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Tea Leaves

Want to save Bangkok's shophouses? Don't count me in

Replacing most of these utilitarian structures has benefitted the Thai capital

Classic shophouses are about to be torn down on Sukhumvit 77, Bangkok.

In the mid-1980s I lived in a Bangkok shophouse for two years. Built of cement, the classic three-floor structure was on a dead-end soi (lane) that did not have a proper address; taxi drivers had to be directed rather vaguely to a point "opposite Sukhumvit 26," which was across the road.

I chose to rent the place not for the unique cultural experience it offered but because it was cheap, at $100 a month. As a freelance journalist, I had a Sino-Thai clan to support, so I put up with the inherent drawbacks of the shophouse lifestyle: lack of privacy, window bars to keep robbers out, road noise, inner-city pollution.

The buildings on that nameless soi were torn down a few years ago to make way for a luxury condominium called The Metropolis. Since then, whenever I hear expatriates or preservationists wax lyrical about the charms of old Bangkok, I just recall my shophouse days and with little nostalgia.

In step with other Asian cities, Bangkok's skyline has changed dramatically over the past few decades. In the main, the change has been for the better. Some neighborhoods are remarkably well-preserved, such as Chinatown and the Rattanakosin district, which includes the Grand Palace, Royal Grounds and numerous government offices. Talk of demolition in any of these neighborhoods provokes a hue and cry from the preservationists. Rightly so. They have a heritage worth preserving.

Other newer parts of Bangkok, such as Silom, Ratchadamri and Sukhumvit roads in the central business district, have changed enormously, with much of the transformation attributable to mass-transit systems -- the city's Skytrain opened in 1999, followed by the MRT subway in 2004. Land prices in the CBD have risen by 1,000% over the past 30 years, according to CBRE, a property consultancy, shooting up largely in tandem with the rail lines.

When I try to recall what the CBD looked like before the railways, all that comes to mind is rows of ugly shophouses along the main roads. Many Thais lived and worked in shophouses with little regard for their architectural appeal. Some were eyesores, shunned by prosperous Thais and expatriates, who lived in family compounds, apartments built in the Vietnam War era, or newer homes in suburban alleys.

Not all shophouses are ugly. Thailand's King Chulalongkorn famously constructed a row of "Raffles-style" shophouses along Na Phra Lan Road, in front of the Grand Palace, to facilitate tradesmen catering to the royal household. The king was allegedly taken with the shophouse idea when visiting Singapore, where Sir Stamford Raffles, the British colonizer of the island, had introduced the concept, complete with ornate window decorations, stucco plaster finishes and colorfully tiled roofs.

Old Hanoi also has beautiful shophouses, bursting with architectural personality and ingenuity. Yangon, with more heritage buildings than any other city in Southeast Asia (thanks to four decades of misrule, xenophobia and economic stagnation under the military) is doing a decent job of preserving its colonial-era architecture, including an entire shophouse complex on Merchant Street.

But the shophouse is by definition a utilitarian construct, favored throughout Southeast Asia by merchants, often of Chinese descent. The shopkeepers used the ground floors for trading and the upper floors for living space. In Bangkok, the vast majority of shophouses were built in the 20th century, cheaply, and bereft of aesthetic frills. Cement blocks were slapped up along newly built roads such as Charoen Krung, Silom and Sukhumvit for sale or rent to entrepreneurs opening mom and pop stores, noodle or chicken-and-rice restaurants, tailors, barber shops, bars and other, more dubious, commercial activities.

The same money culture that gave birth to Bangkok's shophouse architectural explosion is now tearing them down. Earlier this year, a 36,800-sq.-meter plot of land at the former British Embassy on Ploenchit Road sold for 18.6 billion baht ($570 million), a Bangkok record. A single shophouse in the same neighborhood, bought for perhaps $100,000 half a century ago, is now worth $7 million.

How long will owners of these buildings hang on to them? Not for long, judging by the speed with which old shophouses are being torn down along the Skytrain route, making way for department stores, five-star hotels and luxury condos. In 1988, Bangkok had 2,600 condominium units; it now has 640,000. That translates to a lot of demolished shophouses.

Despite the rising interest in Bangkok's architectural heritage, I have yet to hear of a "Save the Bangkok Shophouse" movement. Perhaps it will happen, but I would not join. I've done my shophouse time.

Peter Janssen is a Bangkok-based journalist

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