Old boyz n the Charoen Krung hood
The boys once ruled Charoen Krung Road -- the boyz from the hood, sons of Chinese merchants and Muslim roti-makers, rough-around-the-edges teen bred and drilled in the network of sois, who leapt into the Chao Phraya every evening and caught catfish when the river swelled every November, who roamed Bang Rak market when it was still sludgy with vegetable scraps and sneaked into the Prince Rama Theatre when it was still showing, err, adult movies.
The boys are no longer boys, and the Charoen Krung Road of their childhood -- my childhood -- is no longer the same as it once was three decades ago. Over the past few years, high-end condo buildings replaced crummy shophouses, tourist-friendly (expensive) cafes occupy strategic corners where once cheaper food was available, and another super-luxury hotel is in the works where the old fish market was. Bang Rak market has been given a facelift and is now packed with tourists every sundown, and the Prince Rama has been renovated into a boutique hotel. Hangout spaces, art galleries, sultry guesthouses, vibe-heavy bars, street art on the walls, warehouses turned into modish shops and a movie screening room: Charoen Krung, especially the section between Talad Noi and Trok Chan, has been updated, upscaled, hipsterised. You're waiting to read the term "gentrified", which is applicable, though I hope things would allow for something more complicated than that.
I grew up there, a homeboy, a stakeholder, and in the past few years I've watched Charoen Krung's transformation with optimism -- and some concern.
What doesn't move ahead ends up dead. What refuses to change ends up fossilised, distorted by nostalgia and trapped in the illusion of "the good old days". But what changes too fast, too drastically, too commercially, ends up replacing people with concepts, communities with "ideas", and cheap rent with high real estate prices. From my house behind the Old Customs House, I can see tall buildings closing in. Across the river, Iconsiam rises like a behemoth. We welcome change, we want to be part of the benefits of progress, and yet sometimes a future shaped by others, superimposed on the past we've built, can inspire fear as much as excitement. Will they try to buy off the land where we've been living for a century? Will we be tempted? Can we resist? I'm sure the same things happened in many other old-fashioned neighbourhoods around Thailand.
This isn't an alarmist article. Developers in Charoen Krung have mostly been doing a good job balancing the new and the old, the cool and the old-school (or is the old-school supercool? I guess so). The concept touted is called "Charoen Krung Creative District", a collaboration between architects, designers, developers and creative types, which spells out a mission to develop art and culture, design, property preservation and development in the area, while also promoting community engagement from the original residents of Charoen Krung and Klong San (across the river, right next to Iconsiam). A major boost was when the Thailand Creative and Design Centre (TCDC) relocated its HQ to the Grand Post Office on Charoen Krung late last year and has since rolled out programmes and events, including this week's "Community Furniture Contest" where designers are urged to come up with street furniture for the area.
To promote inclusivity, the TCDC last year sent out a free membership card to every household in the traditional communities near its building (my house got one) and at the opening party it invited food vendors from my soi, including my friend Abideen the roti maverick, to set up a stall alongside other fancier bites. A few months ago, our soi was also part of the attractions for Bangkok Design Week, bringing in traffic for local vendors.
Keeping this balance between local identity and new-found sophistication is central to the success of a creative district -- though I doubt if my aunts and uncle who have been living on Charoen Krung for 80 years understand what a "creative district" means. No worries: The most important thing, and I believe the people behind the movement understand, is not to allow the area -- any area, in fact -- to become a playground for the rich and the cool, to widen the cultural and economic gaps, or to force out those who can no longer afford to live there. Now that the horrendous riverside promenade has gone up in junta smoke, Charoen Krung can become a model of urban development that blends history with modernity, that doesn't leave anyone behind or cast them aside, and does not repeat the scandal of, say, Mahakan Fort or other districts that have had a future imposed but a past removed. The homeboys will be watching you.
Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.