The Wat Mangkon MRT station has a façade that blends with the surrounding historical buildings. Peerawat Jariyasombat
Bangkok’s Chinatown is undergoing modern development.
On Charoen Krung, around the famous Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, workers are busy building a spacious station for the MRT. Behind such chaos, Charoen Chai community remains, keeping the spirit of Bangkok Chinatown.
Hidden in a narrow lane between Charoen Krung and Plubplachai Road, the century-old community is part of the enclave’s history. For decades, the short alley was a major market for Chinese joss papers, which are used in cultural rites. The community is considered one of the most significant places in the city for Chinese descendants in Bangkok.
Ban Kao Lao Rueng is a good place to learn about this community. An old house, once occupied by Chinese opera performers, has been converted into a small museum. It tells stories of Charoen Krung and historical shophouses that attracted a number of traders and Chinese immigrants into the area.
The museum explains the history of the community, architectural styles and cultural aspects such as Chinese opera and lifestyles of Chinese people in the past. While construction of the MRT station on the main road wiped out stalls and shophouses, life in Charoen Chai community goes on as usual.
It is even busier this week as people shop for joss papers for Chinese New Year.
It is likely the community has suffered very little impact from construction. Nothing has changed much when compared with the area on the main road. Take a walk through the community and you will find it lively as usual. The small lane is vivid with colourful joss papers in different designs. They range from basic ghost papers and incense paper to paper in the shape of modern utensils like smartphones, tablets, luxurious watches and gadgets.
But this enclave is changing. Some shops have begun to import products from China, which are cheaper, instead of making crafted products by themselves.
“All of the joss paper and decorative items in my shops are from China. It is cheaper and easier to order imported products,” a shopkeeper says. “There are a number of designs you can choose from.”
From a joss paper manufacturer, Charoen Chai is transforming into an outlet. Moreover, if you walk around, you will find modern-style shops mushrooming. They include stylish coffee shops, restaurants and lower-priced hostels.
“I notice a number of foreign tourists here,” says Aemorn, a Thai of Chinese descent who was born in the area. She admitted that such change brought in by the subway is reshaping her community, and all dwellers have to accept it.
“Sometimes, I am surprised to find the area around my home has been turned into a tourist attraction, packed with visitors roaming all day and night,” she adds.
However, what disappoints her the most is the decrease in food quality in the enclave.
“After gaining more popularity, some food stalls just increase the price. Some restaurants I enjoyed for decades sold their shop to new operators. Visitors would not notice this,” she says.
The subway will be completed very soon. Once the station opens its doors, more changes will come.
Costumes for Chinese opera performers as well as utensils from yesteryear are on display in Ban Kao Lao Rueng Museum.
Charoen Chai community remains lively with joss paper and decorative items in vivid colours. Peerawat Jariyasombat