness to make actual things happen, made him the ‘Go-to-person’ on Chinatown. Preservation is extremely difficult he admits and we need to accept change. His approach to preservation aside from countless projects is through research and taking pictures to keep the memory of Chinatown and to pass it on to the young generation. His passion and knowledge for Chinatown and getting people interested is simply infectious and shows us that everybody can become a historian and an ambassador of their community.
“I said to my friend that I spent ten years to get a few hundred people here. Then came Buk Luk who were never really engaged with our culture and they managed to do that in less than a month. They created graffiti, they created the elephants and over a thousand young people came here. They came here, found the art work, looked around and found more beautiful places. They saw all the small details and said: “hey that’s an old building, wow that’s beautiful”. That is exactly my goal.”somchai kwangtongpanich
While K. Somchai operates on an individual level, we see an increasing number of organizations engaging in preservation and urban revitalization such as the Creative District, Friends of the river, UDDC (Urban Development and Design Center) and Art in Soi. These organizations have a participatory approach in addressing the needs of local communities and to develop them economically while drawing on the cultural assets of these neighborhoods. Events like the Bangkok Design Week, Buk Luk Art Week or Eat in Soi drew large crowds from far away corners of Bangkok who would otherwise never visit these areas. Event can bring Bangkokians in touch with the culture and creative ingenuity of Bangkok’s historic neighborhoods.
The new trend of Cafe Tourism or Instagram Hunting by young social media savvy Bangkokians benefits in particular businesses that draw on the cultural and architectural heritage which can be found aplenty in Bangkok’s older neighborhoods, especially near the river. Baan Rim Naam is a former rice warehouse in the Talaad Noi community. It’s now an event and dining space hosting laid-back cultural events. It has become an insider attraction among Bangkokians and together with the Song Heng Tai house and other hidden gems contribute to Talaad Noi’s reputation of being one of the city’s most authentic and beautiful neighborhoods. Other successful preservation projects include Baan Silapin and Lhong 1919. Beyond the borders of Chinatown near Nang Loeng you can visit a 120 year old European Renaissance style home that has been turned into a culture and civic hub called Bangkok 1899 complete with office spaces for social entrepreneurs, a cafe and event space while a stone-throw away you will find a wide range of beautiful boutique hotels and cafes such as Innspire Bangkok, Rue de Mansri and Villa Mungkala to name but a few. The buildings were saved by people who saw their beauty and potential and who repurposed them to be of value for the city again. Whether heritage buildings continue their existence in the form of cultural spaces, galleries, hotels, cafes or innovation centers, they provide a welcome respite from the big city life and can become not only pride and jewels of a neighborhood but also its social center. The surge in the openings of cafes, hostels and event spaces went side by side with an increase in rentals and land prices. Especially in Talad Noi, prices went up from 10,000 to 50,000thb per sqm over the past five years alone. It would be great to see ways in which small local businesses can tap into this social-media guided urban tourism thus distributing the benefits of an increased flow of visitors more widely. Economic development and injection in disinvested neighborhoods can lead to a gentrification that alienates locals and in the worst case displaces them and destroys their cultural heritage. This has to be avoided. Startups such as Trawell are working on various solutions from helping local restaurants with design projects to developing chatbots to make information more accessible.
While movements are emerging on the grassroots level across urban communities, Bangkok’s community of architects, historians and other scholars are continuing their relentless efforts to spark public interest and discussion in cultural heritage management through events, lectures, tours and media content. Two organizations that have done incredible work is The Siamese Heritage Trust and ASA (Association of Siamese Architects). ASA provides the annual architectural design awards, honoring the preservation of vernacular heritage in Thailand. Without this kind of recognition, some of Bangkok’s beloved places would have already met the wrecking ball.
Why we must innovate tourism
Tourism doesn’t have the best good reputation especially if you consider the national obsession to drive up foreign arrival numbers by appealing to emerging markets like China and India. Tourism is still associated with mass tourism, short-term profit maximization, disneyfication and no regard for the cultural, social and environmental health. Many tourists already lament well-meant proposals, such as applying standardized Chinese rooftops to street food vendors along Chinatown’s main road Yaowarat, an idea that was floated by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. (Pass me the Prozac!). Hence wrong guided and conceived development plans can turn authentic destinations into an Ersatzversion and ultimately a disappointment or ‘nice’ but nothing-special experience. Experience design requires understanding, empathy, passion, creativity and long-term thinking, something most officials and business people have no time for or any interest. Hence, if the current state and reputation of tourism persists, travelers will opt for alternative destinations. With that kind of reputation and image, it’s no surprise that the majority of tourism students prefer jobs other than being tour guides because the prospect of herding 40 tourists with a flag from one overcrowded spot to the next isn’t very tempting. Despite these signs, much of the cultural ingredients essential in innovating tourism is being destroyed by other interests and nobody seems to be doing much about it. We seem to make the same mistakes China did, wiping out much of their cultural heritage, first during the Cultural Revolution and recently through its breakneck development. Something China starts already regretting. We do not want to reduce heritage to be simply an economic opportunity or support the wholesale commodification and disneyfication of our culture but we need to change the lens through which we look at our heritage and expand its definition. By recognizing its full potential we open the space for social innovation in tourism and the service industry in unprecedented ways, with wider positive repercussions for the cultural, social and environmental assets of our city.
The battle of Sustainable Development will be either won or lost in our cities. Cities are complex eco-systems where everything is connected and there are many invisible interdependencies. The wrong actions, ignorance and greed of a few can compromise the well-being of the whole. This gradual process will eventually lead to collapse if we don’t counteract. That’s why this series of the Future of Heritage, focuses on preservation and urban tourism as part of potential solution. While the term sustainable development is in everyone’s ears, official statements on sustainable development are often just lip service. As with everything from inequality to climate change, if we don’t adapt a radical shift in our mindset and take concentrated and systemic action, we’ll smash headfirst into a wall. There are first signs that the government wants to drive innovation and strengthen the sustainable tourism sector by promoting local tourism. But what one agency is promoting, the other is destroying. Internal rifts and interests do not contribute to the interest of tourism let alone the public. Communication and cooperation between its ministries have to be improved. Through experience design, building capacities and helping to promote local heritage and communities the status of communities in the urban discourse can be elevated. Cultural preservation doesn’t have to be a lost cause, tourism can also be a greater force for good. As seen in the previous examples, communities can take a more active role and should see themselves as social entrepreneurs; possessing cultural assets which they can use to negotiate with the government and the market. Cultural preservation and sustainable economic development however rests not only with the communities or the government. Even though we go by the notion that too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the food, we still believe that creative synergies between both private and public sector, civil society, academia, technology and other stakeholders are crucial in creating innovations necessary to stay competitive in the regional tourism market. Through these innovations we will be able to restore the health of our cultural and environmental assets and alleviate inequality. The question of cultural preservation and development touches on several of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, be they Inequality (Goal 10) or Sustainable Cities and Communities (goal 11). It is our duty to cultivate and support social entrepreneurship in sustainable tourism to bolster and support conservation efforts and improve the livelihood of people. Already forward thinking social travel companies such as Local Alike, Trawell, Hivesters and Siam Rise are taking the opportunity to innovate their respective industries and draw a significant audience who do not only believe in the quality of their travel experiences but also in their mission of grassroots support, conservation and sustainability.
As Mahatma Gandhi once coined it: “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and the souls of its people.” Preserving our culture is to preserve our hearts and soul. Heritage is more than architecture and April 2nd (THai Heritage Conservation Day) should not solely be a tribute to the country’s monuments but to the memory of generations gone before us and turning their legacies into assets for future generations. Even though big capital and developers, government and regulations are the dominant forces in shaping our city, we citizens, entrepreneurs, experts, leaders, consumers and travelers still have a stake in the future of Bangkok. We have to be resilient, we have to adopt and innovate around it as to not only survive but thrive in times of great change. We are determined to contribute to that end and hope that our “Urban Future Series” can provide you with plenty of valuable examples, stories and ideas to build on and connect with. To become better travelers, better entrepreneurs and better citizens.
For more views on Bangkok’s urban future, visit our Urban Future Project or check out other blog posts.