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Sukhumvit – one of the longest roads in Bangkok and in the world – have been replaced
by skyscrapers, luxury malls and entertainment plazas, Chinatown has cleaved stubbornly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
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.
The streets and alleys of Chinatown are
lined with Art Deco buildings from the ‘20s and the ‘30s – seven to nine storey
constructions that were once Bangkok’s skyscrapers. The buildings have changed
so little that during the 1998 to 2000production of the film In the Mood for
Love, set in 1960s Hong Kong, director Wong Kar Wai decided to shoot the
movie’s richly atmospheric night-time shots in Bangkok instead.
It is at night that walking around
Chinatown can really feel like travelling through time. While a large number of
patrons still frequent the famed restaurants on Soi Texas (located a few
hundred metres into Yaowarat Road), the crowds start to fade and eventually
disappear the further you get from the main thoroughfares.
Roads like Sampeng Lane (also known as Soi
Wanit 1), where Bangkok’s entire Chinese population once lived, are bathed in
the glow of warm oranges and reds from streetlights and Chinese lanterns. The
streets get narrower until their names get downgraded from soi (street) to trok (alley),
where the canopies from the buildings on one side almost touch the windows on
At night, walking around the sharp turns of
the alleys can feel thrillingly forbidding. As in the day, the best plan is to
walk around without a plan, stumbling across fantastically decorated schools
and deserted shrines.
The houses in Chinatown look their age, but sceptics of the claims that this is some of Bangkok’s
priciest real estate would do well to notice the subtly placed security cameras.
Many of the neighbourhood’s storeowners and homeowners have lavish houses on
the outskirts of Bangkok, but have maintained the neighbourhood that they
associate so closely with their ancestors. It is this determination that may
well save Chinatown.