Bangkok’s Chinatown is one of the largest and oldest in the world, established in 1782 by mostly immigrants from southern China’s Chaozhou region. And like many Chinatowns around the world, it is quickly gentrifying.
A district on the eastern fringes of Chinatown is now home to a cluster of hipster bars and restaurants, including a live music club and tapas bar. The government has been promoting Chinatown as an arts district, and as a result, galleries have sprung up in the past few years.
Now, with the prospective opening of a subway station in the neighborhood, traffic is expected to increase, and investment is pouring in. Hotel builders have already snatched up properties, to the concern of preservationists.
In many ways, the story of Bangkok’s Chinatown mirrors that of similar enclaves in big cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, where Chinese immigrants have been moving out in large numbers.
Rooted in the neighborhood
Bangkok’s Chinatown once had a booming Chinese community. Suwilai Boonthawatchai, 63, was born and raised in Sampheng, the narrow street that for two centuries defined the commercial heart of Chinatown.
“At night, we could walk to the street food stalls wearing our pyjamas,” she recalls.
Nowadays, few Chinese Thais actually live in Chinatown. Many families moved out in the early 1990s, when Thailand’s economy was booming. They favored the spacious condominiums of the suburbs over the cramped quarters and narrow lanes of Chinatown.
Some families, though, still held onto their properties in Chinatown.
Boonthawatchai’s family bought a house in a Bangkok suburb about 10 years ago but kept their office in Chinatown for their sewing machine business.
Other families have refused to sell their buildings out of a sense of pride and in keeping with the Chinese belief that it would be unlucky to sell the place where your good fortunes began.
That instinct might end up being Chinatown’s saving grace amid the neighborhood’s rapid commercial development and gentrification.
One prominent business family, the Wanglees, turned a shipping terminal they owned into a heritage site and tourist attraction.
“The best idea would have been to knock the buildings down and sell it for a huge amount of money,” says Saran Wanglee, a fifth-generation descendent of the merchant who bought the terminal, “but no one in the family wanted that to happen.”
Instead, they built a heritage site in the shape of a traditional Chinese courtyard with a shrine to Mazu, the goddess of the sea, housed inside.
Wanglee hopes the site will become a draw for tourists, especially those from China.
“I want them to come and see their own culture and how it was manifested here,” he says.
A changing landscape
Still, the forces of gentrification are still at work. In the past two years, a number of hotels and hostels have opened in the neighbourhood, including an upscale boutique hotel in an old Chinese mansion with only four rooms that go for $250 a night.
A Holiday Inn Express is under construction on a large plot of land near a subway station set to open next year. The property will also feature a shopping arcade.
“Everything is growing at the moment,” says Pieter Willaert, director of sales and marketing for Burasari Group, which owns a chain of hotels. “Every week, there is something new opening—a restaurant, a coffee shop, a hostel, a bar, and we’re having our best year so far.”
Most of these new hotels and restaurants are old refurbished buildings that preserve the Chinatown vibe, but there are also international brand names such as Starbucks creeping in.
These are the kinds of development that have preservationists worried about Chinatown’s future. Luckily for the area, there are very few large plots of land available, thanks to the way Chinatown is structured.
Its cramped patchwork of small shops means it’s harder for big companies to develop, and that means the architecture could be preserved.
And there’s still a working-class presence in Chinatown’s southeastern fringe, where small metal and small repair shops are dominant.
Even here, though, gentrification has begun. Romain Dupuy, a Frenchman, has opened two restaurants in the neighborhood, introducing soul music and French crepes to the working-class residents and Bangkok hipsters.
“I value the district for what it has to offer in terms of old businesses, old families, architecture and the small streets,” Dupuy says. “I want to be part of a village, and that is a village.”
The subway station set to open in September next year promises to bring even more visitors to this village.
“I don’t know if it will kill Chinatown,” says Chutyaves Sinthuphan, founder of Site-Specific Company, an architectural firm, “but it will definitely change Chinatown.”
Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.