Roots - Experience Thailand from a new perspective | bangkokvanguards
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Roots – Experience Thailand from a new perspective

Exploring Thailand through my ancestral roots

My grandmother hugs the framed image of my Chinese grandfather. I never got to know my grandfather and neither did I get to know the world my grandmother grew up in. She is 93 and fortunately she loves to share stories of those bygone days. I’m surprised by her vivid memories, recounting her encounter with Japanese troops traveling up the Maeklong river, just a few hundred meters from our house. Fascinating accounts of a world with barely any roads and no electricity. Days that were much slower and more familiar to her than the fast-paced life of present day Thailand. Doing homework in the evenings or climbing coconut trees to harvest sugar sap before dawn were done with the help of candles or oil lamps yet it was a period of rapid modernization. It was an era that saw the peak of Chinese migration to Thailand and their profound influence on Thailand’s economic development. Like millions of Thai citizens, my mother was born to Thai-Chinese parents which makes me ‘a quarter (?)’ Chinese, Thai, German and Polish. This blog is about tracing my Chinese ancestry and the goal to explore off the beaten path routes from Bangkok to Samut Songkhram. My goal is explore what is left of my grandmother’s era and to document the condition of those urban and rural communities to share with you their hopes, challenges and aspirations for a better post Covid-19 world. This journey will begin in Bangkok and gradually move toward the suburban and rural areas south and northwest of Bangkok. (Scroll down to see the map).

My grandmother. Married a Chinese merchants. Her father in law immigrated from Guang Dong. Intermarriage between Chinese and local Thai was common resulting that the majority of Thais in the central plains have Chinese ancestry.

When grandma was young

“Your grandfather was a Teochew (one of five major Chinese ethnicities that immigrated into Thailand). He paddled his boat to the floating market nearly every day. I sold products there and that’s that’s how we met”

My mind wanders in romantic imagination of life in Thailand when it still was predominantly water based. Floating markets where locals are not outnumbered by tourists ten to one and products aren’t the factory produced stuff that you’d find from Chiang Mai to Phuket. However, I assume, if it had to be me who has to paddle his boat up and down the canals each day through the heat and against the currents, my romanticized idea of the past would quickly hit a reality check.

From Samut Songkhram to Bangkok in the 1940’s

“When I was young my uncle transported coconuts with a barge from Damnoen Saduak to Bangkok. We had to travel to Damnoen Saduak first (Thailand’s most famous floating market and tourist attraction) to hire a boat back then. From there we traveled down the Damnoen Saduak Canal to the Tha Chin River and on to Bangkok. I stood atop the barge helping my uncle to navigate the canals. It took two days to get to Bangkok. We sold our coconuts in front of Wat Kalayanimitr at the mouth of the Bangkok Yai canal. If there was time we would walk across the Memorial bridge to the other side of the river. There wasn’t much, unlike today”

Samut Songkhram’s canals and coconut groves. From here began the journey to Bangkok on the water through the lush and thick growth of orchards in the Maeklong, Tha Chin and Chao Phraya River deltas.

Childhood memories of a coconut farm

I walk through my grandma’s coconut plantation to my aunt’s house. It’s a journey back to my childhood. I spent many summer holidays here, not on the white sandy beaches in Phuket or Samui. It’s the plantation my great grandfather founded. I come into view of a small wooden house. I have only faint memories since it’s been a long time since my last visit but I remember the canals were much wider, filled with water deep enough that my relatives bathed in them. No they are silted.

Most of my memory of Thailand during my childhood revolves around rural Thailand

What do we know about our great grandfather?

Everyone seems surprised about my mission to shed some light on the origins of our family. My cousin leaves through some old documents. A heated guessing game ensues in an already hot dwelling. Did grandfather arrive during the era of King Rama 5 or Rama 6? How did he get here? Whom can we ask? How old is the house? A hundred years? hundred-twenty or even a hundred fifty years maybe? His Daoist shrine is still perched on an altar watching over us cousins taking wild guesses.

Watching over the well-being of our family for more than a century. Were they brought over from China back then?  The peacock feather on the right symbolizes dignity and beauty but also the goddess Guan Yin which is a family guardian.
Tracing our ancestors from Guang Dong

Offerings are placed in front of the black and white images of my ancestors. When I was young I never knew that paying respect to our ancestors is a Chinese practice and for the first time I notice how old this traditional wooden house actually is. It’s the house he built, simple, sitting on stilts along a now silted irrigation canal. A perfect example of the light wood structures that characterized the waterfront life along the countless canals. These early rural dwellings have mostly disappeared along the main roads but they can still be found in the depth of Samut Songkhram’s plantations and also along Bangkok’s canals albeit often in a run-down condition. Since I’ve started reading about history and heritage preservation, I see these houses through different eyes but I think my relatives might want to send me to see a therapist for that.

The world of my ancestors – a world of transformation.

By the time my grandmother arrived in Bangkok in the 40’s. the city has been in a transition from a waterbased city to a land and road-based city which has been pushed especially after the 1890’s through the reforms of King Rama V (King Chulalongkorn). The introduction of the market economy and the import of new technologies accelerated the kingdom’s rapid transformation yet the way of life was still traditional in many ways.

King Chulalongkorn did not only transform Sampeng (Bangkok’s Chinese port) into Bangkok’s first international business hub but sped up Thailand’s transformation from self-sufficient, small scale paddy cultivation to a global player in the rice and sugar industry. He recruited indented labor from southeastern China to build the necessary transport infrastructure. Thousands of Chinese immigrants perished from tropical diseases while clearing the forests, excavating the canals and constructing the roads and railway network. Others settled in the new frontier regions and many remained in Sampeng’s appalling condition, crowding the port area as lonely and impoverished slum dwellers hooked to opium.

Explore along the 19th century highways. Thousands of kilometers of canals were excavated to connecting new agricultural areas with the markets in Bangkok.

Like many of his fellow Teochew migrants, my great grandfather came with a “one-way ticket” from the Guang Dong province during the later stage of King Chulalongkorn’s reign or a few years later.

It was a time of great transformation. The new transport network allowed people to settle far away from the crowded confines of Sampeng. The train connection from Bangkok to Maeklong via Mahachai opened in 1905. Today this route has become a popular way for tourists to explore off the beaten path when heading for the famous Umbrella Market in Maeklong. It could have been my great grandfathers route in search for new opportunities.

Settling in the new market places and frontier regions

He was among the growing number of traders and merchants, craftsmen, tailors, pharmacists, chefs, performers and farmers who not only made up Bangkok’s dynamic urban society but also settled in the new market places. They got married to local women and through the right connections and through hard work they came to dominate various economic sectors in Thailand.

Historically the Teochew Chinese had a reputation of being seafaring renegades and smugglers. Their expertise in sailing and sea transport made them the dominant group in the coastal market towns near Bangkok. But they also controlled over 90% of the rice mills, pawnshops and pharmacies, and engaged in the fishing industry, salt and sugar production. Other ethnic groups such as the Hailam dominated the timber trade and sawmills, machinery was in Cantonese hands, nine out of ten tailors and the whole leather industry was owned by Hakka and rubber export was the domain of the Hokkien. The Teochew were also agriculturists and my great grandfather settled in Samut Songkhram near Maeklong (roughly 70km west of Bangkok) to start growing coconuts and producing coconut sugar. The fertile Maeklong river plains have long been the domain for high quality agricultural produce and it’s still that way.

Coconut farmers in Samut Songkhram. Many of of their ancestor migrated from the Southeast of China to Thailand during the past 200 years.

“Crazy” about exploring one’s community and cultural roots

Maybe because when we search the origins of our community, we find a part of ourselves in there. It’s like a treasure hunt.”

K. Somchai

“You see, before many people thought I’m the crazy person with the camera. Walking the area, taking pictures here and there”. Khun Somchai laughs and swiftly opens up one of his image folder to show me his latest photos. Street corners of Yaowarat, taken by a photographer a century ago and his version. Same angle. He’s probably got the largest photographic archive of Chinatown in Thailand. “It’s like a jigsaw, like a detective work. We have to keep the memory for the future generations and make it interesting for them”. I feel I have a lot in common with him. People too thought I was crazy because I drew maps of Bangkok whenever I was bored in class.

“If people knew more about the history and role of their communities it could elevate the status of their neighborhood.”

Khun Somchai
Talking to my teacher in Bangkok
It’s a mission that has moved K. Somchai for many years. K. Somchai and I discussed over countless bowls of Guay Jub how to raise the status of Chinatown. I guess it begins with passion and empathy. 

The fascination for forgotten places

I can’t help it. I had turn around every corner, venture into the narrowest of alleys to discover those places, the forgotten time bubble where the dust of history has isolated the place from the rest of our modern reality. It’s one thing to read history books and another to step into the worlds of living history. Not the overcrowded tourist traps, but the small, hidden stories of our past.

Beginning to explore Thailand and my own Chinese roots deep in the bowels of Bangkok’s Chinatown.

What is left of the world of my ancestors?

Much of my exploration has been focused on Bangkok’s Chinatown which ranks among the world’s largest, most dynamic and most authentic. The journey of millions of Chinese migrants began here, along the Chao Phraya River. It’s where the journey of my great grandfather began and where I began to explore those historic communities. I began to explore without being aware of my own Chinese ancestry but simply because Chinatown sparked my curiosity for urban exploration and amplified my fascination for Bangkok for it’s one of the last remaining authentic districts of Bangkok. Read here why I think Bangkok’s Chinatown ranks among the most exiting in the world.

There over 2,000 urban and semi-urban communities in Bangkok of which 140 are historic communities. 18 of these historic communities are located in Chinatown. This map is far from complete or detailed and indicates only the communities next on my list. Click on the map or here for an example of a community story.

Exploring beyond Bangkok – the beauty of rural heritage

Through my conversations with my grandmother however I traced and explored the trade routes of my family outside of Bangkok. Damoen Saduak, Baan Paew, Tha Chin, Talad Phlu. I found many places along the rivers and canals of central Thailand that stuck with me and that I would like to share with you.

Instead of bombing down Rama 2 highway from Bangkok to the Damnoen Saduak floating market in a taxi, I focus on the space in between Bangkok and Samut Songkkram. What is left of my grandmother’s world? The old frontier communities, floating markets and architectural gems that emerged along the rivers and vast network of canals. For me that’s where one beautiful and important aspect of Thailand’s heritage and soul lays.

One of my refuges along the Maeklong river. Tranquil waterfront communities, the hubs of trade back in the old days.
Old canal community along Damnoen Saduak Canal.

These areas also represent the development of human society and provides rich inspiration to explore other beautiful places. However, it requires you to see heritage not as the grand UNESCO type of heritage but as a wider story of Thailand and the relationship of its people with their environment. I had a glimpse of that world as a child and now I want to carry on the story of past generations and of our generation, beginning with the story of my own family.

How do people feel about their heritage?

What are the conditions, challenges and aspirations of these communities in a fast changing world? If I had to thank Covid-19 for one thing than that it has provided me the time to find answers to these questions. I meet people who are proud of their heritage and who want to share it with the wider world. They also see it as an opportunity to secure the livelihood of people. This is understandable, especially in light of the economic disparity in Thailand which ranks among the worst in the world.

The heritage of Thailand’s diverse cultures, urban communities, markets, waterfront communities and so on have always held a deep fascination for me. The more I explored, the more I talked to people and read about history, the more curious and determined I became to help to preserve the memory of Thailand’s communities and minorities. I think it’s important to raise the status of vernacular heritage in Thailand while also providing value for travelers interested in culture and supporting local economies. The people should be proud of their roots, no matter how insignificant it may appear in the discourse of national heritage which acknowledges only national heritage (Temples, palaces, monuments, etc.) as heritage. We have to look beyond the governments promotion of national heritage and also celebrate our collective yet individual stories. This will create benefits for both the owners and guardians of heritage and those who want to experience an Thailand on a deeper level.

Overview of the canals leading out of Bangkok. King Chulalongkorn ordered the construction of new major canals (such as the Damnoen Saduak Canal) linking Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River with the Tha Chin River and the Maeklong River. My family traded along these canals and my goal is to explore these old frontier communities and market centers (red dots and more red dots to follow), document their stories and organize trips there. Credit: The Chao Phyra, River in Transition by Steve Van Beek (Oxford).  

Feel free to share this article #bangkokvanguards and let me know what you think about local heritage and what we as a community of explorers can do to preserve it.

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