Saturday, June 23, 2007

Winds of change blow again


IN BANGKOK, along a bend on the Chao Phraya River, an area occupying less than 2 sq km is the most densely populated community in Thailand. Sampheng, as the area is known, is also distinctively Chinese.

“When you walk into Chinatown, you immediately hear Chinese spoken and see Chinese signs, Chinese shops, and encounter Chinese mannerisms,” says Edward Van Roy, the author of Sampheng: Bangkok’s Chinatown Inside Out.

“Sampheng is one of the oldest, largest and most prosperous of overseas Chinese outposts,” wrote the American, who is a visiting fellow at Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Asian Studies.

“It is among the most successful in having adapted to the host culture while protecting and preserving its own ethnic integrity.”

Sampheng was established in 1782. And in that year Bangkok was founded upon the overthrow of King Taksin, who was the son of a Chinese man and a Thai woman.

“The new king (the first of Thailand’s Chakri dynasty) decided to relocate the Thai capital from Thonburi on the west bank of the river (Chao Phraya) to Rattanokosin (Bangkok) on the east bank,” Van Roy wrote.

“That move required the Teochew community to vacate their settlement.

“They were assigned, as their new home, the remote, underdeveloped downriver tract at Sampheng.”

In 1782, Chinatown was a place of exile. “It was pretty dirty and swampy,” the economic anthropologist says.

But the Teochews, who were merchants, created a thriving settlement specialising in maritime trade between Siam and China.

“The area prospered in the 19th century, and in the 20th century it prospered even further,” says the 69-year-old American, who is married to a Thai with Chinese blood. “Many of Thailand’s present day commercial empire (owned by Thais of Chinese blood) started in Sampheng.”

Today, Bangkok’s Chinatown, according to the author, is the hollowed-out shell of its former self as Bangkok’s commercial hub.

“Paradoxically, Sampheng’s long history of economic progress – rising above periodic slumps and financial crises – ultimately led to its decline as Bangkok’s commercial hub,” he wrote.

“From early in the 12th century the overcrowding of the district’s docks, warehouses and tenements prompted a swelling exodus. (The Chinese-owned companies moved their headquarters) to new financial, industrial, wholesale and retail zones springing up along the urban perimeter).”

But Sampheng remains as a tenement residence area for Chinese who want to maintain their roots.

“It is a place where Chinese is spoken, and Chinese food of the best quality and Chinese shrines are available,” Van Roy explains, adding that despite its demise as a commercial hub, Sampheng is still Bangkok’s centre for other businesses such as Chinese embroidery and goldsmithing.

In fact, the American’s former favourite place in Chinatown is the Tang To Kang Gold Shop, which was established before 1875 and is the oldest gold shop still operating in Sampheng.

“It is very picturesque,” says Van Roy, who has been acquainted with Chinatown since the 1970s.

Now, the author of the book (which he describes as “in a sense a walking tour of Sampheng but from a thinking man’s point of view”) favours the Chinese shrines.

Every shrine, he explains, looks like every other shrine until you start examining it and discover that there are differences.

The differences are in the shrine keepers who are usually retirees. For Van Roy, some of them are interesting because the keepers are very unpleasant.

“They are sick of – and bored with – visitors, as they deal with them every day.

“And when you ask them a question they would say they don’t know, although they know the answer,” he explains.

“But some are extremely generous with their knowledge (of the shrine) and they will offer you tea and speak to you in broken Thai, as their first language is Chinese.”

On the future of Chinatown, what is planned underneath the district may affect it.

Many Chinese living in Chinatown, he says, are resisting a plan to build an underground rail system in Sampheng as they fear that a station right in the middle of the district would bring in non-Chinese culture.

However, leading merchants in Chinatown support the proposal as they see tourism as the future of Sampheng.

As for Van Roy, he envisages Chinatown continuing to modernise. “So much is changing that Sampheng is losing its ancient flavour,” he says, with great regret.

(Published in The Star on June 23, 2006)