Walking Through A City's Layers in Bangkok's Creative District
By Carolyn Oei, 10 May 2017
Thai milk tea without the condensed milk or sugar is seriously tasty, which represents a massive change from the thick and creamy super-sweetness that has become its hallmark.
The Bangkok cityscape, too, is changing. And quite rapidly so.
On 31 March, we were drinking as many whisky sodas as we could on Sukhumvit Soi 11 because it was Cheap Charlie’s last night there. Cheap Charlie’s was (and is) a Bangkok institution, having quenched the thirst of countless expatriate and local punters since 1982. And yes, the drinks were cheap.
Cheap Charlie’s, along with other businesses housed in the buildings in the surrounding area, will be razed to the ground to make way for something; it’s anyone’s guess at the moment what that something will be.
Much of Bangkok’s downtown has become increasingly coveted real estate. Space is precious and gentrification is the ghoul that lurks just around the corner.
Bangkok’s famed street food culture will soon be a thing of the past, to be savoured only in photos that will no doubt be hung on the walls of indoor food courts.
So, where would one find that quirkiness or variety or density or self-regulating community in Bangkok?
Quite possibly the Bangrak-Klongsan area around the Chao Phraya River.
Known as the “Creative District”, it might not be at the edge of the city where art is said to typically lie, but it certainly is where much of Bangkok’s art and artistic community is making its presence felt.
The Creative District feels and looks a little like what Singapore’s Tiong Bahru Estate and Penang’s Georgetown might have been just 20 years ago. Old shophouses and walk-up apartments, some more rundown than others, line the main roads. Tourists explore the side streets in their 100-baht cotton-polyester trousers with elephant motif. They drink lots of coconut water to keep from melting in the heat. And they always have their eye out for a good foot massage.
But unlike Tiong Bahru Estate or Georgetown, there isn’t in force in Thailand an official conservation programme for anything that isn’t defined as a ‘monument’.
“Thailand has witnessed an emergence of civil society formation in the last three years, so there is a bit more of a fight now,” says Thanan Lilaonitkul, a writer, university lecturer and member of an advisory board that helps to shape the vision for the Creative District. A strong supporter of the Creative District is the Thailand Creative Design Centre (TCDC), a government agency.
“This is an opportune time to be developing the creative district,” Thanan explains. “No other group is doing this in Bangkok. We want to establish ourselves as a central platform to spearhead and facilitate dialogue and to actualise projects. And the TCDC moving here from Sukhumvit was timely; we knew we should take advantage of that momentum.”
We were walking with Thanan around the Creative District and there certainly is plenty about it to protect and celebrate. The area is rich in culture, history and heritage. Its diversity is apparent, being home to Chinese and Thai temples, mosques, the Hindu Sri Mariaman Temple and the Christian Assumption Cathedral among others.
“I think we can all agree that religious diversity breeds creativity and enriches a place,” says Thanan. “The hotels in the area knew this from about 20 years ago and they tried to work together to attract visitors (they formed Bangkok River Partners). But, in my opinion, they weren’t strategic and focused too much on their own hotels rather than the district as a whole.”
David Robinson, an Australian who’s lived in Bangkok since 2002 and with a wealth of experience in broadcasting, arts management and NGO work, was enlisted to sort things out. His advice was to build a brand for the area. This was when things started to look a little more unified and strategic for Bangkok River Partners. It also marked the genesis of the Creative District.
The richness of the Creative District:
ON THE AGENDA: VISUAL ARTS
Another member of the Creative District’s advisory board is Atty Tantivit, a gallery owner who’s propelling an appreciation for contemporary art jewellery in Thailand. She opened ATTA Gallery in 2010 and has since exhibited artists from around the world – Mette Saabye, Nils Hint and Benedikt Fischer to name a few.
In 2014, Atty started the gallery hop – like a pub crawl, but crawling from gallery to gallery.
“Atty is really one of the pioneers of the Creative District. We’ve only just started coming together as a organised group, but she was already leading the charge,” says Thanan.
Both Atty and Thanan agree that they see positive creative changes taking place. The wall murals, for example, are randomly spaced out throughout the district now but more and more artists and companies are interested in being involved in the process.
“We’re working one wall at a time, one artist at a time,” Thanan admits, “But, because we started with international artists, more local artists now want a piece of the action as well.” Thai artists, Kult (pronounced cool-t), Alex Face and Bonus TMC, for example, have marked their walls.
Speaking of walls, the Portuguese embassy boasts a fabulous piece of artwork by Alexandre Farto, aka Vhils. Entitled, “Scratching the Surface”, the art was etched with drills into one of the embassy’s boundary walls. Thanan explains that the art in itself reveals history. “The wall contains red Ayutthaya brick, which is visible and here…” he points to an area of the wall, “…is where a bus rammed into the wall.”
Vhils' artwork adorns a boundary wall of the Portuguese embassy:
THE OOZE OF GENTRIFICATION
We walked with Thanan for six hours, through buildings under construction and along side streets that were being paved. We got to see the dusty beginnings of hostels, galleries and a pedestrian zone.
But, as promising as the Creative District’s development might seem, challenges abound and Thanan and his colleagues know that they’re in this for the long haul. “I’m going to be doing this for 20 years at least!” Thanan laughs, almost resignedly, over fishball noodles that we snacked on at Bang Rak Market. To comfort him, we say, “But may be UNESCO will give you an award and it’ll all be worth it!”
The priority for the Creative District for now is to officially register itself as a foundation. This has been and will be a lengthy process because of the strict criteria that applicants have to satisfy. But, becoming a foundation is essential as it will facilitate fundraising, and canvassing support and bidding for projects.
One of the projects that Thanan still feels a little emotional about is the Prince Rama Theatre, or Prince’s Theatre, that is in the process of being converted into a hostel.
“We bid for that project as a private entity and submitted our plans to turn it into a community space for the residents. We even had field researchers go in to speak with residents to ask them what they wanted...” Thanan looks deflated. “I’m learning every day!”
But quite possibly the biggest challenge facing Thanan and his team is the general push towards gentrification. Like a giant blob that oozes every which way it chooses, there’s no telling when it’ll smother you. We think to the last bit of green space in Tiong Bahru Estate in Singapore. Here today, gone tomorrow. It’s now a condominium that seems to be taking forever to be completed.
Why do we like malls so much? Why are selfies so popular? Why don’t people read more?
How does one answer the unanswerable?
Prince Rama Theatre under renovation:
THE LAYERS ARE IN THE PEOPLE
Cities have layers of heritage that are either chipped away and discarded by development or restored and revived for a newer generation to absorb. Disingenuous sameness chips away and discards; it doesn’t restore or revive. And so, perhaps the only place left to look for these layers is in the people.
“I’m glad I came back. It was a good decision to leave New York. Bangkok is a wonderful place to live. Keeping expenses low is the fun part because you can take the BTS and those motorcycle taxis, you can walk, you can read on the train…all these open you up to experiences.”
Thanan takes a sip of his sugarless Thai milk tea.
From left: Thanan and Atty, and some of the people of the Creative District.
(Cover photo: Mural by Alex Face. All photos by Marc Nair)