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Perhaps one of the more bizarre scams in Bangkok involves gem hustlers telling tourists that the whole of Chinatown is shut down, in hopes that the more gullible travellers will visit a great little store they know of instead.
But this outlandish claim – that the lively, sprawling commercial and residential neighbourhood might be closed for the day – might not be far off. With the Bangkok subway extending into the heart of Chinatown in the next few years, with some work already underway, developers are keenly eyeing the area’s prime real estate. Already a few battle lines have been drawn between residents defending their historic trading spots and the developers who have turned much of the Thai capital into a never-ending line up of shopping malls.
If the alleys around Yaowarat and Charoen Krung roads – the main arteries of Chinatown – share the same fate as the rest of the city, it would be a great shame. For those who complain that Bangkok has lost its exotic flavour, Chinatown is the answer. While the rice fields of Sukhumvit – one of the longest roads in Bangkok and in the world – have been replaced by skyscrapers, luxury malls and entertainment plazas, Chinatown has cleaved stubbornly to its history and its identity, making it the most fascinating part of town to explore.
The first Chinese traders arrived in Thailand in the 16th Century, when the kingdom’s capital was still in the city of Ayutthaya, about 80km north of Bangkok. Famine and persecution of Teo Chew Chinese from the Chaozhou area in present-day China led to several waves of arrivals, who settled near the Chao Phraya River, which today slices through the west of the city. When the capital eventually shifted to Bangkok and the Grand Palace was built in 1782, the Chinese were requested to move outside the city walls. From this vantage point, they established what became the country’s commercial heart for the next two centuries.
Bangkok’s commerce and shopping centres have now shifted to the neighbourhoods of Siam, Sathorn and Sukhumvit, yet Chinatown remains a vibrant hub that still largely reflects what life was like in the 1960s, ‘50s and even the ‘20s.
Most of the wares being sold – car parts, cheap electronics, low-quality plastic toys from China – are not necessarily of interest to travellers. But unlike much of Bangkok, which is fully geared toward serving the needs of the city’s burgeoning tourist and expat population, Chinatown’s charm lies in the fact that, over here, it is not really about the traveller; Chinatown exists first and foremost for the Thai-Chinese.
The community rewards those who meander and observe. The pleasure of Chinatown is in taking a wrong turn and getting lost, ending up somewhere strange and unexpected.
Life goes on in Chinatown the way it has for decades. Bangkok’s oldest cinema, Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre was built in 1933 and still shows Thai movies on special occasions, although now it mostly stages dances and plays. Tang To Kang, the capital’s oldest gold shop, and Chao Krom Pho, the city’s oldest Chinese medicine store, are still doing business the way they did more than a century ago. Nearby Wat Chakrawat is known as the Crocodile Wat for good reason – the monks at this temple have been raising the reptiles for more than 200 years.
Aside from these landmarks, the area is also home to some of the city’s best food, with delicious scents from an unassuming curry stall mingling with the smells from the neighbouring Indian district, causing passers-by to perform double takes.
Shrines for the ancestor-worshipping Chinese pop up in unexpected corners – havens of reflective peace in the middle of chaotic streets. A favourite is located in the 100-year-old – and inappropriately named – Talat Mai (New Market). Smack in the middle of the cramped, packed stores hawking shark’s fins, bird’s nests, fossils, precious stones and sea slugs, a small gateway leads to the courtyard of the Leng Buai Ia shrine, where the noise of the outside bustle immediately falls away.