29 May Explore the origins of the world’s greatest Chinatown
What’s so special about Bangkok’s Chinatown?
Throughout nearly 18 years of exploring the chaotic and intricate sprawl of Bangkok’s neighbourhoods, Chinatown has been the most fascinating and authentic part of the city. The labyrinth of alleys, the life and the stories of the city that unfold when you venture off the main road sparked my passion for urban exploration. It is in Chinatown where I can still discover the different layers of Bangkok’s evolution which have disappeared elsewhere in the city.
The city of people, the city of ideas.
Cities are made by people. It’s their history, culture and stories that give the color and complexity to urban life and it’s their stories, struggles and aspirations that affect the way I explore Bangkok. Chinatown exemplifies not only Bangkok’s vibrant entrepreneurial energy and creativity but also the struggle between preserving the past and embracing the future. Neighbourhoods against real estate developers, citizens against the bureaucratic idea of a civilised city and not last humans against micro-biology.
Support underrepresented historic communities
You can always explore the city’s attractions but once you’re done with the bucket list you may want to get a different perspective of what makes Bangkok tick. Bangkok is a city of villages. The urban village of which Bangkok has more than 2,000, 140 of these are historic urban communities, divided into five different types according to the National Housing Authority of Thailand. These are: floating houses, waterfront houses, shop houses, urban villages and market communities. In our Chinatown series we will begin with shop houses and urban villages. It is here where we need to shine some light so that you can wander, explore, experience wonderful food places, wind down and spend your money where it’s most needed.
I will begin my community portraits in Chinatown’s historic core and birthplace known as Sampeng. I will take you on a journey through the beginnings of the world’s largest Chinese diaspora and provide you with information about people and places to visit and try. Each person is linked to a special story both in written form or as a Youtube video to learn about their world. I will update the blog from time to time with additional stories and hope you’ll enjoy this journey to Sampeng and neighbouring Song Wat Road.
Thailand’s first gateway
The scream of the engine was pierced by the sharp whistle blows that stretched the tolerance of my eardrums but were meant for the driver of the River Express boat, signaling him to slow down as we reached the Ratchawong Pier. A journey along the river is one of the highlights in Bangkok. The city’s oldest communities are located along the riverbank as well as along the many canals of Bangkok especially on the Thonburi side (west side of the river).
Bangkok’s transition from an amphibian to a land-based city in the late 19th century however did not reduce the importance of the Chao Phraya river. Though the role of the Ratchawong Pier has been degraded from Thailand’s gateway to the world to be a nondescript public pier 160 years later. Only a few rotten stumps remind you of the landings that once served the immense flotilla of Chinese junks, coastal steamers and fresh water crafts at Sempeng’s river front. Here we hop from water to land to begin our walk.
Link to the world.
The 1850’s saw the introduction of Western capitalism and technological innovations and the tycoons of Sampeng didn’t want to stay behind. They upgraded their fleets from traditional junks to steamships. Thailand opened its first passenger steamship service in 1858 linking Bangkok to Singapore and in 1861 to Hong Kong. Ratchawong Pier was to Bangkok what Suvarnabhumi airport is to Thailand today. The days came to an end when the fate of migrants depended on where the monsoon winds would carry their junks. This was a quantum leap in Thailand’s development and the origins are right under my feet as I get off the boat.
The horse buses, trishaws, rickshaws and trams that once served people disembarking at Ratchawong Pier to reach Yaowarat Road or other neighbourhoods are gone. Instead you have the option to haggle with Tuk Tuks and motorbike taxis but Sampeng and Song Wat can be reached on foot as the pier sits in the center of Chinatown’s riverfront. From here you can either cross the river to explore the Thonburi side or turn right to explore Song Wat Road and further down the Talad Noi community. Go straight for Sampeng lane and Yaowarat Road and to the left you’ll reach the Saphan Han, Khlong Ong Ang and Trok Hua Met Communities. We’re heading toward Song Wat. Nowhere else in Bangkok will I get a sense of Bangkok’s bygone days in such a condensed way, prompting me to return time and again with a mission to discover more remnants of ancient Bangkok while also tracking down great food and places to show my guests.
What do locals often think?
I’d get puzzled yet amused looks from locals, spotting me ‘the lost foreigner’ in the back alleys. What was he doing here? What’s here to see? It’s old, it’s ugly they would say. Unfortunately they don’t see much value in their own neighborhoods. It seems that people are conditioned to see the grand spectacles of tourism, the palaces, temples and mega malls as the epitomes Bangkok. This broken self-confidence makes it hard for locals to fathom that a foreigner pays more attention to the living history and beauty of the ordinary that their communities represent. However after a conversation I’m often successful in having them see the beauty of their own places.
What is Sampeng?
Sampeng Lane itself is less of a historic residential community but a nearly one and half kilometer long market alley where you’ll be rubbing shoulders with roughly 350,000 daily shopaholics (pre-Covid). If you’re on Sampeng Lane itself, you’ll be hard pressed to find any serene nostalgia of Bangkok’s heritage instead you’re in for a relentless shopping experience. My interest lays in the more quiet hinter-alleys between Sampeng and Song Wat Road. Song Wat was built much later along with most of Chinatown’s street network after King Rama V was shocked by the conditions he saw in Sampeng during a merit making journey to the Wat Ko temple.
The birth of Sampeng
Hence, Bangkokians equate Sampeng not only with Chinatown but with shopping. Little do people know about the humble beginnings of Sampeng as an elephant trail linking the Royal Palace district with the ancient Sampeng temple (that’s where Sampeng derives its name from among two other theories). Prisoners bound for execution were transported through Sampeng to the execution grounds near the temple. The traces of the method of execution (for nobles and members of the royal family) can still be seen on the temple grounds.
I’m roaming the area between Sampeng and the river to which the Teochew Chinese were relocated in 1782 by the newly installed Chakri dynasty to make way for the Grand Palace. They were given this inhospitable tract of land enclosed by five Thai Buddhist temples to the West and East as a physical boundaries.
“Thailand is the only country where a Chinese can become King and is also the only country where he loses his identity.”
According to my friend K. Somchai, they constructed a fort to protect themselves. There are no traces of a fort or an elephant trail. The only structures that passed the test of time, the fires and transformations of Chinatown are the oldest communal shrines of area. The signage of a shrine, some ornaments or statues may reveal the approximate age. Some had been brought over from their dismantled shrines when they relocated, other elements may have arrived on junks from China.
Here those first settlers created the same social conditions from their previous settlement by setting up these shrines are their communal centres, as places of worship, to perform rituals, stage firework and Chinese opera, to sponsor Chinese weddings and funerals, welcome distinguished visitors, distribute charity to the poor and to administer justice within their community.
Exploring upwards, the Guardians of Sampeng
The wood creaked under our feet as we ventured up the red staircase to the Pun Thao Kong shrine. Hidden on a third floor of an old building, this Daoist shrine is among a handful of communal shrines that constitute the nucleus of Chinatown’s first settlements.
The old fan rattles and incense perfumes the air when the occasional visitor arrives to pay homage to Pun Thao. Pun Thao means Basic Leader. He looks after the people in his community, in particular for the sea-faring people of southern China who have been migrating to distant lands for more than 2,000 years. Coming to foreign land without protection by neither the Chinese nor the local government, they needed protection. This was a priority besides health, happiness and prosperity.
To understand the cultural landscape of Chinatown, one needs to look at three major belief systems: Daoism, Confucianism and Mahayana Buddhism. There are at least 25 major shrines and 7 Mahayana Buddhist temples that serve as the social, cultural and spiritual centers of Chinatown’s population. Pun Thao became an essential part of communal shrines in every neighbourhood and every Thai province with a Chinese presence, either as the main or as a minor deity besides other heavy weights of Chinese mythology such as Guan Yu, Jao Mae Tub Tim or Jao Mae Kwan Im.
Sampeng’s growth – from fort to Bangkok’s leading business district.
Throughout the 19th century the Sampeng developed into a major port district as new groups of migrants arrived from places like Guang Dong, Kwang Tung and Fujian, first by Chinese junk and later by steamship. King Rama V made it a state policy to recruit impoverished immigrants from China to fuel the construction boom with the expansion of Siam’s road and railway network. With the growth of the economy and expanding steamship services, the influx of migrants grew to be 75% of Bangkok’s population in 1900 with half of those from China.
Chinese is not equal Chinese
Each arriving group belonged to a different dialect group. They set up their communities and shrines in strategic locations. While only the Hokkien and Teochew settled in Bangkok during early stages and prior, new groups of Chinese immigrants such as Hakka, Hailam and Cantonese joined the ranks. Settling in outlying communities around Sampeng, they would always seek out and join fellow clansmen.
Each Chinese dialect group had their own traits, occupational specialisation and reputation and they all stood in fierce competition with each other. The Teochew were known as sea-faring renegades, smugglers and adventurers and they constituted the vast majority in Sampeng. I see the advantages of such diversity as I explore the bowels of Chinatown since each group brought with them their own methods of cooking and cuisines.
If I had explored Sampeng 140 years ago
My guests usually comment on how clean Bangkok and even the alleys actually are. They imagined much worse. 100 years ago however they might had agreed with the description of Western observers describing Sampeng as an overcrowded squalor and a hotbed for gambling, prostitution and opium controlled by Secret societies.
Moving from one community to the next could have brought us into trouble as we strangers moved into territories controlled by the Ang Yi or secret societies. Since there was no formal leader among the Chinese of Sampeng, these brotherhoods became an important part of overseas Chinese life, partially filling the social service vacuum in their communities and competing for influence and power. This form of self-governance was the result of the neglect by the Thai state. The Thai government only appointed so-called Shabandars who were ethnically kindred governors who served under the ministry of Trade and foreign affairs and who were in charge for law and order among Bangkok’s Chinese residents. Nine of the ten governors were Hokkien and one Hakka living outside of Sampeng and who were in charge over the majority Teochew population. Hence, these Shabandars virtually had no authority over the Teochew Chinese in Sampeng and leadership was taken over by the Ang Yi or secret societies. If I had been robbed while exploring the alleys, where would I have turned? Where would I find the leaders of secret societies? Maybe in one of the aforementioned shrines, as these did not only function centers of communal activities, rituals and worship but also has secret gathering points of the Ang Yi.
The shittiest business in history
Public utilities were rare, fires frequent and the need for lavatories urgent. Only the wealthiest in the community could afford the privacy of using a bucket or chamber pot at home to “do their business”. Ordinary folks used their gardens and orchards but good luck finding a garden in Sampeng! The naked butts of port workers and coolies squatting over the jetties were such a common sight that Sampeng’s waterfront became synonymous with going to the toilet. Even today, some elderly recall people saying going to Kongsi Long (going to the loo). Resourceful entrepreneurs took the opportunity and collected the feces from the homes and sold them as fertilizer to the farmers.
I sneak back to Song Wat Road along meandering alleys whose intricate patterns are the legacy of old Sampeng. Toilet spots and fire exits remain in the subconscious mind. The intricate details of communal shrines, shops, food, crafts and small details gracing the front doors of homes are still relics of the past. Here and there I spot an old timber structure, sometimes built on the ruins of Chinese style mansion but most of the wooden structures have long been replaced by buildings with a questionable taste. Gone is the aroma coming from the drains running on the side of the alleys and gone are the wooden planks helping you to cross a muddy quagmire. Today alleys are exciting and mysterious shortcuts into micro communities that had been left forgotten, preserved, yet sometimes in poor condition. Too narrow, too inconvenient, too difficult to park your car let alone move any large construction machinery to develop a large project.
Fighting the chaos
Chinatown defies the government’s ambition for a modern urban makeover based on the premises of safe, clean and convenient (and may I add – boring). Of course I agree that ‘safe, clean and convenient’ improves the quality of urban life but instead of a one size fits all, it should be applied based on the attributes, heritage and urban character of Bangkok’s historic districts and on the needs of the people.
I reach Song Wat Road. Basically Song Wat means “Drawing of the King” King Chulalongkorn drew a line on a map, running parallel to the river. Voila, Song Wat Road was born. Song Wat is the neighborhood where the Chinese made it from ‘one pillow – one mat’ (a term called for immigrants arriving with nothing) to the Fortune 500 list.
Song Wat is the epitome of Chulalongkorn’s era who applied a British model of urban development studied by his ministers in Singapore to reign in the chaos of Sampeng. He improved the transport infrastructure to ease the flow of passengers and goods between the river and the inner city. Roads wider than 10 meters served as fire breaks. The Singaporification of Bangkok did not start with the construction of shopping malls but with the construction of streets and the introduction of Sino-Portuguese shophouses lining them. Song Wat Road probably has the highest number of stately colonial buildings in Bangkok and it’s close to the river which makes it an excellent space to wind down with a riverview.
The keepers of Song Wat
“It has become quiet, most people either passed away or moved away and much of the solidarity and social cohesion is gone too. In the past everyone in the community treated each other as relatives”K. Wichien
Pee Wichien finishes up, making the last round of Bao (Salapao in Thai) – Chinese steamed buns for the day. He is among the last ones to make his Teochew style buns from his ancestral home in a 120 + year old steamer. His workshop is tucked in one of Song Wat’s alleys and known as the house of ten rooms. (in ancestors generation, many family shared the tiniest of living space to the point where they had to take turns to sleep)
Khun Wichien grew up here, he was born right above the Bao workshop. He tells me about the notorious alleys, bearing names such as the suicide alley or Trok Pee Dip the zombie alley, an allusion to the heroine addiction that haunted the neighborhood back in the days.
Song Wat became much quieter after the port was relocated to Khlong Toey in 1947 but the ancestral shophouses of some of Thailand’s biggest conglomerates are still around. Traders are still operating the beautiful colonial shop-houses, selling seeds, spices, herbs, ropes and barrels, reminiscent of the area’s identity as a port. Steamed bun makers like Pee Wichien are still around albeit in much smaller numbers. Their craft is part of the area’s heritage, a very tasty heritage indeed.
And then there are those neighborhood food joints where people from all walks of life mingle and enjoy delicious and affordable food such as Guay Jub – traditional Chinese rolled rice noodles. Pee Lek and her family have been serving Guay Jub for more than 60 years. Like Pee Wichien she describes the relationships with her customers as being close like family members. Pun Thao would be proud of Pee Wichien and Pee Lek who continue the traditional business of their families in the second or third generation. While Chinatown is know, it’s main hub Yaowarat Road has adapted to the tastes of international tourists while Pee Wichien and Pee Lek represent two excellent examples of traditional no frill Teochew food. I call them keepers. They are two of the human faces that are part of Chinatown’s original social and cultural fabric.
Song Wat and the new generation
With a full stomach I make my way to Wat Pathum Khong Kha, the Execution Temple, to see some heads rolling. Na ok, maybe just watching the sunset and let the impressions sink in. The grounds of the temple harbor not only home of the remnants of the dead but also the locality of one of Bangkok’s most beautiful boutique hotels.
Everyone said: “You can’t do a hotel inside a temple compound!” My family disagrees with me, even today. They say I can’t run a hotel in a neighborhood like that because it’s not beautiful. Who will come? Nobody will support you but I thought “why not?” I didn’t care.K. Saravuth
The river, the place where it all began, the journey of my great grandfather, the secret societies, the magnates, the keepers, the vendors and the brave new entrepreneurs like Saravuth and it’s here where I end my journey with you. Like the name of the hotel: Loy La Long means to freely float, the same way I freely wander, observe, engage with people, learn and document the past, present and future of one the world’s most diverse cities.
Bangkok-based experience designer, blogger, tour guide and hobby anthropologist. Founder of bangkokvanguards and Hyperlocal.
I’m exploring and bridging my Asian and Western roots by exploring and introducing you the places, people and ideas that matter and connecting them to experiences and projects around culture and sustainable development.