Historic Bangkok ’hood unearths its colourful past

Charoen Chai is an old Bangkok neighbourhood located between Charoen Krung and Plabpla Chai roads, from which names its own is believed to have been derived. In 2010, rumours that residents would be evicted to make way for the construction of a new underground train route (the MRT’s blue line) caused members of this century-old community to band together and form the Charoen Chai Conservation and Rehabilitation group in an effort to save their own homes.

The uncertainty caused by the impending redevelopment of the area acted as a catalyst, encouraging residents to dig deep into their family backgrounds and what they found gave them the confidence to share some valuable social history in this fascinating Thai-language account.

The story of this urban neighbourhood began in the late 19th/early 20th century with the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants who did odd jobs or worked as manual labourers to make ends meet. The book describes the modernisation of Charoen Chai, with low-rise wooden buildings being gradually replaced by concrete structures, some of the very first to be built in Bangkok.

The area was to become infamous for its "tea houses", most of which were fronts for brothels, and a whole chapter of the book is dedicated to discussing a business that was conducted more or less openly at the rear of these tea shops, with new blood being brought in regularly from mainland China.

Those days are long gone, of course, and this small neighbourhood has evolved into a specialist "supermarket" for Thai people of Chinese descent. Here they can buy everything from food and other daily necessities to the traditional paraphernalia used for Chinese festivals, rituals and religious ceremonies. In fact this part of the city is now best known for its retail/wholesale market selling joss-paper products including the shiny gold and red envelopes (ang bao) used for gift-giving during the Chinese New Year and the paper money and other objects burned at funerals and as offerings to one's ancestors.

An entire chapter in Bantuek Charoen Chai is dedicated to the stories of long-term residents, their memories of bygone days and the efforts they have been making to ensure the survival of their neighbourhood. Owners of long-running local businesses relate the history of their enterprises with one elderly jok (rice porridge) vendor, for example, telling how she inherited the congee recipe she is still using to this day from her parents who migrated from China almost a century ago.

Today the ethnic-Chinese people who have been treating Charoen Chai as home for four generations are all facing a very uncertain future. The building of an MRT station nearby will push land prices up and the main landlord in the area is reportedly anxious to redevelop the whole neighbourhood by erecting modern high-rises.

How business blooms in the 'Rose of the North'

White-collar workers bored with the tedium of a 9-to-5 existence in Bangkok often gravitate to Chiang Mai to make a fresh start. Many of the office types who relocate to the "Rose of the North" try their hand at business, but starting a business from scratch in an unfamiliar city is never going to be easy. This Thai-language book, brought out by the Thailand Creative & Design Centre, could well function as a bible for wannabe entrepreneurs.

Made In Chiang Mai focuses on six successful business models, founded both by people born in the northern capital and others who have resettled there — Rimping Supermarket (characterised as "The Selector"), Monkut Lanna ("The Observer"), Pun Space ("The Experimenter"), Sabu-Sabu: Natural Lifestyle Products ("The Naturalist"), Prempracha Collection ("The Producer") and Tamarind Village ("The Model"). A chapter is devoted to each of these enterprises, describing how the founder(s) got the business started, the initial struggle to make ends meet and the methods used to achieve eventual commercial success.

Rimping Supermarket started off more than half-a-century ago as a small grocery store, taking its name from the fact that it was located next to the Ping River. Over the ensuing decades, the management adapted to the ebb and flow of developments in Chiang Mai (the economic crisis of the late 1990s, the influx of tourists and expats, etc). The current owner, who inherited the business from the founder, eventually learned that the key to commercial survival was not selling at the lowest prices but providing goods of the highest quality and standard. Now expanded to four branches, the supermarket sells both locally-produced and imported items, with in-store stock tailored to cater to different target groups.

The story of Pun Space ("The Experimenter") is the story of outsiders who succeeded with a relatively new business concept: space-sharing. Pun Space is more than just an internet cafe, it's also an office space used by regular customers who pay a membership fee in order to use its facilities whenever they want (at no extra cost). Before converting a house in the trendy Nimmanhaemin neighbourhood into Pun Space, the founders, a couple originally from Bangkok, conducted several surveys on the needs of Chiang Mai residents, both Thai and expat, in order to assess the potential of various approaches. And the careful planning the pair put into their "experiment" would now seem to be paying handsome dividends.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Sirinya Wattanasukchai
Position: Reporter