Sep 11 2012
As of September 11, the remaining century-old houses in Bangkok’s historic Amphawa that were slated to be levelled on August 31 remain untouched, and virtually all construction at the site has been stalled. According to the Bangkok Post, jewellery tycoon turned hotelier Chuchai Chairittelert shed tears while admitting his large-scale project was wrong during a September 4 meeting with town residents and officials. At first glance, it seems a triumph for those who protested on August 29, laying roses on the doorsteps of the thought-to-be doomed homes, but in reality, the situation remains sticky.
Before his change of heart, Channel 9 ran footage of Chuchai and a few of his colleagues vehemently defending the project on the very same doorsteps in the wake of the demonstration; it was a surprise, therefore, when Chuchai offered to spare the remaining houses and scale back the project in whatever way suited the community. On the 11 teak houses that lie in the path of the original hotel blueprints, Chuchai reportedly said, “I can’t demolish (the houses) as they are national treasures.”
Yet representatives from Monrak Mae Klong, a local magazine turned activist group which has been instrumental in rallying support against the project, claim that there’s more to the story than what meets the eye. According to them, the construction company hired to build the hotel has recently pulled out of the project due to understandable fears that it could have adverse effects on the company’s reputation. As phase 2 of the project looks as though it may never happen, it seems nearly certain that the already built frame of phase 1 will remain just that — an imposing concrete skeleton — for an indefinite amount of time.
Few if any contractors are witless enough to be involved in such a hotly debated demolition project, so many feel the remaining houses would not have been destroyed unless Chuchai literally did it himself. Critics believe that only after the project came apart from the inside out did Chuchai play out a sudden ‘stroke of goodwill’ in an effort to save face. It appears the pressure mounted by activists and the media had the desired effect, but was it too little too late?
Chuchai is still the sole owner of the canal-side houses in question and the land on which they sit, and one can only speculate about what will ultimately be the fate of the structures. Perhaps they’ll be incorporated into a new hotel design, perhaps they’ll be rented out to residents once again, or possibly they’ll be quietly taken down as originally planned at a later date.
One thing is for sure: the residents who lived there for years have already moved on. Even if Chuchai were to invite them back, they’ve already gone through the arduous task of moving house and most have committed to new rental contracts elsewhere. The fact that their old homes have suddenly been saved — but their right to live in them still taken away — may only add to the frustrations.
For developers, the houses have become an obstacle to their vision. For activists, they represent a greater ideal of preserving Thai heritage. Yet for former residents, they were the intimate space where daily meals were eaten and children grew up. Chuchai has — for now at least — stopped the knife from going deeper, but this doesn’t heal the wounds that have already been made.
At best, what’s happened at Amphawa will set a stark precedent for other tourist destinations and developers to fall back on when considering projects that might damage an area’s heritage and environment. At the least, it’s already been a learning experience for Amphawa itself, which will hopefully cause the town to make preservation, and not fast money, its number one priority.
An exhibition of works composed by local artists during the August 29 demonstration is set to run as planned at Chaipattana Foundation headquarters near the floating market in Amphawa on Saturday, September 15, getting underway at 10:00. Subsequent exhibitions in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand are planned during the coming months.
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