A vanishing heritage

A vanishing heritage

In Sam Yan district, the fate of the Chao Mae Thap Thim Shrine highlights the fine balance between conservation and development

A vanishing heritage
The Chao Mae Thap Thim Shrine is hemmed in on all sides. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

If it were not for a handful of visitors, the Chao Mae Thap Thim Shrine would completely vanish. Flanked by metal sheet fences, a narrow alley leads to the remnants of age-old communities. An entrance is adorned with red lanterns. A facade is painted with mythological figures. A roof is embellished with tile dolls. The smell of burning incense wafts through the open gate. Inside, deities are worshipped on an altar with a gilded frame.

Ashen smoulder is thinning now that community residents have gone, but a fourth-generation caretaker is standing her ground.

"I look after the shrine as usual," said Penprapa Ployseesuay. She married the son of the guardian family in 1995. Since then, she has lived and worked here. A few years ago, her husband passed away, but they are unwavering in their duties.

Chao Mae Thap Thim is the sea goddess that dates to over a century ago, when an ancestor who lived in Saphan Lueang brought her wooden statue from a canal in Bang Rak.Neighbours worshipped and built her the first shrine. In 1957, Chulalongkorn University wanted to reclaim a swathe of land that lies between the National Stadium and Rama IV Road, but people refused to leave until a fire broke out three years later.

"But the shrine survived even as nearby houses were engulfed in flames. After that, people raised funds and rebuilt it in Sam Yan [in 1970]," Penprapa said.

For some, the shrine is the history of the community. A censer that boasts the royal cypher of King Rama V remains in use today. After his father's funeral in 1911, King Rama VI gave the guardian family the artefact. Sian Pae Rong Si, a merchant who became well-versed in ritual and feng shui, attached a sought-after talisman to the wall. A calligrapher wrote beautiful poems and shops sold spare auto parts in the neighbourhood.

For others, it is a communal space.

"In those days, we closed very late at night. Visitors, most of them familiar faces, came not only for religious worship but for the call of nature and food. My mother-in-law is a good cook. She was sent to work in a palace to pay off debt," Penprapa said.

So many memories are kept in this place, that could be torn down.

Chao Mae Thap Thim is caught in a tug-of-war between conservation and development. After the Property Management of Chulalongkorn University (PMCU) unveiled its plan in 2007, community residents in Sam Yan have gradually moved out, but the shrine remained, its lease expiring in 2015. Following an eviction order in 2020, critics and students came to its defence. The PMCU is now taking legal action against Penprapa.

"A court ruling is due on Aug 31. I will fight until the end," she said.

The land on which the Chao Mae Thap Thim Shrine stands is part of the mixed-use project titled Block 33, which covers an area that lies between Soi Chula 26-32. According to the PMCU's website, it is a downtown residential area with a wellness centre and medical hub. It is adjacent to the campus, a commercial district and the university's green space.

The PMCU has built a new shrine on the edge of Centenary Park. In its press release, it said "relocation observes conservation principles". The new site is "safer and more convenient". It enjoys "more space for annual performance and stands in closer proximity to the neighbourhood". Under the redevelopment plan, the 1,800-unit residential area will cater to students and university staff because of a shortage of campus accommodation.

The Chao Mae Thap Thim Shrine is hemmed in on all sides. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

Chulalongkorn University owns around 1,153 rai of land. While 637 rai is used for education and 131 rai is leased to bureaucratic offices, the PMCU has been managing financial areas, including Siam and Sam Yan, spanning over 385 rai. In recent years, they have undergone a massive makeover. Sam Yan is being touted as a smart city that will excel in environment, transport, education and lifestyle.

"Chula's Smart City is smart not only in terms of advanced technology but also for the surrounding area. It is economically, socially and environmentally rewarding," said Prof Bundhit Eua-arporn, the university's president, in a video on the PMCU's website.

"If we adapt or manage to stay ahead of the curve, we will be a leader in the future. It is the goal of our smart intellectual city project [that is taking place] in and around the campus."

Students, alumni and critics, however, have cried foul over the university's profiteering. Sam Yan has dramatically changed over the past decade. Shophouses have been knocked down to make way for air-conditioned shopping malls and high-rise condominiums, which raises the question of how many can afford them.

"I am protesting the demolition of the Chao Mae Thap Thim Shrine because I am challenging a grand narrative in which an answer to this society is unbridled development and therefore people and communities must adapt," said Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a student who has campaigned for the protection of the shrine and others, including Scala cinema. He is a producer of a new documentary The Last Breath Of Sam Yan that chronicles the struggle to save the shrine from gentrification.

"At first, I didn't pay any attention to the matter of faith because I wasn't the kind of person who believes. But it dawned on me that roots are very important. We are attached to places. Social change is not about being mobile and fluid, we have roots and resting places. In Buddhism, it is called sarana [refuge]. It doesn't exist in modern society where humans are just capital that must constantly develop. If you lose, it is over. That is why the shrine's struggle matters."

Prof Chatri Prakitnonthakan, lecturer at Silpakorn University's Faculty of Architecture, said the concept of a smart city or revitalisation comes close to gentrification, depending on the scale of displacement. The university's redevelopment follows the free market principle and therefore forces tenants to move out. In the long run, it will widen inequalities and make the city oppressive.

"Gentrification is associated with business and capitalism. But in Thailand, it is a state-led phenomenon. Chula can be seen as a state machine that develops its own land to meet the demand of the upper middle class and above. It is adding fuel to gentrification in and around the campus," he said.

Prof Chatri said development projects such as condominiums and shopping malls meet the need of the creative class (a collection of professionals who specialise in knowledge and ideas that address problems or create values), who are believed to bring about urban prosperity. An excess of this group, however, will lead to class conflict, displace others and create a primate city -- one that is much, much bigger than the next largest city.

"We must make the creative class aware that their lifestyle is part of maintaining the status quo. Only they can do the work and change," he said.

Joining a panel after a screening of the documentary The Last Breath Of Sam Yan at Doc Club & Pub is, second from left, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, Asst Prof Rachaporn Choochuey and Prof Chatri Prakitnonthakan. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

Prof Chatri said those who are not landowners should have a right to the city because their services keep the city running. In the same way, despite the fact that privatisation grants universities autonomous status, they are not private entities and therefore cannot apply the concept of property to redevelopment.

"Nobody really owns a university. In fact, it is an ideal space for society. People should have their say in it," he said.

Asst Prof Rachaporn Choochuey, a former architecture lecturer, said many cities are finding ways to address the issue of housing for the poor, who are being priced out of urban areas. Even students and lecturers are increasingly unable to afford food and rent on and around campus.

"Developers who build condominiums downtown are required to prove affordable housing," she said.

The Chao Mae Thap Thim Shrine is hemmed in on all sides. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

The PMCU's new shrine in the university's Centenary Park. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

A large poster on a metal sheet fence outlines details of a mixed-use project titled Block 33. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

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