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Bangkok's Chinatown at heart of heritage battle

Activists take on government over plans to transform culturally-rich area

Over the past two decades, Bangkok's Chinatown has transformed from being a desolate place into a culturally diverse area. (Photo by Tom Vater)

BANGKOK -- It is Friday night and Soi Nana is ablaze with lights. Most of the shop houses that line this 400-meter-long road in Bangkok's Chinatown have thrown their doors open. A photo exhibition about migrant workers is opening at Cho Why, a cultural center in a beautifully restored corner house. Further down the road, Victor Hierro and Sudaporn Sae-ia are serving cocktails at El Chiriguito, a popular Spanish tapas bar. "I badly wanted to live in Chinatown," says Barcelona-born Hierro. "One day, a friend showed me all the empty houses on this street. The rent was cheap. The house we chose had not been inhabited for 20 years. Most Thai people don't want to move into these houses because they are old and full of ghosts."

El Chiriguito, a popular Spanish tapas bar in Chinatown (Photo by Tom Vater)

Two decades ago, Chinatown was a desolate place at night, frequented by sex workers and drunks. A radical change has taken place since then. Thai architects and foreign artists made the first forays into the area. Cocktail and music bars, craft shops, tattoo studios and art galleries popped up. Venues like Bar 23, Tet Bar, Teens of Thailand, Soul Bar, Ba Hao, Speedy GrandMa, Soy Sauce and JAM Factory are now among the city's hippest night spots.

Hierro and Sae-ia usually have a full house during the weekends. "We didn't think people from downtown would come to hang out in Chinatown, but they do. They are attracted by the authenticity and the charm of the area."

Noodle vendors Suyakon and Surasakdi Netrsamwit on Soi Nana (Photo by Tom Vater)

Most of the events around Soi Nana are organized by Cho Why, a gallery which has greatly contributed to the revival of the area. David Fernandez, a project manager for arts, culture and digital media, is one of the founders of the collective, which was established in 2014. "We support projects -- plays and photo exhibitions -- that relate to the community. Our next project, Bye Bye Chinatown, is a call to photographers who want to share their images of how Chinatown looks today."

Across the road from Cho Why, Suyakon Netrsamwit runs a famous noodle restaurant with her husband Surasakdi whose family has lived in the area for 70 years. "The new businesses are good for us, they bring people from other districts to Chinatown. But prices are also going up. Our rent has doubled in the last years. If it goes up again, it might become difficult for us to stay," Suyakon said.

French photographer Landry Dunand shoots portraits with his Afghan Camera Obscura as part of his exhibition Silver Fermentation at Cho Why. (Photo by Laure Siegel)

The land on which Chinatown is built was bequeathed to the first Chinese migrants to Thailand by King Rama I in the late 18th century. And while downtown Bangkok has morphed into a landscape of concrete canyons lined with shopping centers, condos and skyscrapers in the last two decades, Chinatown's bustling and vibrant maze of alleyways has preserved its heritage -- until now. Immensely valuable, the area now lures investors who are planning massive redevelopment.

Two underground train stations between the MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transit) terminus at Hua Lamphong station, the country's main rail hub, and the Chao Phraya river are due to start service in April 2019, opening historical quarters of Bangkok that are currently difficult to access by public transport.

Police patrol Yaowarat Road in Chinatown (Photo by Laure Siegel)

The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority's much-publicized recent drive to clear street food vendors from many of the Thai capital's streets, without a credible plan to offer alternative sites to the city's thousands of mobile food vendors, will also affect Chinatown.

Mass clean-up

On a muggy April night, dozens of police, military and Bangkok Metropolitan Authority officers crowd along Yaowarat Road, Chinatown's main traffic artery. Lt. Col. Teerapol Somsophin, from Plub Plachai 2 police station, rolls along the curb on his Segway two-wheeled vehicle: "We won't close the street food on Yaowarat. We want to organize it in a different way, using booths. But first we want the street vendors to respect the pavement so pedestrians have space to walk. We also make sure that they don't throw any garbage on the streets," he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

To many skeptics, the heavy presence of uniformed personal has a whiff of a public relations exercise in the face of bad press.

Fruit juice vendor Pondsi Sae Tang on Charoen Krung Road (Photo by Tom Vater)

About 1.5km further along Charoenkrung Road, Pondsi Sae Tang, 71, is worried. She has been selling fruit juice near Wat Mangkon temple, the future location of an MRT station, for years. Across the road, the construction site is hidden behind concrete walls. "When the station opens, I will not be able to stay. But all the booths in the market are already taken or too expensive for me. I don't know where I will go," she lamented.

Scores of homes across the street have already been knocked down to clear a path for the MRT, and land prices have soared more than 20% over the past five years.

David Robinson, director of Bangkok River Partners (Photo by Tom Vater)

Meanwhile, a huge project that hopes to reconcile past and future is getting underway. Australian David Robinson is the director of Bangkok River Partners. This group of business operators, gallerists and property owners aims to bring stakeholders together to promote the entire riverside district, including Chinatown. "We work on the same model as The Rocks in Sydney or the South Bank in London. We want to create a leisure destination that attracts businesses. But we are not out to replicate anything, the project has to be done the Thai way," he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Bangrak, which is part of Chinatown, and Klongsan on the west side of the Chao Phraya, require special attention. "When we saw the concentration of cultural spaces, we wanted to do something specific about this area. In April 2015, we formed the Creative District, a committee of local entrepreneurs, university professors, and creative individuals. We held a series of town hall meetings, inviting participation from the BMA, the Crown Property Bureau and ambassadors," added Robinson.

The Creative District has defined six priorities that aim to make the riverside districts more livable and more lively -- stimulating the arts through galleries, promoting design through the Thailand Creative and Design Centre (which recently opened in the former General Post Office), highlighting the area's street food, conserving historic buildings and old shop houses, creating green space and preserving the area's traditional way of life.

"The Creative District Foundation finds partners, advocates on rent protection, small and medium enterprise tax incentives, high-speed internet and more green space," Robinson explained. "The BMA has indicated that they will support our improvement of the district but no time frame has been set."

All these lofty initiatives are endangered by the Chao Praya Riverside Promenade project. The government has announced that construction will start on a 14km bicycle lane, running along both banks of the river on pillars in the water, in July.

Ruinous riverside road

Part of a bigger, 57km three-lane roadway project, the blueprint of the riverside road was first drafted by civil engineers in 1993 under the watch of former Transport Minister General Vinai Sompong. Vinai wanted to launch the construction of a six-lane highway stretching along both sides of the Chao Phraya River. Stakeholders protested and the idea was shelved. In 2015, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha floated the idea of building a bicycle lane and promenade route along the river. The cabinet approved the project's first phase, from Rama 7 Bridge to Phra Pinklao Bridge, at a budget of 14 billion baht ($406 million). The project is eventually to stretch from Bang Sue District to Bangna District at a cost of 30 billion baht.

Street food vendor on Charoenkrung Road, across the road from the construction site for Wat Mangkon MRT station (Photo by Tom Vater)

"The Chao Praya is the lifeblood of Bangkok, if you mess with this, you mess with the city's identity. There are some very well-researched projects to give public access to the river such as the Yannawa Project, Kudeejeen Project and Chinatown Riverfront. It makes no sense that these are being overlooked," warned Robinson.

Friends of the River, a community of 70 organizations from the public and private sector that are part of the Creative District, was formed in 2015 following the government's announcement. The organization recently issued a document on the expected impact of the roadway.

The cycle lane is likely to obscure the royal palace, temples and houses which form a significant part of the city's cultural landscape, the group warned. Events like the royal barge ceremony, an almost 700-year-old tradition of showcasing historic and crafted boats, are likely to be affected. Water tourism is likely to decline. Decreasing the width of the river will affect transportation, reduce water quality, destroy the river's ecology and obstruct waterways, which may lead to flooding.

Landscape architect Yossapon Boonsom is the group's spokesman.

"We drafted a collective counter proposal. But no matter what we come up with, the government doesn't take it into account. The bicycle lane is the width of a three-lane highway -- in fact one government agency says it is for cars -- so its purpose is not clear," he says. "The exact length differs depending on which government agency we talk to. And I think it's a lot of money for a bicycle lane."

Getting transparent responses from the government has been a challenge.

"The government wants to get rid of communities who are encroaching on public land -- some 300 households of people who built simple houses on the riverfront after giving up living on boats. It wants to demolish restaurants and hotels that have been built without permission," said Boonsom. "It wants to reduce pollution, improve traffic and it wants to open the road not only for people who live there or rich people who can afford the hotels along the riverside, but make it a space for everybody. We know there are problems in the area, but solutions have to be based on existing assets. There is no public information, no feasibility study, no tourism impact study. There were just three short public hearings last year, the absolute minimum."

Spanner in the works

Friends of the River is preparing to approach the administrative court, arguing that the roadway will violate several planning laws.

"The court has the power to oblige the government to be more transparent and modify the project. If the government goes ahead, it will encounter lots of difficulties."

Yongtanit Pimonsathean, professor of architecture at Bangkok's Thammasat University (Photo by Tom Vater)

Yongtanit Pimonsathean, a professor of architecture at Bangkok's Thammasat University, has spent two decades lobbying the government to safeguard Chinatown's historic structures.

"The conservation system in Thailand is about preserving temples. The Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Finance and the BMA don't see shophouses or markets as part of our heritage. That's been the same with all recent governments," he said.

Nonetheless, Yongtanit was asked by the government to propose a mechanism to identify private buildings worth protecting in 2015.

"The government lists only 26 Chinatown buildings as heritage sites, but we found 3,000 buildings," he noted.

In 2016, Yongtanit began to work on a legislative tool to save Bangkok's heritage that aimed to encompass preservation of historic structures, the security of the royal family, orderly streets, flood protection in the eastern part of Bangkok, the preservation of agricultural land in the suburbs, and the management of advertising billboards.

"We proposed mechanisms to identify heritage monuments, and we gave a draft for new legislation to the BMA, which is more aware of the need for conservation these days. The difficulty now is to have it adopted."

As for the Chao Praya Riverside Promenade, Yongtanit made no bones about the gravity of the situation: "The government overrules everything, which is why the project's environmental impact study was skipped. The best we can do is to push for a historical, archeological study and to seek support from the royal palace."

Boonsom agreed with his view. "The roadway is the priority now and it conflicts with the Creative District and the conservation project and everything else really. We have to learn from 20 years of hasty development in Bangkok. It is our right to live in a better and more beautiful city. The government is supposed to come out with a comprehensive master plan but the plans don't integrate the things people are working on. The mechanism of decision-making is broken."

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