The Decoder of Chinatown - Khun Somchai | bangkokvanguards
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The Decoder of Chinatown – Khun Somchai

Introduction

When I was young, after my trip to Bangkok age 16, I was so captivated by Bangkok that I drew my own maps of Bangkok and people could consider me a nerd. Back in Germany I was pretty alone with my passion but 20 later I found my counterpart in the alleys of Chinatown – my Sithlord Khun Somchai (he thinks the Siths are cooler than the Jedi).

Khun Somchai has been on a mission to explore and understand his cultural roots and thereby unveiling the history and elevating the value of his community which is Bangkok’s Sampeng area or Chinatown.

He’s the cultural decoder, tracing the meaning of names, images, stories and ancient maps tell us who we are. His curiosity became his passion, his passion became his expertise and reputation which elevated him to become a leader and the Go-to person for Chinatown.

Showing me his super weapon – the map! I love maps, I made my own maps of Bangkok when I was young.

Decoding the origins

I read many books but the map became my super power. I use maps and old pictures and explore along the trails of old maps. What is this place? I make notes. I take pictures. I compare maps and old pictures and I must find the evidence that matches with the places in my sources.

I wondered where the oldest shrines in Chinatown were and found that the oldest shrines were all in the center of Sampeng where the first settlers settled and they were not safe. They tried to build a fort. I think about the suffering of the period when Chinatown started out. 

bangkokvanguards team learning, exploring and getting our dose of passion from K. Somchai.

Infectious passion

These two small canals here. What was their purpose? They were there for defense. Now there are two roads in the same spot. It indicates the Chinese idea of a balanced city given the hierarchy and patterns of alleys and canals in and around the center.

It’s so much fun. It’s like decoding Chinatown. I’m a decoder.

I walk, I explore, take pictures and I read. I’m very passionate about it. It’s not necessary to be an archaeologist, you can do it yourself. Everybody can be a historian.

I’m still learning new things and if I don’t find anything new then I have to remake it with new techniques or technologies. Just like the remake of movies. 

What’s more fascinating now is that I‘m searching my own life. When I find new details about the history, I also find a little bit about myself inside that place. 

We used to have two buildings in Chinatown that were decorated with a big spider sitting in the middle of a spiderweb. I bought a new camera and took better quality pictures with unique details before the buildings were torn down.

Passing on the knowledge

How did I become a historian? I don’t think it’s that special. I get all this information because others before me did the same thing. Like me, they researched and transferred their knowledge from generation to generation.

We always say, in the good old days things were better. TV programs were better, food was better and buildings were nicer. But that’s just my generation’s view point and that’s ok. 

I create a lot of content because I love my community and because I think it’s my duty to pass it on to the next generation but it’s up to them whether they think it’s interesting. 

The old will always compete with the new. The question is how do you pass on the knowledge to the young people? I don’t want to write any books. I think we should change the format to video and put it on YouTube. I love this kind of thing and the young generation loves videos.

K. Somchai’s birth place and neighborhood – Sampeng Lane early 20th century.

Is street food part of the local identity?

For many people street food is a big thing but in terms of the importance, compared to the past we are going down. Yaowarat used to be the entertainment center of Bangkok with ten theaters, night clubs and many high-quality restaurants but today it’s just street food. 

We have only one or two good restaurants left along Yaowarat Rd. You want to see the future? You need to know your past. 

In Chinese cuisine we have a lot of techniques to create high quality food and my grandfather would shake his head if you grilled it. You will find grilled food only in a few places in China but you will see a lot of seafood BBQ on Yaowarat Road.

Steamed vs. grilled. Traditional flavors become increasingly replaced with popular cooking styles such as street food BBQ.

How do you make the prawns taste great? You’d steam it. But the food changes from generation to generation. What we loved in my generation may not be good for the next one.

60 years plus and still serving the old guard in Sampeng and Song Wat. Pee Lek and Guay Jub Song Wat.


My uncle always said to me that if my mom was still alive, she would be very proud of me and also surprised because I’m the one who actually refused his Chinese cultural roots. 

My mom taught me a lot about my culture but to me it just seemed so complicated. My interest started when I overheard a professor telling his students about the history of Song Wat Road. I was born and I grew up here but I have never heard about any of the things he was talking about.

So, I questioned the information and he asked me: “Who are you?” Where are you from? What degree do you have? Archaeology? When he asked me who are you?

I went back home and wondered, who am I?

So, I started creating an archive about Chinatown. Before my mother passed away, she left me a few books about the Chao Jo culture. I found them to be a big treasure and I saw that my doubts I had with the professor were justified. 

Learning from my Sithlord (he prefers to be the Sithlord to the Jedi).

Now, I have more than 1,000 books and more than 10,000 old images in my archive. The professor knew things from his perspective but it didn’t reflect real life or the local perspective. Professors don’t know everything and even the books got some things wrong. 

Now, they say I’ve become a leader of Chinese culture and some people think I’m a nerd but in fact I’m learning from you. I have my perspectives but you have to be open and listen to everyone. If you think differently, then I want to know why? People have different things they love about Sampeng, so I can learn from them as well.

When Bangkok celebrates the 250th anniversary of its founding, what will be the story of the Chinese? 

I dream of a master plan for Chinatown but it’s very difficult. The problem already starts with your own house. Do you want to keep it old or do you want to make it new? 

My house is about one hundred years old and the roof is leaking, there’s not enough space for the air condition and no place for the compressor. 

An architect complained and said: ”Oh, you don’t preserve your house. You placed the compressor outside, it makes your house look ugly.” 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?” No. No idea. 

You can get blamed for installing glass windows as it doesn’t match with the design of your house. How do you isolate properly, so that the cool air doesn’t escape? 

Keeping it old or making it new? Outside perspectives don’t often match with local perspectives.

They say they are academics, they have a lot of knowledge, right, but they don’t live here. Your ideas may be important to you but it’s maybe not important to the locals. 

I worked with many groups and you sit and discuss but it’s difficult to decide on the standards. Which color? Green or Red? How many floors, is it too high or too low? And don’t forget my compressor!

Conclusion

My counterpart when it comes to mapping, exploring and sharing our cultural roots.

Our team has learnt so much from K. Somchai but even more important is the friendship through our shared love for our communities and the city. We appreciate K. Somchai for his dedication, passion and spirit to cultivate appreciation and spark curiosity for our past and value our communities and history as we embrace our future. His invaluable work contributes to keep the memory of the city alive and we’re proud to be part of a mission to elevate the perception of Chinatown and evoke the explorer in Thais and locals.

We are planning some great experiences to reboot Chinatown and help develop a community and culture centric tourism for the area. We will schedule walking tours and workshop once the the situation goes back to normal and we hope to see you there.

For private tours of Chinatown with our team check out the link below. To support the communities check out our store.

Michael Biedassek
[email protected]

Bangkok-based experience designer, blogger, tour guide and hobby anthropologist. I explore and introduce you to the places, people and ideas that matter