12 Feb Chinatown’s last waterfront community
“We need to grab the dragon by its tail, or else he’ll be gone.”. Mr. Suwat is concerned that the community will miss out on a great opportunity. Khlong means canal and Ong Ang refers to the earthen wares that were sold here in the 19th century. The area saw transitions from a militarised buffer zone to Bangkok’s first real promenade and much else in between. The new promenade is the embodiment of Bangkok’s economic vitality even in times of the great pandemic. It’s also an example of megacities and their stories of transformation. This is a brief outline of the transition from a forgotten and polluted canal to an award winning landmark. I hope it will give you better understanding of the invisible aspects of Bangkok’s new tourism landmark and inspiration to visit.
The early days
The founding of Bangkok in 1782 marked the beginning of Thailand’s Chakri dynasty. It came to power through a palace coup which disposed King Taksin the Great. King Taksin was of Teochew, Thai and Mon origins. Through his reign the Teochew became the dominant Chinese ethnicity in Thailand which they still are today.
Back then Mr. Suwat’s ancestors along with an estimated 15,000 Teochew (*1) settlers were forced to settle outside the fortified city walls. They were relegated to the marshy tracts of Sampeng. (*2) to make way for the construction of the Grand Palace. A year later the King completed the excavation of the Khlong Ong Ang canal to protect the sacred royal citadel. During those early days the canal, city wall, fortifications and a militarised buffer zone were the bulwark against foreign enemies. But since King Taksin was executed, it also had to protect against a potential Teochew uprising.
Khlong Ong Ang canal around the Chinatown’s western fringes is also known as Saphan Han (Swivel Bridge). The bridge started as a narrow wooden pedestrian span that could swing to one side to let boats pass and was flimsy enough to prevent larger groups of people (such as insurgents) from crossing. Eventually the canal and the area around the bridge became a major trading hub.
1* Teochew: Thailand’s main Chinese ethnicity and one of five Chinese speech groups in Thailand. 2* Sampeng: The first main street (alley) of Chinatown and core of the Chinese settlement in Bangkok). 3* Thonburi: The old kingdom and capital (1767 – 1782) before the founding of Bangkok, located on the western side of the river.
A piece of Italy in Chinatown
As Chinatown expanded Khlong Ong Ang became an important and thriving market center. Stately houses of Chinese merchants lined the canal. The growing trade turned Saphan Han into the busiest transit point between the Chinese settlement and the palace district. The bridge underwent several reconstructions culminating in the installation of a Venetian style bridge in the late 19th century.
From water to land
Life in Bangkok was predominantly water-borne until the final decade of the 19th century. The city relied on a vast network of canals for living, commerce and transport. It only gradually shifted towards a land-based city through the Western oriented policies of King Chulalongkorn. With the growth of Chinatown, the canal became heavily polluted and silted. This prompted a major overhaul, including a complete new look for Saphan Han. With King Chulalongkorn’s (King Rama V) visits to Europe came new ideas to the Kingdom. The King had cast iron frames prefabricated in Italy, then imported and installed by Italian architects. They turned Saphan Han into the little brother of the Ponte di Rialto in Venice. Saphan Han exemplifies the first foreign inspired gentrification with its origins in Italy. It became one of Bangkok’s most iconic historic memories which can be seen in the street art displayed there today..
Bye Bye water-based life.
Bangkok’s rapid urban population growth and uncontrolled urbanization began in the 1960’s. It saw much of Bangkok’s vernacular heritage being destroyed including the Italian inspired version of Saphan Han. The city administration replaced the bridge in 1962 with the wider and reinforced concrete structure that we see today. The second half of the 20th century saw the role of canals further decline. Saphan Han however continued to be known as a textile market while the canal became forgotten. That was until 2015.
Khlong Ong Ang Today, what’s left of specialised urban villages
We are entering a forgotten world. Craftsmen and local aunties going about their daily chores in a warren of brick walls, fainted and crumbling plaster, timber structures, laundry, Daoist symbols, electric cables and the smell of home-cooked food. It’s hard to tell where a community ends and where one begins. My guests find themselves in puzzled amazement about the intricacy of this urban web. Traders and craftsmen lived and worked in specialised micro-communities that fused into the area of Saphan Han. Today, the names of some communities only evoke some distant memory such as Trok Hua Met. This was the community of the jewellery and gold smiths but urban development dispersed these specialised communities. However, you can still find a few craftsmen deep in the bowels of Chinatown. Craftsmen such as Pee Noy who continue the craft they’ve learnt from those generations before them.
The community leader
While Trok Hua Met doesn’t have community leader anymore, Saphan Han and Khlong Ong Ang still do. There are 18 communities left in Bangkok’s Chinatown represented by community leaders. The entire city has over 2,000 urban communities and roughly 140 historic urban communities according to the National Housing Authority. Each community has a community leader who functions as the voice of the locals like Mrs. Nattawan nickname: Aum, the community leader of Khlong Ong Ang. Her ancestors arrived from China by junk and were able to set up shop on the Saphan Han bridge. Pee (*1) Aum has continued the business of her Teochew ancestors and is determined to develop her community and preserve its heritage.
(*1) Pee is a sort of title and refers to the person addressed being senior to you.
Khlong Ong Ang in 2015 – The epitome of urban chaos
Passing through Trok Hua Met and the Saphan Han community we reach Khlong Ong Ang. The moat was excavated in a circular pattern around the center of a divine capital. It symbolizes Hindu Cosmology, protecting the Palace of a King who is considered the reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Given its rich history, the canal was registered as a historical landmark with the Fine Arts Department in the 1970’s. However 30 years later you could barely notice the existence of this canal, let alone grasp its cosmological symbolism. Only by crossing one of the steel bridges you’d notice the canal. It was an ignored relict of the past and a great place to spot ‘pre-historic’ animals such as giant monitor lizards, turtles and massive pythons.
The veil of time and its own aesthetics
It was hard to fathom such a jungle exists in the middle of the city. This is how the world emerges if it’s left on its own for decades. Some people, all they see is urban decay. For me these are the organic layers of time that linger over Bangkok’s forgotten. Urban exploration gave me the opportunity to lift the veil of obscurity and uncover Bangkok’s forgotten communities. Saphan Han and the surrounding area in the early 2000’s was the epitome of the unruly yet mystical Bangkok. Pee Aum looks back with amazement on what the place used to be like. “When people visited Saphan Han, they didn’t even realize they were in Saphan Han because you couldn’t see the bridge. All the shops, crowds, plastic awnings, storage, kitchens and food stalls blocked the view even of the sky.
Bangkok’s underground Toy’R’us
Saphan Han seamlessly connected with another market called Saphan Lek. You entered the market below the bridge and were swallowed into an underground bazar. The market consisted of nearly 500 shops sitting along and on top of the canal. It was the cyberpunk version of Toys R Us and the go-to place for boys and grown men to buy game consoles, Playstations, BB-guns, drones, anime figures and other toys. That was until 2015, when the marked was evicted and the 275 million baht facelift began.
Our favourite part of Chinatown gone! What’s next?
“You wouldn’t believe it” said one of my guides. “Everything is gone, the shops, the trees, the vendors.” An important section of our walking tours had been bulldozed. I was shocked, one of my favourite places in BKK gone. Where did the people go? How would we reroute our tours?
Urban renewal and impact on the locals
Pee Aum reflects as she was one of nearly a thousand businesses impacted around Saphan Han and Saphan Lek. “Initially these changes impacted us quite a lot as we ran our businesses here since our grandparents. We were quite shocked as the space for us to sell goods was gone. ” Some lucky enough to live here simply moved business to their house; others had to relocated entirely. The eviction came in tandem with another massive eviction next door; the redevelopment of the neighbouring Woeng Nakhon Kasem Community. An entire neighbourhood switched hands for 4.6 billion baht. Like many properties it is now owned by Thailand’s second richest Tycoon Mr. Charoen. (Owner of the Chang Beer brand). This urban tourism development seemed all too well choreographed between government and private sector. Nobody knew what it would mean for the future of the local communities.
Will locals benefit from these large scale developments?
We were concerned that these developments would impact the historic communities in a negative way. Bangkok has been going through a larger struggle to secure the future of its heritage. In the past years the city administration went full steam in its campaigns against the informal nature of Bangkok. Its targets: Street markets and street food vendors but also Bangkok’s oldest communities. This included the famous Pom Mahakan community as well as century old riverine communities. We looked on in shock as the government turned the city’s most vibrant streets into “dead-zones”. It turned unique historic villages into what looked like a mini-golf course. Thus our concerns for Khlong Ong Ang were justified. It’s usually the locals that lose out when the city administration aims to beautify the city. Will this be the case for the communities around Khlong Ong Ang as well?
From top-down to bottom up?
Fortunately, we see a shift from the top-down handling of development toward a more participatory approach. This is the case of Khlong Ong Ang as well as the Skypark across the Chao Phraya River. This gives me hope that finally the locals benefit from the project and not powerful players.
Why should you visit Khlong Ong Ang?
After the eviction, people started to notice the beauty of their community. “It is this beauty we want to show the world” says Pee Aum. For years the landscape improvement didn’t bring any economic benefits for the locals. Life in the community went on as usual. “Everyone would go home by 5:00p.m. Then it would be dark and quiet” says Moss, one of the community’s young entrepreneurs. Moss turned an ancient Chinese house from warehouse usage into the community’s first hostel called Ama Hostel. This is one great example of local preservation. Moss and his family preserved the architectural heritage of the building by blending old and new. Elders referred to the alley in front of the hostel as Soi Kee Ma: Dog poop alley. Now it’s Trok Ama and one of the community’s beautiful landmarks attracting armies of Millennials. .
The impact of new gen entrepreneurs
The hostel also boasts a cafe and attracts foreigners and young Thai people alike. “Most of the entrepreneurs here are older. There’s hardly anyone in their twenties or thirties.” Moss says that people responded very positive to his hostel business. Most of the local businesses have been around for several generations but they welcome the new generation of entrepreneurs like me. We attract a new target group who also spend their money in other shops in the community. Moss believes that old places have charm and they have a story. It is this mix of old and new that will keep historic communities relevant for the new generation.
What do people regret?
Not everyone mixes old and new. Most people will usually opt for complete renewal. Pee Aum regrets that they haven’t kept any pictures of the old magnificent buildings. The houses, gates and trees were once the charm of the community. Some of it is still there and Pee Aum hopes the community will preserve the old rather than demolish it.
The future of Khlong Ong Ang
Singapore has Marina Bay, Shanghai has the bund and Bangkok has the Saphan Han Promenade. After five years of hibernation, the people of Khlong Ong Ang were finally allowed to trade along the canal. They turned Khlong Ong Ang into Bangkok’s first real promenade. This is not only a game-changer for the community but for the whole of Chinatown. Among tourists Chinatown was previously mostly known for its street food on Yaowarat Road but now it has another attraction. For Bangkok, which lacks wide open public space, this is a quite a novelty. There is even fish swimming in the water instead of floating on top of it! The confidence went so far that people paddled kayaks without fear of falling into the water and becoming the next Batman villain.
A vision from the people for the people
Mr. Suwat believes the dragon is back. “If we don’t seize the opportunity the dragon will be gone, we need to catch the dragon!” Khlong Ong Ang is one of the very few places that were born (reborn) during the pandemic. Amid the news of the country’s most vibrant places dying this was hopeful news. But who will catch the dragon? Chang Beer is said to be negotiating to buy more properties in the adjacent Trok Hua Met Community.
Will the increasing popularity of the promenade, lure more investors?
The community leader is confident that they will not be driven out by investors. “We grew up here, we are rooted here and we’re a tight knit community. We’re not going anywhere. The businesses here continue on from one generation to the next. The culture and traditions are still intact.” As with most historic communities, most of its residents are elderly. Her vision for the community is to become self-sufficient. Her plan is to put lights into the alleys and allow people to work from home. The community still has a lot of historic character, the alleyways, the old brick stone walls and wooden houses. In the future she would like to see her community become a something like the historic market in Chiang Khan.
Behind the veneer of the popular promenade
As much as I like to stroll down the promenade, enjoying the wide array of food; it’s still the back alleys with the their remaining remnants of bygone days that remain my favorite aspect of Chinatown. That’s why I have designed the routes and experiences through and about these communities, to tell their stories. I hope we can contribute in one way or another to the relevance of urban villages in Bangkok’s urban future.
What started out as a fortified line of defence, turned into a commercial hub, the epitome of Bangkok’s informal nature, a place of neglect and eventually a symbol of urban renewal. Khlong Ong Ang is the city’s aspirations to balance to embrace the future while preserving its heritage. Through the work of a committed community leader, a united community and a supporting public, the people of Khlong Ong Ang may carry forward the legacy of their merchant ancestors as the last canal front community of Chinatown.
The Khlong Ong Ang Walking street is open: Friday to Sunday from 4:00 – 10:00p.m. You can reach the Khlong Ong Ang Walking street from MRT station Sam Yod Exit 1. If you’re in Yaowarat Road, simply take bus number 1 a few stops down the road.
Bangkok-based experience designer, blogger, tour guide and hobby anthropologist.
I explore and introduce you to the places, people and ideas that matter