Keeping Chinatown's memory alive - by Khun Somchai | bangkokvanguards
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Keeping Chinatown’s memory alive – by Khun Somchai

Every part of Chinatown has a different story and history. Yaowarat’s personality is where east meets west. The Sae Heng Lee Building shows a mix of Hong Kong and Shanghai. 

Much of the distinct Chinese architecture disappeared after a big fire and through gentrification but there is still some left especially in Talad Noi, the Chinese East Market, buildings there are more distinct Chinese while Charoen Krung became the west market, there you’ll see more European styles. 

I hope we can keep the diversity for young people to see the beauty and importance. 

How do you get young people interested in the old cultures and support the old communities of Bangkok? I said to my friend that I spent ten years here to attract a few hundred people, then came the Buk Luk art event 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. 

Beyond the artwork they 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. Sharing our passion for this area, telling them about the stories of the people and culture is great. 

Attracting the young people to old areas through art.

If you recommend the best Chinese food places, this raises the value of the area and makes everyone happy. The Talad Noi community is a good example. The community wants to attract young people. 

A very important part of the visit is timing. Lets say we’re going to my friend’s Salapao (Chinese steamed buns) shop. I know they finish making buns at 4:00p.m. That’s when you stop by and have them and it’s so delicious. The owner is very proud too. He will explain how long they have made buns, since his grandfather and so on. But, if you come here, let’s say around 2:00p.m. they are busy working and can’t talk to you.

Somchai’s steam bun friend. Come at the right time to experience the locals.

Coming to the right place at the right time is a good way to support the community.

The challenge is to preserve our communities and old neighborhoods. 

My friends published a book with the story of the people in Woeng Nakhon Kasem. I supported them with old pictures from my archive and we asked people to give us a copy of old pictures and we made a photo book in memory of this neighborhood. 

Now they are gone but I can still show you the spirit of the people who lived there and how beautiful Woeng looked.

Most of the people in Woeng Nakhon Kasem came from Chai Jo Keng Ia, a province in China. They are different from people of other neighborhoods. The people from that area were very hard working and very smart. They had a lot of ideas. 

The community became rich during and after WW2 because Thailand could not import any motors. So, the Woeng Nakhon Kasem community specialized in repairing and making motors, water pumps or motors producing electricity. 

It was the only place to buy a water pump. You can see the way the Keng Ia people arrange their shops. Every inch is a showroom and you can see every size and type of product. It is a kind of art, the way they stack their products. There is just enough space for one person to get either in or out of the shop.

The art of placement.

Their success is reflected in the way they designed their houses. Modern Chinese liked to make their houses look European or they changed the names of their shops to English names. So Kuan Heng Seng became KHS and there were a lot of such cases because it was in vogue to become western.

A lot of shops sold music instruments and Woeng Nakhon became the go to place for buying and repairing music instruments. Now, all the shops are gone. They have spread far and wide. 

The spirit is gone, the charm is gone. It’s sad that Woeng Nakhon Kasem disappeared but I also have to accept that things change all the time. Having this documentation is good. If we would show it now, you’d only see that Woeng Kasem is dead. 

We need to wait till the new Woeng Nakhon Kasem is born, maybe in five years, then we can show people the memories we kept and show them the difference. I used to tell my friends in Woeng Nakhon Kasem, they will never die.

Change is coming and what can we do about the big changes? That’s what I’m doing today, I love my neighborhood. I take a lot of pictures. 

Back then when I started people thought of me of the crazy guy with the camera, back then they’d look at you in a strange way.

I keep the good old days in my memory and send them to younger people like you, my son and my students. To show you what it used to be like.

Want to explore Chinatown from the comfort of your home?

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