Developers are threatening the future of Chinatown's Charoen Chai neighbourhood, bastion of traditional Sino-Thai culture
Sujitra Assavavirairat always remembers her mother returning home with heaps of joss paper whenever she came back from a shopping trip to the nearby Charoen Chai community.
Like many other Thai-Chinese, her mother would go to the decades-old community in Chinatown to look for necessary materials for use in Chinese festivals such as the Mooncake Festival or the Chinese New Year.
Charoen Chai, a community hidden in small soi off Charoen Krung Road, is an old-time "department store" where people came for traditional materials in their own neighbourhood. Known as a major wholesale/retail joss paper market, Charoen Chai is the place where ethnic Chinese shop for paper lanterns, red table mats embroidered with golden dragons, not to mention daily specialities sold in the vending carts.
The community created the famed ba-mee jabkang, extra large bowls of egg noodles, which have become quite an attraction.
But the future of the decades-old community, occupied by ethnic Chinese descendants, some fourth generation, is now uncertain.
The uncertainty comes with development _ which is heralded by the construction of the MRT's blue-line underground train that links this old-town quarter to Thon Buri.
The underground project that is penetrating into the Chinatown community under Charoen Krung Road has the two landlords of the community, the Chumbhot-Pantip Foundation and the Crown Property Bureau, reconsidering land use, turning the old sleepy community into an area with a modern infrastructure and bustling economic activities.
It is a repeated pattern _ the development is followed by land price hikes, and rises in the rental fees; and the old community and traditional culture is under threat, though not directly from the underground project but the so-called development that follows the project.
"The subway doesn't always guarantee lighter traffic," said Chatchai Termteerapoj, a tenant and member of the Charoen Chai Conservation and Rehabilitation group, who grew up in the neighbourhood.
The group was formed in late 2010 in an effort to preserve their nearly century-old residence and the culture inherited from their ancestors who migrated from the Middle Kingdom and settled in Chinatown during the early Rattanakosin era. Baan Kao Lao Rueng, a local museum displaying bygone items and artefacts of traditional Chinese livelihoods, was opened last September.
But the subway, the group foresaw, guarantees to change _ or to threaten _ the traditional lifestyle, culture and architecture in the neighbourhood.
Some decades-old shophouses on four-lane Charoen Krung Road are being demolished to pave way for the future Wat Mangkon station exits.
The community first sensed the uncertainty when the Chumbhot-Pantip Foundation discontinued the leasing contracts, starting with shortening the lease term from three years to two and eventually one year, about five years ago. Now the foundation collects the rent on a monthly basis, triggering fears of eviction.
The community, however, isn't experiencing the development impact alone. Two huge plots of land sandwiching the station are being threatened with possible eviction by the landlords.
The upper plot facing Plabphla Chai Road is occupied by the Charoen Chai community and the lower one facing Plaeng Nam Road by The Crown Property Bureau. Another 60-year-old row of shop-houses adjacent to Wat Mangkorn Kamalawas has been leased out to a property developer which is seeking to turn it into a shopping centre-cum-apartment block.
Although the Chumbhot-Pantip Foundation has not confirmed any property development plan, foundation chairman and Bangkok Governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra told the Bangkok Post that the plot will soon be ''developed'' once the MRT construction begins. A rough plan is to mix shophouses in the front row by the main road and a high building behind.
Once the subway construction begins, the barricade surrounding the site will automatically isolate the neighbourhood, making it impossible for the community to survive commercially.
Development research is being conducted by Chinatown Community Development Co Ltd _ a project supported by the foundation and the Crown Property Bureau _ to create ''community participation'' to reduce the impact of the construction of the blue-line subway.
According to MR Sukhumbhand, the foundation will give priority to old tenants to rent the new structure.
Under the town plan, Chinatown is now a designated commercial zone where buildings as high as 37m, which is approximately 12 storeys, can now be constructed.
The subway, according to the developers, will make the area suitable for large-scale accommodation, up to 80-room hotels, in the 500m radius from its exits.
Yongtanit Pimonsathean, conservationist and architecture lecturer at Thammasat University, voiced his concerns over vanishing old communities in Bangkok, following developments like the subway project, in the absence of cautious planning by the government.
According to a map by the Survey Department, this old architecture which features Western-style buildings has existed since 1921. Most of the block shows signs of wear and tear such as peeling exterior paint work and improper modification and repair. It wasn't until 2010 that the Charoen Chai conservation group convinced some tenants to improve the structure, to show their determination to stay on _ to conserve not only the historical structure, but their traditions and businesses.
The group has come up with a proposal _ a new leasing fee reasonably increased in every renewed contract and to help the landlord to maintain and improve the building and environs. The group has successfully encouraged some tenants to improve the buildings' exterior.
''This isn't just historical ruins, it's a living history,'' said Yongtanit.
Tiamsoon Sirisrisak, an academic from Mahidol University's Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, who has worked with the Charoen Chai conservation group, concurs.
''If we keep demolishing old buildings, where will we find the cultural resources in the future?''
In his opinion, these cultural resources are potential capital that is necessary to promote tourism.
He questioned the priority to be given the old tenants to rent a room in the new building.
''It isn't an option,'' he said. There is more than just the nearly century-old architecture to preserve in the community. If these old buildings are demolished, the people will go; so will the lifestyle and culture.
''And that is irreplaceable,'' said Tiamsoon.
Additional reporting by Supoj Wancharoen.
A pitch for preserving historical landmarks
It is possible to preserve historical architecture, but for that to become the norm you need a new mindset and favourable laws.
In fact, to preserve or not to preserve historical architecture isn't the main issue for some academics. What really matters is the public should know its role and become more active on the issue of upkeep of ancient buildings and landmarks and not leave them to rot and fade into history, which is tantamount to society losing its identity bit by bit.
"Ancient architecture is a cultural heritage of the nation, so it's the birth right of all Thais to have a say in the way it is handled," said Tiamsoon Sirisrisak of the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia at Mahidol University.
If the public feels a particular historical structure is too valuable to be lost, said Tiamsoon, the government must step in to make sure it doesn't go under, even if it is private property, and even if it means paying some sort of compensation to owners, or a subsidy, for lost business opportunity.
The Na Phra Lan block of buildings next to Silpakorn University is a case in point. Unesco-registered and owned by the Crown Property Bureau, it recently underwent a major facelift the cost of which was shared; 25% by its tenants and the rest by the government.
Conservationist and Thammasat University lecturer in the field of architecture Yongtanit Pimonsathean wishes to see a cooperation pattern on similar lines in other cases. That way, the Charoen Chai community will have a chance to survive.
Yongtanit, who also sits on the Thai National Human Rights Commission, complained of outdated laws he said were impeding efforts to extend protection to ancient landmarks and buildings.
He advocates rehabilitation tax credits, as practiced in many developed countries, where property owners can deduct renovation expenses from income tax they pay the government.
Another option, he suggested, is for the Fine Arts Department to declare the Charoen Chai block an unregistered monument and let the public decide if the architecture is worth preserving.
A third solution, currently under review and due for release later this year, is to reclassify some plots in Chinatown, designated commercial in the town plan, into conservation areas, said Yongtanit.
In Chinatown alone there are about 20 areas worth conserving in terms of historical architecture and cultural heritage.
By Sirinya Wattanasukchai
02 July 2012
Famed for its joss paper and other items for Chinese festivals, Charoen Chai community which has served as an old-time department store for the neighbourhood’s grandparents for decades is now under threat from developers.