Leader of Chinatown's last waterfront community | bangkokvanguards
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Leader of Chinatown’s last waterfront community

Khun Ratthawan Chaladchuenchom is the community leader of the Khlong Ong Ang community which is one of Bangkok’s oldest landmarks and is going through an incredible transformation. Khun Nattawan shares her thoughts with us about the past, present and future of Chinatown’s last waterfront community. 

I’m half Chinese. My father is Teochew and my mother is Thai. I was born and I grew up here in the Khlong Ong Ang Community. My grandparents arrived here from China by junk. They settled here and were able to secure a space to sell things on the Saphan Han Bridge. The business has been passed on from generation to generation, all the way to the granddaughter – me.

Saphan Han Bridge late 19th century version

Khlong Ong Ang is a very old community and it connects with Saphan Han. Most people know the area as Saphan Han (swivel bridge). The canal and the bridge have existed since the reign of King Rama I (1782). Saphan Han means swing bridge. The bridge can swing to one side to allow boats to pass. Over time the bridge changed its designs many times until the current reinforced concrete version which was constructed in 1962.

Khun Ratthawan standing on the famous Saphan Han bridge. five years ago, you weren’t even aware there was a bridge for all the stalls and shops blocking the view.

In the early days, many landings and wooden houses lined the canal. Traders from everywhere came here to exchange everything from rice to coal and things we use on a day to day basis. Especially earthenware and pottery down at the mouth of the canal. The goods that were traded here changed over time, from one era to the next from grandparents to my parents and now me. Back in the days we set up shops next to each other along the entire canal. I used to sell clothes on the bridge most people sell textiles, cosmetics and ladies items. The bridge was completely covered in plastic awnings. Those who came to visit Saphan Han didn’t even notice that it was Saphan Han. When you crossed the canal you weren’t aware there was a canal. Everything was built up and covered. 

Khlong Ong Ang before the restoration. One of Bangkok’s historic landmarks after decades of neglect and encroachment of makeshift shops and storage facilities. Space for many local businesses and a paradise for urban explorers.

But then the government wanted to beautify the area and ordered the demolition of the market. Most of the vendors were people from here who fortunately have their homes here too. Now they sell along their houses such as the Chinese Chives shop which used to sell on the bridge but moved behind the house. Others had to move elsewhere. 

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. However when we saw the area after the eviction we thought that our community is actually very beautiful and we want to show this beauty to the world.

Urban rejuvenation. After an initial shock, many historic buildings came to the fore.

But there are still challenges. After the municipality launched the Saphan Han walking street, we locals joined hands to get the market up and running. We want our community to prosper and we contacted the district office to get permission to develop not only the area along the canal for trading but in front of our houses too, just like the historic market in Chiang Khan. We want to install lights so you can explore the alleys and buy and try things so that people inside the community can be self-sufficient and don’t need to find jobs outside. I think it will be like that in the future. 

Building self-sufficiency of a community of mostly elderly by allowing them to sell from their homes.

As a community leader I’m a representative of the locals in this community. I forward their voices to the authorities to let the officials know that we need to develop or improve. Every month we have meetings with the district office and whatever we want to do, we need their approval. My job is to represent the locals and take care of them when there are any urgent issues or needs. 

It’s a challenge but I like the challenge because I want to get the job done to make the community better. So the challenge is whether I can do it or not. It’s not a stressful job because I know the people here. I have been in this position for about a year but I was already part of the committee before taking over the responsibility. The neighbors suggested I should become the community leader since the previous leader’s health wasn’t good. So, I took over and continued working with the locals and I know what needs to be done. 

Speaking the same language. Trust between locals and their representative instead of dealing with bureaucrats directly.

On the other side of the canal is the Phra Nakhon district. It’s a different district. There is no community on that side of the canal hence government officials have to talk directly with the locals. Often locals don’t like it when they are ordered to do this or that and often they don’t really understand the language of bureaucrats. 

There are 18 communities in the Saphan Thawong district and I know all the community leaders. We meet every month and discuss our communal problems and prepare our communications with the district office. 

Since we are a historic community of roughly 300 people, there are many elderly here. It would be good if people could work from home. That’s our need, we want the community to develop and we want the community to have income. I’m not afraid of outsiders to come and push us out. We’re a very tight-knit community with a strong connection to our place and we don’t want to go anywhere.

The old architecture of Chinatown’s canal community after the canal rehabilitation project.

A good example of development in Chinatown is Talad Noi. They have street art like our walking street. Their buildings are creatively enhanced to attract tourists. Yaowarat is another style. It’s very dynamic and there is a lot of business. Our community is more relaxed. When people come here they feel a bit of nature, they see the canal, they can paddle the boat and now there is even a lot of fish from the Chao phraya River.

Saphan Han and Khlong OngAng in 2021.

There are still ancient brick buildings in the alleys which are one of the characteristics of the community and then there is food which has been sold since our grandparent’s generation. I welcome everyone to visit and experience the charme of our community.

Khun Ratthawan, one of 18 community leaders in Chinatown is here to get the job done to make her community better.

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