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Chinatown’s family-run businesses and deeply-rooted traditions have been going strong for generations, supporting a living history that helps make Bangkok such a fascinating city. Many such families were forced to relocate when dozens of heritage shophouses were demolished to make way for a subway extension in 2011 to 2013. In response, the historic Charoen Chai community opened a museum to shed light on its unique artistic heritage — and the potential development that threatens it.
Down a narrow alley off Bangkok’s oldest road, Charoen Krung, the people of Charoen Chai have handcrafted traditional Chinese joss paper products for over a century. These include the shiny gold and red envelopes used for gift-giving during Chinese lunar new year, yellow flags and food trays that mark the annual vegetarian festival, and the elaborate paper offerings that grace traditional Chinese funerals.
This now endangered art form was brought by Chinese immigrants and handed down at Charoen Chai for up to four generations. Bulging from both sides of the lane, the exquisite pieces seem a world apart from the chintzy Chinese-made products found in many of Chinatown’s markets.
But it’s not just the artistic tradition that makes Charoen Chai special. Like many corners of Chinatown, the alley is flanked by historic two-storey wooden shophouses built during the reign of King Rama V in the early 1900s. It may seem “ordinary” to some Bangkokians, but residents of these humble abodes enjoy an evocative lifestyle that you can’t put a price on.
A laidback atmosphere masks the tension that now hangs over the neighbourhood. Though most residents were born into shophouses where their parents, grandparents and even great grandparents lived and worked, they don’t own them.
Two powerful Bangkok landholders, Chomphot-Pantip Foundation and Crown Property Bureau, possess titles for most of the land near the subway extension. They long collected inexpensive rent under long-term lease agreements, but in recent years they’ve reduced lease periods from five years to one year and finally to a month-to-month basis. It would not be surprising if the Charoen Chai residents, among many others in Chinatown, were given 30 days notice to leave the homes where they’ve lived and worked for lifetimes.
Rumours have swirled about the landholders’ ultimate intentions, but some evidence has shown that they have at least speculated about constructing high-rise residential and commercial buildings in the vicinity. This area includes not only Charoen Chai but also many other heritage buildings, sacred shrines and family businesses, such as tea-sellers, coffin-makers and antique shops, and of course, some of Bangkok’s best food stalls.
Unlike the protected Rattanakosin historic district, all of Chinatown has been declared an open commercial area by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), meaning that large-scale modern developments could replace historic architecture in the coming years. A pattern of development has followed MRT and BTS (sky train) stations throughout the city. It starts with land price hikes that push long-standing communities to the margins, and ends with the high-rise condos that now define Bangkok’s skyline.
In response to this precarious situation, residents formed the Charoen Chai Conservation and Rehabilitation group in late 2010. Though a request to overturn Chinatown’s status as a development area was overturned by the BMA, and a petition to declare Charoen Chai a historic landmark is unlikely to pass, the group has been successful in — at the very least least — prolonging/complicating potential development plans.
The most tangible expression of the community taking a stand for its heritage came when Baan Kao Lao Ruang, or “Historic Hut”, was created in 2011. Set in a century-old wooden shophouse that was once home to a traditional Chinese opera troupe, the museum includes displays on Chinese joss paper craftsmanship, traditional Chinese wears, lanterns and umbrellas, vintage antiques, old black-and-white photos of the area, and portraits of prominent community members from years past.
The museum may be small, but it sheds much-needed light on the long, rich history of Charoen Chai. Volunteers hope that it will catch on as a tourist attraction, and thus provide backing to the community’s argument for preservation. All visitors are asked to sign a guestbook, and while no entry fee is charged, donations go towards the conservation group’s ongoing work.
A visit to Charoen Chai offers a rare glimpse into a compelling and historic community. Pork slow-roasts over charcoal stoves, residents patiently piece paper lanterns together, an elderly woman lays out rice for a dog, and traditional Chinese music hums softly from the corner of a shophouse. Travellers who appreciate “authentic” art, culture and history should not miss Charoen Chai.
On the doorstep, cranes crack into 10-year-old pavement, debris lines the footpaths, dust forces food shops to shutter, and residents who lacked the status and financial means to make a stand have been pushed aside like ants in a dirt pile. Because they held no ownership, no compensation has been offered to former residents who left houses where the echoes of grandparents are now drowned out by jackhammers.
In many ways, what unfolds at Charoen Chai over the next decade may foretell the wider future of Bangkok. Will the city allow its rich heritage to be chewed up by the grinding teeth of modernisation, or will it streamline public transport while also protecting historic architecture and century-old traditions? If the Charoen Chai community is replaced by a condominium, it will be a shameful day for Bangkok.
How to get there
Charoen Chai is located down Charoen Krung Soi 23 on the north side of Charoen Krung Road. At time of writing, it's best to get here via Soi Plaeng Nam or Yaowarat Soi 6 from Yaowarat Road, as walking through the construction site on Charoen Krung can be arduous. To reach the museum, simply walk down Soi 23, take a left at the end, walk a few paces and look for the museum's nondescript frontage at room number 32. After taking some photos and sharing smiles with the residents, be sure to sample melt-in-the-mouth ba mee jap gang (coolie noodles), another of Charoen Chai's humble claims to fame.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 15th May, 2014.