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Tea Leaves

For Thais, nostalgia isn't what it used to be

In Bangkok, rapid development has triggered longing for the vanished past

Bangkok's Ong Ang Canal, once a hub for illegal electronics and junk vendors, has been transformed with colorful street art and a weekend flea market in the city's historic quarters. (Photo by Yukako Ono).

In my Bangkok neighborhood there is a luxurious shopping mall that has been largely empty since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Thailand in early 2020, sweeping away big-spending foreign tourists. Strolling there recently, though, I came across a corner that was bustling with local office workers.

It was an average weekday and lunchtime queues were forming at two restaurants. One was at Thong Smith, which serves boat noodles -- a traditional noodle bowl with spicy broth that was once sold from boats -- and the other was outside its adjacent sister cafe Thong Sweet, which specializes in Thai desserts.

Seated in Thong Smith, my first thought was that its retro interior -- concrete walls, wooden window panels and an open kitchen that resembles a traditional town house -- would make a perfect backdrop for a social media photo. Assuming that I was Thai, the waiter handed me an order form written in the national language, instead of the English version usually given to foreigners. Tackling the words with a translation app, I felt as if I had wandered into a decades-old traditional food stall.

Yet it has only been two years since Thong Smith opened its first branch, and the four founders are still in their early 40s. "For many Thais, boat noodles and cozy wooden town houses evoke childhood memories," says Karn Kittivech, one of the founders. "We wanted to capture that feeling but at the same time elevate the food so it doesn't become another typical boat noodle."

Unlike conventional noodle dishes, Thong Smith's version has a complex but strong taste, so that customers do not have to add fish sauce and chili powder. Premium toppings such as Australian wagyu beef cater to the sophisticated tastes of Bangkok urbanites. Prices for beef noodles start from 149 baht ($4.90), plus a 10% service charge, which is three times the price of noodles sold on the streets.

While many fine-dining or authentic Thai restaurants are struggling in the absence of foreign tourists, Thong Smith and similar modern-touch Thai street food outlets are seeing a quick recovery thanks to a strong local customer base. "Street food has possibly become a trend in 2020," says Karn. Thong Smith has launched three new stores in 2020 and is planning to add two more outlets soon.

The national flag carrier Thai Airways, which went bankrupt amid the pandemic and is now in rehabilitation, is also riding the trend by selling patonggo (Thai style doughnuts) -- a dish previously served as in-flight meals. The airline's take on the dish includes a sweet-potato sauce in the company's signature purple, and costs around twice the usual street price.

"I was curious about how the taste of my childhood was recreated," says a Thai friend who queued for nearly an hour to buy three boxes of Thai Airways' patonggo for work colleagues. "Buying Thai sweets from a Thai company makes me feel proud and helpful in a difficult time like this."

This, it seems, is a common sentiment. "When their lives are disrupted, people pine for the good old days. Consuming foods that are symbols of the past, such as the patonggo, is one way to do so," says Damrongphon Inchan, head of the anthropology department at Bangkok's Silpakorn University.

Jazz music along the Ong Ang Canal. (Photo by Yukako Ono).

The national disruption caused by the pandemic is unlikely to ease soon. Many provinces are facing a possible second lockdown due to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, which could stop people seeing their families over the holiday period. But the nostalgia trend is not solely a consequence of the pandemic.

In 2018, for example, a soap opera featuring a history student who travels back three centuries to the time of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, became a huge hit. Young Thais dressed in traditional Thai costumes and flocked to the ruins in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya to take photos.

"Thainess" became something stylish rather than old. Cafes re-creating traditional sweets into Instagrammable treats became popular, while many classic town houses were renovated into hip retro bars and new eateries. Even after the drama boom peaked, people seem to be appreciating Thainess more than before.

"Having traveled abroad to places like Europe and Japan with beautiful cultures and histories has made me rethink and appreciate about preserving my own culture," says a Thai friend in her early 30s. Recently, taking advantage of fewer tourists, she rode a traditional tuk-tuk (three-wheeled taxi) for the first time since she was a student and posted pictures of the event on Instagram. "It was fun. I felt I rediscovered something that I can only experience in my country," she says.

Bangkok has undergone rapid urbanization in the past two decades. For me, as an expatriate resident for nearly six years, it has made life here more like being at home in Tokyo. But seeing the city lose some of its historic charms has been a little sad. Many of the iconic street food stalls that used to line the pavements have been cleared, while old town houses have been replaced by high-rise condominiums or shopping malls that house Western coffee chains and Japanese restaurants.

Sitting on the recently reopened bank of Bangkok's Ong Ang Canal, my nostalgic feelings were stirred by a group of schoolboys playing a classic jazz number.

The canal environment, once a hub for illegal electronics and junk vendors, has been transformed into a pedestrianized street with colorful street art and a weekend flea market in the city's historic quarters. Watching the crowd swaying rhythmically to the jazz, it seemed to me that the trend for mixing old and new is a signal that many Thais share my feelings.

Yukako Ono is a Nikkei contributing writer.

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