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Retail king resurrects a slice of old Bangkok

How Thailand's Central Group returned to its roots on Bangkok's first paved street

Flanked by shophouses from different eras, Central: The Original Store is a monolithic addition to the Thai capital’s Charoenkrung Road, a historic area today dominated by antique, silver and jewelry stores. (Courtesy of Central Group)

BANGKOK -- Of Thailand's many family-owned conglomerates, Central Group is the retail king. Over the past decade, this multibillion-dollar company has branched out into hotels, property, restaurants and e-businesses, and embarked on a global acquisitions spree that included the surprise purchases of Italy's La Rinascente and Germany's KaDeWe, among other prestigious European department stores.

Meanwhile, so ingrained in daily life and the national consciousness are Central's 60 or so malls across Thailand -- each a pleasantly temperature-controlled blend of retail, dining and, increasingly, leisure -- that they are commonly referred to simply as "Cen-Tan," the Thai pronunciation of "Central," by the public.

But while Central Group is hard to avoid in urban Thailand, its heritage, as with so many big businesses, is remote. Few people know, for instance, that it was founded by an immigrant, Zheng Ni Tiang, who sailed from Hainan in China with his young family to settle in Thailand in 1927. Or that, in the years after adopting Thai names, in accordance with the laws of the period, the newly named Chirathivats -- led by Tiang and his eldest son, Samrit -- made a small fortune flogging back issues of imported American magazines on the ground floor of a two-story shophouse on Charoenkrung Road, which was the city's first paved thoroughfare and once the cosmopolitan heart of Bangkok. Or that the company was the first in Thailand to introduce themed window displays and the fully air-conditioned department store, among other retail innovations.

These are just some of the sociohistorical tidbits revealed in "The Origins of Central Since 1950," an exhibition tracing the modest beginnings and meteoric rise of the disruptive retail brand. Others include a display of some of the trendsetting clothes and household goods it imported from the West. Quotes from the two founders also offer insights into the family's Chinese clan-like belief system, while vintage advertisements capture the infectious ebullience of the postwar period.

Arguably more enjoyable than this sepia-tinted hagiography, however, is the venue itself: an audacious re-imagining of Central Group's original general store premises at 1266 Charoenkrung Road. Forgotten about for decades, this historic location is now a sophisticated, heritage-driven retail space that, as fourth-generation Central Group scion Barom Bhicharnchitr, a grandson of Samrit Chirathivat, puts it, "relates to today but at the same time pays homage to the past."

Top: Two midcentury stories, Central’s early history and the impact of Western visual culture on Bangkok’s cosmopolitanism, are told through the shop’s curated displays of vintage magazines. Middle: In the exhibition "The Origins of Central Since 1950," quotes from the father-and-son founders, Tiang and Samrit Chirathivat, capture the company philosophy. Bottom: Barom Bhicharnchitr, a grandson of Central Group’s founder, was the family member who oversaw the unconventional revival of the company’s 1950s legacy. (Courtesy of Central Group)

Each of the five levels in Central: The Original Store is unique. The ground floor with high ceilings and terrazzo floors is a concept store hosting curated displays of vintage magazines such as Life, Reader's Digest and Time: the sorts of titles Central's early customers, many of them overseas graduates with a fondness for Western products, came to browse. Arranged thematically on iron shelves, these publications -- most of them for sale -- constitute another exhibition of sorts, linking Central's emergence with the era's cultural and lifestyle shifts. "My grandfather's vision was to help bring Thailand to the modern world, and the 1950s was the start of this transformation of the city," explains Barom. "I think he felt importing English [language] magazines was a great way to contribute to this progress."

On the level above is a retail library, The Kolophon, aimed at startups and aspiring retail tycoons wanting to brush up on their business fundamentals or commission some niche market research. Above that are two floors of exhibition space, including one dedicated to historicizing the company's past, while split-level nightlife venue Siwilai Sound Club, accessed via the rear of the building, includes a live jazz bar and a vinyl bar reminiscent, Barom says, of those found in Japan. The top floor, meanwhile, is home to Australian chef David Thompson's latest venture, Aksorn, which reinterprets recipes salvaged from the cookbooks of Thailand's midcentury matriarchs.

In homage to both the company's importer instincts and Charoenkrung's multicultural heyday, the ambitious overhaul was executed with the help of foreign talent: the Japanese interiors company Tripster and the eminent Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen. "This is where Bangkok's openness to the outside world started, so I thought it would be interesting to involve outside perspectives, not just Thailand," says Barom, who is also managing director of the company's most forward-thinking, art-and-culture-led mall, Central Embassy.

Top: Split over two floors, Siwilai Sound Club includes a central courtyard for live jazz. Middle: Upstairs at Siwilai Sound Club is a vinyl listening bar inspired by those in Tokyo. Bottom: Inside and outside, Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen has used handcrafted terra-cotta tiles -- a material reminiscent of the original frontage of one of Central Group’s most successful department stores. (Courtesy of Central Group) 

The result is a clever, tactile building -- two shophouses, in fact, linked by a light-filled courtyard -- that melds Duysen's pure and soothing modernist aesthetic with traces of memory linked to the company, while avoiding any sense of corporate hard-sell or pastiche. For example, the facade and interior are clad in a coarse skin of traditional, handcrafted terra-cotta tiles from Thailand's Lampang Province -- a reference to the original frontage of the company's Central Chidlom department store on Bangkok's Phloen Chit Road. The iron vitrines, meanwhile, are inspired by the lanterns that Barom's late ancestors used.

Standing out among its less-polished neighbors, Central: The Original Store is clearly designed to be an aspirational destination -- just as it was in the early 1950s. Back then, Central Trading Co. Ltd., as it was known, was a pioneer amid Charoenkrung Road's vibrant mix of general stores, music clubs, restaurants and airline offices, as well as hotels and European embassies. By importing international products, it shaped the area's multiculturalism by "introducing customers of the rising, postwar Thai society to Western culture and lifestyle merchandise," as the exhibition puts it.

But there is one fact the exhibition neglects to discuss: While the company may have contributed to the evolution of Charoenkrung, by the late 1950s it had left, its attention having turned to growing the bigger, more lucrative branch it had opened in Bangkok's thriving Wang Burapha neighborhood. "It was too small," admits Barom. In the 1970s, the original shophouse was demolished to make way for a taller, five-story structure that was then rented out. Tenants apparently included Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Top: Opened in 1964, Central Ratchaprasong in downtown Bangkok was Central Group's first fully air-conditioned shopping mall. Bottom: An aerial shot reveals that Central: The Original Store is, in fact, two structures cleverly conjoined by a courtyard with glass roof. (Courtesy of Central Group)

This history -- more aggressively expansionist than community centered -- begs a question: What will Central's role in Charoenkrung be this time round?

Barom believes its impact will be twofold. Firstly, Central's top-to-bottom renewal of a building in the area signals to other businesses that its mundane architecture has latent potential. Additionally, he wants to drive more traffic to the neighborhood through its outlets and exhibition spaces. "Hopefully we can help create a domino effect whereby more people want to help and do something in this historic district."

Skeptics may detect a hint of irony in these claims, given that the conglomerate's mixed-use malls have arguably posed an existential threat to shophouse communities across the country. But Charoenkrung needs all the help it can get: About a fifth of the area's buildings -- most of which are owned and leased out by the nation's Crown Property Bureau -- are estimated to be vacant.

While vibrant new businesses are revitalizing the area, around one-fifth of the buildings on Bangkok’s first paved road remain vacant. (Courtesy of Central Group)

According to Yongtanit Pimonsathean, an associate professor at Thammasat University's Faculty of Architecture and Planning, the reasons for this include a mismatch between rental fees and retail incomes, while some landlords are keeping properties empty in the hope of cashing in on potential redevelopment opportunities. Other buildings appear vacant but are being used as warehouses, in contravention of local zoning regulations.

Yet the biggest threat to their survival is a lack of legal protection for old and historic shophouses. "Heritage conservation law in Thailand is very obsolete because only national monuments are protected," he says. "This issue is understood by scholars and the people but not by policymakers."

Looking to the future, Yongtanit -- a conservation adviser to the Crown Property Bureau -- wants Charoenkrung to be given "overlay district" status by the city's Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. This would allow it to function as a historic creative zone, replete with practical development guidance and special incentives.

As things stand, Central: The Original Store already sits within the sphere of influence of a nonprofit organization called Creative District. Launched in 2015, this community-led initiative aims to improve livability and livelihoods across Charoenkrung and its adjacent riverside areas, partly by fostering the repopulation of its existing architecture with dynamic businesses, big or small. It has faltered of late due to a lack of funding and collaboration, but even mid-pandemic, new venues, from bars to galleries, have continued to spring up organically.

Retail library The Kolophon is researching the history of the foreign establishments that were strung along Charoenkrung Road during its cosmopolitan heyday. (From Facebook -- Siamese Memories)

Creative District co-founder David Robinson sees Central's return as another win, even if it is not directly linked to the organization. "It's a part of the oral history of the area, and the fact that the building is there still is fantastic. It's exactly what we want to see," he says. For him, the fact that the original structure no longer exists is irrelevant. "It doesn't have to be historic necessarily. Just a shophouse can talk about a way of life."

The Kolophon is already doing precisely that. Director Shane Suvikapakornkul‎ is actively researching the histories of neighboring establishments that appeared around the same time. Revealed in a mini-exhibition called "The Kolophon Gazette Volume 1," for example, are details about the nearby Bank of America and Pan American World Airways offices, and "the mystery of the Chez Eve Club," a short-lived nightclub up the road that lured in cosmopolitan foreigners and Thais with American-style orchestras and live jazz, "deep frozen imports" and Hawaiian theme nights. The exhibition posits that these developments reaffirm Time publisher Henry Luce's declaration that the 20th century was "The American Century" -- and confirm Charoenkrung's substantial role in it.

"The print romance can only take you so far," says Shane. "We want this place to be a knowledge hub, too."

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