The Bohemian Revival of Bangkok’s Chinatown
Bangkok’s threatened Chinatown lures an artistic underground.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because urban salvation can come in many forms.
The latest scene in Bangkok is also the oldest. On a dim backstreet of moldy shophouses, an unlikely crew of scruffy Thai youth and bearded artists forms a crowd outside Cho Why, a collective exhibition space being used for a craft beer-tasting contest. Some of the competing breweries are as unlicensed as the galleries that recently opened along a nearby dark alley. Across the way, a half-dozen girls sprawl in provocative poses on sidewalk chairs outside a brothel, wondering why all this action has suddenly enlivened their neighborhood.
Far from the modern city of 10 million and its glitzy malls, a hardy group of bohemians and young entrepreneurs is bringing new life and identity to two linked enclaves on the southern fringes of one of Asia’s largest Chinatowns. The first, unofficially known as Soi Nana — not to be confused with a larger nightlife zone of the same name farther east — mainly has been carved out by pioneering painters looking for larger studios and more inspiration than they can find in Bangkok’s soulless miles of concrete. In the second, recently designated by planners as the Bangrak Klongsan Creative District, new bars, cafes and art spaces with names like Speedy Grandma and Soy Sauce Factory are drawing young people to a riverfront area long deserted at night. “We were practically squatters here,” says Jeff Gompertz, an American artist and Soi Nana pioneer. “Up to 80 percent of the properties were derelict. We had to fund all renovations and taxes. But none of us came here to make money. We came here to forge a community.”
We have to show there’s commercial value in the old before it gets torn down. To revitalize but not gentrify — in this, Chinatown will be the key battleground.
Elsewhere, underdeveloped Chinese enclaves that lure homesteading artists and hipsters with low rents and exotic atmospherics are hardly news. Savvy gallery owners have created bustling alternative-art scenes in the Chinatowns of New York, Los Angeles and Honolulu, and the Chinatown of Paris has become mostly Vietnamese and decidedly chic. In most of Asia, however, these communities either have been obliterated or transformed beyond all recognition. Singapore’s traditionally all-Chinese area was restored into what many call a heritage theme park. In Malaysia, subway expansion and cheap backpacker hotels blight Kuala Lumpur’s small inner-city Chinatown. There’s hardly a hint of the bohemian in Manila’s Binondo, whose persistent grittiness attests to its title as the world’s oldest Chinatown. But of all these, Bangkok’s Chinatown is most central, even critical, to the past — and future — of its city.
In fact, Krung Thep — the royal name for Bangkok — would have evolved far differently if Thailand’s kings (themselves part-Chinese) hadn’t moved their palace to the east side of the Chao Phraya River, where Chinese traders already had settled. And Charoen Krung, the main street of the new creative district, was Bangkok’s first paved road, as decreed by Mongkut of The King and I fame, out of pity for foreign diplomats forced to endure a quagmire of muddy canals. “The city is moving back toward its origins,” Gompertz says. “Call it layers of weird — there’s a special flow to this place now.”
On the same block as Cho Why, the tiny, turquoise El Chiringuito serves tapas, Nahim sells cutesy crafts and popcorn-flavored tea, Teens of Thailand pitches its extensive collection of gins and Tep Bar, a loft done up in gold spray paint, slings rice-based firewater with brand names like Lion King and Pussy Whipped. A Thai-run photo gallery, Patani Studio, recently opened, and local bands rock the 23 Gallery & Bar. Up rickety stairs, painters like London’s Andrew Stahl find inspiration in an atmosphere he describes as “apocalyptic.”
Whether it’s Brooklyn, North London or Lisbon, wherever the creative types go, gentrification is sure to follow. When it comes to Bangkok, though, some argue that Chinatown isn’t undergoing true gentrification since the artsy arrivistes often are poorer than the shopkeepers already there. Nevertheless, newcomers like Cho Why are eager to show they value Chinatown’s store of cultural treasure. The arts collective organizes weekend outings called Jumble Trails to bring new consumers to displays of local handicrafts. “We have to show there’s commercial value in the old before it gets torn down,” says David Robinson, the Australian director of the pro-environment Bangkok River Partners. “To revitalize but not gentrify — in this, Chinatown will be the key battleground.”
If so, artistic types face a formidable foe. By 2018, a Chinatown station will open as part of a long-awaited subway extension into the Old City. Absentee landlords getting wind of rising values are shortening Chinatown leases, making the preservation of problematic old structures less appealing. Corporate interests like Chang Beer already have snapped up adjoining real estate. And unlike Singapore, where the Chinatown was saved and sanitized as a tourist attraction, Thailand’s record of preserving its architectural heritage has been spotty at best. “Many historic buildings will give way to high-rises,” says Tiamsoon Sirisrisak, a lecturer and researcher on culture and rights at Bangkok’s Mahidol University. “The old communities in Chinatown are not ready to deal with sudden change, not strong enough to fight unfair development.”
No wonder Cho Why is organizing a photographers’ marathon to capture the vanishing scene in a February exhibit titled “Bye-Bye Chinatown.” Adds David Fernandez, a Spanish cultural officer who is one of Cho Why’s 10 founding partners, both expat and Thai: “When Chinatown goes, Bangkok itself is gone.”