We've lived for over a century in the shadow of grandeur: near the Customs House, known to Thais as rongpasi. "We" means my maternal family and the community of Haroon Mosque. Each day before sunrise, the muezzin's sing-song call rings through the neighbourhood, carried on the river wind towards the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the French Embassy and Assumption Cathedral.
At sunset, another call for prayer echoes from this mosque, established by an Indonesian merchant on the bank of the Chao Phraya in the 1850s. Around 1888, during the reign of King Rama V, the mosque was relocated a few hundred metres inland to make way for the Customs House, one of the riverside's most majestic structures.
Today my home street is known as Soi Charoen Krung 36. I remember, however, some 40 years ago when all postal envelopes sent to our house read, quite evocatively, "House No.52, Old Customs House Lane".
More than just the address has changed. Something grandiose, and literally ground-breaking, has taken place in the past few years.
The Old Customs House has been undergoing a drastic transformation. ("Old" because it stopped functioning as an import duty bureau in 1949 when it was converted into public housing for families of the officers of the Bangrak Fire Brigade and the Marine Police.) When you walk into Soi Charoen Krung 36 today, you'll see a huge construction site and hear a soundtrack of clanging heavy machinery. The building and its riverfront square are being restored as a five-star hotel. Some reports say six stars.
Google it, and you'll find blurbs to seduce any champagne-sipping subscriber of Conde Nast Traveller: a 13,600 sq m riverfront property with ballrooms, 70 guest rooms, and luxurious facilities. The colonial ambience will be preserved, according to news reports, while community tourism will be developed to complement the property's historic character. A Thai real-estate developer, U City, owned by the company that runs the BTS Skytrain, has secured a 30-year lease from the Treasury Department and plans to inject three billion baht into the project. The new hotel, once finished in 2025, will be managed by Vienna House, a luxury hospitality brand headquartered in Austria.
I wonder if some of the guest rooms will overlook my old house, the mosque, the cheap food stalls, the adjacent Buddhist temple, and the large Muslim graveyard where my ancestors were buried, and where I, too, will rest. A contemplative view it will be -- unless the hotel operator installs something to screen out these everyday sights from the eyes of its six-star guests.
The proximity between the century-old Haroon community and the "new landmark of Bangkok" is yet another symptom of the gentrification that has become the fate of old-school sois in Bangkok. When I say we've lived in the grand building's shadow, that's a fact, not a metaphor. A section of the community now sits in the site's shadow. The noise, dust and foundation-shaking tremors have disrupted the daily lives of residents, many of them elderly, many of them still struggling to join the middle class. After a few community meetings earlier this year, the project agreed to pay compensation to about 30 households, mine included.
It's a fairly acceptable resolution to the neighbourhood problems caused by construction. But is that all there is to talk about?
People visit the building before the Treasury Department leased it to a property developer in this 2015 file photo.
That a six-star hotel will loom over one of the oldest Muslim communities in central Bangkok raises many questions from the perspective of urban development, cultural dynamics and the dilemmas of tourism. Years ago, all the kids in my neighbourhood freely ran up and down the stairs of the Old Customs House. A few years from now, most of my people won't be able to afford even a meal in the new hotel's restaurant. Public property has become a private playground.
Before the hotel project was greenlighted, were other options considered? Why didn't the authorities turn that beautiful building into a museum, an exhibition space, or another public facility that would have allowed the majority of the population, as well as tourists, to appreciate its grandeur and history?
This article is not a whine of grievances. Nor is it a disinterested commentary on what's happening in Soi Charoen Krung 36. Bangkok in the 21st century is a warped mosaic of door-to-door contrasts. Of course, co-existence is possible as long as everyone observes the rule of law and a code of respect. Harmony can emerge if the privileged exercise empathy and do not take advantage of people having less social and political capital.
The Old Customs House was designed by Joaquim Grassi in 1888, a work of classical symmetry that distilled a sturdy elegance from Greek, Roman and Venetian architecture. Over the years, I have witnessed Hollywood films such as The Killing Fields, Streetfighters, and the Hong Kong classic In the Mood for Love being filmed there. Five years ago, after the police families moved out, vegetation grew from cracks in the stones, and gnarled vines crept up the walls. Then renovation began around 2019 under the watch of the Ministry of Culture's Fine Arts Department.
The Haroon Mosque community is older than the Old Customs House. Ours is an enclave with ancestral gravity and cultural distinction. The residents are descended from Cham, Indian and Pakistani ethnics. Lately, African expats have become regular visitors. Hemmed in by busy Silom Road and Charoen Krung Road, the community has always striven to adapt. But we have long felt pressure from the relentless march of capitalistic urbanisation.
The mosque owns the land where most of the community is situated, so in theory, there's no threat of eviction. But the hotel's massive construction feels like an alarm bell of reality. Will we be able to hold out against the force of development? What we hope now is that our new, high-society neighbour will treat us as equals, with respect. If, as promised, they develop tourism based on the site's cultural and historical identity, then it could bring employment and economic opportunities for Haroon residents. It could become a model of sustainability benefitting people on both sides of the wall.
The muezzin's sing-song call will continue at sunrise and sunset. But we'll have to keep watching to see which way the river wind blows.
Kong Rithdee is former editor of the Bangkok Post's Life section and now is a deputy director of the Thai Film Archive. Heritage Matters is a monthly column presented by The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage to advocate conserving the architectural, cultural and natural heritage of Thailand and the neighbouring region. The views expressed are those of the author.